Revelers without a cause Was Tibetan freedom the big draw last weekend at RFK? Does lightning ever strike twice?

June 21, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Was last weekend's Tibetan Freedom Concert just a hot show with a side of cause du jour, or a real catalyst for global political change?

Or maybe the real question is: Who cares?

More than 100,000 people gathered at RFK Stadium for the electrifying two-day socio-musical experiment that featured pop luminaries and Tibetan monks sharing the stage. The concert's proceeds went to the Milarepa Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization raising money and consciousness for Tibet.

But a week later, is it possible that the tens of thousands of young, potential Tibetan freedom-fighters who gathered remember anything more than the concert's near-fatal lightning strike, how bummed they were to miss Beck, and that R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe wore a skirt?

Possible, yes.

Or at least figures from years past suggest that. The first two

Tibetan Freedom Concerts raised more than $1.25 million for the

Milarepa Fund; this year's concert is reported to be one of the top-grossing benefit concerts of all time. Since the concerts began, high school and college chapters of Students for a Free Tibet have grown from 60 to nearly 400.

"We see this huge surge of interest that follows the concerts," says Kay Dougherty, national coordinator of Students for a Free Tibet.

The organization was active at the Washington concert, recruiting new members and distributing postcards urging support for Tibet addressed to the White House. "We'll be barraged with phone calls," Dougherty predicted.

And 20,000 people did attend Monday's rally on the Capitol lawn. Still, that was a fraction of the number of concertgoers, even with

appearances by Michael Stipe and Thom Yorke offering rock-star allure.

But before and after the concert, the music vs. message debate raged: How could anyone be so naive, a breathless press demanded, to think that clueless concertgoers came for anything other than the music?

Talk about clueless.

It seems fairly safe to say that when a single event brings bands like Pearl Jam, Radiohead and R.E.M. as just a handful of nearly 20 A-list acts to the stage, the music is the message. "Free House Pets" could be the concert's cause and it would still sell out in a matter of hours.

Even so, several artists, including Sean Lennon, became offended when reporters and others insinuated that concertgoers put Dave Matthews before the Dalai Lama.

"I resent that question," whined John Lennon's youngest son, sneering beneath his bleach-patched hair.

(Lennon's hair - and similar exquisitely alternative coiffures at the concert - begged the question: How many of these stylish youngsters would abandon their Manic Panic hair dye and fave salon to wholly sacrifice themselves to the Tibetan cause?)

But if Tibetan freedom isn't what brought most people to the concert, at least many took away some notion of it - even if it was just the "Free Tibet" hemp wallets supposedly woven by Tibetan villagers.

Surrounded by the event's affected aura and products of Tibet, both in the stadium and out in the vendor village, many attendees mindlessly consumed them. Literally, in some cases.

Some inhaled pita bread, fried rice and exotic dumplings prepared by Tibetan cooks.

Others, such as Estelle Carraz, 24, browsed through Tibetan bookstands. Gazing briefly at "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," the orange-haired Atlanta resident with blue nail and toe polish and hemp necklace became one with theexotic, vibrant Asian colors and images surrounding her.

"I have dreams and visions of things that look like this," she confided.

Then she admitted to being far more active in the hemp movement than in the Tibetan cause.

The Tibetan monks on hand, dressed in bright orange tunics and pTC flowing crimson pants, got their fair share of curious attention as well, though moshing overcame meditating.

Their deep, resonant chanting, which formally kicked off the event on Saturday, became something of a Gen-X mating call. As soon as it began, thousands of concertgoers stampeded out of the stadium seats onto the RFK field to begin their day of crowd-surfing cum consciousness-raising.

In the prayer tent (conveniently located in the middle of the vendor village), awestruck alterna-teens watched and listened to the solemn prayer chants of four monks on a stage.

In one corner of the tent, Cindy Honeycutt, 30, sat in the lotus position, trying to meditate.

"I really wanted to do it with the monks," she explained.

Honeycutt, who lives in Los Angeles, couldn't quite describe the vibe she was getting in the prayer tent.

"I don't want to say it's a tingling," she said. "I can feel it through my fingertips and out my toes."

Some concertgoers' political pretensions didn't escape the sarcasm of more down-to-earth audience members.

As the Dave Matthews band covered "All Along the Watchtower," crop-topped young women moved their arms in pseudo-spiritual, snakelike, flowing motions. One onlooker sardonically labeled the dancing a "Tibetan Fertility Ritual."

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