Early in Tibetan Freedom Concert, a new documentary film centering on the 1996 two-day concert in Golden Gate Park, an old Tibetan monk pulls out his dentures in front of a tent full of journalists and sets an electric cattle prod on a table. The two objects share a gruesome connection. Speaking through an interpreter, the monk says he spent 33 years in a Chinese-run prison for participating in a nonviolent protest against the country that invaded Tibet in 1959. The monk is all gums because a prison guard made him eat the elec-tric prod.
The toothless monk is a pretty clear-cut image: It's easy to take sides with him, to call the Chinese ruthless baddies, and to condemn those oppressors. If only the simplicity and power of the image carried throughout the film (it screened in San Francisco last week but has no wide release scheduled as yet) or the recently released three-CD set of performances from the San Francisco concerts and two 1997 dates in New York.
These rock 'n' roll cause albums have been around for a while: Bangladesh and Kampuchea, No Nukes and Live Aid. Back in 1969, when John Lennon led a sing-along to "Give Peace a Chance" in a Montreal hotel room, the sentiment seemed honest and pure, straightforward and uncomplicated; as recently as the Live Aid concerts, you could see the bands, process the message, enjoy the music, contribute, and feel as if something, however small, had been accomplished.
But rock has changed a lot in the last 10 years. As I watched the film, I tried to figure out why my synapses were misfiring. Some of it was perhaps to be expected. Biz Markie gets the crowd going: "Wave your hands in the air! Wave them like you just don't care." His massive body and ridiculous dance make a monk giggle and the crowd laugh. He does some beatboxing, some rapping, and at the end of his set he leads the crowd in a chant: "Free Tibet! Free Tibet! Free Tibet!" Those two messages aren't exactly conflicting, but they do seem a little odd standing next to each other. When you start talking about something serious, the pop perennials -- the sing-alongs, the boasts -- seem a little trivial.
But there were other instances that were harder to explain away. In the film, there's Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters taking the stage and announcing that they're calling themselves the "Freedom Fighters" for the occasion. They didn't mean it that way, but "freedom fighters" was what Ronald Reagan called the Contras in Nicaragua, who were drug-running, nun-killing mercenaries trying to overthrow a duly elected government. Grohl and the band launch into "This Is a Call," which sounds like some sort of anthem, or protest song, but whose one key line goes, "Fingernails are pretty/ Fingernails are good." Here politics comes up against post-grunge poesy, and meaning hits the dirt. Of course Grohl seemed sincere, but he also seemed sincere when he was shilling for a beer company in the Miller Genuine Draft concert in town last summer. (I had a similar feeling when I listened to the new collection of performances from Neil Young's Bridge concerts: David Bowie dedicates his song "Heroes" to the handicapped kids at the Bridge school. Given that the same song is currently being used in Microsoft Windows commercials, I guess it was nice of Bill Gates to let Bowie use it.)
On the CD, the writerly half of Oasis, Noel Gallagher, plugs in an electric guitar and cranks out a solo version of "Cast No Shadow." "As they took his soul they took his pride," he sings, his voice ringing with deep cultural import. But it was hard to think about the Dalai Lama; as every Oasis fan knows, the song was written not for a majestic leader built of human love and forgiveness, but specifically about another pop star, the Verve's Richard Ashcroft -- and hey, isn't that "Bittersweet Symphony" single the coolest?
There were lots of other clashing symbols as well: Lee "Scratch" Perry mixing up "Hare Krishna" and "human rights declaration" -- now, what in the hell does Hare Krishna, a Western "religion" all of 31 years old, have to do with Tibet? There was Taj Mahal, the graceful folk-blues man, sharing a bill with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, white boys from Boston having their moment in the sun via a frat-friendly version of black music. But nothing was odder than Rage Against the Machine. In the film, brainy guitarist Tom Morello drapes his amp with the famous image of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. (Morello's well-worn baseball hat with "commie" embroidered across the crown is noticeably absent.) Guevara thought Mao Tse-tung was the cat's pajamas. (Power, Mao famously said, came from the barrel of a gun; Che agreed.) It was Mao's China, of course, that invaded Tibet.
