Rage Against the Democratic Convention, 2000
We are living in a new era of political protest, certainly the largest and most widespread since the civil rights and antiwar marches of the 60s. If you want to march, there are opportunities nearly every weekend, and sometimes during the week. Unluckily, I have not made it to any, despite my total support of the cause(s). I blame my work schedule; I work literally all weekend. And it's not the kind of work one can call in sick to. So I am disappointed to be missing these demonstrations, but it's not only because I support them. Demonstrating has long had a certain romantic charm for me.
I am a child of the 60s. Literally a child -- I turned 12 in 1969. I was old enough to hear about the big demonstrations, to watch them on TV, but not old enough to participate in any. My mother did go to a couple of antiwar demonstrations, which added to the charm. As an adult, I made it to a handful of political protests, mostly when I was in college. Most of those were low key affairs. So the idea of a big, wild demonstration still has its attraction.
Which is how I found myself outside the Democratic Convention in August, 2000.
In 2000 the Democrats held their convention in L.A. Protests were scheduled to take place. Which brings up another difference between now and then. Here in 2017 we have a very specific object of our protests. In 2000 it was much more general. Back then we were protesting the system as a whole, and saw both parties as equally complicit in corporate control of our politics and lives. (I voted for Ralph Nader that year because I couldn't see much difference between Bush and Gore. Learned my lesson on that one.) So we protested the Democrats. I don't remember where the Republicans held their convention that year, but there were protests there as well.
But let's be honest here. I, and the two friends who went with me, went as much to observe as to actually protest anything. And even that was a secondary motivation. Rage Against the Machine were playing at the demonstrations, along with L.A. Band Ozomatli. A free Rage concert, a bunch of people carrying signs, and the potential for some sort of excitement, it was all quite a draw. And so the three of us caught the train into downtown L.A. from Long Beach. (We realized driving was not a good idea; traffic, parking, and, if something did go down, the chance we would be stuck there.)
We arrived mid-afternoon to a nearly empty parking lot. It turned out Rage wasn't scheduled to play until six, so we set off in search of a drink.
Around five we returned to the parking lot. A large march, estimated at 10,000, arrived, so now there was certainly a crowd. At six things got started with speeches and Mexican folk songs.
Rage played. I actually was not familiar enough with their work to tell you what they played, but it probably doesn't matter. They fit the occasion perfectly. Aggressive, angry, political 'the crowd loved it, chanted along with the lyrics, directing them at the Convention Center, as if the delegates inside could hear them. I did feel they could have been louder; I later heard the police had their hands on the volume knob.
Did I mention there was a huge police presence? Yeah, there was.
After Rage played, the crowd thinned out a bit. Some stuck around to listen to Ozomatli, but primarily the hard core demonstrators remained. Some of them started throwing things, mostly empty plastic water bottles, over the fence at the Convention Center, and at the police. The police repeatedly warned them to stop. They did not.
Ozomatli took the stage. In a way, Ozomatli are the perfect L.A. band, drawing influences, and members, from every facet of this multicultural city. They play a variety of styles, including Latin, hip-hop, blues, rock, and traditional Mexican tunes, blending them all into a coherent sound. I was really looking forward to hearing them. Unluckily, they were cut off in the middle of their second song, and the police ordered everyone to disperse.
My inclination at that point was to stick around and see what would happen. Sometimes I can be too curious. Luckily, my friends were more sensible, and they dragged me away. We got on the train. It went about two blocks and then stopped. It sat there for a good fifteen minutes while a nonstop stream of police vehicles headed back where we had been.
In the end, there were some cracked skulls and lots of tear gas. Ozomatli included sonic samples from that day on their next album, Embrace the Chaos.
Postscript: My Ozomatli Curse
And so began my Ozomatli curse. Okay, maybe not curse, but it seemed that fate would decide if and when I got to see them.
My next attempt was a couple of years later. They opened for Santana at the Hollywood Bowl. A large group of friends planned to go. For those of you not familiar with this venerable venue, it is a gorgeous outdoor setting to see a concert, somehow sheltered from the urban chaos of Los Angeles. But it can be a miserable venue to get to. You can reserve parking in the venue lots ahead of time; this is mostly what is called "stacked parking." Which means "first in, last out" you have to wait until all the cars which came in after you leave before you can move your car. Or you can pay $20 and up to park in one of the nearby lots. Or you can take your chances on street parking. Which is what we did. To make things worse, we got stuck in traffic on the way, so we were already late. We drove around for at least an hour looking for parking before we gave up. My roommate Tim, who was driving, dropped us off and just went home. We walked in in the middle of Santana's set. Which I can't tell you much about, as I was too stressed from the whole adventure to pay much attention.
I guess third time is the charm. I finally got to see them, without even trying, in 2003. I was then an assistant manager at Barnes & Noble, and was therefore able to get a pass to Book Expo, a massive convention for publishers, distributors, and others involved in selling books. That year it was held, coincidentally, in the L.A. Convention Center. I had a great time wandering the endless aisles of books, grabbing freebies, and spotting various celebrity authors.
I also ran into a number of friends there, mostly poets, but also an old college buddy, Eric, who was there from Chicago, representing his parents' publishing company. He got me a pass to the Publishers Group West party, held at the El Rey Theater. "They have some band called Ozomatli playing," he informed me. "Ever heard of them?"
The El Rey is a mid-sized venue, capacity around 800, laid out as basically one open room, with an elevated walkway running around it. It is a good place to see a show, if you don't mind standing.
It wasn't until I arrived that I found out the rest of the bill: Graham Parker (solo) and The Blasters. Wow.
Graham Parker is like a more acerbic (and, sadly, less successful) Elvis Costello. He came out of the same British pub rock scene; he also writes extremely well-crafted songs with a pop melodic sense and a punk attitude. He had several hits in the late 70s and early 80s with his band The Rumor. It was a bit strange to see him play solo - almost a folkie version of him, gentler and more personable. But still powerful and nasty.
The Blasters were a roots rock/rockabilly staple of 80s L.A. They were founded by Dave and Phil Alvin (the same Dave Alvin I saw read poetry a few years previous). This night only Phil played with them ,there had, unsurprisingly, been some animosity between the brothers over the years, so you never knew for sure which Alvin(s) might be playing. They still put on a fun and rocking set.
Ozomatli were worth the wait. They put on an stellar show, very jam heavy, very loose and fun. They pulled in all their influences, and spun them together in a non-stop flow of energy. They concluded with a percussion parade throughout the audience. Eric wasn't the only person who came in completely unfamiliar with them and left a huge fan.
Haven't seen them since. Leaving that up to fate.