I Fought the Law...
Last year, police officers boycotted two shows on Rage Against the Machine’s US tour in protest at the band’s support of convicted “cop killer” Mumia Abu-Jamal. For the first time, guitarist Tom Morello is ready to talk about the day his band went to war with the American establishment.
From Kerrang! Magazine January 29, 2000 issue
Words: Joshua Sindell Photos: Lisa Johnson
The LAPD patrol car rolls slowly across the nearly empty car park. Overhead, in the Los Angeles night skies, a police helicopter buzzes like an angry hornet. Tom Morello watches calmly as the cop car makes its way toward him, with the vehicle’s spotlight switched on and trained squarely on him.
The Rage Against the Machine guitarist is standing half a kilometer from the gate to the West Coast headquarters of CBS, one of the “big four” American television networks. Taking into account his band’s proclivity for grand political insurrection, you could almost imagine that Morello’s on some reconnaissance mission for a guerrilla maneuver. But once the officers inside the car have taken a cursory look at what simply appears to be a man with a baseball cap being photographed with his guitar, the car turns off its lights and drives on, continuing its search for whatever or whoever it is they’re after.
Had the cops recognized Morello as a member of the band recently denounced by the National President of the Fraternal Order of Police – who called for a boycott of all companies associated with Rage Against the Machine – well, who’s to say what might have happened on this January evening?
“Basically, it’s this right wing, fringe police organization which has recently gotten into the artist censorship business,” says Morello, rolling his eyes and shaking his head in amazement.
The guitarist describes the events that took place in Worcester, Massachusetts just before Christmas, where 300 off-duty policemen showed up to picket Rage’s concert and to protest against the band’s outspoken support of the man accused of killing a policeman Mumia Abu-Jamal. “We figured that since they weren’t busy serving and protecting the community, which our tax dollars pay for, then they should at least be well-fed,” grins Morello. “So we sent them 300 Krispy Kreme donuts.” Tom Morello is an extremely likable, eloquent man, with an easy manner and a large vocabulary. Over a dinner of sushi at an elegant West Hollywood eatery, the Harvard University graduate conveys his intelligence in quick bursts, answering questions almost before they’ve been put to him. Ask him about his band’s music and he’ll cheerfully talk all night. Ask him about the widespread rumors of inter-band friction and he’ll quickly let you know it’s not something he’s willing to divulge.
“I just find it boring,” he says with a slight frown. “It’s not unique among rock bands to find the occasional dissension within the band. Yes, it is part of the story – sometimes it’s a big part. But compared to the music we make and causes that we pursue, the personality of the band beyond that… it’s not so interesting. Does anybody care if Dokken got along or not?”
“We had a great time on this last US tour,” he continues, brightening slightly. “Everything really came together. We got acclimatized to rocking arenas.”
Whatever you might think of their politics and sloganeering, the indisputable fact is that Rage Against the Machine do indeed rock like few others. This is nowhere more evident on their third album, “The Battle of Los Angeles”, which finds Zack de la Rocha, Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk at an earth-shaking peak. Yet it’s their support of Mumia Abu-Jamal that has garnered the band the sort of headlines that shriek as loudly as Zack in full flight. Currently residing in a Pennsylvania jail cell, prize-winning journalist Mumia was sentenced to be executed in 1982 for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Rage have performed two fund-raisers for Mumia’s legal defense; one in 1995 and another in New Jersey last January. Bad Religion and the Beastie Boys have joined Rage in their attempt to publicize what they consider a miscarriage of justice.
“We first got involved when the Pennsylvania governor signed the death warrant for Mumia in 1995,” remembers Morello. “The Fraternal Order of Police seems to think that a fair trial isn’t necessary before one executes a person. I think that in their heart of hearts, they know the truth. Anyone with a surface understanding of the case knows that there’s a lot of funny business going on.”
“There was a death warrant signed for December 2 and due, in large measure to national and international outcry, there was a stay of execution granted,” explains Morello. “The judge found merit in Mumia’s lawyers’ claim that there were up to 29 constitutional violations in the initial trial and that it deserves further review.”
The guitarist admits that he’s not certain what will happen next, aside from on-going protests that will continue in many US cities in the coming months.
“What we’ve been waiting for it to get it out of Pennsylvania. It’s no longer at the state level, it’s now in the Federal Government, where a judge is appointed for life. He doesn’t have to answer to local police pressure. It’s the best chance for a new and fair trial.” “As Zack would point out from the stage,” he continues, “it’s obvious that the Order weren’t afraid of our band or our music. They were afraid of our audience, that people might be listening. That’s why they tried to boycott Rage Against the Machine. And their boycott was an abject failure.”
