Tom Morello Rages On - Rolling Stone
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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?

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!'”

Morello started playing guitar when he was 17, but it wasn’t until college that he got serious about it. Like, really serious. “I was up playing until four or five in the morning, every night,” he says. “It was an OCD compulsion. There were no days off – it was a 365-days-a-year practice regimen. I could have a fever, I could have an exam in the morning, but I had to get my four to six hours.”

Why so obsessed? “Well, my Psych 101 reading is that it had to do with control,” he says. “There were a lot of social elements in my hometown, like issues of race, that were out of my control. You know, dating, and popularity, and things like that. But when I had the guitar, I was completely in control. If I put in the time, I’m going to get the result – and there aren’t crazy vectors like the Ku Klux Klan or the angry white dad who can fuck that up.”

After graduating with honors in 1986, Morello packed up his Chevy van and $1,000 in savings and drove out to L.A. to find a band. In search of a day job, he started cold-calling names from the Harvard alumni directory, which led him to Disney head Michael Eisner. “I didn’t know him from Adam,” Morello says. “I just wanted a job in the mailroom. He started asking some probing questions about movies – which, in retrospect, he’d probably produced – and I was very candid: ‘Oh, that was a piece of shit.’ And he tried to talk me into a career as a film executive! I remember he said, ‘Unless you’re Lionel Richie, being a rock star is never going to happen.'”

Despite his Ivy League degree, Morello couldn’t get hired to save his life. He was rejected by the ASPCA, Sears, even – irony alert – Guitar Center. He finally got a job selling trash bags by phone, and later, temp work alphabetizing files. But his best job was what he calls his “foray into the sex trade”: For a few weeks in the late 1980s, Morello was a stripper. “It was, like, three outings, all bachelorette parties,” he says. “You’d knock on the door asking for a cup of sugar, ‘Brick House’ by the Commodores comes on, and bam!” Morello and his roommates used the money to put a “hot tub” in their living room – actually a kiddie pool with a water heater attached. “We were kind of deficient in the romantic category, and we thought, ‘How do guys get dates? Let’s get a hot tub.'” They even bought some women’s swimsuits, in case a girl ever needed to borrow one. “It did not work,” Morello says. “None of it.”

Feeling nostalgic, Morello suggests we drive by some of his old haunts. We hop into his Audi SUV and head east on Sunset, cranking a cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Blind Willie McTell” that he recently recorded for an Amnesty International benefit. He drives past the L.A. apartment where he taught guitar and lived on a food budget of $5 a week; the studio where Rage recorded their second album; the block where he met his wife outside a Mexican restaurant.

After about 45 minutes, Morello is back on Sunset when he notices a ruckus. In front of the Hyatt – the infamous Riot House, where Keith Richards threw a TV out of the window and Robert Plant declared himself a “golden god” – a group of workers are marching in a picket line. Their signs say they’re from the hospitality-workers union Unite Here. “Oh, that’s my shit right there!” Morello says. “You get a flatbed and a P.A., and I’ll be back.” As we pass, he honks his horn.

He parks the car at a hotel down the street, and we head to the patio for a drink. Morello orders a Lagavulin neat, with a Coke back. He’s a big fan of whiskey, but otherwise is chemical-free – he says he’s never even smoked a cigarette. We sit in the sunshine talking about Kenya, family, baseball. Eventually – inevitably – the conversation turns to politics. He mentions the recent labor protests in Wisconsin and the Wall Street bailout. I push him on something, playing devil’s advocate, and he starts to answer, then stops midsentence. “You know what? Let’s go back to that picket line and ask what they think.”

We walk back down Sunset. “The last time I was arrested was at a Unite Here rally in 2006,” he says. “I had to spend a night in jail, and I used my one phone call to call KROQ and tell them where I was.” Before he makes it across the street, two of the organizers – wide-eyed young women just a few years out of school – spot Morello. “Hey!” says the blond one. “Thanks for coming! How’d you hear?”

“I just drove by!” he says. “What’s going on? How can we help?”

They hand him a picket sign – a picture of the Hyatt logo with a frowny face. A couple dozen striking workers, mostly Hispanic, are marching in a circle around the hotel’s driveway. Morello joins them. The marchers are chanting, “Hyatt workers on strike, all day, all night! Don’t check in, check out!”

Eventually one of the organizers realizes Morello’s talents could probably be put to better use, and asks if he wants to play the drums. At one point, she notices a pattern that sounds a lot like a Rage song, and sneaks in a few lines (“The Nina! The Pinta! The Santa! Maria!”) on her bullhorn.

After half an hour, Morello pulls out his BlackBerry and checks the time. “I think I’ve got about three more minutes of militant revolution,” he says, “and then I’ve got to change some diapers.” On the way back up the canyon, Morello gets a phone call. It’s Michael Goldstone, the A&R exec who signed Rage back in the Nineties. “Hey!” Morello says. “I’m driving around. What should we do? [Pause] Yep. Yep. Yep – at least the first week. And then hopefully get him back next week? OK, thank you very much, sir, that’s very wise. Cheers.”

He hangs up. “Sorry,” he says. “Fantasy football.” Turns out he and Goldstone manage a team together – the Red Menace. They play with a bunch of Morello’s college friends in “a complicated, Byzantine league with a bunch of Harvard nerd-niks who spend a lot of time on it.”

Morello has always been a sports fan. As a kid, his dream was to play shortstop for the Cubs. He still loves them so much that he’s been working on a secret plan to win them their first World Series since 1908. “It’s a six-point program,” he says. “It’s very serious, I’ve been interviewing players.” He hopes to unveil it in an open letter to the team’s owners soon.

