Tom Morello

Friday, November 14, 2003

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov.14, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.

Tom Morello: [Plays guitar and sings] “It’s in the grain of the wood. / It’s in the needle’s rust. / It’s in the eagle’s claw. / It’s in the eyes you trust. / It’s in the jackal’s dreams. / It’s in the sleet and the hail. / It’s in the unmarked box that came today in the mail. / It’s in the dead man’s pocket. / It’s in the child’s first sin. / It’s in the Constitution written in very small print. / It’s in Colin Powell’s lies. / It’s in the shaman’s trance. / It’s in the cellar waiting, and it’s in the best-laid plans. / Now, we could cut and run, take half the blame. / Don’t stop now. That’s why we came. / House gone up in flames. / It’s in the national anthem. / It’s in the scurrying roach. / It’s in the closed partition between first class and coach. / It’s in the relentless fever. / It’s in the lonely room. / It’s in the hands of fate. / It’s in the pharaoh’s tomb. / It’s in the rich man’s dreams. / It’s in the poor man’s hands. / It’s in the body bags along the Rio Grande. / It’s in the evening shade. / It’s on the zealot’s tongue. / It’s in the widow’s tears. / It’s in the miner’s lungs. / Now, we could cut and run, take half the blame. / Now, don’t stop now. That’s why we came. / House gone up in flames. / It’s in the moon’s dark spin. / It’s in the cloudless sky. / It’s in St. Peter’s denial that he’d thrice deny. / It’s in the distant thunder. / It’s in the whispered prayer / that they won’t find us hidden here beneath the stairs. / So consider yourself lucky, and watch what you say. / I got what I wanted, and you might get the same. / It’s in bold print nailed to the cathedral door. / It’s in the black, cold pressure on the ocean floor. / Now, we could cut and run, take half the blame. / Don’t stop now. That’s why we came. / Oh, Lord, house gone up in flames.”

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’re joined by a founding member of Rage Against the Machine and now Audioslave, a man who has used his music to help build awareness, Tom Morello. Welcome.

Morello: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Paulson: Now, that was yet another identity. You’ve been a member of two terrific bands, and, and yet, if people see you on this current tour, they’re introduced to you as The Nightwatchman.

Morello: Yeah, well, The Nightwatchman is my political folk persona that endeavors to be the, the black Woody Guthrie, but I’ll settle for Tom Joad.

Paulson: Well, that’s a pretty good aspiration. If you accomplish being the black Woody Guthrie, that’s something.

Morello: That’s something. Well, you know, I figure, I figure you raise the bar high.

Paulson: That is. You know, it’s remarkable, the success of Rage Against the Machine because it is an overtly rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ roll, political rock and roll band. I mean, it is, it is hard rock, but it’s also hard sentiments —

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: — and, and you look at the history of rock and roll, there are very few examples of that. You’ve got, you know, Chuck D and Public Enemy. You’ve got The Clash.

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: But those are few and far between. Why is that?

Morello: I’m not sure. I think it begins with — at any given time, there are probably a lot of bands who express political sentiments through their music. They don’t, they don’t always reach the top of the charts, however. I think the bands you cited – Public Enemy and The Clash – had something in common with Rage Against the Machine. That was they had a great musical chemistry to begin with, and that’s a potent way to deliver whatever message you put on top of it, whether it’s love songs or it’s political songs. I think it has to start with playing great music.

Paulson: And Rage Against the Machine played a lot of events where there was a heavy-metal lineup —

Morello: Yeah, yeah.

Paulson: — and some of those Ozzfest events were not always compatible with your political beliefs. I think you’ve talked about seeing skinheads and —

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: — people who have sort of a white-supremacy agenda at those, and, and what is it about hard rock that would foster that kind of mentality?

Morello: Well, I think hard rock fosters different mentalities, and one of the reasons I think bands like Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down, other bands like that, are important is that, you know, this is my music, too. And, and actually, the year when I saw some of the skinhead people at the, at the Ozzfest was the year when, on the main stage, every band had a multi-ethnic lineup, you know, and the face of hard rock music has changed dramatically, and it’s become much more, you know, it’s a — there are more hues in the hard rock rainbow than there, than there once were. And, you know, and so I think it’s important to have that kind of diversity of opinions expressed on the stage, expressed on the concourse that you see, you know, expressed in the music, and that reflects an audience of diverse opinions.

Paulson: And, and to be clear, we don’t want to stereotype hard rock or heavy metal fans.

Morello: Yeah. Yeah.

Paulson: They are as diverse as the population.

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: But typically, at singer-songwriter events with people raising matches, they’re not skinheads.

