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In 1990, I hosted an anti-censorship war council of sorts over dinner at my home in Los Angeles. Present were James Bernard, then an editor at The Source; Jesse Ballinger of local anti-censorship group SLAM, and Mary Morello of Parents for Rock & Rap. Oh yeah, there was also a guy who sat there quietly all night—Tom Morello. Tom is, of course, Mary’s son and he was then in the band Lock Up, whose album on Geffen Records had been released the year before.
Tom Morello hasn’t been very quiet since then, either as a prime mover in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave or as a political activist on a global scale. On March 31, Morello had a lot to say as the latest in a series of interview guests (Brian Wilson, Nas, Charlie Haden, Annie Lennox, Damien Marley) at the brand new Grammy Museum in downtown LA.
The Museum’s intimate auditorium was packed with what looked to be typical Rage fans, despite the fact that tickets to the event were selling on-line for over $300 (Ticketmaster handles ticketing for the museum). Museum director Robert Santelli was the interviewer and he did a good job of guiding Morello through a description of his life and career that was often hilarious (e.g. when he called out former Geffen exec Robert Smith for breaking Lock Up’s contract).
Morello said his political involvement began when he was four years old and kids in his day care center in otherwise all-white Libertyville, Illinois hurled racial slurs at him (as an interracial family, Tom and Mary had to get permission from the neighbors to move into an apartment building there). Musically, he was a typical suburban metalhead with an incurable addiction to major riffage. Once in high school, he had a political defining moment when Bobby Sands and other IRA prisoners in Ireland were dying as hunger strikers while the Libertyville High School wrestling team was fasting to make weight. At about the same time he had a musical revelation when he saw the Clash play in Chicago. “Joe Strummer was playing through the same brand of crappy amp I was playing through in my mom’s basement. I realized that what the Clash did wasn’t something that I might be able to do someday, but that I was already doing it!”
He was doing it in the band Electric Sheep with Adam Jones, now with Tool, also on guitar. While in that band Tom wrote his first song, “Salvador Death Squad Blues.” Then he went to Harvard to “learn how to get my hand on the levers and be an effective revolutionary.” In those hallowed halls, he was the weird guy who practiced guitar up to eight hours a day under the thrall of a Randy Rhoads obsession (he came to Woody Guthrie and Bob Marley much later in life). Tom studied “social science” and participated in the movement to force Harvard to divest itself of ties to apartheid in South Africa. Degree in hand from one of the world’s most prestigious universities, he moved to Los Angeles to try to become a rock star.
After several years, he suddenly succeeded. “Rage was lucky. We got a record deal after our second gig. We were a great band but we argued intensely from the beginning. The success we had just widened the cracks in the band.” After that experience, Morello noted, being in Audioslave was a necessary “period of healing.”
Tom Morello seeks to heal more than himself. Throughout March, he went up and down the west coast on The Justice Tour, designed to call attention to homelessness and to raise money for groups which help the homeless. At the Seattle stop, Morello was joined by Steve Earle, Wayne Kramer, Boots Riley, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, and all of Soundgarden except Chris Cornell (Tom played rhythm guitar). Yet at the Grammy Museum he didn’t mention any of this when he spoke of the tour’s Seattle visit. Instead, he described hanging out at a drop-in center for homeless teens, shooting pool and asking questions such as “Where will you sleep tonight?” He spoke of sixteen-year-olds named Spider and Manson, invoking their plight throughout the evening as symbolic of the crisis in America.
Does this mean that Tom Morello subscribes to the cliché that the music is less important than the issues it often reflects? No way. He spoke with great passion about his musical heroes and about his new band Street Sweeper, co-led by Boots Riley of the Coup and soon to go out on tour with Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails. Morello doesn’t seek a proper balance between music and politics—they both just pour out of him like sweat does from Shaquille O’Neal..
When asked about President Obama, Morello took a deep breath. He knew that question was coming. “Well, in his first week as President, he said several things that I agreed with. That’s never happened before….And there’s that personal connection. We both have Kenyan fathers and he was at Harvard when I was there. But tonight in Los Angeles there are 75,000 homeless people living in the streets. Ten thousand of them are children. This isn’t about who is President. This is about a system, a system that is fundamentally flawed… Change doesn’t come from an administration, it comes from the people, the people like those who are here in the Grammy Museum tonight, people like Spider and Manson.”
The best audience question of the night was “Do you ever encounter racism from blacks because of the type of music you play?” Tom’s answer was indirect: “People underestimate the impact of Living Colour, a black hard rock band that had success which led directly to faces of color being seen in bands everywhere. As for urban radio, that’s another story.” Then he stopped and thought for a moment. “But you know, with Lil Wayne out there sportin’ a guitar, maybe even urban radio can change.”
As for the future, Morello said that the guys in Rage Against the Machine now get along “famously” and will almost certainly continue to perform together live. When asked if there would be a new Rage album, he said no emphatically. Instead, he urged fans to focus on the music he’s making now. To that end, he concluded the evening by performing five songs in his acoustic persona of The Nightwatchman. It was raw, rhythmic, precise and powerful. The closer was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which ended with the crowd singing “the verses they didn’t tell you about in third grade” and pogoing up and down like a mosh pit was about to break out.