RIGHTEOUS, MAN Tom Morello

Raising a clenched fist to the sky, the GRAMMY Museum
hosts an evening of talk and music with the Nightwatchman.

 

BY JOSE MARTINEZ

 

On March 31, as part of its
current politics-in-music exhibit entitled “Songs of Conscience, Sounds of
Freedom,” the GRAMMY Museum at L.A.
LIVE featured a discussion with GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Robert
Santelli and Tom Morello, whose leftist politics and populist activism are
well-documented. Receiving a standing ovation from the sold out audience of
nearly 250 fans, Morello confessed, “You make the Nightwatchman blush.”

 

One of rock’s preeminent
guitarists, Morello made a name for himself with the incendiary L.A. activist band Rage
Against the Machine, followed by the more rock-oriented and less political
Audioslave. But throughout his career he has always earned a reputation as an
uncompromising songwriter, advocate and activist.

 

A graduate from Harvard University
with honors as a Political Science major, Morello was destined for an activist
life considering his great-uncle served as the first president of Kenya, while his father was Kenya’s first
ambassador to the United Nations.

 

The guitarist recalled how
he first became an activist, going all the way back to his days in Libertyville, Illinois
(an hour outside of Chicago)
where he was the first African American in town. After being called the “N
word” by a schoolyard bully, Morello’s mother, Mary Morello, founder of Parents
for Rock and Rap, an anticensorship counterweight to Tipper Gore’s PMRC, told
her son to fire back with a slew of anti-cracker slurs.

 

“That was my entrance into
politics,” Morello pointed out.

 

Raised on Temptations and
WAR records, Morello delved into rock music head first when he discovered KISS
and Alice Cooper. But it wasn’t until he first heard The Clash, which he described
as “life changing,” that he realized music could actually say something
powerful.

 

Politically active since
high school, Morello talked about the 1981 IRA hunger strike and the starvation
death of Bobby Sands and how eye-opening that proved, showing him that there’s
a “much bigger world” than middle -class suburbia. “There were kids at Libertyville High School starving themselves to make
the wrestling team,” Morello recalled.

 

In high school, at the age
of 17, Morello began playing guitar in his first band, Electric Sheep which
also included Adam Jones of Tool fame. By the time the guitarist was at
Harvard, he knew full well playing guitar is what he wanted to do. Studying and
practicing guitar were all encompassing to Morello, who embarrassingly
confessed he has “never smoked a joint.” Adding, to the delight of the
audience, “I accidentally ate a hash brownie once and thought I was on PCP.”

 

Having previously worked for
Senator Alan Cranston, Morello explained he knew that path was not for him.
“There was so much compromising involved.”

 

Forming Rage Against the
Machine in 1991, the band, who Morello admits never paid its due getting signed
after only its second-ever gig, immediately railed against the establishment, and
that was during the Clinton
administration.

 

Talking about that memorable night in 2000
during the Democratic National Convention, that took place in the very spot
where the GRAMMY Museum now stands at L.A. LIVE, Morello recalled there was a
three-story barbed wire fence separating the people of Los Angeles from the
people’s party. And though most people credit Rage for starting the ensuing
melee, the band was already done with their set and had left the downtown area.
Instead, Morello said what occurred was a “police riot,” noting they were the
ones looking for a fight. 

 

Talking about President Obama, Morello pointed
out their similarities: how both have fathers from Kenya, both are products of
interracial marriages, and both attended Harvard in the ‘80s. Yet he admitted
he is “skeptical” when asked about our new president.

 

“Tonight there are
75,000 homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles,”
Morello noted, “and over 10,000 homeless children on the streets of the Los Angeles. And we’re
still talking about how much of a bailout the auto industry is going to
get.”

 

But quickly added, “It’s
nice to have a brotha in the White
House.”

 

Crediting the music of Woody
Guthrie as a major influence, Morello described Guthrie’s songs as “music,
meaning, message.”

 

When asked if there are any
plans to release any Rage Against the Machine music in the future, the
guitarist said don’t count on it, noting the band may tour again but nothing is
scheduled right now.

 

Finally taking to the stage,
the Nightwatchman – currently teaming up with Coup’s Boots Riley in the band
Street Sweeper and planning to hit the road this summer opening for the Nine
Inch Nails/Jane’s Addiction upcoming tour – delighted the audience with a
five-song solo, acoustic performance.

 

Playing the title track to his latest
Nightwatchman release, The Fabled City,
Morello showcased his passionate songs that touch upon personal and political
sentiments. He even took on “Guerilla Radio,” Rage Against the Machine’s “rebel
song” with acoustic guitar and harmonica in tow. To close the evening, Morello
took on what he called our “revolutionary anthem,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land
Is Your Land” encouraging the audience to stand and jump throughout the final
verse. All that was missing was the crowd surfing.

 

For
more information on The GRAMMY Museum at L.A.
LIVE see www.grammymuseum.org.

 

[Photo Credit: Mark
Sullivan/WIRE Image]

 

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