Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) – The Rebel’s Toast
“I know that my experience with groups like the Clash or Public Enemy was absolutely pivotal in making me feel less alone with my political opinions — that there was hope beyond the stifling suburb that I lived in.”
Four and a half years ago, the artist known as the Nightwatchman found himself in a quandary. He had composed a sheaf of dark, primal protest songs, but was unsure what to do with them. Aside from a couple chorus parts in high school musicals, he had never sung for an audience before. Would anyone want to hear what he had to say?
“When I started writing these songs, I knew it was material that I very much believed in,” the songwriter recalls. “But I did not have the faith to sing them myself.”
Stumped, he turned to a colleague who worked in the music business. “I went on over to his house, and sang him twelve or fifteen of them. He said, ‘You sing fine, you just don’t have any experience. You need to get out there and do it. So I played a hundred shows.”
At coffeehouses and dive bars, on open mike nights and bottom-of-the-bill warm-up slots, he honed his act. He tested it throughout his home base of Los Angeles, and even on the road, when travel for work called him out of town. “And through the course of that, I found a way to make my voice an effective instrument for what I’m trying to do,” he reveals.
The Nightwatchman doesn’t have the smoothest vocal timbre. His voice is gruff and low, reminiscent of Johnny Cash, or Leonard Cohen, or Springsteen at his most despondent. “I know I’m not going to win ‘American Idol’, and they may not ask me to sing on Broadway,” he concedes. But the practice paid off. His voice now commands attention, riveting the ear to the thirteen rousing songs of his debut album, One Man Revolution (released April 24 on Epic Records).
The footnote? The friend who advised the Nightwatchman to start singing onstage is multiple Grammy-winning producer and industry maverick Rick Rubin. Our hero’s day job is playing electric guitar, first for platinum-selling modern rock quartet Rage Against the Machine, then for its spinoff supergroup Audioslave. The world knows this once-reluctant troubadour as Tom Morello.
And this is how he became the Nightwatchman…
“I made the conscious decision that I was going to make an album the day after the 2004 election,” Morello says. He didn’t get around to it until 2006, when he cranked out it out over a four-day burst with producer Brendan O’Brien. But the gears were set in motion even before the first George Bush took office.
“From the time I was writing for an underground high school newspaper at 16, I’ve encouraged others to have a voice, speak out, and to use whatever power is at their command to strike a blow for social justice.” Having found his own voice in the 21st century, he decided it was time to raise it. “I took my own damn advice.”
A graduate of Harvard with a degree in social studies, Morello articulates his thoughts succinctly, with heat, humor, and a generous sprinkling of citations. “As the poet laureate of the early 20th-century working class, Joe Hill, said, ‘A pamphlet or a book is read only once, but a song is sung again and again,'” he reflects. “I know that my experience with groups like the Clash or Public Enemy was absolutely pivotal in making me feel less alone with my political opinions — that there was hope beyond the stifling suburb that I lived in.”
Throughout the 1990s, Morello’s band Rage Against The Machine, played a similar, crucial role in bringing politics to pop. Using hit songs and videos such as “Freedom”, “Killing In The Name” and “Guerilla Radio”, they focused attention on causes including sweatshop labor, reproductive rights, and the plights of Leonard Peltier and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Singer Zack De La Rocha was the primary mouthpiece, but Morello attracted much attention for his innovative electric guitar playing. After De La Rocha left Rage Against The Machine in 2000, the remaining trio recruited former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell and continued as Audioslave.