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- Posted on May 24th 2011 5:30PM by Cameron Matthews
Spinner recently caught up with the guitarist about his work in Madison, Wis., standing up for the union workers caught in the middle of the embattled state's financial woes. Morello's passion, though noticeably more vocal, can be compared to Bob Dylan's personal struggle at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. We spoke with Morello about the role Dylan has played in his life as a songwriter.
When was the first time you had heard Bob Dylan and what was your overall impression?
I came late to the game of Bob Dylan by not discovering him until the '90s. My introduction to Bob Dylan was Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska' record. Then I started figuring out Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and then Bob Dylan through that. I'd always known the name but I had no idea how radical an artist he was in his early days. The record 'The Times They Are a-Changin' was the first cassette that I got and I was mesmerized and blown away and soon owned the entire catalog.
What did you admire most about Dylan?
It was a level of lyrical sophistication and power that I had not experienced in another artist. Especially on those first few records when his sights were pointed at social justice issues and the way he humanized the political issues of the day -- issues of race, class and war -- but in a way that it was profoundly poetic and it felt like it was world changing.
I may be the last person alive who still believes that Bob Dylan sold out at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 or whatever, when he went electric. It was a clear turning-away from using his art form as a battering ram for social justice. You know, and I understand, that's not what he signed up for. He was an artist and not an activist. But those of us who are both wished he had continued on that path, or at least not completely turned his back on that path for some time. Woven throughout his incredible career are gems that push forward the cause of freedom and justice. And I'm a big fan of his non-political songs. I'm not explicitly a fan of his political songs, and wherever he turns his sights, his piercing poetic gaze is always intact ... Almost always.
There was a time there in the '80s ...
Yeah. [Laughs] He'd be the first to admit probably.
Songs like 'Only a Pawn in Their Game' about the death of Medgar Evers, 'Hurricane,' 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol' -- do you think these songs still hold weight today?
Oh absolutely, depending on which one you're picking. 'Only a Pawn in Their Game,' the idea of whether it's whipping up racial unrest or differences in religious beliefs to cause people to go shoot one another in the interest of rich people's pocket books, that issue's alive and well today, unfortunately as it was when he wrote that song. 'Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,' he says "The ladder of justice has no top and no bottom," and that rich kid gets a six-month sentence for beating that woman with his cane. These are stories that could be taken from the front page news today.
Do you try to do the same thing with your protest songs? Do you go through the paper and find what you want to write about?
Well, the 'Union Town' EP, which is benefiting the union struggle across the nation right now, is an explicitly pro-union, unapologetically pro working-class political record of some classic class-war anthems and some of my original songs as well, because I was inspired by my trip to Madison. In my Nightwatchman work, on my solo record, I don't pick pieces from the news and then write songs about them, which sounds like some of the topical songwriting of Bob Dylan and others of that era. I kind of let the angst of living in a small suburban town for 18 years kind of leak out the lyrics and that tends to be political enough.
Dylan was from a very small town in Minnesota. How does your small-town upbringing figure into your political outlook?
Well the two towns I grew up in, one was where the Morello family is from: Marseilles, Ill., which is spelled like Marseilles, France but it's in Illinois so it's pronounced "Mar-Sales." And that was a small coal-mining, farming community there, that's where I spent my summers. But I grew up in a town called Libertyville, Ill., a town that I had literally integrated as a 1-year-old, first person of color to reside within its borders. It's a staunchly conservative town where Democrats don't even bother running.
The politics of my household were radically left-wing and they differed markedly from the politics of the community that I grew up in. That's one of the things that forged me into who I am, that dichotomy. I was born into a political situation, being the only black kid in an all-white town, having a radical parent in a conserve town.
And so, if I had become a carpenter, I would have been through the carpenter's union. If I would have become a writer, it would have been through the pen. I'm stuck writing protest songs.
When did you start writing protest songs?
When I was 17 years old, in high school. I was inspired at the time by the Clash, more than Dylan or anything. My first protest song was called 'Salvador Deathsquad Blues.' It has yet to make it.
Rage covered 'Maggie's Farm' on 'Renegades.' Why did you pick that song?
We're fans of Dylan, at least Zack and I are big Dylan fans -- I haven't really talked to the other guys about their love of Dylan. But everybody was down with 'Maggie's Farm.' It's the great "f--- the boss" anthem of all time. I think that those early political Dylan songs and Rage Against the Machine songs have a lot in common. Zack's poetry and Dylan's early songs are people fighting on the same side and they're links in the same chain.
Do you fell like it's your job to write protest songs, or are you just writing from an activist's mindset?
In everything that I've done, I've never disconnected my music from my activism. Even in the days when I was in Audioslave, a non-political band, Serj Tankian and I were running Axis of Justice, an explicitly political organization that was linked to our fanbase in our various bands. With the Nightwatchman music and especially with this 'Union Town' EP, and with the 'World Wide Rebels Songs' full-length record coming out later this summer, I don't really look at it as my responsibility. It's so in my DNA. Like, these are the things that I think are important to sing about and talk about and write about. I'd have a hard time looking at myself in the mirror if I did not weave my convictions into my work life.
What is your favorite Dylan Song?
My favorite Dylan song is 'Blind Willie McTell,' which I believe it was recorded for the 'Oh, Mercy' record or the Daniel Lanois record ['Time Out of Mind'] and incredibly left off it and didn't surface until one of those official bootleg series records. It's a beautiful and terrifying trip through race and American history. Dylan has a lot of great songs but this one's at the top of my list.