Morello: Yes. Yes. That’s one of the reasons why bands that play harder rock music that contain a political message, I think, are that much more important. With Rage Against the Machine, we really cast the nets wide, and there are many people who were drawn to the music because of the music, and then later, were listening to the lyrics and found they were very different from the lyrics in the rest of their record collection. I mean, I see every day, you know — walking out of the studio today, there’ll be two or three kids will come up to me and say, “Thank you for turning me on to this issue, that issue” or “helping me to look beyond your songs to see what I think about my — what’s going on in my workplace, my community, my country, and the world.”

Paulson: Now, Audioslave is a brand-new band —

Morello: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: — with some, some common elements but not as overtly political.

Morello: Yeah. Yeah.

Paulson: Will that change, do you think, in time?

Morello: I think that – like we were talking about earlier – I think that the first step for any band to be compelling is, it has to be artistic — artistically compelling. And how that happens is, it develops organically. Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden developed unique styles of music because the chemistry of the individual musicians blossomed into that. It was exactly the same with Audioslave. We had no preconceived notions. We didn’t try to shoehorn the new band into the old shoes. We just let it happen naturally, and I think that’s why it was so satisfying for us to play and so satisfy — you know, and why people gravitated, gravitated towards it as well. For me, there was — because I still have my political opinions like I always have, and it’s been important to me via the thing I do for a living, music, to get them out, to find a way to do that. And that’s when Serj Tankian and myself formed Axis of Justice, which is an exclusively political organization, nonprofit political organization, to do the grassroots organizing. While Audioslave was no longer singing about it, the band was very supportive of this real-life political entity.

Paulson: Well, we do want to talk about Axis of Justice, but I’m curious about something. You’re almost a feature writer’s fantasy performer in that you can write about your background, and it’s like — what an amazing story. This, this is a gentleman whose parents both stood up for individual liberties. You were raised in a home clearly with respect and, and — for civil rights and equality. You go to Harvard. You get a terrific education. Then you join a rock and roll band.

Morello: The typical, the typical “a” to “b” to “c” that lands you in this chair.

Paulson: There’s a made-for-TV movie in there somewhere. Could you talk about your parents though and their early commitment and how that affected you?

Morello: Sure. I didn’t grow up with my dad, but my mom and dad met in Kenya, where my father was part of the Mau Mau independence struggle against the British, and they were married there, but I was born in New York City. They were divorced. He moved back to Kenya. He was part of Kenya’s first United Nations delegation. He moved back to Kenya, and she moved back to the small town in Illinois where she grew up, and that’s where I grew up as well. And, you know, well, I had dad’s picture around the house and pictures of Jomo Kenyatta and, you know, Kwame Nkrumah and people like that around the house. It was really sort of — the political upbringing I got in my own household, which I thought was very natural until I got out into the, you know, the world at large and went to school and discovered the prevalent opinions were very different than the ones discussed in my house. People would sometimes ask, you know, “How is it — how did you become a political person?” And I think that the first answer is, the one that’s maybe too obvious is, “I grew up black in America.” I grew up in — I integrated Libertyville, Illinois. I was the first person of color to live in Libertyville. And this was 1965. My mother was looking for public high school teaching jobs. The schools would say, you know, “You’re a great teacher. You’re very qualified. We would love to have you teach here, but you’re an interracial family” — she had a one-year-old, brown-skinned child — “and so you have to live, you know, in the ghetto two towns over,” right? Libertyville was — appropriately titled town — was the first community that would allow her to work there and us to live there in peace. Still then, they had to go door to door, and ask the — the real estate agent had to ask the people in the apartment building if it was cool, and I think that I got by on my Kenyan credentials more than any — more than anything else. And, so, I think that’s a very politicizing thing. When you step out onto that playground, there’s — issues come up — came up for me which might not if I’d grown up in an entirely black neighborhood or white neighborhood. And that — and then when I, you know, went to high school, I was blessed with having a circle of friends who were, who were thinkers and, you know, were willing to sort of challenge what we saw around us, and I was involved in a number of things from underground school newspapers to picking up a guitar and discovering bands like The Clash and rock and roll music and how that could be sort of an ice pick, you know, to, to swing against the establishment.

Paulson: Rage Against the Machine has had critics because you take stands. But I think the most surprising censorship, if you will, of Rage Against the Machine came at the hands of Clear Channel.

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: After the tragic events of September 11th, what we had was, in the account from the company — we’ll just give them the benefit of the doubt, here — a group of employees deciding nationwide that they really ought to spread the word about some music that should no longer be played on Clear Channel. Now, Clear Channel is a media giant. They own more radio stations than anybody.