According to founding Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, the goal of the Milarepa Fund -- the S.F.-based organization that sponsored both of the concerts and is planning another in Washington, D.C. -- is to "raise awareness." As awareness never hurt anyone, it is, undoubtedly, an admirable goal. So here's some awareness: The plight of the Tibetan people is incredibly sad. In 1959, China invaded the unmilitarized, nonviolent country. The Tibetans did not fight back, and the Chinese systematically did their best to wipe out the religious culture. Activists say they destroyed thousands of temples and killed some 1.2 million people.
The film explains the political reasons China keeps control of the very large country (because of its strategic location and as a valve space for overpopulation, primarily), but it doesn't attempt to talk straight about what life was really like in the country it idealizes. My copy of the People's Almanac says that before 1959, 90 percent of Tibetans were serfs and another 5 percent were slaves. All of the land was owned by about 3 percent of the population -- noble families, feudal lords, and Buddhist monasteries. The Almanac says the Chinese wanted reform. The Dalai Lama promised it in 1957, but two years later, the Chinese decided reform wasn't coming fast enough and invaded, nastily. The Dalai Lama is an icon of nonviolence around the world and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but it doesn't seem that he did much for the vast majority of his people. Or is that OK because his people were just Asian peasants who loved their simple way of life? Would you trade places with one? He was the political and spiritual leader of his country; how would you feel if we had a system like that in the States?
Is it fair to hold presumably well-meaning rockers to such irritating questions? Yes. Bangladesh and the like were humanitarian-aid efforts. This, as the organizers say, is to raise awareness, and when you're trying to do that, facts and images and symbols matter, right?
These days, awareness comes cheap. Or rather, it doesn't come cheap. An advertising agency commands millions of dollars to raise awareness about wide-legged Levi's or Air Jordans. Today, hawking politics is like selling jeans or shoes, and the Milarepa Fund has agreeably packaged its activism in small, digestible pieces. At the shows, concertgoers could sign petitions. Buy the album, and there's a postcard addressed to the president. Milarepa offers educational materials at a Web site and on the enhanced CD computer stuff on the third album. Next steps suggested: Boycott products made in China; join Students for a Free Tibet. The movie tacitly suggests a further step by showing activists being arrested in front of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.
But of course when you're so single-minded about your cause you miss a lot of the obvious stuff, which is why ultimately the organizers for me have about as much credibility as a jeans or a sneaker company -- who are using Asian peasants in only a slightly more exploitative way.
And in the end what do you have? A mildly interesting film, some good performances on disc. Unsurprisingly, the finest moments in the film and on record are free of politics: the crowd's bellow against Beck and his harmonica on "One Foot in the Grave"; Bjsrk skipping across the stage during "Hyper-Ballad"; even Sonic Youth's slow build and big payoff on "Wildflower." On "Root Down," the groove is thick and the Beastie Boys sound like they mean it. Ben Harper pulls off a fair Hendrix impersonation on "Ground on Down." Some of the political stuff even works. Rancid's "The Harder They Come" is fun, peppy, and energetic; Patti Smith uses improvised spoken word to head into orbit at the end of "About a Boy."
Will the record and film be successful in "raising awareness"? If you're selling jeans and sneakers, you simply add up the receipts; maybe that's all the Milarepa people will have to do. On the other hand, young adults, the targeted demo, have a reputation for falling asleep if the earth isn't shaking. You know, the Tibetan Freedom concerts seem so ... so ... so 1996. Tibetmania made it to the cover of Time in October, a good indication that the phenomenon is over. Maybe the organizers have more work ahead of them. Or maybe the audience isn't dumb or flip at all; maybe they just want a clear message about a complicated issue and supporters whose ability to persuade us of the rightness of their cause isn't mixed up in a bunch of political and musical symbols that make no sense.