Morello is no stranger to boycotts. In December 1997, he was arrested as part of a demonstration in Santa Monica, California, where he and his co-protesters were attempting to raise awareness of the poor working conditions employed at the time by the clothing company Guess?. “It was a good day’s work,” he says, down-playing his own role in the scenario. “Break into the shopping mall, block the Robinsons May Store, get arrested, spend the day in jail. Still the end result did generate a lot of press, and the boycott was successful.”
“But I want to state that it was not my involvement, nor Rage Against the Machine’s involvement, that made it successful,” he says firmly. “It was the garment workers’ hard slog. In a small way, we helped to publicize their struggle for justice and dignity in the workplace.” Prior to this week’s visit to the UK for their high-profile Wembley show, the members or Rage Against the Machine are scattered to the wind and enjoying the time off. As Morello consumes his dinner, Zack de la Rocha is at a hip hop party a few miles away at LA’s El Rey Theater. Brad Wilk was last seen three days ago at a Foo Fighters concert at the Palace in Hollywood, while Tim Commerford’s whereabouts are, for now, unknown.
For his part, Morello has been cruising in his 1971 Dodge Demon “muscle car” and monitoring the progress of his favorite American football team, the St. Louis Rams. Indeed, he’s only just returned from watching the team play in their hometown, where they won a playoff game that sent them to the finals of the Super Bowl.
Of course, music and politics are the two main thrusts of the guitarist’s life. Born in Harlem, New York, he was raised in a radical environment. His Kenyan father and American mother were politically motivated and active in civil rights and free speech battles. The couple separated when Morello was young, after which he and his mother moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a suburban community an hour north of Chicago.
Unlike some children born to activist parents, Morello didn’t grow up a rebel in an attempt to emulate his parents. Instead, he discovered the writings of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale – founders of the radical ‘60s party the Black Panthers.
“One thing that appealed to me about the Panthers was that it wasn’t just an African Nationalist organization,” elaborates Tom. “It was about the underlying problems of economic injustice and the ‘divide and rule’ kind of thing. How, if you keep poor blacks, whites, Chicanos, Koreans, or whoever, at one another’s throats, they’re not going to realize whose boot it is on the collective neck. It was Newton and Seale who kind of opened my eyes to that.”
“In my own way, I was a rebellious kid,” he continues. “But what I had to rebel against was simple: I was a black leftist in a white, conservative town. I integrated the town! There was only one black person: me. And that was the way it was until my first years of school when there were two black kids in a town of 14,000.”
Libertyville wasn’t the most tolerant of places to live. Morello tells of how his mother, a teacher, was told that because of her interracial family, she would not be allowed to live in the same town in which she taught school.
Occasionally Mary Morello would find Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia in her office and, most disturbingly, a noose hung in her garage. Despite these horrors, Tom quickly made friends and applied himself in school, writing for his high school newspaper. He played his Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, and Kiss albums over and over. Still, he didn’t pick up a guitar until the age of 17, forcing himself to learn by practicing for up to eight hours a day.
“People were really worried about me,” he says in all seriousness. “I felt that I was desperately behind. All of my favorite guitar players had started 10 years younger than I had, so I just practiced obsessively. It was very unhealthy – and I say that without smiling.” Graduating with a degree in Social Studies from America’s foremost institution of higher education, Boston’s Harvard University, Morello decided to pursue a very un-Harvard like career: rock guitarist. “O announced when I was 19 that I was planning on squandering my degree, or using it in the most peripheral sense in becoming a musician,” he says. “And my Mom was wholly supportive of my decision. I moved out here with a thousand bucks in my pocket, which I spent on my first apartment on the corner of Normandie and Santa Monica Boulevard.” Morello wanted to use his academic background by working as a substitute teacher, but found no luck in the Los Angeles School District. Desperate, he eventually found work at the office of liberal California State Senator Alan Cranston.
“He was probably as progressive a guy who’d ever been in the Senate,” comments Morello of the elected official, whose opposition to nuclear power made him a hero to American activists. “But mostly, I just needed a job. He was a decent guy, but so much of that job was being on the phone asking rich guys for money. I’d drive around with him, handing him phones: ‘Here’s the billionaire from Texas, here’s the billionaire from Hawaii.”
That job lasted two and a half years, until Morello’s funk metal band, Lock Up, were signed by Geffen Records. The group released one album (that flopped) and were dropped from the label soon afterwards. “Lock Up never had the opportunity to have the kind of platform of Rage,” he says. “I don’t think the record we made was at all representative of the good live band that we were. But were it not for those experiences, such as being signed to Geffen, or calling up Brad Wilk’s ad in ‘Music Connection’ magazine when Lock Up fired out drummer, there would never have been a Rage Against the Machine.”
Tom Morello has become the public face of Rage, tirelessly doing interview after interview in the wake of lyricist Zack de la Rocha’s reticence to speak with the press. But Morello waves off the theory that he’s the most business-oriented band member.