Morello: Over 1,000 stations.

Paulson: They control everything — concerts, you name it. And all over this company came this list of more than 100 songs that said, “You know, we really shouldn’t play these songs after September 11th.” What was unique, as I understand it, about Rage Against the Machine is, they pretty much banned all of your music.

Morello: They didn’t pretty much ban all of our music. It was the one artist that was singled out. The entire catalog was singled out for, for censorship. And just to give you an idea of how ridiculous it was, some of the songs on the list included John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and the Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” So, that’s — the darts were being thrown in the dark, you know, against us.

Paulson: So, what was your reaction when you hear that, basically, Rage Against the Machine is public enemy number one —

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: — in the eyes of Clear Channel?

Morello: Well, well, I mean, there was a small bit of pride, but I think — but it could be, it could be construed — misconstrued. There was certainly nothing in the Rage Against the Machine canon that was supportive of the terrorist events that happened. They just — I think it gave someone the opportunity in the upper echelons of Clear Channel who didn’t like the band’s politics to do what they’d been longing to do for a while, and that’s just completely ban them from the radio. It’s interesting: when we got a hold of the list, you know, we were aghast, and our attorney called them up and said, “There’s this list.” They said, “There’s no such list.” So, we faxed it to them. They went, “Oh, that list. Oh, that list. Oh.” You know, stammered excuses after that. But I think that what it highlights is not that, you know, specifically Clear Channel is this, you know, evil perpetrator of censorship – which they may or may not be – on, on a daily basis, but it highlights the issue of media consolidation and how dangerous it is to the First Amendment and how dangerous it is to democracy, because the Tell Us the Truth tour, which we’re on now, is highlighting that and how media consolidation basically means that a few massive corporations will control all of what you see and hear on TV and radio and print, and that severely narrows the number of gatekeepers who control political discourse and the arts. And that can mean, like, a band who has controversial opinions, despite the fact they’ve sold 15 million records, and they have fans in all these markets, immediately overnight disappears from the radio because of the ideas contained in their songs. That’s something that’s very dangerous.

Paulson: And you see, even when it didn’t involve the songs, the Dixie Chicks disappeared from —

Morello: Right.

Paulson: — Cumulus Broadcasting —

Morello: Right.

Paulson: — for a month entirely, not because of their music.

Morello: Right, right.

Paulson: Is, is that something that a generation can turn around? I mean, it’s intriguing to me that young people, who are so fluent in technology and can turn to the Internet —

Morello: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: — for ideas, wouldn’t you think that would be the antidote for media consolidation, that in fact, just at your computer, there’s this world of different voices?

Morello: Right, right. Well, it certainly can. I mean, there are a lot of people who can’t afford computers, though. And one thing I don’t think that people realize clearly, which is that the public — the airwaves belong to the public. Television, radio, et cetera, belong to you and me, and that is — and they should reflect us in the opinions. And we’re finding that, you know, ten years ago, there were as few as 50 corporations that controlled most of the major media outlets in the country. Today, it’s six. And you would expect, with — if any group, any narrow group controlled, say, all the television companies in the country, whether it was casinos that owned them or sports teams or churches, that there’d be a, there’d be a bias. Well, we should expect the same sort of bias that major corporations own these stations. I think what you’re seeing more and more now is that there is not a conservative bias in the media. There’s not a liberal bias in the media. There’s a corporate bias in the media. Doesn’t matter if the individual commentator is, you know, right wing, left wing, or Debra Winger. Makes no difference. If it’s not serving the corporate agenda, then it’ll be pulled from the air.

Paulson: And, and the corporate agenda, to be clear, is really making a buck, I mean —

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: — so, so the bias is against rocking the boat.

Morello: That’s correct. That’s correct. And it’s making a buck, broadly speaking. If that means not reporting on globalization issues, that hurts American families because those are profitable. There’s a lot of corporate — mega-corporate back-scratching that goes on. You know, and the war in Iraq is another instance, as well. It’s reported in a way that’s — is pro-corporate, and that’s not necessarily pro-people.

Paulson: Do you see a new generation of performers like Rage Against the Machine? Are there people out there that you look at and go, “That was me ten years ago”?

