In his new photo memoir “Whatever It Takes”, Morello documents this “lifelong mission” while offering an in-depth look into some of the places, people, and influences that continue to shape his art and ignite his activism.
Tom Morello is on a mission. As the seminal guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Profits of Rage, and The Nightwatchmen, Morello has made a career of music and activism. The guitar, as Morello describes it, is “a divining rod for truth and justice.” For the better part of 30 years, Morello has used it to do just that.
In his new photo memoir “Whatever It Takes”, Morello documents this “lifelong mission” while offering an in-depth look into some of the places, people, and influences that continue to shape his art and ignite his activism. Through pictures, stories, handwritten notes, and commentary, “Whatever It Takes” follows Morello from his childhood in Illinois to arena stages in front of innumerable fans and the frontlines of countless protests. Notably, the extremely limited, deluxe edition of the book includes his take on the Little Red Song Book. As Morello explains, the Little Red Songbook is an “homage” to the IWW’s “Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent”. Morello continues to be one of the IWW’s most recognizable music advocates.
On the heels of the book’s release, Tom Morello and I caught up by phone to discuss “Whatever It Takes”, his introduction to the Wobblies, activism, and the enduring power of solidarity in song.
“Whatever It Takes”documents your lifelong mission as a musician and activist, how organically did that mission unfold?
It happened very naturally. I have to give Mary Morello [mother] a lot of credit. As the only interracial family in town, and she was the only radical teacher in a very conservative high school, it gave me a lot of confidence to really embrace who I was, even if it went against the grain. Whether it was being a black heavy metal guitar player or being a kid who loved punk music but never gave up KISS and Mötley Crüe, you know what I mean? Before Rage Against the Machine was a phenomenon, it was really weird music that we were playing, But I think it was that underpinning of confidence. I just don’t care, if this feels right to me that is what I’m going to go with. The second act of my musical career was with the Nightwatchmen stuff where — I cannot even describe to you how outraged and incensed all the guitar magazine were with me — it was like Dylan in reverse at Newport, I put down the electric guitar and picked up the acoustic and people were like, “What’s wrong with him?” (Laughs) But it really did feel like all part of one mission.
Certainly, the topical through line was always there but it’s harder to miss the message when it’s accompanied by an acoustic guitar. I can imagine that cost you a few folks.
There are people that you lose along the way. Daily there are fans of the aggressive guitar style that are figuring out there is a radical political underpinning, and they are pissed as hell. (Laughs) it happens every day on social media.
Were you introduced to labor activism through the Midwestern union culture that you grew up around or through music and art?
There were two ways in. The town that the Morellos are from is called Marseilles, it’s a coal-mining town and the Morellos were coal miners. They were Italians who were brought over to mine the coal in central Illinois. They were union. I think it was like 1922 or something like that, there was a big fight in Marseilles, I think it had to do with building the bridge or whatever, anyway that’s when Local 383 came into existence. There was a martyr, Steve Sutton who perished on the line, and it was always a story in my family’s house. It was taken for granted that we were a union family. It was this very sort of conservative part of the country but there was this union populism that you know, we deserve a fair shake and we didn’t have one until we had a union. It was just simple to me. My mom and the teacher’s union at Libertyville High School was also engaged in some labor conflicts when I was a kid and so it was a backdrop that I just took for granted that people stand up for themselves via the union.
The deluxe edition of “Whatever It Takes” includes your homage to the Little Red Songbook, when did you discover the IWW songbook?
That’s a good question. I was a great admirer of the Wobblies and I still consider Joe Hill to be my favorite guitar player even though there are no known recordings of him. But it was really later on when I had the full revelation. I think it was originally through Springsteen’s “Nebraska” record, and then digging back through the early Dylan records and then Pete Seeger and Woody [Guthrie] and all them. For me, I’ve always been attracted to hard music and it felt like, “Oh this is the hardest music there is.” When you’re dodging tear gas canisters on the barricades trying to get one more cent per bushel, that’s hard man. Metallica [and] Sepultura got nothing on that as a form of music and as a way of life. That was very attractive to me.