“None of us are particularly good businessmen,” he grins. “We have trained experts in the field handling that sort of thing.”
“Lately as a foursome, we’ve been very self-motivated. We’ve gone out and fought for this record, you know? We’ll see, in the next year or so, what opportunities come up.”
Still, Morello admits that his work ethic remains the same from the days when he’d lock himself in his room at university for hours at a time, hunched over the six strings.
“For better or worse, I’m tireless at promoting Rage’s music and ideals, whether that means I’m doing press or whatever. We just did these promo tours to the four corners of the globe, 12-hour days, followed by a flight to Poland at the end. I don’t know if I enjoy it, but it’s kinda part of my makeup.”
Do you resent being forced to voice Zack’s ambitions and aims?
“I feel pretty comfortable doing rock n’ roll interviews,” he nods.
“Zack is sometimes very comfortable doing them – other times less so. For this record, he did some brilliant docu-journalism in Mexico City that I thought was really fantastic.”
The guitarist shrugs off any questions about the future of the band. “I couldn’t tell you how long we’re planning on touring for this album. The first chapter ends with the European tour. After that, we’re procuring new management and trying to make a global picture plan that for, probably the first time in our history, will integrate the music, the politics, and the touring plan of attack for the next year or two or whatever. But currently? We have no plans past the end of February.”
He’s almost offended that someone would even think about wondering what the next Rage album would sound like.
“Please!” he practically yelps, before relenting in a calmer voice.
“I’m always excited about making music with Rage Against the Machine. Honestly, I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what we can do creatively.”
“Our first record came together in the first month of us knowing each other,” he explains. “The second record (“Evil Empire”) was us finding a musical path that formed all of our different individual visions into a seamless whole, to make a record that we could all agree on. This record came in a whole different way, but the band’s chemistry had changed. I think we’re better than we’ve ever been, and there’s no reason why the next record can’t top even ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’.” For all the polemic and searing intelligence that Rage Against the Machine exude, their cynics will frequently sneer that the band’s message is lost in some of their fans. Just take a look at a few of the postings on the message board on Rage Against the Machine’s website in recent weeks: ‘BLAHjesusBLAH: you ALL are fags homos wangs you suck big wang kiss my ass poser fags’, ‘SkateWitch: tom is f***ing iresitable’ and of course the ever-popular ‘SkateWitch: f*CK yOU I WON*T DO WHAT YA TELL ME!!’.
“But that’s just one particular chat room,” he shrugs, chuckling at the thought of being considered “iresitable” (sic). “I spend a lot of time with Rage Against the Machine fans, and our audience in general is a very intelligent one, and they get it. And, sure, maybe there are people who are just in it for the music. Like that’s a problem?” Fair enough, they’re on your side. But Rage have made their fair share of enemies over the years. Have you ever feared for your life? “That’s all part of the job!” he crows. “There’s a long, rich and savage history of dissidents in the United States being pursued by law enforcement, so it’s something we take for granted. But the second you find the police department and government agencies patting you on the back and telling you to ‘keep up the good work’, that’s when you break up the band.”
METAL GURU! Tom Morello picks his ultimate rock supergroup…
DRUMS: John Bonham (Late Led Zeppelin skin-basher. Choked to death on his own vomit in 1980) Tom: “You gotta start with him. He’s fan-damn-tastic! It’s his whole vibe: super powerful and tremendously subtle, unbelievably heavy and sublimely funky. No one else comes close.”
VOCALS: Chuck D (Public Enemy frontman and hip hop’s foremost agent provocateur. Helped invent rap metal.) Tom: “He’s rocking the mike. A brilliant lyricist/poet, who has a baritone voice that just resonates with the truth.”
BASS: Sid Vicious or Roger Waters (A battle of four stringers between doomed punk poster boy and cantankerous former Pink Floyd leader.) Tom: “I’m torn between the two of them. Sid Vicious couldn’t play, and it doesn’t matter. He was awesome. Rock is about a lot more than the notes and the dots on the fretboard, and he understood that intuitively. The only guy who could compete with him is Roger Waters who I enjoy for his cool, and sometimes funky, bass-lines. Plus, he could also contribute to the lyrics, because he’s brilliant at that.”
GUITARS: Malcolm Young (Rhythm) and Jimmy Page (Lead) (Twin six-string attack courtesy of the long-standing AC/DC rhythm man and legendary Led Zep axemeister.) Tom: “Malcolm Young is my rhythm guitarist, because why would you want anybody else play rhythm guitar in a band with that guy? I just bought the CD of ‘Let There Be Rock’. I hadn’t listened to it since I was eight, and I think it’s just unbearably fantastic. As for leads, I guess I’d ask Jimmy Page. But only if he wore the pants with poppies on them that he had in ‘The Song Remains the Same’.