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Tom Morello, on Tour and on Message

Morello played to a sold-out crowd Saturday at Jammin' Java.
Morello played to a sold-out crowd Saturday at Jammin' Java. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

So when Harvey suggested to Morello that Iraq Veterans Against the War should be a part of the show, he jumped at the opportunity. Saturday was the start of an IVAW bus tour that will visit East Coast military bases. Before Morello's set, a group of IVAW members took the stage. Liam Madden, a former Marine who organized the tour, spoke: "Today was the first day of that tour, and we had four new members join today. You can either follow our lead, you can blaze your own path, but we need your help."

The announcement of four new IVAW members fired up the crowd as much as any opening set could have.

Morello's not just angry about Iraq. Before each song he explained his inspiration for it, ranging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to economic injustice to the Sago Mine Disaster, which made Morello realize that "energy is literally mixed with the blood of the working class."

He tells the crowd a story from two weeks ago, when police in Rostock, Germany, confronted thousands of demonstrators at the G8 economic summit with tear gas and water cannons. But it was worth it, he explains: "Somebody needs to represent the millions of Americans who are opposed to the eight wealthy leaders of the eight wealthiest countries getting together behind a three-story-tall barbed-wire fence to decide our fate."

Morello conceived the Nightwatchman after Rage Against the Machine broke up in 2000. Morello, along with Rage bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, joined with former-Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell as the new band Audioslave.

But Cornell's roots were in the grunge music of Seattle, and Audioslave never adopted the aggressive politics of Rage. (Although to call the band apolitical wouldn't be quite right either; it sold more than a million DVDs of its 2005 concert in Cuba.)

Morello loved the music, and he stayed involved with the issues he cared about through the Axis of Justice, a nonprofit founded with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian that supports grass-roots activism (a big cause this year is rebuilding the homes of musicians in New Orleans). But for Morello, that was not enough.

"I felt like I was not doing enough in my vocation to fight back," he says. "I didn't choose to be a guitar player; that chose me. I'm cursed with being a guitar player.

"But once that curse has been cast, I need to, in order to look at myself in the mirror, need to find a way through my art and my vocation to fight the power."

Morello has always been fired up. His first political song as a high-schooler was "Salvadoran Death Squad Blues"; his Harvard application essay was "An Anarchist Manifesto About Libertyville, Ill." (his home town); and his senior thesis there was about student activism against apartheid in South Africa.

On Thanksgiving Day 2003, Morello was hosting a talent show at a homeless shelter in Los Angeles when a 19-year-old with an acoustic guitar started to sing. Whatever he may have lacked in actual skill he made up for with conviction.

Morello had never sung in his life, but the performance got him thinking: "Sure I can play some fancy guitar solos, but I have a few ideas in my head, too. If this guy on this stage in this very humble setting can really run it up the flagpole, what's keeping me from doing the same?"

On tour with Audioslave, he would look for open-mike nights, sign up anonymously, and play folk music for crowds that often did not recognize him. As he became more comfortable in the Nightwatchman alter ego, he started playing at union rallies and demonstrations.

In 2004, the day after the presidential election, Morello decided he would make a Nightwatchman record and later, during a break from touring with Audioslave, had time "to reassess my priorities," he recalls. "And I decided that I was only going to be involved in music that expressed my worldview. That left me open to a Rage Against the Machine reunion; that left me open to making a Nightwatchman record."

The hard rocking of Rage and Audioslave was gone, but the activism in his music was back. "As [historian] Howard Zinn says, 'You can't be neutral on a moving train.' "

The guitar and the activism are compulsions that Morello says he could never quit or separate. He has achieved success and fortune that few can imagine, but he could never be content merely surrounded by platinum records, some Grammy Awards and the Rolling Stone issue that declared him the 26th greatest guitar player of all time.

"There's something akin to grace in the combination of music and meaning," Morello mused before Saturday's show. "Tonight I'm going to go out there and play every song like it's the last song I'm ever going to play and try to see if it feels like grace."

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