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Tibetan Freedom Concert
White light furiously flashes down from the sky above Washington DC, and while President Clinton poos his pants, RADIOHEAD, REM, PULP and the BEASTIES shake their pants like it's, well, 1998 and the TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT time.
by John Robinson / photographs by Derek Rogers

Scott Shirley, a 37-year-old gentleman from Rockville, has got his Coke between his knees, a large pretzel on his lap, and is having his ivories tickled by Herbie Hancock. It’s coming up to 4pm on Saturday, and he’s got a jazz tip going, Scott. It’s hot, but he be chillin’. Then all of a sudden his head catches fire.
“The top of my head felt like it was on fire,” he said. “I’m sitting here listening to Herbie Hancock, and all of a sudden I heard an explosion, and when I woke up, it was like they’d turned off all the lights in the stadium.”
They’ll say in the papers that he’s one of the 11 people here at the RFK Stadium in Washington DC to have been struck by lightning. They’ll even say that he’s had a lucky escape. But really, Scott knows the score.
Herbie Hancoc. Damn, he’s good.
It is earlier, 10AM on Saturday, June 13, and Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys, like he has been so many times before, is on the mic. This time, though, he rhymes not. He’s sat in a press conference marquee at the beginning of the third Tibetan Freedom Concert with Sean Lennon, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and a host of visiting Tibetan dignitaries and encouraging an altogether different funky boss to get off his back.
This chaotic junket is partly down to him. Four hundred visiting press goons have been brought here, perspiring heavily into the already saturated air, to wrestle with boom microphones, cameras and the concept of human rights. Fifteen bands have been encouraged to play with only their expenses covered and spread the word of freedom. In two days, rock musicians will attempt to bring influence to bear on President Bill Clinton, who has bestowed the lucrative “Favoured Trading Nation” status on the Chinese nation, but who has so far steadfastly refused to lobby for negotiations on their occupation of Tibet or begun to address their lamentable human rights record.
Later, on Monday, there will be a demonstration on the West Lawn of the White House, but in the meantime, we hear exiled Buddhist monk Wei Jingsheng explain why.
He’s got no teeth, Mr Wei, and that, we learn, is because a Chinese prison guard puts an electric cattle prod into your mouth, it electrifies the roots of your teeth, the roots dry up and then your teeth fall out. He tells us about how the guards would suspend their captivities upside down and then light fires under them. A bit about how women would be abused with cattle prods. And then he tells us that he feels compassion for his captors.
Which is why Yauch takes the mic.
“All of us should be thanking the Tibetan and Chinese people who are here, who are participating in this non-violent struggle, “ he says. “Because by carrying this out, they are teaching real values from which the world can learn in order to survive.”
So outside, they’re all here. There’s Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley talking to Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye about jazz. There’s Eddie Vedder talking to Kim Gordon, Ed from Radiohead, enjoying some words with Peter Buck. Beck, reclining on a couch, wearing an extraordinary hat, with a young friend, wearing an extraordinary hat. Michael Stipe being photographed on a digital camera by a heavily tattooed woman’s toddler. Krist Novoselic, dressed in flannels, for evident  safari exploration. The great, the good and the very, very tall are all gathered to help out. And that was Brad Pitt just then.
Oh, and Jennifer Aniston.
Bloody hell! Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
There’s a little guy wandering about as well and he moves his head down, his sunglasses on, his baggy army trousers flapping over his sandals. He doesn’t say too much when he’s caught off guard, but when he speaks he’s eloquent and impassioned. And just as his band talk about living in a world run by a faceless and sinister corporate hierarchy, so he sees the same self-interested wheels turning, when he talks about Tibet.
“Killing has become an arcade game,” says Thom Yorke. “And one of the issues this raises is the moral responsibility of people around the planet. By doing nothing, people condone this violence. By sitting at home watching TV, consuming all this crap, you are letting it happen. Rock stars don’t generally have much of a moral high ground, but in this case they do. In this case they have the right to stand up and say what’s going on and that’s what we’re going to do today.
“If, like the Tibetan Movement, the protest is non-violent, you shame the corporations, you shame the governments, you shame them for what they are. You show what they’re really doing: we establish trade relations with countries from the Third World because we want slave labour. We want our trainers cheap. We want everything cheap, we don’t want to have to pay for it. We don’t want moral responsibility, we just want to walk away. And if we carry on doing that at the end of the 20th century, then God help us.”
When he says this, there is a lot of applause. The day of rock has begun.
Four hundred very wet rock critics are sitting under the meager shelter offered by the outside walls of the RFK Stadium. The day of rock has just ended.
