"I've Never Been Afraid of the Truth on My Records ..."
Thursday, 26 July 2012 11:24
Jason Leopold, Truthout
To read the interview:
Tom Morello proclaims of his World Wide Rebel CD: "Troubled times call out for troubled songs." Receive your copy and support Truthout's mission by making a minimum donation of $25 - or a monthly donation of $15 - to Truthout.
It's hard to believe that November will mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of one of the greatest albums of all time: the self-titled debut by Rage Against the Machine, the Los Angeles-based quartet that fused the radical politics of Detroit's MC5 with elements of rock, rap, thrash, punk, heavy metal and Parliament-era funk and went on to become one of the most influential and commercially successful bands of the 1990s.
I still have a vivid memory of walking into Tower Records on 4th and Broadway in New York City on a Tuesday, the day when record labels release new product, and purchasing a copy of the album on cassette, a decision based solely on the cover art: Malcolm Browne's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sitting in the middle of an intersection in Saigon in 1963, his body engulfed in flames, in a sign of protest against the way Buddhists had been treated by the South Vietnamese government.
The band's name, printed in white typewriter font across four black strips of tape, was positioned below the image of Duc's self-immolation and looked like a cross between a ransom note and a news report from an old copy of The New York Times, and made me feel that there was a sense of extreme urgency to the album's ten tracks.
I tore the cellophane off of the case and popped the cassette it into my Sony Walkman before I exited Tower Records. By the time I got back to my dorm room at New York University, just a few blocks away, "Bombtrack," the opening song on Rage's album, ended, leaving me with an entirely different understanding of what social inequality meant. The other nine songs on the album, particularly the first single, "Killing in the Name," were just as intense - musically and politically - and I credit it with igniting my passion for writing about injustice, a common thread throughout my entire body of work as a journalist over the past 16 years.
Rage Against the Machine did not sound like any other band in 1992. That was largely due to the inventive guitar playing of Tom Morello, who somehow made his axe produce sounds that I mistook for an MC scratching records on a turntable and a number of other instruments until I read the liner notes, which said "no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record." Years later, Morello would be honored as one of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" by Rolling Stone magazine.
In addition to being a vehicle to showcase his musical chops, Morello used his guitar to display social justice messages, such as "Arm The Homeless," whenever the band performed live and, as a privileged white male who grew up in suburban New York during an era that was dominated by hair metal and decadence, it was an overtly political statement I had not previously seen before from any of the artists I had worshipped.
Morello was my new role model.
Sixteen million album sales and two decades later, Morello is still speaking truth to power and inspiring a new generation of activists. In 2002, he formed the nonprofit organization Axis of Justice with Serj Tankian, vocalist for metal outfit System of a Down, which aims "to build a bridge between fans of music around the world and local political organizations to effectively organize around issues of peace, human rights and economic justice."
Morello said racist and fascist imagery he saw being openly displayed by audience members at the Ozzfest music festival in 2002 was the catalyst behind the formation of the organization and the group sets up, free of charge, Axis of Justice tents for touring artists, if they request it, to promote social justice issues. Morello and Tankian also co-host the "Axis of Justice" radio show on Pacifica's Los Angeles affiliate, KPFK.
After Morello's second band, the multiplatinum, hard rock (apolitical) super group Audioslave, broke up in 2007 he started recording albums under the moniker "The Nightwatchman" and reinvented himself as a "black Woody Guthrie," he told Truthout in an interview, armed only with an acoustic guitar and his deep baritone voice. He sang songs about corporate greed, class war and workers' rights.
But on his fourth Nightwatchman album, "World Wide Rebel Songs," released last summer, Morello plugged back in. Supported by a full electric backing band called the Freedom Fighting Orchestra, Morello has described World Wide Rebel Songs as "troubled songs for troubled times."
"I wanted to capture a vibe midway between Johnny Cash and Che Guevara, murder ballads and Molotov cocktails," he said.
But World Wide Rebel Songs is far from another protest record, despite song titles such as "Union Town" and "God Help Us All." It's Morello's most personal album to date.
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