I spent my teenage years playing synth in a new wave band in Phoenix, Arizona. This meant we got to hang out in bars as minors, meet and perform with some of the artists we admired, and see some incredible shows (ah, the ‘80s). Every weekend, if Basic Elements wasn’t playing a gig, we were doing just about anything we could to see one. Our tastes ran far and wide, so picking the “best” gig I’ve ever seen is hard. Many come to mind. Seeing the original line-up of the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing on LSD (them, not us) for 100 people in a hot bar, watching BB King sing the blues the night his mama died, The Sugarcubes blowing the roof off a small hotel ballroom. Then there was the time I and a few guys from the band flew from Phoenix to LA on my 16th birthday to see Pink Floyd at the Forum and naively took a walking tour of early ‘90s South Central at 2am. All of these concerts blew me away for different reasons, but the best gig I ever saw was the one that delivered the most powerful message. It’s also the shortest gig I’ve ever seen.
The late ‘80s were an embarrassing time to be a Phoenician. The former governor of Arizona (and overall bigot) repealed MLK’s birthday as a paid state holiday. Protests landed the issue on the ballot in 1991, but it was struck down (again) by 17,000 votes. As a result, many artists boycotted the state, but a few took more active measures. U2 donated profits from one of their sold-out shows in Tempe to an impeachment fund and Public Enemy sampled a funk song by Mandrill to create the scathing track, “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” The song’s lyrics excoriated the people and politicians of Arizona, and it was amplified by a powerful video that was so incendiary MTV only aired it once before buckling to pressure to take it off the air.
As a Gen-X kid growing up in Arizona, U2 taught me more about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. than my classroom ever did, but when the band came back through Arizona in 1992, I wasn’t compelled to see them for the umpteenth time… until I saw the opening acts. The Sugarcubes were on the bill, but so was Public Enemy. I was introduced to P.E. by the film Do the Right Thing. I was instantly drawn in by Terminator X’s filthy hard-hitting beats, but Chuck D’s messaging and firebrand wit rose beyond the music and opened my eyes to emotions and struggles I didn’t know much about. When I saw an opportunity to experience that live, I bought tickets to see U2 for what felt like the 1000th time.
It was a cool October night in Sun Devil Stadium. Just myself and 60,000 people packed in for an intimate show. I knew Public Enemy was first on the bill, so I made sure I was there early. The lights went down. P.E. took the stage. The deep, dirty, almost violent groove of “By The Time I Get To Arizona” literally shook the entire stadium. You could feel the song rumbling in your loins as Chuck D aired his grievances directly to the people of Arizona. Four minutes and 48 seconds later the song ended with a thunderclap of silence. Chuck and the guys in the band took a knee, raised their fists in the air and walked off the stage. That was it. Show over. Message delivered. A football stadium packed with fans sat in stunned silence (and perhaps contemplation). Within a year MLK was reinstituted as a paid state holiday. I’ve seen hundreds of shows in my lifetime. Danced. Cheered. Held up a lighter ‘til my fingers burned (today’s kids will never know). But never have I seen music deliver such a powerful message in such a short amount of time.
Basic Elements’ “New You” is out now.