It is four hours later and while Scott Shirley reflects upon his scorched head, a mental note to only ever listen to jazz-funk piano players indoors crystallizing in his mind, there arises an opportunity to ponder the cynicism surrounding the Tibetan Freedom Concert. It’s like this: while the world turns, the stars polish the spiritual medals on their chests.  Then there’s the fans. They’ve just come to hear music, and nothing else.
Which forgets a major point: conviction and spirituality aren’t characteristics that you can just wheel out to order. You might not hear them particularly in the blue-collar portend of The Dave Matthews Band, but even on Saturday’s truncated bill it’s there in the hardcore philosophizing of KRS-One, and in the ingenious panoply of styles you find in Money Mark. On Sunday you’ll find it in the righteous skills of A Tribe Called Quest. His music might be diabolical, but Sean Lennon’s commitment to the ideas on display here is beyond doubt. And Pulp?
“We’d be lying if we said we were experts on what’s happening in Tibet,” says guitarist Mark Webber. “But we’re smart enough to know that what’s happening there is wrong.”
It’s an antiquated theory, but these are chiefly performers who, though initially prompted by nostalgia, and bummed out by the 19080s, haven’t turned their back on the spiritual values from the era of the counterculture, but have become enriched by them. They might look different, but in the most non-bogus way, these people are still hippies, and not just for the weekend.
The kids are the same. Seventy-five per cent of them have tickets for both days of the concert, while student chapters of the Tibetan Freedom Movement have grown in number in the past two years from 30 to 130. Saturated by media, they have become intelligent readers of it: MTV’s intensive coverage of Bill Clinton’s election campaign seemed like a sensible notion. Now, the opportunity is there for the same media to display their own dissatisfaction with the way he is managing their inheritance and to register their sense of betrayal.
They are, however, still very confused. Out in the lot behind the backstage area, they stand soaked and mesmerized, yelling at the stars waiting, as for the last chopped out of Saigon, to be transported off-site. They show their appreciation for “ANTHONYYYYYY!”
That’s Anthony Kiedis.
They even yell at “THURSSSTON!”
That’s Thurston Moore.
But that’s nothing compared to the love they have for MIIIIIICHAEL!”.
That’s Fugazi’s singer Ian MacKaye, who bears a passing resemblance to Michael Stipe.
Like we say, confused. But with their hearts in the right place.
The word for Sunday is still “Michael”. As in “You’ll never guess –Michael played a secret gig with Radiohead last night”. He’s the Michael who doesn’t just walk through  the crowd in the backstage area, but sees the crowd kind of effortlessly part in front of him, more than for Brad, and even more than for Jennifer. The Michael in the skirt. Michael Stipe.
Ed from Radiohead (guitar, handsomeness) is impressed.
“It was great,” he says of the gig. “We didn’t know anything about it, really. When we were leaving here at about seven, it was “Does anyone fancy doing a gig tonight?” We didn’t think it could happen, then about ten, it was “We’re on!”
“The fact that Michael sand a song was fantastic. Ten years ago, 12 years ago when we were listening to “Document” and “Life’s Rich Pageant”, if you’d told us Michael Stipe was going to sing one of our songs… it’s one of those dreams come true. The fact that Pulp played with our gear… fantastic.
“”Michael sand a Bread song, too. We’re not really au fait with Bread, but it was that song that Aswad did a cover version of. And we were like, “Why’s he singing that Aswad song?” And there was all that thing of Jarvis saying to Michael, “Well, do you want to go on first?”. And Michael said, “Well maybe I should go on.” It’s so rare that you get that kind of thing. The great thing about this weekend is that it’s completely ego-free. It’s kind of like Glastonbury, but with even less ego. Everyone leaves their ego at the door.”
In the arena, Jarvis Cocker has left his marbles in Hampshire. “You all know why you’re here,” he says. “This is about time when I hadn’t quite got it straight in my head.” And this, of course, is “Sorted For E’s and Wizz”, which grants The Youth Of America – and it’s a difficult time this, to be one of those youths, because as every speaker between bands announces, the future and responsibility of most everything rests with them – the opportunity to wonder where exactly Camden Town is.
Remarkable though it may be to watch the said youth stagedive to Cocker’s Anatomy Of Intercourse, Pulp’s mixture of the parochial and the universal works brilliantly. As Jarvis shakes free of his sandals and shakes Jaggerly in his silk trousers, they brandish signs: “Pulp Is Hardcore” and “DC Loves Pulp”. But really, only bassist Steve Mackey truly grasps the modd of the moment. He is wearing a woolly hat because, though it might be hot outside, in Pulp’s world, it is forever cold.
And the Jarvis verdict?
“Sorry,” says his tour manager. “He’s off to the chiropractor. He’s done his leg in.”
