Number 122 / February 1995:

On January 12, I attended the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Among the inductees was Led Zeppelin. Introducing the band's introducers (you have to go to a couple of these events before you get into their peculiar laggard rhythm), Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun spoke jocularly but lovingly of the band and its heyday. Ahmet's speech reminisced about the band's notorious exploits, his punch line was "And groupies." As in "I remember throwing Earl McGrath's shoes out of the Plaza Hotel window. And groupies. Four hour concerts. And groupies." I sat within earshot of Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Christgau, and the rest of the attendant press. No boos, hisses, or other dissents were heard. Almost everybody, including me, laughed at least a little bit.

On February 7, in a New York State Court room, about four miles from the Waldorf, Tupac Shakur was sentenced to one and a half to four years in state prison for forcing a 20 year-old woman to have sex with three members of his crew in his Parker Meridien hotel room last November 18. Before he was sentenced, his accuser, whose name we are not permitted to know, addressed the court. "I was starstruck and in awe of this man," she said. Indeed. On November 17, she had sucked his dick on the dance floor at the club Nell's.

If you are so naive that you believe no similar acts of sex ever occurred in Led Zeppelin hotel rooms, I recommend that you switch off your computer and go out and access a hard copy of any of the several books about the band's escapades. If you don't think what all those famous and wealthy and well- connected folks at the Waldorf were participating in when they chortled and did not bridle at Ahmet's little jokes was something very similar to what Tupac and his pals participated in, then you and I have very different ideas of what constitutes justice, and what constitutes a double standard.

Please note that none of this has anything to do with whether Tupac is guilty--which legally he indisputably is, because the jury said so, and I, for one, will continue to believe the jury got it right up until the hour that his accuser reveals her name in a civil suit designed to capture some of his reputed wealth. But I would also implore you to please not pretend that putting Tupac in jail for the kind of thing that we celebrate as the "exploits" of white Englishmen with "artist" work visas clipped into their passports represents justice.

Back in the heyday of Led Zeppelin a simple explanation would have been offered. "Oh, those girls will do anything." Perhaps. But the concept of "anything" for any one of those girls might very well have expired between midnight and dawn, and then where would Led Zeppelin and its crew have been? Perhaps in the slam alongside Tupac's predecessors--but perhaps not, since the skin of the penis in question would be white, and white penises have privileges that black ones do not. Which is why we laugh, and why Tupac, at his sentencing hearing, cried. (Tears that all the daily newspaper reporters in New York seemed to find incomprehensible.)

One is not meant to dwell for long on such issues, any more than one is meant to take seriously Tupac's assertion at his sentencing hearing that the judge had refused to look him in the eye throughout the trial. Lord knows, Tupac's naiveté in assuming that eye contact would have helped him bespeaks the kind of naiveté that got Emmett Till lynched--a black man who wants a white judge named Fitzgerald to look him in the eye in a New York City courtroom has not read enough American history, to say the least. Nevertheless, it bespeaks what is important to the defendant in the case, and if we would like young women to cease to be molested by rap and rock stars in their hotel rooms, we should at least make the effort to grasp Tupac's point of view.

Tupac Shakur is 23 years old. When I was 23 years old, if someone had sucked my dick on a public dance floor, I don't know much about what my reaction would have been, but I know that I would have lost respect for that person, not because they had placed my dick in their mouth but because they had done so in an inappropriate situation. (I would also have lost respect for the possessor of the penis, but that's a different issue. Maybe.) If I had been born in a prison ward, to a mother who had been incarcerated after the worst kind of FBI subversion, and if I had grown up in ghettos while that mother's life fell apart and descended into drug addiction....well, then, when I lost respect for a person, I might permit or encourage virtually anything to happen to them. That would not make a sexual assault acceptable; it would not justify me in walking the streets; it would not excuse any of my behavior. But it would explain it.

I offer next month's column space to anyone who can present a similarly sympathetic explanation for the way that groupies have been treated by white bands like Led Zeppelin, or for the contempt in which they are held by recording executives like Ahmet Ertegun, or the complicit lack of protest by myself and the other attendees of that dinner.

Should Tupac be in jail? That's not the issue. Should Led Zeppelin be in jail? That's not either. Nor is the issue artistry--Tupac is, to my taste, a great rapper, as Led Zeppelin was a great rock band. The question here is trickier and thornier, which is whether there is any justice in a situation where one man's crime is laughed off and another's merits prison time, and the principle difference comes down to skin color and regional accent. What the system promises is equal justice under the law. That is not what has occurred here, so I will not conclude in Sixties fashion by proclaiming "Free Tupac Shakur," even though he may in a certain sense truly be a political prisoner, but by proclaiming a Seventies slogan: "Free your mind and your ass will follow."

But operate under no illusions about what happens to that ass until the rest of us are free. Otherwise, you might end up like Tupac's anonymous victim--or like Tupac himself. The chance that you will end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is far smaller.--Dave Marsh

[On February 22, the woman Tupac was convicted of attacking filed a $10 million lawsuit against him for "mental suffering." Her identity remains concealed.]

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