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The Battle of Rage Against the Machine

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"But the real clincher was when I looked through his book of poems and lyrics. It was like I'd found an ideological brother. And it wasn't just paragraphs about Mao and Paraguay. It was great poetry." Much of de la Rocha's writing in that book, including "Take the Power Back" and "Bullet in the Head," ended up on Rage Against the Machine. The name of the band came from another song de la Rocha had performed with his previous band, Inside Out.

Morello also has a full-blast personality – a high-speed wallop of competitive drive, sharp business sense and higher education, spiked with a warm, wide smile and a loud, rattling laugh. "Tom can be kicking your ass at Madden 99," says Commerford, referring to the PlayStation football game. "Then you can ask him, 'Tom, tell me something about the political situation in Peru,' and he breaks into it at the drop of a hat." Commerford points out that it was Morello's idea to make the demo cassette, sold at Rage shows, that had record-company business cards flying at the band by its third gig.

"Businessman Tom Morello, cracking the whip," Commerford says, grinning. "I remember going, 'Man, we can stop at eight songs. Eight will be fine.' He's like, 'No, we need more. We need twelve.' And that's what we did."

"He is the guy in the band who always wants to do as much as we possibly can," Wilk says of Morello. Wilk also admits that when he discovered that Morello was a Harvard alumnus, "I thought there was going to be this really pretentious vibe. He really didn't come off like that. A lot of times, Tom is just a joker."

Morello was born in Harlem, into what he calls "a very political household." His African father, Ngethe Njoroge, is a former rebel and diplomat. He was part of the Mau Mau guerrilla movement that fought for Kenya's independence from Great Britain, and he was Kenya's first representative to the United Nations after the country won its freedom in 1963. Morello's mother, Mary, who is white, has long been active in civil-rights and free-speech efforts. She worked with the Urban League and the NAACP in the Sixties and Seventies; in the late Eighties, before her son started playing with Rage, she founded Parents for Rock and Rap in opposition to right-wing censorship efforts against rock and hip-hop. "Here's this suburban more, a retired schoolteacher, speaking out about 2 Live Crew," Morello says admiringly.

"His bedroom door was always open," Mary says of Tom, "and when he listened to anything – Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper – he'd always call me in to listen. And I listened. Twice I took him to Alice Cooper concerts."

She, in turn, gave her son vital lessons in equality and self-worth. "What I've always told him," Mary says, "is you are no better or less than any other person. And we've met lots of prejudice, believe me." Tom's parents split up when he was very young; Mary and Tom then moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a largely white suburb of Chicago. For a time, Mary had trouble finding a job because she and Tom were an interfacial family. She once found a noose that someone had hung in her garage. And Tom, like de la Rocha, felt the cold slap of racism at an early age. "When you're on the playground, fools calling you names," he says flatly, "that's political."

So was his reaction. "I always exposed Tom to everything to read," says Mary, "which he did." In his teens, Tom studied books about the Black Panthers and wrote about civil rebellion in Central America and South Africa for an underground high school paper. At Harvard, where he graduated with a degree in social studies, he juggled obsessive guitar practice with anti-apartheid protests.

Today, Morello dismisses his two years as a scheduling secretary for Democratic senator Alan Cranston of California as a "day gig" and calls himself, without hesitation, "a socialist. I believe that people should have meaningful control over their society, which we don't have. And there should be democracy in the workplace, as well as in politics." In December 1997, Morello was one of thirty-three people arrested in Santa Monica, California while demonstrating against alleged sweatshop conditions at plants manufacturing Guess Jeans.

Wilk concedes that in comparison to Morello and de la Rocha, he is a student of politics. "When we first started the band, I was learning shit," he says quite openly. "The stuff that I was learning from Tom and Zack – my eyes were opened in the same way as our fans'."

Commerford says much the same thing: "If I could go back in time, to high school, with this knowledge, I'd be psyched," he crows. "There wasn't anything like that for me, except for the Clash." Commerford finds it ironic that he is now playing the messenger. Recently, he's been talking about the Abu-Jamal case with two guys on his neighborhood flag-football team, both black police officers. "They really didn't know anything about it," says Commerford. "I was a little bummed."

But Wilk (born in Portland, Oregon, the son of a jewelry salesman) and Commerford (a native Californian who learned to play Sex Pistols songs on the bass from de la Rocha in grade school) are hardly silent partners in a Morello- de la Rocha war ministry. "They all have the same interests," says Mary Morello, who has, on occasion, introduced the band onstage. She recalls going to an early Rage rehearsal where she gave Tom a book on Che Guevara. The other guys then said, "Where's mine?" Mary got a copy for each of them.

At Woodstock '99, Commerford torched the Stars and Stripes draped over his bass rig without alerting anyone else in the band ahead of time –including Wilk, who nearly passed out from the fumes caused by Commerford oversoaking the flag with gasoline. "The flag represents all my freedoms – one of them is my right to express myself," he says, defending his action. "My burning the flag is as much glorifying as desecrating it."

And when Rage played a run of dates opening for U2's ironic-materialism pageant, PopMart, in 1997, the group donated its net earnings to charities selected by each band member. Commerford picked Women Alive, a support organization for women with AIDS, which he became acquainted with through a former girlfriend. "It's anyone's forum," Commerford says emphatically of Rage. "Anyone can bring up anything they want."

There are times, too, when in spite of their naturally combative chemistry, Rage can make an unforgettable point without saying a single word. One such case was the band's legendary performance of sorts in Philadelphia on the '93 Lollapalooza tour. The set was twenty-five minutes ofRage standing naked and still against a wall of feedback –duct tape pressed across their mouths and the letters P-M-R-C (for Parents Music Resource Center) scrawled, one to a man, across their chests.

"The brilliant reason for that," Wilk explains, "was Zack blew his voice out that day. Couldn't sing. It was either cancel or do a half-ass show. We were in Philadelphia" – the birthplace of American independence –"and thought, 'We need to take advantage of this."Is everybody cool with being naked?' 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.'"

It was a great stunt – "until after about ten minutes," Wilk goes on, "people realized all they were going to hear was feedback. I got hit with a lighter, some other shit people were throwing. I remember my hand sliding from my waist down to my private parts, going, 'Please don't get hit there.'"

We were in Detroit," says Michael Goldstone, recalling a night on a 1993 Rage tour, "and Zack was holding a political discussion in the parking lot with fifteen kids. And he was bummed out that the show was 4,000 kids and he was only talking to fifteen. I said, 'Yeah, but those fifteen will tell fifteen other kids, and those will tell fifteen more kids.'"

Today, Rage Against the Machine receive up to 200 letters a week, even during the dry cycles between albums, and those come from "some sharp kids," says Bryan Carichner, who manages Rage's fan club and merchandising. "It's not a lot of gushing. You get questions: 'What should I do?' And 'I'm standing behind you. Fuck the system.'"

He notes that Rage also get a lot of fuck-you mail for their stances on hot-button issues. When Rage headlined a show in New Jersey last January with the Beastie Boys and Bad Religion to raise defense funds for Abu-Jamal, there was a major spike in threats and cussing, according to Carichner: "You had people saying, 'You used to be my favorite band. I'm gonna break every one of your CDs.'"

Letters of support arrived in equal number. "Then," Carichner says, "you had people who just didn't know. 'I don't know why you're supporting this guy. There must be a reason. I'm gonna look into it.' That's when the band has done the job it set out to do. They're trying to get you to learn about this stuff. Make your own decision, but at least learn about it."

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