For a long time, Tom Morello felt the best way to rail against social injustices was via his role as guitarist in Rage Against the Machine. While the band’s combination of aggro-rock and hip-hop helped spawn the unfortunate rap-metal genre, Rage harnessed Morello’s Tommy-gun riffs and frontman Zack de la Rocha’s incendiary lyrics in the service of causes ranging from abortion rights to Mumia Abu-Jamal. This decibel-heavy, might-makes-right approach was Morello’s clear MO until he happened to catch Springsteen unplugged. “When I saw Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad tour, I realized the weight of impact that a one-man acoustic performance could have,” the 43-year-old musician recalls. “That tour to me was as heavy as any metal concert I had been to.”
Even more enlightening for Morello was a performance by a young homeless teen at Covenant House in Los Angeles. “There was this kid who was nineteen or twenty who played a couple of songs,” he explains. “He had a real hard story and played with such conviction. He didn’t have the greatest voice, but he meant it so much, and I thought to myself that I could play three or four chords and had a couple of ideas in my head. And if this kid could really go for it and run it up the flagpole, what’s keeping me from doing that?”
During this time, Rage Against the Machine was disintegrating and Morello didn’t miss a beat when Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell replaced the departed de la Rocha and the band renamed itself Audioslave in 2000. Three years later the guitar hero worked up the nerve to play out solo, starting with a gig at North Hollywood’s Hot Wired Cafe. From then on, he honed his acoustic craft between band commitments.
“Even during those early days, I’d come off of those Audioslave arena tours and play these little open-mic nights in front of twelve people with a coffee machine going in the background,” Morello recalls. “But the amount of preparation and intensity I put into those performances was as much or more of what I did rocking the arena shows. I would practice my two songs all week and have the lyrics written on my arm like Eminem in Eight Mile and nervously hope that I got everything right for these shows where it seemed like no one was paying attention.”
Along the way, Morello came up with his Nightwatchman alter ego. In short order, he was playing under that name to large audiences, accompanying Billy Bragg and Steve Earle on the Tell Us the Truth tour in 2003. A subsequent studio foray resulted in this year’s Brendan O’Brien-produced One Man Revolution, a collection of songs featuring Morello accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with a vibrant tone that falls somewhere between Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. On the album, he rails against topics ranging from Colin Powell’s untruths to the wages of war, stopping long enough to strap on a harmonica Springsteen-style for the anthemic “Union Song,” which namechecks César Chávez and Joe Hill.
While the Boss and Guthrie influenced Morello’s overall direction, the shadow of the late Joe Strummer looms large over these songs. “For me, I hung on every Joe Strummer lyric because I knew that he didn’t have a corporate sponsor and he was going to tell the truth as he saw it, unlike the guys on the nightly news,” Morello says. “And to have that fearless conviction in an unfiltered and uncompromising way to tell the truth as I see it is something I’ve attempted to do from day one.”
While Morello was pouring his convictions into this mostly acoustic project, Audioslave was on the wane. “Simply put, Chris Cornell quit,” he explains. “We had a great five-year run of being friends and making music that we’re all proud of and really resuscitated and rejuvenated one another personally and musically. It seems ridiculous to throw away a multiplatinum band that we’d built from scratch, especially given the current state of the music industry, but at the end of the day I think everybody is going to be better off.”
Life has since come full circle — the four members of Rage Against the Machine found themselves with clear schedules, and the myriad of reunion rumors came to fruition as the quartet headlined this year’s Coachella. That was followed by the ongoing Rock the Bells Festival tour in which the reunited band has taken to the road with a hip-hop-heavy lineup that includes Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill, and the Roots.
While Morello declines to say whether Rage has plans beyond the current tour, his acoustic alter ego remains his creative outlet. “This Nightwatchman record has been the most fulfilling musical project of my career,” he declares with pride. “Every night I see the flames of discontent are being fanned. One of the goals of the Nightwatchman tour is one venue at a time, one show at a time, one three-and-a-half-minute song at a time to liberate territory and take America back.”