While Jarvis has seen his ankle twist, Sonic Youth have watched the world turn. Where formality and over-familiarity should perhaps have set in with a band who wrote a new blueprint and then wrote it again a few times, instead there is only the thrill of their noise. What appears to have happened, as they play “Sunday”, and the exquisite “Wildflower Soul” is that the world has merely come around to their way of thinking: their music no less astonishing now than ten years ago, they have altered the landscape and now come dangerously close to fitting in, as extremity and experiment has grown around them. Yet still they survey the map of their territory with a view to expansion, masters of one area, eager to move on.
In keeping with the mood of the day, the most thrilling words that Thom Yorke speaks this afternoon are, “This is Michael”.
Of course it’s Michael. Just as the huge video screens at either side of the stage had previously amplified Thom’s range of facial expressions – including, for your pleasure, mad grimaces, silent incantations, rictuses of pain – now they are filled with the veiny, prune-like head of the world’s greatest frontman. He’s singing “Lucky”, like he did last night, and it is quite fantastic.
The animation and fury in Radiohead’s performance continues through “Karma Police”, “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Paranoid Android”, their intensity written into every nuance, their frustrations chiming harmoniously with the weekend’s cause. “Don’t go to school tomorrow,” Thom rants. “Don’t get on your plane. Send a postcard to the President. Go to the march.”
Backstage, Ed is still impressed.
“It was great that Michael came on and sang,” he says. “I mean, out of this kind of arena it wouldn’t really work. It’s a bit too…”
“Yeah, but it was really cool.”
Wyclef Jean effectively is showbusiness, as he grasps a woman from the front of the stage and asks her to say a number between one and five. She says three. Wyclef then performs three perfectly executed back flips. But the spell of the afternoon is still ostensibly cast by…
Michael. This time he’s wearing a skirt and he and the collection of large Hawaiian print shirts that make up REM are on their way to the stage to unfurl their new direction.
To start with, it stumbles. Stipe attempts to sing into a microphone that will not function, while behind him the band roll into a very strange, drone-like groove. This is “Airport Man”, and there is both jazz and vibraphone in the house, as Stipe lets his lyrics go, and they fall from his lectern and waft into the crowd.
Appeasing the kids with “Losing My Religion”, Stipe then begins to whisper. Another new songs, this time a spare, but vaguely Motown-ish experiment, and he’s kneeling at the front of the stage, singing: “I listen to the devils in my ear/They tell me what I want to hear”. It’s called “Suspicion”. “Alright,” he says as he finishes. “Here we are and this is it.” And right there there’s another, though more clanging, aggressive and embittered. “I’m right here”, Stipe sings, “Where I wound up”.
The one, though, that marks out the most thrilling evidence of where REM are to go next is a song called “Parakeet”. While Mike Mills takes to the piano, and the air is filled with Barrett Martin’s desultory glockenspiel plonks, we are allowed to watch the most famous band in the world transform themselves into a down-at-heel Brechtian ensemble, rich in the knowledge that here, they may have written their “Perfect Day”. That is, had Lou Reed ever written lines like, “You suck the liquourice/But cannot find the juice”.
Thom Yorke is brought on – announced as “an ersatz Patti Smith” – to sing the backing groans on “E-Bow The Letter”, and at the song’s mesmeric conclusion, before “Man On The Moon” and the triumphant exit, there is a revealing moment. Stipe puts his arm around Thom Yorke and shows him the crowd in the palm of his hand. What he’s saying, one would like to think, is,” One day, my son, this will all be yours…”
An hour later and three intergalactic doctors emerge from the wings. Three laboratory technician’s coats, and a dignified combination of slack pant, shirt and tie mark the new era of the Beastie Boys, currently rocking the Kraftwerk look.
They have the requisite Tik and Tok moves as well, but somehow the spirit of their game is let down. Could be, obviously, the fact that one of them has spent the majority of his time of late helping to organize this concert. Could also be the fact that Mixmaster Mike, the band’s incumbent turntable virtuoso, is all clumsy slice rather cheeky scratch. More likely though, is that they attempt to accommodate all of the elements of their manic brief – the hectic hardcore, the old-school electro, the free-funk jamming, and now, their vocodered future-hop – and the result is a bit confusing. Assuredly, they have the cheese. Perhaps they have just too much macaroni.
And so they begin to pile out, the survivors. At the side of the stage, while Pearl Jam bellow a marvelously uplifting “Given To Fly”, through a periodically heavy shower of bottles, they’re clearing out too.
Brad and Jennifer? Gone. Michael? Gone too. But Thurston’s still here, eager to impart his thoughts. “I had a very good time today,” he says.
And the music?
“I preferred the Tibetan Monks,” he says. “I thought their music was really distinctive.”
Hear their song…