Morello: Well, you see, you see now — I mean, in the last year or something, there’s been a real kind of galvanizing of the troops and in the, in the punk community and the hip-hop community. And then stalwarts like Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and The Nightwatchman, you know, are, are getting out there, you know, and speaking up, and I don’t think that — like I said before, at any given time, you have a number of people speaking up about these political issues. I think they’re really finding an ear now because of the tremendous amount of dissatisfaction. I think a lot of Americans are seeing through the, you know, the deceit and the propaganda that is foisted down their throats, and they’re looking for answers in other places, and they just don’t buy, frankly, what they see on the Fox news network, and they shouldn’t. But it’s — I think it’s more important now than ever for artists to voice their opinions. As the, as the gates narrow for us to have those opinions, be able to get out there.

Paulson: Of course, in this country, we’ve got this gift in the First Amendment. We can say what we want and face a backlash, or we may not be on the radio, but at least, your voice can be heard somewhere. You had a trip to Mexico City that I wanted to hear about, I guess in about ’99 with Rage —

Morello: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Paulson: — Against the Machine. And, and you were taking a distinctly anti-government —

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: — anti-Mexican government stance and in fact, had a rebel leader, as I understand, introduce the concert. There is no First Amendment to protect you there. Did you have any second thoughts about speaking out?

Morello: We did have — well, I don’t know if we had second thoughts. We were gonna speak out, regardless of the consequences. At the end of the day, you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and be able to say, “Today, to the best of my ability, I did the right thing.” So even though the, the, the Mexican military had said — we were in support of the Zapatistas and their struggle for indigenous rights and the rights of Mexican workers. And they said, “Whatever you do, you may not mention the Zapatistas during the concert. You do not enjoy free speech rights here, and you must not do it, or we’ll shut down the show.” So, we had Subcomandante Marcos, one of the Zapatista leaders, introduce the band after giving sort of a very powerful speech to the, to the crowd there, and, you know, there was some ensuing scuffling and whatnot. But, I think, at the end of the day, I think the most important thing, whether it’s in your home, whether it’s in your place of work, your community, your country, or what you see going on in the world, is to have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, because the, the powers that be want you to be cowed into submission. They want you to sit alone, you know, watching your 5,000 channels of cable TV and to feel that you’re isolated. One of the most important things that music can do is make people feel that they’re not isolated. When I got my Clash albums, I thought I was alone in my opinions about U.S. policy in Central America. I’m like, “Holy smokes, there’s these guys halfway around the world who have this opinion that I share, and there seems to be a big audience at this concert that shares the same opinion.” That kind of solidarity, I think, is a good starting point.

Paulson: A lot of people who are watching this probably have you pegged as a member of one political party rather than another, and yet you showed up outside the Democratic National Convention with Rage Against the Machine. Made a lot of noise, raised a lot of awareness, raised a lot of hell.

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: You’re an equal-opportunity protester, I guess.

Morello: Absolutely. Well, I mean, I think that the reason why 50% — more than 50% of Americans stay home on presidential election day is because they don’t believe that either of the two corporate-sponsored parties really, you know, support their interests. I think if, you know — money really — the gatekeeper in politics is money. I worked for two years as the scheduling secretary for U.S. Senator Alan Cranston. And while he’s probably the most progressive member – one of the top five most progressive members to ever sit in the United States Senate – he did have to spend most of his time asking rich people for money, and, at the end of the day, that money’s not free. And, you know, the, the needs of Americans, whether it be universal health care, decent housing and jobs for everybody, a clean environment, are things that everyone can get behind. But those are not the positions that are going to get you hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate sponsorship for an election.

Paulson: Although you have a, a clear agenda of your own — you have strong political feelings — Axis of Justice, although it, again, does have kind of a foundation, a lot of it is just about information and, and, and giving young people and others the information they need to make up their minds.

Morello: Right.

Paulson: That’s by design?

Morello: Yeah, absolutely. At, a-x-i-s, which is the website of the organization, we provide an alternate news service about local and world events, so people can make up their own minds. It’s very different. It’s an unfiltered news service. We draw from a wide variety of sources so people can read about the issues and make up their own minds what they think about them. And we also provide an opportunity for them to get active. For ten years in Rage Against the Machine, kids asked me, “How do I get involved? I’m motivated by your music,” or “I’m motivated by what I see going on, but I feel isolated and alone.” At Axis of Justice, no matter where you live — if you live in Huntsville, Alabama, there’s — you click on Huntsville. If you’re interested in the environment or peace issues, et cetera, you can get involved today.

Paulson: And what kind of response are you getting?

Morello: Oh, tremendous. It’s been unbelievable. I mean, this year, we brought the Axis of Justice installation out to Lollapalooza, and it was probably the most educationally intense 20×20 space that’s ever gone out on a concert tour. And, if we had one problem, it was we didn’t have enough literature to give away to the tens of thousands of people that came through. And the website, too, is doing, is doing amazing. I think it provides a watering hole for music fans, fans of rock and rap music, who are maybe drawn there because they like the bands that are involved or whatever, to really get involved, and I think that’s an important building block.

