It’s a weeknight in Glendale, California, and Tom Morello — guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and the man they call the Nightwatchmen — is standing inside Moonlight Rollerway, a fake moustache that looks more like a woolly bear caterpillar resting across his upper lip. Around his neck, there’s a long string attached to a silver whistle. He’s holding a clipboard, and there’s a red headband on his forehead that matches the red wristbands he’s rocking.
Across the back of his red, white and blue track suit read the words “Coach Tom.” He mutters to himself, “Ah, the things I do for Anti-Flag.”
No, Tom’s not switching careers — he’s shooting a cameo for the Pittsburgh political punkers’ new video. Morello will be featured prominently in the band’s upcoming clip for “The Bright Lights of America,” the title track and first single off the band’s eighth studio LP, which hit stores last week.
As the cameras roll, Morello — playing the irritable coach of “Team USA,” during a global roller-derby battle royale — springs into character, acting every bit the epitome of the amped-up, steroid-chomping Little League dad. He pumps his fists in the air and barks at the derby girls who skate past him: “Move your ass! That’s not good enough! Not on my time, ladies!”
According to Anti-Flag frontman Justin Sane and bassist Chris #2, the video’s concept is inspired by the stories of difficult times faced by the many fans they meet on the road. It’s also a statement on the absurdity of extreme ideologies and the future of American society.
“The song focuses on two characters: a girl I met last year who is a cutter, and to feel alive, she has to cut herself. It’s also about a boy who has a really hard time in his home life, and to deal with it, he feels he needs to be on drugs all the time,” said Sane. “It’s very dark content, but in the end, the song is very optimistic. It says we all go through these really hard times, but we have our community, we have each other, to pick ourselves up and be there for each other. It also asks the questions, ‘Who are we as Americans?’ ‘Where is this nation going?’ ‘Why are so many people on antidepressants?’ People can’t handle reality. Is this the direction we want our country, or even the world, to be going in?”
Morello has been friends with the Anti-Flag lads for several years now, having enlisted the band as the support act on Rage’s Battle of Los Angeles tour back in 1999. “Anti-Flag are a band with a lot of heart, and a band that genuinely cares about its fans,” said Morello. “I don’t get dressed up in a getup like this for just any band. They are the best punk-rock band of our era, and it’s always an honor to share the stage with them or even to be stuck in a roller rink in a goofy outfit with them.”
While Morello refused to respond to fast-spreading rumors that Rage Against the Machine (who were just announced as Lollapalooza headliners ) are in the studio at the moment working on new material, he did discuss this year’s presidential election. And why wouldn’t he? This is a member of the most political bands ever to emerge — a band that decided to call it quits at perhaps the worst time possible — just before George W. took office.
“As the half-Kenyan Harvard graduate from Illinois who is not running for office this year, I’ve got to say, there’s been a lot of talk of change in this election year,” Morello said. “It remains my belief that change is not made by politicians, but by people. No matter who is elected, we do not abdicate our responsibility to take action, to organize, to struggle and to push who is in office to make change on the ground. You can’t wait and hope your vote will turn the system around. You need to take action where you live and where you work.”
While Morello hasn’t decided who’ll be getting his vote just yet, he admitted he has been impressed by Senator Barack Obama’s campaign.
“I haven’t picked a candidate … my candidate is the American people, the people who work hard for a living and struggle to make ends meet,” he said. “The only time in my adult life that I have ever been impressed by a politician was Barack’s speech on race. As someone who has witnessed racism up close his entire life, it’s nice to see someone who intelligently, candidly and honestly talked to the American people as if they were adults for a change, that didn’t try to get something out of people by using ‘freedom, good; evil, bad.’ I mean, that’s the level of our political discourse, from both parties. And to speak intelligently and honestly about a very uncomfortable topic that has been the curse of the United States of America since its founding was something that was very impressive to me.”
But Morello isn’t sure what chance Obama stands in the race for the White House.
“Can a country that elected George W. Bush, twice, elect someone who comes across like that is unclear to me,” he said. “If America elects [Republican Senator John] McCain, well, then maybe we don’t deserve better than McCain. In the most recent congressional election, the Democrats were elected to stop the war, and like cowardly dogs, they failed to do that. No matter who is in office, it’s our responsibility to take the wheel of history in our hands, if we want to see a different and better world than the one we live in now.”