Tom Morello is as well known for the apocalyptic eruptions he conjures from his souped-up electric guitar as he is for his long-time learned leftism. But when the Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave ax man comes to the Berklee Performance Center this Sunday with the Tell Us the Truth Tour ó a roadshow revue that finds him sharing the stage with Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Lester Chambers, Jill Sobule, Boots Riley, and MC Janeane Garofalo ó heíll be unplugged, and going under a new name. His politics, on the other hand, will remain unchanged.
"The Nightwatchman is my political-folk alter ego, who sings songs of bitterness, revenge, and righteous indignation," Morello says from a tour stop in Royal Oak, Michigan. "Itís my attempt at being the black Woody Guthrie. Iíve always enjoyed music like Bob Dylanís The Times They Are a-Changing, or Bruce Springsteenís Nebraska. Itís music thatís made with just voice, guitar, and harmonica, but itís as heavy and powerful as anything made with distorted electric guitars."
Indeed, even during his days as a social-studies major at Harvard (class of í86), where he divided his time between practicing his guitar and advocating the schoolís divestment from South Africa, Morello says he knew his career would entail effecting change through his music. "I knew as a freshman that I wanted to play guitar for a living, and I also had my political opinions pretty intact by then. Itís always great to come back to the old stomping grounds to stir up trouble."
The twin targets of the Truth Tellersí ire are media consolidation and corporate globalization. (Although itís a sure bet that some general-purpose Bush bashing will also be on the agenda.) For that reason, the tour was timed to make stops at the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this month and last weekís Peopleís Gala for Global Justice at the FTAA summit in Miami. The evils of globalization are bad enough, Morello says: jobs disappear here, sweatshops dehumanize there, environment is despoiled everywhere, "a couple of fat cats get wealthy, and everybody else loses." Media consolidation simply serves to ensure that you donít know about it: "Itís a story that you should be reading about every day on the front page, and you are not."
But chances are that most of the audience at a Tell Us the Truth show is reading about it ó if not on the front page, then on dot-orgs like Truthout or MoveOn. When Morello was with Rage Against the Machine, their aggro rap-metal attracted many suburban kids whoíd probably never heard of lefty causes célèbres Mumia Abu Jamal or the Zapatistas. But in playing to the combined fan bases of an avowed socialist like Billy Bragg and an anti-death-penalty agitator like Steve Earle, does Morello feel heís just preaching to the choir?
"I donít think itís so much preaching to the choir as galvanizing the troops. The audience does seem to be interested in the issues the tour is about and has an opinion about them. Not everybody does, though. You do see some Audioslave fans in the audience who are learning about these issues. They are issues that affect everybody.
"One of the things that media consolidation does is it makes you feel isolated if you feel that what you see going on around you isnít right. And this tour shatters that illusion. There are thousands of people on this tour, millions of people across the country and the globe, who share our opinions."
Itís no coincidence that Tell Us the Truth is being staged a mere 12 months from an epochal presidential election that more than a few have called a matter of life and death. Thereís a lot to get done in the next year, and with much of the fourth estate either cowed by corporate parents or asleep at the wheel, Morello considers it his job to ensure that the electorate knows whatís at stake. "Weíre going to do on stage what the media have failed to do. Tell the truth."
The Tell Us the Truth Tour arrives this Sunday, November 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Berklee Performance Center,136 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. Tickets are $29.50 and $35; call (617) 931-2000. For more information, visit Tellusthetruth.org