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Day One of the Tibetan Freedom Concert is surprisingly low-key—sticky, but not too hot. The mood is up, at least for a few hours. A concert volunteer gives me directions. Though I decline her offer to use her back as a desk, I sign a postcard addressed to President Clinton to let him know I care about the plight of the Tibetan people. The volunteer says she’s been involved in supporting Tibet ever since her uncle shared stories of human-rights abuses he had witnessed in mainland China. She says something about bodies clandestinely being dumped in a river that I don’t quite catch, and then she’s gone.

The impassioned dirges of Live echo through the hallways behind the stages, sludgier and more interesting than when heard head-on. A security guard moves me; I happily oblige him. “Edutainer” KRS-1 and a hiphop beat get the crowd moving, and afterward, Dave Matthews brings more people to their feet. Then Herbie Hancock hits the stage, the sky darkens, and the throng swells in the stadium hallway.

It’s important to be in the right place at the right time, because the sets are short enough that they can be easily missed. Someone spies my schedule over my shoulder and says, “Excuse me, but that doesn’t have the bands’ times on it, does it?” Most conversation at the show centers not around the plight of Tibet but the bands and their relative merits, or getting “supplies” of various kinds, as in “OK, Tracy Chapman and Sonic Youth are next, and I’m not interested in either of them. So let’s get supplies and meet back here.”

It’s 3:30 p.m. An explosion like a very loud gunshot and a bright burst of light disturb the air about 100 yards away. The concert’s momentum grinds into slow motion; heads turn. The relaxed and optimistic mood on the field gives way to isolated panic. Herbie’s Headhunters are oblivious. Suddenly, I find myself in a large-scale game of telephone: “Do you know what happened?” a voice inquires. “Somebody said lightning, somebody said a bomb.” Which is worse? Five minutes later, the downpour begins. At 3:45, I see the lightning victim being loaded into D.C. Ambulance No. 680, and just before 5 o’clock the gig’s canceled, the wait’s over. The kids, except for a few loudmouths, leave quietly, almost solemnly, irritated as the guards misdirect them down to a dead end. By the time I reach the Metro, the sky’s cleared up. Tomorrow can only get better.

Articulate Beastie Boy, Milarepa Fund co-founder, and event organizer Adam Yauch tells us that the Tibet cause, to which he and his celebrity pals have lent their names, is specific but also symbolic, an opportunity to clear the path for a new foreign policy emphasizing freedom, human rights, and peace. I’ve come to believe that Tibet symbolizes much more for some of these followers: a quest for new meaning and a chance to redefine themselves. Is that what Yauch, Martin Scorcese, and Richard Gere are after in sticking up for bullied Tibet?

The image of robed “monks and nuns” (as described on the concert schedule) at RFK proves powerful for this visually promiscuous generation. We immediately understand who they are, their dislocation, the fragility of their cultural traditions, and the intensity of their religious practice. But sometimes the Tibet campaign’s visual juxtapositions are too much. I’m stuck with the image of Gere at a press conference four years ago, presenting a table of torture instruments smuggled from Tibet, and the smoky, softened images from Gere’s recent Tibet photo book—but I don’t know what to do with them. What to make of the Buddhist ceremonies in the festival’s Monastery Tent? As the monks finish up a prayer, the cymbal and drum go silent, there’s a pause, and they’re are abruptly at ease, laughing, smiling, slightly amused by their T-shirt-clad audience.

It’s 1 p.m. Sunday. The surreal contrasts continue to present themselves: Speaker Xiao Quiang tells us that the Tibetan struggle “is on our shoulders.” Minutes later, Jarvis Cocker’s bum is wiggling him across the stage. He’s a spastic, clever, and not particularly serious Englishman. The scent of weed wafts through the field. The weather’s gorgeous. Pulp plays “Sorted for Es & Whizz,” a song about the British kind of music festival, which acknowledges the charm of the young, carefree, and wasted. Jarvis cautions them. “What if you never come down?”

Radiohead goes on, and the company on the field swells and ebbs toward the stage. Predictable stadium-festival shenanigans break out: crowd surfing, slamming, fainting. The joint is now jammed. The keyboard’s much too loud initially, loud enough to make you want to cut off your ears. Michael Stipe sings lead on Radiohead’s “Lucky.” The band works through a good portion of OK Computer. The material from Computer makes more sense than I expect, touching on paranoia, technology, and alienation. The night before, at a surprise 9:30 Club gig, Thom Yorke summed up the frustrations and anxieties of many about the festival: “Let’s hope it fucking does something.” Today, he sings, “I want to be someone else.” He’s generally dissatisfied.

Adam Yauch says that Tibetan culture’s adherence to nonviolence makes it a natural choice for Western solidarity. The Campaign for Tibet, among others, offers overwhelming evidence that the situation is grave. Technically, China’s claims to Tibet are flimsy, based on the fact that both nations were under Mongol rule in the 13th century. China’s human-rights abuses and cultural and racial genocide have not subsided since the 1959 uprising. More than 1.2 million Tibetans have died during the Chinese occupation—or “liberation” of the country, as Beijing calls it. More than 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed. Beijing’s illegal behavior now includes a massive Chinese influx into Tibet, well-documented by international watchdogs. Tibet’s fate, by King Ad-Rock’s estimation, will “be a marker for where we’re headed in the future.”

On the way to the Metro I see a scalper taken down by a posse of guards, his tickets confiscated. A few footsteps later, I have a brief run-in with a gentleman from Zendek, which is, apparently, “a traveling psychedelic commune from Florida.” He’d like it if I’d buy a ‘zine or a CD. I can’t help humming a line from Pulp’s song “Sorted”: “Tell me when the spaceship lands because all of this has got to mean something.” I spin around to find there are no spaceships, no aliens, and no monks in the vicinity to come to my aid with an explanation. Like everyone else in this crowd, I’m on my own.CP