Tom Morello Rages On

Who is the Nightwatchman? Protest singer? Guitar god? Harvard geek? Working-class hero? Or could he be all of the above?

October 13, 2011
Tom Morello
Tom Morello
Joby Sessions/Total Guitar Magazine via Getty Images

On a leafy corner lot in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon, in a three-bedroom house that used to belong to Rob Lowe, Tom Morello is showing off the Marshall amp he's used for 22 years. Downstairs in his home studio, the 47-year-old guitarist points out the deep etches he made to mark his favored settings – reverb 0, treble 7, gain 10, etc. – which, combined with a few pedals, add up to the laser-guided, primordial wah-wah-wakka-wah-wah tone that helped Rage Against the Machine soundtrack millions of Nineties kids' head-banging angst. It's like getting a peek at the formula for Coke, if Coke tasted like a freight train smashing into a sheet-metal factory. Now if only Morello could plug in and demonstrate. "I wish I could," Morello says – but right now it's nap time.

His sons, Rhoads, two, and Roman, five months, are fast asleep. They're named after two of Morello's heroes: Ozzy Osbourne's late guitarist, Randy Rhoads, and former L.A. Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel, both of whose posters adorned his wall as a kid. Morello's wife, Denise, just finished maternity leave (she's a VP at Paramount in charge of music), so today Morello is playing Mr. Mom.

He looks the part: navy T-shirt, Asics running shoes with white athletic socks, dad jeans. Atop his stubbled head is a black IWW cap – INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD, one of the many causes the famously lefty Morello supports – and around his neck is a pendant of St. Isabella, the patron saint of peace and charity. In the right light and at the right angle, Morello looks a little like Derek Jeter. But when he speaks, his voice is pure Obama – a resonant baritone with a touch of Chicago whine. Morello's and the president's backgrounds are crazily similar: white Midwestern mom, black Kenyan intellectual dad, roots in Chicago and degrees from Harvard. When Morello first saw Obama speak, at the 2004 Democratic convention, he was "dumbstruck that there was this doppelganger of me out there."

With Rage, Morello set the template for the last two decades of hard rock. But these days, he may be even better known for activism. His Axis of Justice organization has brought together dozens of high-profile musicians to battle racism and poverty, and as his acoustic-folk alter ego, the Nightwatchman, whose fourth album, World Wide Rebel Songs, was just released, he's appeared at protests and union rallies from Wisconsin to Hamburg.

Morello's politics fall somewhere between Nader and Trotsky. He's surprised that there aren't "riots in the streets" and has said that it's "insane for people in this country to get upset when oppressed people use violence to attain their freedom." Rage's incendiary lyrics, rabble-rousing shows and support for controversial causes like convicted cop-killer Leonard Peltier and the Shining Path rebels of Peru have gotten them booted from SNL and boycotted by the Fraternal Order of Police. But sitting on his couch eating takeout sushi, Morello seems way more NPR than N.W.A. He watches "30 Rock," reads Malcolm Gladwell books, and plays his kids Bach and Mozart to help make them smart. (Then again, he also reads them "Mao's Little Red Book.")

Soon, he wanders out to the yard, where he hears a knock from an upstairs window. A sweet-looking lady with bright-white hair appears. Morello waves. "Hi, Mom!" She moved out here three years ago, to get away from the Chicago winters. Morello installed her in an apartment above the studio. "And now, once again," he says, "I'm playing in my mom's basement."

In 1962, a young white woman from Illinois named Mary Morello was living in Nairobi working as a teacher. It was an exciting time to be there: The Mau Mau rebels had defeated their British colonizers, and the country was on the eve of independence. One night at a cocktail party, Mary hit it off with a handsome young half-Masai named Ng'ethe Njoroge, who later became a member of Kenya's U.N. delegation. They got married and moved to Harlem, and a few months later Tom was born.

The couple divorced when Tom was a year old, and Mary moved her son back to Illinois, to an apple-pie hamlet called Libertyville. Still, Tom didn't leave Africa behind. "I always identified as black," he says. "Not even half-black – just black." His classmates agreed: They would ask if he was "the prince of Africa"; less innocently, he once found a noose hanging in his garage. When he was about four, Tom told his mom that a girl at day care had called him a nigger. His mom's advice? "Slug her." (He did.) "My mom is a wild card," Morello says. "She's like Professor Griff."

A socialist from a family of coal miners, Mary Morello worked for the NAACP and kept photos of Castro and Che Guevara on her bedroom wall. In 1987 – way before her son was in Rage – she founded an organization called Parents for Rock and Rap to counter Tipper Gore's pro-censorship crusade. Tom grew up reading about Huey Newton and Mother Jones, and one of the first songs he ever wrote was called "Salvador Death Squad Blues." He describes his successful Harvard application essay as an "anarchist manifesto."

At the same time, Morello was a huge dork: comic books, Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons. He was also in the drama club, and once starred in a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in which he wore tights and played Oberon, King of the Fairies. "My geek passport," he jokes, "needed extra pages."

At Harvard, Morello made apartheid his cause. He wrote his thesis on student movements in South Africa, and after finding out that the university had large investments there, he helped build a shantytown in Harvard Yard to advocate for divestment. He also tried to join the African National Congress (Nelson Mandela's party) but couldn't figure out how to apply for membership.

Morello still keeps in touch with some of his Harvard friends. One of his roommates is a professor at Yale, another runs a hospital in New Hampshire. (Conan O'Brien was a year ahead of him, but they didn't know each other.) A few months ago, Morello went to his 25th reunion, where he performed with the Boston Pops and Yo-Yo Ma. "It was the first time," he says, "that the vast majority of my classmates realized what I do." Then he tells a story about an earlier reunion, at the peak of Rage's popularity, when he mentioned to an investment-banker classmate that he was a musician. "He said, 'Oh, me and my wife love to dance. I'm gonna give you my business card, when you play in Connecticut, give us a call and we'll come out.' Unfortunately I lost the card, because I would have loved to invite them. Like, 'Here, right down front! Dance with the children!'"

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