When Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello played his electric guitar with his teeth, the crowd went wild. It was an understandable reaction to one of the world’s preeminent rock gods and soon-to-be Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, but his performance was notable for an entirely different reason.
The 59-year-old was performing for teenage students at Van Nuys High School — one of 20 public schools around the country he has selected to receive free musical instruments and training as part of the nonprofit Music Will program.
“When I was 13, there was no music program in my school that I was interested in,” Morello told Spectrum News. “I played French horn as a 9- and 10-year-old and declared to my mom, ‘Music is not for me.’”
Fast forward 46 years, and Morello has recorded 22 albums and played to thunderous crowds at the world’s largest arenas as part of Rage Against the Machine. He’s won multiple Grammys and been named one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
None of it was because of what he learned in school. Even when he bought his own guitar and started taking lessons at 13, he was uninspired by teachers insisting he play scales in C Major and not the KISS and Led Zeppelin riffs he aspired to.
“There’s a kinship that I feel with Music Will and their ability to just build a bridge between wherever you are,” Morello said of the nonprofit, which teaches kids how to play popular music. “You could be a classical pianist or you could be someone who has an idea for a hip-hop verse, and you can start today playing music and playing with other people in a way that could change your life.”
On Tuesday, Morello spent about two hours at Van Nuys High School just north of Los Angeles sharing his story and shredding guitar for a crowd of roughly 200 students, who were especially appreciative of the message he had taped to the back side of his guitar: niente fascismo – “no fascism” in Italian. The self-identified socialist struck an egalitarian tone with his audience, answering students’ questions about the songs he likes playing most, how much time he spent practicing and whether his parents supported his musical ambitions.
“Van Nuys High School school of rock!” a girl yelled from the crowd after Morello helped unveil the instruments the school is receiving through Music Will, including a keyboard, amplifiers, drum kit and guitars.
“One of the things that we hear when we come out and visit schools and talk to kids is how much music is not only their tool for self-expression, but when they become part of a band, whether it’s a classroom band or a band with friends, kids are saying, ‘I finally found my tribe,’” Music Will Interim CEO Janice Pollizzotto told the students.
That was Morello’s experience too. Growing up in the Illinois suburb of Marseilles, Morello told Spectrum News, “For me, music as a teenager was everything. It was an inspiration. It was a life raft. It was a home” that gave him a window into the world beyond where he lived, “beyond the opportunities that were limited to joining the Army or working at Dairy Queen.”
He charts his musical trajectory as beginning with “escapist heavy metal,” before morphing into punk rock. It was listening to the Clash and Sex Pistols that inspired Morello to pick up his guitar four years after he abandoned formal music lessons.
Within 24 hours of hearing Johnny Rotten on cassette at age 17, “I walked into the drama club of my school and said, ‘A punk rock band is forming. I’m the guitarist, because I own a guitar. If you want in, raise your hand. No experience required.’”
“Punk rock music and the DIY attitude made me eschew teachers of any sort,” he added. “That same attitude of having no barrier to entry is what Music Will is about, whether you want to be a heavy metal drummer or you want to make beats or be a rapper or a country song writer. They facilitate doing it.”
Morello’s teenage enthusiasm for punk was eventually bolstered with the political rap of Public Enemy that informed the rap, metal and hip-hop fusion that made Rage Against the Machine one of the most successful hard rock acts of all time. Rage will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next month for “shaking up the foundation of the status quo — lyrically, sonically and philosophically,” according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation.
Public Enemy founder Chuck D later became Morello’s bandmate in the now defunct rap-rock supergroup Prophets of Rage, which was formed to protest the 2016 election. More recently, Chuck D was the presenter when Morello received Music Will’s Humanitarian Award in May, first introducing him to the organization.
“It was very kind of them,” Morello said of the honor, “but when they said the award came with the ability to open 20 music schools around the country in places that needed it, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Van Nuys High School was first on his list. Morello, who has lived in LA for over 30 years, said he selected the school to give back locally. He will open the next Music Will program next month at an elementary school in Harlem, near where he was born, followed by a middle school in Marseilles, Illinois, where he grew up.
“We’re going to open up music schools to bring music to places where it’s needed,” Morello said. “Having someone reach out and make it easy for you to unlock the expression inside you that only music can do is such a great gift back. It changes the world in a lot of different ways because it changes people in a lot of different ways.”
Morello said he’s often asked if music can change the world. At Van Nuys High School, he offered his life story as affirmation.
“History is not just something you can read about,” Morello told the students. “History is something that you can make. Whenever the world is changed for the better, it has been changed by people who didn’t have any more money, intelligence, creativity or power than anyone in this room.”