Should anyone care what musicians think about politics? Tom Morello offers his standard response. “When I picked up my guitar, I didn’t put down my freedom of speech rights,” says the Audioslave member and Rage Against the Machine alumnus. “I would love for the media today, rather than interviewing me, to be interviewing some workers who have been pushed out of their jobs by globalization, but your paper has contacted me instead.”
“I would love for the media today, rather than interviewing me, to be interviewing some workers who have been pushed out of their jobs by globalization, but your paper has contacted me instead.” —Tom Morello
Ouch. Clearly, Morello is a logical choice to join outspoken activist types like Steve Earle and Billy Bragg on a politically charged acoustic tour called Tell Us the Truth. Its general message is that corporate hegemony is tearing the social fabric and the news media are going along for the ride. As an example of how profit-driven pseudo-journalism turns every issue into a mindless wrestling match, he cites his recent appearance on an MSNBC talk show. “I was talking about the devastation to working families that happens via globalization, and the narrowing of debate and dissent by media consolidation,” Morello recalls. “And the headline under my face while I’m giving the interview was ‘Rock stars hate Bush.’ So that was just making my point for me.” Along with Earle, the country-rock renegade and death penalty critic, and Bragg, the left-leaning British folksinger, the other pillar of the tour is Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers. The Chambers are best known for their ’60s psychedelic classic “Time Has Come Today,” covered by the Ramones and used by Earle as an apocalyptic encore on previous tours. Other acts vary from night to night on the tour, with the Indianapolis stop also boasting R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and producer/rapper Boots Riley of the Coup. The 13-city venture began Friday in Madison, Wis., coinciding with the National Conference on Media Reform, and will wrap up Nov. 24 in Washington, D.C., with MC Janeane Garofalo. Sponsors include labor giant AFL-CIO and activist groups Common Cause, Axis of Justice, Free Press and the Future of Music Coalition. Concertgoers should expect about three hours of solo acoustic performances, with a few group sing-alongs in various combinations. Information booths at each venue will allow patrons to educate themselves about the effects of free trade and media consolidation. A general goal is to stir public discourse in advance of next year’s presidential election, but don’t expect a lot of preaching from the stage. “There’s not going to be speech-giving and whatnot during the performance, because nothing quite takes the air out of the room like a half-hour diatribe,” Morello says, though we must assume he has not toured with Earle or Bragg before. The acoustic format is especially unusual for a man who built his reputation by squeezing strange electronic sounds out of guitars. But Morello has developed a repertoire of issue-oriented acoustic songs while performing at Los Angeles coffeehouses as the Nightwatchman. He talks about his alter ego in a mock-serious third person. “The Nightwatchman deals in bitterness and revenge and moonless nights and coyotes and hauntings and things like that, as well as throwing up barricades across the streets and shouting truth to power,” he says. “While the Nightwatchman has no credentials as a singer or as a folk artist, his sincerity is his credential, and he will get by on that.” He makes a point of noting that “acoustic” is not synonymous with “wimpy.” “Music doesn’t have to be loud in order to be hard,” he says. “If you look at albums like Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, those are records that are every bit as heavy and as hard as anything in the Slayer or Metallica catalog.” Getting back to the causes at hand, the artists and their sponsors hope to draw links between ongoing trends they find to be disturbing and underreported. Bad journalism leads to bad policy that benefits the powerful at the expense of everyday folks in the United States and elsewhere, Morello says. “There’s not a liberal bias and there’s not a conservative bias in the media. There’s a corporate bias, and whatever they have to do to remain profitable, they will do,” he says. “Simply put, corporate globalization is a race to the bottom. What these trade agreements allow them to do is to find the people around the globe that are the most desperately poor, and they exploit that desperation and leverage workers in other countries to lower their wages, to lower their health benefits, to lower their environmental standards in order to compete.” That same bottom-line motivation undermines the integrity of American government, Morello says. In younger days, he spent two years as scheduling secretary for the late U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston of California, a respected liberal who was later disgraced as a member of the “Keating Five” during the ’80s savings and loan scandal. “He’s probably as progressive a guy as was ever in the U.S. Senate,” Morello says, “and every waking moment he was on the phone asking rich people for money.” As for Morello’s other incarnations, a Rage Against the Machine live CD and concert DVD will be for sale this holiday season, and the follow-up Audioslave album is being written for release next year. And as for whether he actually hates George W. Bush, he prefers to reframe the question. “I hate what Bush’s policies are doing to working families, and I hate the fact that radio’s been ruined by media consolidation,” he says. “It’s nothing personal.” The show starts at 7 p.m. tonight (Wednesday) at the Vogue in Broad Ripple. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets are $22. In-store appearances by the artists are planned from 2 to 4 p.m. at nearby Indy CD and Vinyl. Visit Scott Hall online at www.onthebeat.org.