After nearly a week of peaceful protest by what’s climbed to nearly a hundred thousand strong in defiance of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempts to strip workers’ unions of their collective bargaining rights, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello (aka The Nightwatchman) arrived with a few friends in tow to provide some valuable musical solidarity.
After speaking to the masses on the steps of the Capitol, Morello led five thousand people into the Monona Terrace exhibition hall nearby for a performance that included Wayne Kramer of MC5, Mike McColgan of Dropkick Murphys, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against and Ike Reilly. Tommy Gabel of Against Me! had reportedly agreed to show, but didn’t make it to the event.
The acoustic show was overwhelmingly peaceful and upbeat, with Morello and friends focusing on encouraging continued resistance to the budget bill that would effectively gut unions’ core strengths. Union representatives began the event by speaking about the cause, setting the stage for a fired-up Morello to bring the passion home.
“This has been the most inspiring 24 hours of my life!” the RATM guitarist said, to deafening cheers. “You have your hand on the wheel of history! When I was at the airport someone asked me, ‘Why are you going to Madison?’” Morello reiterated. “I said, ‘Because they’re making history in Madison, that’s why I’m going there!’”
After a set from Reilly (who’d given Morello a ride to the airport), Boston’s Street Dogs (featuring Mike McColgan of Dropkick Murphys) arrived to lead the crowd in rousing political sing-alongs like "Up the Union" and Bob Marley’s "Redemption Song". Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath played just outside the Capitol, offering an impassioned performance of Neil Young’s "Ohio," as well as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Who Will Stop The Rain?" Watch below:
MC5’s Kramer, with the words “Stay Free” painted on his guitar, drove defiant literalism into his song, leaving no room for misinterpretation: “I’m sick and tired of payin’ these dues,” he sang. “Finally getting’ hip to these Republican blues!”
Finally, Morello took to the stage with his own brand of musical vigilantism, delivering electrifying labor songs and showcasing a sophisticated grasp of the issues with inspiring words of revolution based on economic justice. The Rage rocker brought the audience onstage for his closer, the new track "Worldwide Rebel Song". The song isn’t going to knock Masters of War out off its perch as the most incredible protest song ever written, but the heart behind the track resonated clearly among Wisconsinites, who needed little help in carrying the refrain:
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Morello said previously, “I really think that the future of the rights of working people in this country is not going to be decided in the courts. It’s not going to be decided in Congress or radio talk shows. The future of rights of working people in this country will be the fight on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin.”
Morello belongs to the Professional Musicians Local 47 in Los Angeles and grew up in Illinois with a mother who worked for 30 years in the public schools. He joins the MC5’s Wayne Kramer who is no stranger to standing up for what you believe in. The Detroit rocker survived the infamous riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Monday was an important day for protest music, though you’d hardly know it by the artist turnout. The showing was nothing to scoff at, but the scarcity of high-profile names lending their physical support to the cause is disheartening. Why are these handful of musicians the only visible presence from the music industry? Where’s Jello Biafra when you need him? How many times have we heard Eddie Vedder singing "People Have The Power"? A little showing of Cheesehead support would go a long way towards proving the theme of that tune.
It would seem that meaningful protest has been dulled and disconnected in our generation’s absence of counterculture icons. Punk is far more a fashion trend than a political movement, and has been for roughly three decades. Morello’s strength of conviction is oddly singular in this instance, with clicktivism taking place of physical presence in today’s social media overload (as we saw with last Summer’s musical boycotts of Arizona over their proposed immigration laws).
Morello is right in saying that the future of worker’s rights is being fought in Madison, Wisconsin. What happens there will reverberate throughout the nation’s political and socioeconomic channels. Tom didn’t wait for Zack De La Rocha to write another Rage song about the situation, he showed up and rocked his heart out alongside the people who are making their voices heard in the most peaceful, fundamentally effective way possible.
A little solidarity from our heroes would go a long way right about now.