Friday, August 24, 2007

Well the highway is alive tonight

Since I saw Tom Morello when I was in Seattle a few weeks ago (read the concert review here) he’s been popping up in my consciousness. I played Rage Against the Machine on Episode 17 of All You Need Is Hops and have been listening to The Nightwatchman’s One Man Revolution a few times. So when an interview with Morello appeared in Glide Magazine it made sense that my interest would be peaked. The article talked a lot about his decision to start a solo project, his experience with Rage Against the Machine and his political thoughts. It was interesting, but this one response specifically caught my attention:

At what point did you get the idea to do a solo project?

The first time I ever got the idea to stand on a stage alone and sing songs was on Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost Of Tom Joad tour when he came through Santa Barbara. I was kind of overwhelmed by the impact, and by how heavy that kind of show could be. A couple of months later, I MC’d a Thanksgiving talent show at a teenage homeless shelter called Covenant House in Hollywood. There was this kid who sang a couple of songs. He had a real down and out story, and a really hard life. So he got up there with an acoustic guitar, he didn’t have the greatest voice, but he sang with more conviction then I’ve ever seen. So I thought, “I’ve got an acoustic guitar, I’ve got a couple of ideas in my head, why am I so scared to go out and do this?”

(Read the full Glide Magazine interview here)

This reminded me of the fist time I got to see Springsteen on the Tom Joad tour. I was a Freshman in college in St. Louis and I manage to score a ticket to the concert and a ride in Normal, Illinois on the campus of Illinois State. The guy who took me was the basketball coach at Webster University and fortunately wasn’t a child molester or total whack job. In fact I remember him being a nice guy and was really grateful to find a ride since normal was about a two and a half hour ride to the middle of nowhere. I had been a fan of Springsteen since high school and that trip was a really big deal to me. Before I even got to school I was trying to figure out ways to make it to Normal. Luckily I did because the show was amazing, everything thing that I had hoped for. Now while it didn’t inspire me to grab an acoustic guitar and sing like Tom Morello, it did help secure my love for music and prove once again that there had to me more out there than MTV and Top 40 radio - and that music had to really mean something in order for it to last.

You might think it’s a bit odd that a guy in Rage Against The Machine would be so fired up about a folk album and Springsteen like me, but it wasn’t just Morello on the Bruce bus. The entire band must have been on board because they did their own version of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” - a really powerful folk tune which was the title track to the Springsteen album Morello was referring to. The song was inspired by the title character in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. However, I’ve heard Springsteen talk about how it was actually the John Ford film adaptation that inspired the album. In the story Tom Joad was crossing the country looking for work during the time of the Great Depression. The basic premise is that he vowed to be an advocate for the average working man and woman – very much like the persona donned by Springsteen and The Nightwatchman as well.

The song lyrics:

Men walking long the railroad tracks / Going someplace there’s no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the bridge/ Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge

Shelter line stretching round the corner /Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in their cars in the southwest / No home no job no peace no rest


The highway is alive tonight /But nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light

Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag / Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last / In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land /You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock / Bathing in the city aqueduct


Now tom said mom, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy / Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air / Look for me mom Ill be there
Wherever there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand / Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free /Look in their eyes mom you’ll see me.

Well the highway is alive tonight / But nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light / With the ghost of old Tom Joad

Here is a video of Rage Against the Machine covering “The Ghost of Tom Joad” live in 1997:

And just to give you a comparison to the original Springsteen version here is Bruce performing the tune on a 1998 television special:

(hey that’s not Max Weinberg on drums! Imposter!)

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