Paulson: And, of course, that was not unusual in the ’60s.

Morello: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: The politics and the music were very much together —

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: — but they’ve moved apart —

Morello: Yeah.

Paulson: — and you see it flowering now that —

Morello: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there are a number of other musician-sponsored organizations as this election year gets under way who are doing work, whether it’s against a particular political candidate or, you know, organizing around grass-roots issues, and I see it really growing. I think that’s a very healthy thing.

Paulson: I’m sure you face some criticism as a celebrity, prominent person who takes political stands, people saying, “Why are you shooting your mouth off? Why are you better off than anybody else?” What’s your response?

Morello: Well, I mean, there’s a couple responses. One is, I think a lot of that — those accusations came from conservative pundits until Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California, and all of a sudden, that dial got turned off right, right away. I mean, first of all, when you pick up a guitar, you don’t put down your First Amendment rights, and, and I would love to hear more on – whether it’s the Fox news network, CNN – the people who are being hurt by globalization: the families who are being destroyed because their, you know, sons or daughters are not coming back from Iraq; the Iraqi families who are being destroyed by what’s going on over there. If they ask me to be on the show, I’m gonna tell ‘em what, tell ‘em what I think. I also think that musicians maybe have a unique perspective with regards to the issues of media consolidation. We get to see different kinds of media around the globe and how it functions and how it affects those societies. We also get to see the, the effects that corporate globalization can have around the globe and the poverty it can cause and the way that it hurts working families here and in Guatemala and in, and in Poland, and so I think it gives us a unique perspective. And — but, regardless, I think that the, you know, cameraman and the, you know, person making lunch, their opinions are just as valid, as valid as Colin Powell’s on any of these issues.

Paulson: Do you find yourself doing a lot of homework? I mean, if you’re going to speak out, don’t you feel like you have to be prepared?

Morello: Yeah, I look at it less as homework than just trying to be informed about what’s going on to help myself make up my mind about what I think about the issues of the day.

Paulson: Now, you’ve, you’ve taken a lot of courageous stands, but I think the toughest stance you’ve ever taken is that you’re a Cub fan.

Morello: Yeah, well, I support a lot of underdogs, and there is no underdog so in need as the Chicago Cubs, my dear Chicago Cubs.

Paulson: As a lifelong White Sox fan, I commiserate.

Morello: Yeah, you share some of the pain.

Paulson: We’ve got a couple of minutes left. I wonder if we could get The Nightwatchman back once more.

Morello: Sure, fantastic. This song is called — actually, the, a friend of mine just got back from Iraq. He was a reporter for KPFK. And while he was there, he asked literally hundreds of Iraqi people of all walks of life what they thought about the current situation, and to a man, woman, and child, they said, “We want America to get the hell out of here.” Then, he spoke with dozens of American soldiers from various walks of life and classes, backgrounds, and whatnot, and ranks, and to a man and woman, they said — you know, he asked them what they want, and they said, “We want to get the hell out of here.” And, so, while President Bush says that he’s spreading democracy in the Middle East, it’s my suspicion that he’s spreading something else, and this song is called “No One Left.” [Plays and sings] “Each one had a father. There’s no one left. / A name and a mother. / No one left. / Each one had a dream, a prayer on their breath. / The world’s gone black. / No one left. / On the streets of Manhattan, / a dusty wind blows / letters and wishes, / a girl with a rose. / On the streets of Baghdad, / a dusty wind blows / letters and wishes, / a girl with a rose. / Each one had a father. / There’s no one left. / A name and a mother. / No one left. / Each one had a dream, / a prayer on their breath. / The world’s gone black. / No one left. / Fire and vengeance / in the New York sky above / stole my angel, / stole my true love. / Fire and vengeance / in the Baghdad sky above / stole his angel, / stole his true love. / Each one had a father. / There’s no one left. / A name and a mother. / No one left. / Each one had a dream, / a prayer on their breath. / The world’s gone black. / No one left. / I stand out on my front porch. / I look up at the sky. / Will my world go black / in the blink of an eye? / He stands out in the desert. / He looks up at the sky. / Will his world go black / in the blink of an eye? / Each one had a father. / There’s no one left. / A name and a mother. / No one left. / Each one had a dream, / a prayer on their breath. / The world’s gone black. / No one left. / Each one had a wish. / Each one had a home. / Each one had a name, / a name and a rose.”