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Raging Against the Machine: Tom Morello's Nightwatchman Persona

06/21/2011 03:30 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

In his 1943 memoir/novel Bound for Glory (1943), Woody Guthrie writes about the inspirations behind his songs:

... there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up my songs about.

Guthrie sang for and about the downtrodden. Some liked and some hated him for it; some walked with him, others over him; some jeered and some cheered; and before long he "was invited in and booted out of every public place of entertainment in that country." The reason for such mixed reactions lies in the contents of his songs, which do not always include happily-ever-after type endings. What is more, Guthrie tells us, he "made up songs telling what [he] thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in that country was thinking."

In more recent years, Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and Street Sweeper Social Club, picks up where Woody Guthrie left off, blending his politics, music, and empathy for society's most vulnerable under the moniker the Nightwatchman, releasing albums with this name in 2007 and 2008. Morello plans to release another in late summer 2011. He invites the comparison with Guthrie, citing the phrase painted on Guthrie's guitar ("THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS") in one song ("Maximum Firepower," One Man Revolution, 2007), and marking his own acoustic instrument with an equally forceful slogan ("WHATEVER IT TAKES"). Morello marks his electric guitars with slogans as well, including "ARM THE HOMELESS" and "SOUL POWER." He appears to welcome the connection with Guthrie according to remarks made during an August 14, 2007 NPR interview.

Morello regularly introduces biblical themes to his lyrics, and in many cases is both creative and insightful in his use of this material. For instance, in "Flesh Shapes the Day" (One Man Revolution, 2007), he claims, "you might have heard different / But I know it's a fact / That Jesus, Mary, Joseph / And the Apostle Paul were black." Obviously, the lyrics aim to be provocative but they touch on an idea well represented in the Gospels, with its advocacy of those victimized by systemic abuse. Jesus and his followers stand up for and identify with the poor, needy, and marginalized, which I suspect is Morello's point. On another occasion, he cautions his audience not to be surprised "If the sermon on the mount / Next time is delivered / In a little coffee house" ("Maximum Firepower," One Man Revolution, 2007). Again, an odd statement but one revealing an understanding of the biblical text mentioned. Morello surely knows that Jesus says in this sermon, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6.20); "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matt 5.3). The lyric suggests that those who take up the cause of the needy, those who preach social justice through music (coffeehouses), preach the same message as Jesus himself in his most famous sermon. This is a bold statement but one illustrating Morello's thoughtful and biblically literate songwriting.

Biblical apocalyptic themes and passages also figure prominently in Morello's work, strengthening the social commentary of the songs and lending moral authority to underlying ideological purposes. To illustrate, "Night Falls" (The Fabled City, 2008) describes a crisis in labour relations that culminates in a tragedy: "Steve Sutton died there on the bridge / Local 393 was born." Participants in the story told in the song fall into clear moral categories ("just and unjust") and the singer ensures an alignment of his audience's sympathies with the workers in two ways. First, the birth of a union suggests the man's death was preventable, a consequence of corporate incompetence, or abuse and disregard for workers' wellbeing and safety. Second, the singer offers brief glimpses into Sutton's private life before his death, as a woman warns him "not to go" (to work or some labour action, presumably), whispering, "I love you so." These words highlight the tragedy that follows and heightens our anger toward those responsible for it.

The most compelling line in this song follows the statement about Sutton's death: "A black and white picture of the coming of the Lord." This incomplete thought accomplishes a number of things simultaneously. It lends gravitas to this story about the plight of exploited workers, a familiar theme for Morello who sings with great urgency about this issue as the Nightwatchman (most recently in the 2011 single, "Union Town"). He even insists the cause warrants acts of civil disobedience on some occasions (e.g., "Union Song," One Man Revolution, 2007). The line about the coming of the Lord also reinforces sympathy for Sutton and his co-workers because several biblical references to Christ's return emphasize that he comes for his people, often identified as the righteous (e.g., Matt 25.31-40; 1 Thess 4.13-18). The subtle implication is that the workers in the song have God on their side, that they are the "just." At the same time, Morello's words implicate the company and its representatives in wrongdoing (they are the "unjust") because biblical writers also present "the coming of the Lord" as God's judgement on the wicked (e.g., Matt 25.41-46; Rev 19.11-21). Morello's appeal to this biblical apocalyptic theme has no direct religious meaning. Instead, he uses a religious concept to make a political statement.

Sometimes Morello's use of biblical language is ironic, something evident in "Fabled City" (Fabled City, 2008) in which the presumably Mexican narrator looks across the impenetrable border to the United States with its iron gates and closed iron door, and refers to that country's streets as "paved with gold" (cf. Rev 21.21). The imagined glories are a chimera because various other characters in the song face unemployment (a moved plant), demeaning work (washing floors), and homelessness (living in an alley).

