If you’re wondering what it would be like to see Tom Morello tell his life story, from childhood to Rage Against the Machine to Audioslave to The Nightwatchman to Prophets of Rage, in between face-melting guitar segments concocted in an off-broadway NYC theatre – it was brilliant. During his solo show, Morello was on fire speaking about his history and tearing through limitless riffs on his “arm the homeless”-scrawled guitar. The Audible-recorded show ran for three nights at Minetta Lane Theatre, and the final night brought in a thrilled audience who laughed, cheered, and gasped as he alternated between his signature shredding and his sharp prose. The social justice activist did what he does best in an adrenalizing yet minimalistic performance entitled Speaking Truth to Power Through Stories and Song, armed with only a mic and a couple of guitars. The show, which executive-produced by T Bone Burnett show kicked off at 8:14pm, gritty footage on the screen behind Morello included words like “I pimp-slapped the devil,” referencing the lyrics of his opening song “Vigilante Nocturno,” as well as “Turn your illness into a weapon.” He revved up the crowd from the very beginning when he said, “I’ve got one question on my mind, and that is: can music change the world?”



Morello’s delivery was passionate and perfectly paced as he started to paint a picture of his past. Morello reminisced on listening to The Clash and Public Enemy, saying, “It was music that made me feel I could have my hands on the steering wheel of history.” Proclaiming, “I literally integrated the town of Libertyville, Illinois,” Morello discussed the adversity and racism he faced in what was an all-white suburban neighborhood before he’d arrived. In a moment that prompted a lot of applause, he mentioned how early on his mom was teaching him about Malcolm X. “I’m like, ‘Mom I’m five,’” he laughed, recalling how he thought at the time: “Perhaps there’s something to this Malcolm X shit. Perhaps there’s something to this Mary Morello shit as well.” Morello discussed his mother’s rich history of activism, including founding the anti-censorship group, Parents for Rock and Rap, in 1987. “My mom’s the greatest. I talked to her just before the show, and she sends her regards. And to this day, I still practice in her basement.” Sharing how his dad, Ngethe Njoroge (also an activist), was “among the first three Kenyans to ever attend college in the U.S.,” Morello said, “I didn’t meet him until I was 30 years old. He didn’t have anything to do with my mother and me. Our letters went unanswered. He never saw me play guitar. Later in the show, Morello revealed that his father did end up seeing him play, but not until he was well into adulthood. He also told us how the American Civil Liberties Union had saved his school paper when it was battling censorship, reflecting, “We especially wanted to write about the fact that the dean of students was a dick.”

The few photos and graphics that appeared behind Morello throughout the show were very well chosen and interesting to see; from era-hilarious photos that made him joke about his fashion choices to a large list of artists with whom he has collaborated. Each of his down-to-earth anecdotes were peppered with inspiring statements, including, “I realized then that history is not something that happens. History is something you make,” followed by, “So I bought an electric guitar for 50 dollars.” Morello described his experience countering everyone’s expectations, explaining, “I was plagued by what I called the ‘ghost of Jimi Hendrix.’” Morello remembered rebelling by wearing “exactly 100 safety pins” on his clothing; “I hated lessons, because I wanted to learn Kiss and Led Zeppelin songs.” In a still-mind-blowing twist, Morello talked about how he told his drama class that he was forming a punk band, asking them to put their hands up if anyone wanted to participate. “A number of hands went up including, incredibly, Adam Jones, who now plays in Tool.” There were numerous “wow”s over that bit of backstory, as well as this one: “I became the first person from my town to be accepted to Harvard University,” recalled Morello. “No one in my town had ever applied to Harvard University.”



Morello recalled that the first person to ever hear Rage Against the Machine’s music said, “Your music makes me wanna fight.” Commenting on the unique sounds he creates on guitar, he explained, “I took it upon myself to try to make the DJ obsolete by making any sound that they could with my bare hands.” Fascinatingly, he detailed how he was deeply inspired by a 1973 photo (taken by Bob Coglianese) of Secretariat’s record-breaking victory, to the extent that it influences how he plays guitar to this day. After one of his searing guitar segments, he said to the cheering crowd with a grin, “That’s what you get when you practice eight hours a day looking at a picture of Secretariat.” Morello looked back fondly on getting to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, admitting how ecstatic he was on the first occasion Bruce spoke to him and called him “Tommy.” He also reflected on the talent and legacy of Chris Cornell in a meaningful segment about his time with Audioslave. “Music can be revolutionary even without lyrics,” he stated before an artistic guitar solo that triggered screams from all over the darkened venue. He then flipped his trademark guitar in front of his face mid-solo, revealing a sign taped to the back with a crossed-out swastika. When he finished playing, Morello said in a satisfied tone, “That felt good.”

Morello’s commentary on freedom of choice was unforgettable. “Some are free to choose between five-star restaurants, while others choose which dumpster will provide their next meal. Some are free to choose between penthouse suites, while others are free to choose which gutter to lay their heads. If I had one wish, it would be that everyone would be able to be the person they were meant to be, but crushing poverty across the globe says otherwise.” The room erupted in claps when he pointed out, “The person who has the cure for cancer locked up in her head may be locked up for seeking an abortion in Alabama.” He continued fervently, “So what’s a poor boy to do, except play in a rock and roll band? The goal is simple: boost morale and lift the spirits of those fighting for a better world while playing a devastating, ass-kicking, ear-shattering rock and roll show. Political music amounts to nothing unless it’s got a roaring soundtrack, or a chilling truth; a ripping solo or a huge groove that can decimate a club or make a field of fifty-thousand bounce until the Richter scale shakes. Simply put: the world isn’t going to change itself. That is up to you. But the people who have changed the world in progressive, rapid, or even revolutionary ways did not have any more money, power, courage, intelligence, or creativity than you. The world is changed by average, everyday, ordinary people who have had enough and are willing to stand up for a country and a planet that is more humane, more just, and more decent. So what can you do? Dream big; don’t settle. Aim for the world you really want without compromise or apology. Surround yourself with people who push you and challenge you and make you realize that this planet’s worth fighting for.”

Tom Morello


All the intensity of the amazing evening culminated in a scorching performance of Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In the Name,” which made the packed theatre leap up and shout the lyrics with precision. They stayed standing and continued jumping up and down for Morello’s take on John Lennon’s “Power to the People.” Shouting out Woody Guthrie, Morello then started playing “This Land Is Your Land” on acoustic guitar, and many people’s elementary school training kicked in right away. The audience sang along loudly with Morello and danced together in a nice moment of unity. Morello’s cool off-script compliment toward the very end, “NYC has a particularly sexy and sophisticated clap,” was followed by another special note for the Minetta Lane crowd. “It was an honor today to march in the streets with the climate strike here in New York City,” Morello said. “There is hope. There is hope. Alright!”


Article: Olivia Isenhart

Photos: Shayne Hanley



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