IF YOU EVER wondered what you would get if you crossed Woody Guthrie with Jimi Hendrix, you might want to check out guitarist and activist Tom Morello, also known as The Nightwatchman, whose work combines very modern flurries of feedback and distortion with old-school Popular Front politics. Last year, Morello played a prominent role in the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol in support of public employees’ unions, and this May Day he led a “guitarmy” through the streets of New York, singing “This Land Was Made for You and Me” in support of Occupy Wall Street.
Morello first made his name playing with Rage Against the Machine, a 1990s band that blended a potent Molotov cocktail of rock, rap, and revolution. For most rock stars, getting political means promoting Amnesty International or Greenpeace, but Rage’s favorite organization was the Mexican revolutionary Zapatista Army. After Rage fell apart, the guitarist had another successful band, Audioslave, fronted by former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. Audioslave was a great rock band, but it lacked a political agenda. Morello is a great rock guitarist, but one with a political science degree from Harvard who said he finished his degree because he wanted to “learn how to get my hand on the levers and be an effective revolutionary.” So simply making cool noises couldn’t possibly keep him satisfied for long. Soon Morello was turning up for open mic nights at folkie clubs, disguised as his alter ego, The Nightwatchman.
The Nightwatchman’s singing made it pretty clear why Morello had always worked behind a front man. He often sounds like an unfortunate cross between Woody Guthrie and Lou Reed. But The Nightwatchman found his niche in political contexts, such as Madison and Wall Street, where the point was to get the people singing. This new role on the street has also given a new direction to Morello’s music. Last fall he released a Nightwatchman album, World Wide Rebel Songs, that included a full rock band and found Morello beginning to integrate the Hendrix and Woody sides of his musical personality.