By: David Schultz
From the time Tom Morello found his first mechanical object to rage against, he has lived a life of civil disobedience. While his activist streak may not have been as prominent as he toiled with Chris Cornell in Audioslave, it was in no way neutered. With the recent release of One Man Revolution, Morello speaks passionately for the dispossessed and disenfranchised, voicing their dissatisfaction with music's greatest weapon: the protest song. In doing so, he adopts the persona of The Nightwatchman, a not-so-alter-ego that took form before unsuspecting audiences in coffee houses and open mike nights around the country. This past Tuesday, Morello brought The Nightwatchman to New York City, playing before a sold-out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom.
Following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Morello stands alone on stage accompanied only by his impassioned ideals and an acoustic guitar emblazoned with "Whatever It Takes." Although his mood is jovial, Morello's Nightwatchman wants to do more than rock the house: he wants to return the power to the people and give them back the voice that he believes is being taken away from them. It echoes back to a day and an idealism that one man with one guitar can bring about societal change. His message goes beyond sloganeering, although like all those adept at working within and without the political system, he has plenty of them. If Morello spoke with an Irish accent, he might easily be mistaken for Bono.
After introducing himself as The Nightwatchman, Morello kicked off the show with his most incendiary songs, running through "One Man Revolution," "Union Song" and "Maximum Firepower" in quick succession. Eager to hear the words and music, the audience greeted Morello with a respectful silence quite uncommon from a Manhattan crowd. The guitarist ended the reverie urging that it was perfectly fine to make a little noise. Morello did want the silence back for his quieter songs like "The Garden Of Gethsemane" and "Let Freedom Ring." To get it, he offered promises of "metal" that had people salivating for acoustic interpretations of Rage Against The Machine material and raised the hopes of Zack de la Rocha or Tim Commerford possibly joining in. With such promises, Morello received an extraordinarily silent room; when he walked away from the mike, he could still be heard loudly and clearly. Whenever he wanted silence, Morello would ask for it but by the time he closed his show with "Until The End," he no longer needed the request.
In general, it's not a good idea to piss off a Harvard educated militant with the only microphone in the room, especially when he's consistently referring to himself in the third person. As long as you remain in Morello's good graces though, he's a fairly gregarious fellow. In between his 21st century rebel anthems, Morello bantered a bit with the crowd, telling stories about getting Michael Moore arrested for the first time and providing a behind the scenes perspective of Rage Against The Machine's silent naked protest at the Philadelphia stop of the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. If Morello didn't have any material to play, he could have easily padded a couple hours with his monologues. Not just humorous, the anecdotes made you realize how long Morello has been bucking the system and confirmed that he would be willing to take a quarter in the nuts in furtherance of a cause.
Morello ran through most of One Man Revolution, adding his reflection on the devastation in New Orleans, "Midnight In The Garden Of Destruction," the promised RATM cover of "Guerrilla Radio" and Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." In introducing Guthrie's classic tune, Morello stated that he was restoring Guthrie's insightful yet critical final verses that are often omitted from the song, noting that Woody wrote the song in response to "God Bless America," a song he considered unrealistic. By the end of the song, Morello had everyone singing along with the elementary school fave and on his orders, leaping and jumping around like they were at a Rage Against The Machine show. For someone who preaches the mantra of thinking for yourself, Morello spent a fair part of his ninety-plus minute set instructing the audience with a dictatorial mien on the proper moments for handclaps and silence. Given his wry grin when providing such directions, he may understand the irony.
As The Nightwatchman, Morello carries on the age old practice of protesting through song. It's not only a long standing tradition, it's an important one. Just like the singer who sings the song changes with the times, so does the audience. The idealism that fueled the music of the Sixties reverberated strongly throughout the Woodstock generation. Despite the commonality of an unpopular war and concerns over the competency of our President, the same activism isn't present today as it was four decades ago. Bush's reelection in 2004 and the Democrats failure to thus far find the "new Kennedy" for 2008 has dulled the feisty spirit that fuels any counterculture movement. In trying to light the spark of revolution, Morello faces a mounting tide of apathy, quite possibly playing to crowds who come to play revolution for a couple of hours before heading back to the suburbs with the message forgotten. In this sense, Morello may be fighting an insurmountable uphill battle . . . but God help us if he ever stops.