There is a rich tradition of union singers and songs of discontent, but what relevance do you think labor songs play today, and beyond 2020?
Having played at hundreds of rallies, marches and picket lines, there is something about music, something that helps steel the spine and put wind in the sails of a struggle. It’s the old Joe Hill adage, you can read a pamphlet once but a song can get stuck in your head and you’re singing together, it’s solidarity made flesh by singing together. Struggles are hard and you don’t always win. Are you going to come back the next time? One of the things that can be emboldening is the cultural component. Whether its people chanting “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” in the streets of Portland ten days ago or it’s at the Hamburg G8 Black Bloc tear gas battle where we’re having to wait while the German translator says what I’m going to say before we all get thrown in jail ya know? Those moments really feel like a cultural component is key. Also, I think that it’s very crucial, as part of claiming your humanity, to weave your convictions into your vocation, whatever your vocation is. For me, that’s as a guitar player. Now, if you’re a carpenter, maybe it’s through the Carpenter’s Union, not leaving behind who you are in what you do.
Solidarity made flesh, reminds me of Utah Phillips saying he took all the old hymns and changed the words so that they made more sense. There is power in practical ideas.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…
I saw an interview where Ice T said the year “Cop Killer” came out he was audited like three or four times. He said nobody will stop you from saying what you want, but they can make every part of your life more difficult. It’s easy to focus on the success of Rage or Ice T and miss that trade-off. Have you ever regretted speaking your truth to power and setting your life against the political grain?
It’s a good question. Regardless of your occupation, when you speak truth to power there is a cost. I would say that I’ve been very fortunate in my career, but there is certainly a cost. I wanted to be in a big rock band, and I also wanted to be committed to a set of radical political viewpoints and organic grassroots activism at the same time. And so, when the band before Rage Against the Machine got dropped from our label, I vowed that I was never going to play another note of music that I didn’t believe in. With Rage, we just put a band together that was as uncompromising as my heroes were, which were Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg, Che, people engaged in changing the world with uncompromising principles, and miraculously that found an audience. Now, there were some southern stations that would never play the band. There were times during our support for Mumia Abu-Jamal to get a trial, it was dangerous for us to be in Philly. There was one notable incident where we’re playing at whatever the place the Philadelphia Flyers play, and for shows like that you are supposed to have a certain amount of police and they said “we’re just not going to do the show”, and we said, we’re going to do the show anyway. So, the cops boycotted or whatever and we said “count the number of cops there” and they said there was 155 cops. We said, “I want you to go and get exaclty155 donuts and I want you to deliver those donuts to those cops, since they’re not serving and protecting anybody they might as well be enjoying a tasty treat.” After the show unfortunately they took that out on some of our fans. But for me, it’s always been just don’t flinch you know? It’s like, I don’t care, if Rage Against the Machine had written one love song or one Limp Biscuit “Nookie” song, we would’ve sold twenty-million more records, but it’s just not part of the DNA.
Just because something is profitable, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been more profitable right?
My whole Nightwatchmen career, you know 11-years of my life, trust me during that time there were plenty of opportunities to engage in more commercial ventures. (Laughs) You know? I’ve always felt that you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror. To me, that’s the mission.
COVID-19 has upended so much this year, do you have any parting words for all of the workers struggling through the ongoing pandemic?
Yeah, well, the struggle is real. I’m here with my 97-year old mom and my 89-year old mother-in-law. We have literally been under house arrest, you know? For me, I’ve found solace in trying to connect beyond the borders of the house by making music and communicating with friends and fans via like this book and things like that, but I would say that it’s a very challenging time. So many of the people that we work with too, you know, tour managers are now Amazon drivers if they’re lucky. Guitar techs are now smelters if they can get the work. It really points to, in my view, the abject failure of capitalism. If we had a society that was organized for us rather than for what it is organized for now, something like this – we could handle in a way where there would not be the sort of widespread sweeping desperation, anxiety and enforced poverty. For me, it just redoubles my desire to pitch in what I can, where I can, what I can.
“Whatever It Takes”, the new career-spanning book by Tom Morello, is now available to order from TomMorelloBook.com