Then he tells a story about one night a few years ago, right before the 2008 election. It was October, and the Cubs were in the playoffs. He and Eddie Vedder – a fellow Cubs obsessive and outspoken liberal – were hanging out at a birthday party for Tim Robbins when a tough hypothetical came up: If electing a Republican president meant the Cubs were guaranteed to win a World Series, would you take the deal?
Morello says Vedder agonized for a while, but ultimately decided that not even a ring would be worth four years of President McCain. He was a dad, and he had his kids’ future to worry about.

What about Morello, who was, at the time, childless? “For me it was simple,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of shitty presidents. I want my DVD!”

At 11:00 the next morning, the IHOP on Santa Monica is a hotbed of inactivity. A few scraggly diners sit eating their Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruitys in solitude, attended to by a waitress who looks like she’s been pouring coffee since it cost a dime. A card on the table invites customers to JOIN THE PANCAKE REVOLUTION.

Morello sinks into a brown vinyl booth, orders a mushroom-avocado omelet with buttermilk pancakes, and starts breaking down his political philosophy. He used to be an anarchist, “but now I veer away from -isms.” He’s basically a radical progressive – “pro workers’ rights, pro human rights, pro immigrant rights, pro environmental rights, pro animal rights. If there is a guiding North Star, it’s ‘Always stand on the side of the poor and the oppressed, in as uncompromising a way as possible.'”

Which is all well and good. But let’s try some practical questions, to find out where the rubber meets the road.

One of your guitars is famously decorated with the words ‘Arm the Homeless.” Do you literally think that’s a good idea?
[Laughs] In the poetic way that students in Paris in ’68 scrawled slogans on the wall, absolutely. But in a literal sense? I don’t know. We’ve tried a lot of other shit! You think the people with guns are doing such a great job? The cops across the street from that protest were strapped, and I was way more scared of them. Let’s shake it up.

Speaking of violence, you’ve called the financial crisis “the greatest financial crime in history” and advocated storming Wall Street “with pitchforks and torches.” Do you mean that literally, too?
Well, the Frankenstein monster created by Wall Street’s malfeasance deserves to be confronted like a monster. Torpedoing the economy like that is a crime, and it deserves to be fought as such. But I don’t know if I could, like, line Goldman Sachs up against a wall. It’s my nice Midwestern upbringing. The CEO would start talking about his fantasy-football team, and we’d get along famously.

You called George W. Bush a “war criminal.” Does that mean Obama is, too?
It would be hard to argue that he isn’t. All the civilian dead in Pakistan and Afghanistan; continuing Guantanamo. I don’t have the Geneva Convention memorized, but there’s no doubt he’d be on the list.

What about closer to home? You slam corporate fat cats for their “high-thread-count sheets.” What kind of sheets do you sleep on?
[Laughs] You’d have to ask my wife about that one. I do admit that I’m more of a hotel snob than I used to be. But trust me, I’ve stayed at, like, the Blood and Semen Inn all too frequently.

You’re a staunch supporter of unions. What about your sons’ nanny? Is she a union member?
Ooh, good question. We have a housekeeper who is. But the nanny, to the best of my knowledge, is not. That’s something I should inquire about, as a good union employer. That’s a good one!

It’s fun playing “gotcha” with Morello, if only because he’s so hard on himself. It’s that kind of deeply felt conviction that led him to create the Nightwatchman in the first place. About 10 years ago, as Rage wound down, he decided he needed another outlet for his views. He started going to open mic nights, strumming his acoustic guitar at anarchist bike shops and straining to be heard over the latte machine at Jammin’ Java. He jokes that he was like Dylan at Newport, only in reverse.

For a long time, Morello didn’t want to mix his electric-guitar freakouts with his singer-songwriter stuff, out of respect for the folk tradition. But after Bruce Springsteen invited him to shred on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” during some E Street Band shows – including 2009’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anniversary concerts – he reconsidered. “I realized I can do what I do best, which is play electric guitar, and not lose any of the intensity and impact,” Morello says.

Following a stadium blowout in L.A. in August, Morello says Rage have no plans to play together anytime soon. “We text each other,” he says. “[Drummer] Brad [Wilk] and [bassist] Tim [Commerford] have a practice space where they jam, like, every day. Everyone hopes there will be more shows. But people have lives that aren’t just Rage Against the Machine. We have no label, no manager, no attorney – there’s no structure. But when the four of us want to do a thing, and we’re available to do a thing, we’ll do a thing.”

In 1999, Morello boasted that Rage didn’t “play this elitist music for New England coffeehouses. It’s not this kind of political folk music for the converted.” Hearing that quote today, he laughs at the irony: “I’m exclusively playing folk music for the converted. But that’s still time well spent. The converted need a kick in the ass too.”

In the parking lot, Morello is still thinking about the nice-sheets question. “About that purity thing. There’s always a gnawing fear at the back of my mind that I’ll find myself once again – this time with a wife and kids – with $5 a week for food. So while I very much admire the principled austerity of Gandhi or Mother Teresa, unlike them, I haven’t taken a vow of poverty. Rage and Audioslave have made a hell of a lot of money, and while we’ve given a hell of a lot of money away, I feel good about being able to provide for my family. Which is the goal of working people everywhere.”

He puts on his Ray-Bans and unlocks the Audi. “And now, if you’ll excuse me,” he says, “I have to go home and organize my nanny.”

This story is from the October 13th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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