This song also includes a clever rewriting of the parable of the lost sheep (Matt 18.10-14; Luke 15.1-7). The narrator observes one hundred swallows sitting on a wire outside his window and surmises, "if one flew, then ninety nine would follow." This statement is unusual for at least three reasons. First, the one lost sheep in the parable goes astray and the shepherd brings it back to the group of ninety-nine, whereas the song suggests the ninety-nine leave their place to follow the one. Is this suggesting unemployed workers in Mexico should attempt to cross the border, to find the streets of gold, or does it recommend an uprising by oppressed migrant workers already in the United States? It all depends on how one understands the meaning of the single bird that "flew," whether it indicates flight toward the opportunities across the iron border or a metaphorical journey toward freedom for the oppressed worker, and therefore a call to migrants to seek freedom through job action, worker solidarity, and unionizing. The album cover for The Fabled City presents Morello with guitar in hand, standing in front of an orangey-red and green American flag - approximately the same colours as Mexico's flag - perhaps suggesting the Nightwatchman stands with Mexican Americans and Mexican migrant workers in America, both legal and illegal. According to the liner notes, David Hammons's African-American Flag (1990), which is in the Museum of Modern Art, is the inspiration for the album's cover so Mexican workers are not the only oppressed minority in view.

Second, the parable of the lost sheep includes a comforting statement about the Father in heaven not willing "that one of these little ones should be lost" (Matt 18.14). By shifting the imagery from sheep to birds, as Morello does in "Fabled City," he draws on another of Jesus' comforting statements: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. ... you are of more value than many sparrows" (Matt 10.29, 31; cf. Luke 12.24). This insistence that God does not overlook the marginalized and vulnerable resonates because the "angel sad and old" who lives in the alley in shadows may be "hidden from the Lord." The closing lines of the song, with these allusions to the Gospel parables, remind the suffering and those responsible for their plight that in fact God takes notice of their desperation (i.e., "not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. ... you are of more value than many sparrows" [Matt 10.29, 31]). Those in the land with streets "paved with gold" who exploit workers to create their pseudo-paradise, and then choose not to share their wealth with the poor and needy, must realize God befriends the vulnerable. Ironically, this positive image from Revelation ("the street of the city is pure gold" [Rev 21.21]), a book concerned with socio-economic injustices (see e.g., 6.6), serves to identify those responsible for those very abuses.

Consider also Morello's "Let Freedom Ring" that also addresses the plight of the needy: "There's a man homeless and hungry / There's a wind that's hard and biting / There's a song in need of singing." As said, socio-economic injustice is a concern for John the Seer so it is no surprise to find the language of the Apocalypse in this song. The singer refers to a fuse that needs lighting. A fuse is a necessary prelude to an explosion, of course, which in this context refers to "the day" that is coming, one the singer admits, "I hope to see." What day? Morello spells this out clearly: "There's a book with seven seals / There's a beast with seven heads / There's seven angels on seven horses / There's seven vials with seven plagues." In Rev 6.5-6, John hears and sees the following: "When he opened and the third seal [of seven], I heard the third living creature call out, 'Come!' I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, 'A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!'" One way of reading this passage is to understand that God himself calls out for fair wages and protection of the poor whose situation worsens when basic foodstuffs are not available. A denarius is a typical daily wage for laborers (Matt 20.2), and a quart of wheat, or three quarts of lower quality barley, is approximately the daily amount consumed by a worker. John describes here a society in which the poor are especially vulnerable because they cannot afford a subsistence-level diet.

The setting of this passage in Revelation is the opening of the seven seals by the Lamb (= Jesus; Rev 5.1-8.1), which Morello refers to in the song. The point seems to be that the breaking of the seals, the opening of that "book," includes words of compassion for those in need. Those who harm them - and the scales carried by the angel on the black horse (6.6) suggest scrutiny in this matter - are among those who experience the terrible judgments that fall on the world when the Lamb breaks those seals. Morello's song simultaneously anticipates the compassion that awaits that "homeless and hungry" man, and the judgment to fall on those responsible for his condition.

Morello's use of the Bible in "Let Freedom Ring" is broadly characteristic of his work. He recognizes the emphasis placed on the poor and vulnerable in Scripture and capably 'translates' those ancient words to inform his commentary on contemporary realities. With all the rhetorical force and righteous anger of the prophets, the Nightwatchman's biblically literate activism rails against the individuals and institutions responsible for the plight of the needy, as well as those in a position to help choosing to turn a blind eye.