No musician has been more identified than Tom Morello with the uprising against the crony capitalism of Wall Street speculators and Washington pawns like Paul Ryan.
Morello, the Grammy Award—winning guitarist with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave who has earned an international following with his musically and politically charged performances as the Nightwatchman, followed the wave of protests that swept Egypt and other Mideast countries at the start of 2011.
A Woody Guthrie-inspired advocate of mass protests, rallies, marches and in-the-streets campaigning for economic and social justice, Morello loved the reports from Cairo. And he kept up with each new report from Tahrir Square.
Then, one night, he and his wife were watching the protests, and he saw something odd. Snow.
It doesn’t snow in Cairo.
But it does in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I was watching the demonstrations in Cairo with my then-pregnant wife,” Morello says. “The report went from 100,000 people on the streets of Cairo to 100,000 people on the streets of Madison. And I remember saying, What the hell is going on? Where did this come from?”
When he heard it was a union struggle that had brought masses of Wisconsinites to the streets in winter, Morello wanted to grab his guitar and fly immediately from his home in Los Angeles to Madison.
He wasn’t at all sure his wife would approve. But, Morello recalls, she was two steps ahead of him. “She said: ‘Our sons are going to be union men. You’ve got to go.’ ”
Morello went, with a crew of fellow musicians that included The Street Dogs and legendary MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, to Madison and on to the Occupy Wall Street protests against corporate corruption and political abuses that have concentrated power in the hands of the new-generation robber barons who have occupied the top one percent of American business and political life.
So you can imagine Tom Morello’s response when the New York Times reported that newly minted Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan “lists Rage Against the Machine, which sings about the greed of oil companies and whose Web site praises the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street movement, among his favorite bands.”
Ryan’s a bit of a metalhead, with a taste for Led Zeppelin, Metallica and—as he told CNN—“a lot of grunge” bands that are not frequently identified with the extreme social conservatism and the free-market economic theories of Austrian economists. He a kid growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin, he listened to radio rockers like John “Sly” Sylvester, who has since become a Wisconsin talk-radio legend and one of Ryan’s edgiest critics.
Rage has for years ranked high on Ryan’s playlist. The congressman says he really likes the music—which he plays loud while working through his daily ninety-minute exercise regime—if not necessarily the seminal band’s “fight the power” lyrics.
Morello, for his part, does not really like Ryan.
“Paul Ryan,” Morello explained in a blistering statement he wrote for Rolling Stone, “is the embodiment of the machine our music rages against.”
Morello’s no Democratic apparatchik. He’s been more than willing to criticize the policies of President Obama.
But he’s raging against Ryan.
“Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn’t understand them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn’t understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine.,” Morello writes. “Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.”
The guitarist who has a long history of radical activism and radical songwriting asks: “I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of “Fuck the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!”
“Don’t mistake me,” Morello continues, “I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta ‘rage’ in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.
Tom Morello, who’s got Woody Guthrie’s eye for the teaching moment, has it right:
You see, the super rich must rationalize having more than they could ever spend while millions of children in the U.S. go to bed hungry every night. So, when they look themselves in the mirror, they convince themselves that “Those people are undeserving. They’re…lesser.” Some of these guys on the extreme right are more cynical than Paul Ryan, but he seems to really believe in this stuff. This unbridled rage against those who have the least is a cornerstone of the Romney-Ryan ticket.
But Rage’s music affects people in different ways. Some tune out what the band stands for and concentrate on the moshing and throwing elbows in the pit. For others, Rage has changed their minds and their lives. Many activists around the world, including organizers of the global occupy movement, were radicalized by Rage Against the Machine and work tirelessly for a more humane and just planet. Perhaps Paul Ryan was moshing when he should have been listening.
Perhaps Paul Ryan should put that in his iPod and play it.