Tom Morello: From Rage to accoustic protest
ASPEN The 90s are, in hindsight, looking more and more like a relatively peaceful, prosperous and socially just era in world history. Nevertheless, guitarist Tom Morello spent the decade protesting against politics-as-usual (American and otherwise), economic inequality, creeping corporatism.Clearly, Morello, who appears in Aspen on Saturday, was meant to rant. When I asked him over the phone recently if he ever got tired of protest mode, if he maybe wanted to write and sing a nice, mellow love song, his no response was as abrupt and firm as if Id asked if he preferred Wal-Mart to the neighborhood co-op.The territory of love songs is pretty well-covered, he said from his home in Los Angeles Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood whose history has been filled with outspoken residents: Frank Zappa, Graham Nash, Robert Heinlein and Jim Morrison. I think you can only guide what comes out of you, and I couldnt try to write a song about romance and driving a car. I was put here for two things. I knew early on Id play guitar. And I knew I had a moral compass. I never get tired of fighting injustice.Given those two in-born tendencies, Morello considers himself fortunate to have been a member of the L.A. rock-band Rage Against the Machine. Beginning with the quartets self-titled 1992 CD, Rage Against the Machine gave Morello plenty of room to shred his guitar and a powerful voice in spreading revolutionary, leftist thoughts. The band split acrimoniously in 2000, but Morello can still say I was spoiled in Rage a reference to the fact that the band gave him the opportunity to play his instrument and vent his political views. (Spoiled enough that Morello was on board when the band reunited for a lengthy international tour this past spring and summer.)If Rage Against the Machine spoiled him, then Morello must be feeling like a real fat cat on his latest tour. Billed as Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, the tour has the guitarist playing two sets. The first has Morello in a Woody Guthrie-like persona, singing folkish protest songs and playing an acoustic guitar emblazoned with the words, Whatever It Takes. (Guthries famed guitar was inscribed, This Machine Kills Fascists.) In the second set, Morello and his band, casually dubbed the Freedom Fighter Orchestra, gets loud and musically unhinged. In fact, Morello, known for his effects-heavy guitar histrionics in the past playing which earned him a ranking of No. 26 in Rolling Stones list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time says his work in the current band is more inventive than anything hes done before.This tour will absolutely let me play more guitar than I ever have, said Morello, who brings the Nightwatchman tour which he describes as half Dylan, half Hendrix to Belly Up Aspen on Saturday, Nov. 8. (Boots Riley, rapper for the Oakland, Calif. hip-hop group the Coup, opens.) Its partly three chords-and-the-truth, and partly being able to unleash the guitar warlords, in a way I didnt even do in Rage and Audioslave [the band Morello and other members of Rage had with former Soundgarden singer, Chris Cornell]. There, it was contained in three-minute songs. Theres a lot of guitar Im playing now that Ive never played before. Morello, born in the first half of the 60s, son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, was educated at Harvard and considers Illinois his home state. It is a biography that seems to produce influential political figures; the same description fits Barack Obama. With Morello, however, the activism came in the genes: His mother, Mary, founded Parent for Rock and Rap, an anti-censorship group formed in response to Tipper Gores Parents Music Resource Center, which promoted warning labels on certain albums. His father, Ngethe Njoroge, was Kenyas first ambassador to the United Nations. His great-uncle, Jomo Kenyatta, was the first elected president of Kenya. Morello says, as the first black kid in Libertyville, Ill,, he literally integrated the town. On one occasion, he went into his garage to find a noose. It was not the only noose I saw, he remarked.It is a background that seems to require agitation. Even though Morello didnt sing a word in Rage Against the Machine I liked it that way. I liked the specificity of what I did, coming up with the [guitar] wizardry, he said the band satisfied his need to be involved socially. The bands concerts were riot-like calls to arms. On a Saturday Night Live gig, in 1996, their appearance was cut down to one song when they threatened to adorn the stage with American flags hung upside down. A 1997 tour with hip-hop collective the Wu-Tang Clan was aborted amidst attempts from police to cancel individual concerts.When Rage imploded, Morello, along with the bands rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford, joined with Soundgardens Chris Cornell in Audioslave. The group was a commercial hit and satisfied most of the music critics; their three studio albums earned several Grammy nominations. But record sales and trophies werent what Morello was looking for.Ideologically, it did not fit with my world-view, he said of the largely apolitical Audioslave. We healed one another both personally and professionally. But it was clear to me early on that it would not meet my criteria for what I want to do as an artist. I feel the need to have my views of the world represented in the music.So in 2002, around the time that he was launching Audioslave, Morello also began unplugging, strumming and making old-school protest songs. Instead of stadiums and festivals, Morello showed up at rallies and in union shops, and signed up for slots in coffeehouses under the name The Nightwatchman. Musically, he was inspired by British singer Billy Bragg, with whom he toured on the Tell Us the Truth tour, and Bruce Springsteen, who Morello has joined several times in performing Springsteens The Ghost of Tom Joad.Ive approached this like a zealous beginner, said the 44-year-old Morello . It was a great antidote to my existence as an arena rocker. Id play in an arena, for 20,000 people, then sign up to play my songs in front of 20 people. But I find that the music is more important than anything Ive ever done. I felt like the music meant something for only to me, but to the people in the audience.Last year, The Nightwatchman finally emerged in recorded form, with the release of One Man Revolution. The album was bare-bones, just Morello, his guitar, his direct messages and, for the first time on CD, his voice, which was surprisingly effective. But the coffeehouse gigs and One Man Revolution were only a starting place. In late September, Morello released The Fabled City. He still used the Nightwatchman banner, but the second solo CD was far different than his debut. The Fabled City features contributions from System of a Down singer Serj Tankian and Shooter Jennings, son of country outlaw Waylon Jennings. Morellos playing is acoustic, but also expansive rather than intimate. The Lights Are On in Spidertown and Saint Isabelle thrum along on Irish-inspired rhythms.Lyrically, The Fabled City is a major step forward. Rather than direct words of protest, Morellos messages are delivered in imagery, characters and scraps of narrative. Morello, it turns out, is a songwriter with a voice of his own.I was surprised, sometimes, in my own lyrics, he said. It seemed to tap into the dark recesses of my psyche. I might have anticipated I would write songs like, I Disagree with the Foreign Policy of George Bush. I imagined myself as a political lyricist, maybe like Chuck D [of Public Enemy]. But it ended up, thats not what I wrote. The songs dont categorize the evils of imperialism. Instead, its about a coyote chewing its leg off, or the poverty keeping millions of people from becoming the person they want to be.Morello doesnt believe others must join him on the protest wing of the music world. He knows how much commitment it takes to do it well, and make it authentic and meaningful.I wouldnt ghettoize musicians, he said. Just because someone has access to a recording studio doesnt make them any more or less responsible for having their hands on the wheels of democracy. The responsibility you have is to be honest. So dont not be political because youll sell fewer ringtones. Thats disgusting. And dont pretend to have politics if you dont. Spare us all.
Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, with Boots Riley opening, performs Saturday at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen.firstname.lastname@example.org
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