Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) – The Rebel’s Toast
Not surprisingly, given his modern-rock pedigree, Morello wasn’t weaned on Phil Ochs and Joan Baez as an Illinois adolescent. “At that point, anything that wasn’t heavy metal was not on my list,” he says. “Then I discovered punk and hip-hop, and the boundaries were pushed out a little farther.” Still, roots music — of any stripe — was alien territory, strictly Hicksville.
His epiphany came late. Morello, who turns 43 this May, was already in his mid-20s when he tuned into a cable TV broadcast of a 1988 Amnesty International benefit concert featuring Sting, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman. Springsteen was headlining, but, put off by the packaging (and lost on the subtleties) of the Boss’ Born In The USA album, Morello was not a fan. Until that night.
“It could not have been a more moving, exciting, tear-jerking performance,” recalls Morello, who subsequently did some homework at the record store. “Nebraska really opened my eyes to how heavy, and weighty, non-electric guitar music can be. That was my gateway drug.
“Once I realized the potential of that kind of music to push some of the same buttons as the Clash, Public Enemy or Black Sabbath pushed in me, then I was looking up Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.” He progressed to early Dylan and Billy Bragg, and discovered murder ballads far more frightening than the evilest death metal.
Although Morello would not begin writing songs as the Nightwatchman until the dissolution of Rage, in retrospect he can pinpoint hints of what lay ahead. Dylan and Springsteen songs appear on the band’s 2000 all-covers set Renegades, but Morello singles out a version of Devo’s “Beautiful World” as the signpost. “I worked up an arrangement with just acoustic guitar and a minor-key backing track,” he explains. A different rendition of the song ended up being used for Renegades, but the impression had been made.
Fans of Tom Morello, guitar god, may be startled by the simplicity of One Man Revolution. “In my electric guitar playing, I’ve always chorded a wide variety of influences,” he says, “from technical players to noise players, to influences beyond electric guitar, like DJs and animals at the zoo.” For his solo material, he kept the progressions simple, and restricted his palette drastically. “By embracing some limitations, I was able to let my imagination flow all the more freely via the lyrics.”
Literate and bright as he is, Morello did not struggle to remain concise. “I’ve always contributed lyrics to my bands, but writing complete songs was something very new. And I found that it happened in a very non-intellectual way,” he says. “I would have the antenna up, and, in a rush, would write an entire song, and then look back at it and go, ‘Oh, dear…I’m a darker soul than I ever imagined.'”
Morello was born in Harlem but grew up in Libertyville, Illinois. His father, an African diplomat, was not in the home; his mother, a white civil rights activist, raised him single-handedly. “I literally integrated the town of Libertyville,” he says. “I was the first person of color to reside within its borders.”
“On the one hand it was kind of an idyllic suburb to grow up in,” he allows. On the other hand, at 13 he found a noose hanging in the family garage, an incident he references in the new album’s title track. “It was weird, growing up lower middle class, in this little town outside of Chicago, with a picture of my great uncle Jomo Kenyatta [the first elected president of Kenya] on the wall.”
But Libertyville, and “growing up as the only anarchist at a conservative high school, mixed with my love of 7-Eleven parking lot hard rock music,” actually influenced Rage Against The Machine more than the Nightwatchman, Morello estimates. The geographical origins of the latter are in nearby Marseilles, “a little town of closed-down coal mines, withering-away antique stores, and unemployment at the factory,” where his family had roots. “I spent every summer there, growing up. That’s where these songs come from.”
As a youth, he also attended Catholic mass every Sunday. “At the time, I was just squirming to get out and have pancakes and read comic books,” he says. “But I have found, later in life, that those Biblical tales resonate. There is a great power and weight to some of those stories, the allegories woven into them.”
Religious allusions feature prominently throughout One Man Revolution, from “The Garden Of Gethsemane” (the olive grove where Jesus had his moment of doubt) to the apostle Peter’s thrice-denial of Christ (“House Gone Up In Flames”). “There is almost a tone of Old Testament prophesy and warning in some of these songs, mixed with my Marxist leanings,” Morello says.