TOM MORELLO looked out on the desolate horizon and decided he couldn't keep his feet in the car a moment longer. "I had never seen a desert before. I just had to go bounding out there." It was 1986 and Morello was 22 and headed to Hollywood to become a rock star. He had left the leafy Illinois township of Libertyville with his guitar, the $1,000 he earned giving music lessons, and a Harvard University degree he assumed would get him a solid day job.
Neither would get him far in Hollywood, of course, but he didn't know that during his giddy romp through roadside dust and desert scrub. "I was 30 feet out from the highway when I heard the noise: rattlesnakes. Not one, but lots of them. I thought to myself, 'I'm going to die before I even make it to Hollywood.' "
Morello didn't die in the desert, but neither did he thrive in Hollywood. The next few years were a bruising cycle of lousy jobs and music-biz disappointments, such as when he lost a job because his hair wasn't long enough in the view of one metal band's manager. Morello got the rare happy ending as the guitar hero of Rage Against the Machine, L.A.'s iconic hybrid of funk, rap and metal. This year he launched a solo recording career as an acoustic and acerbic folk singer-songwriter, and the first track on his debut album maps his trip west to the "unique toxic mix that is Los Angeles," he says.
Come stand among the rattlesnakes
At the side of the desert road
And close your eyes and listen
To the music hard and cold
Morello also looked to his memories of living on the edge in Hollywood in the late 1980s and watching the poor struggling on streets where limousines zoomed past.
There's a riot on Sunset
And fires burn in the park
The sun has set, my friend
And California's dark
The music of the song -- hard acoustic guitar with jagged vocals and a Pete Seeger simplicity -- shows that Morello's solo career has far more in common with Bruce Springsteen's stark folk excursions than the louder-than-loud musical polyglot that made Rage famous. Morello has also been a surprise, both artistically and in his life story. He grew up in apple-pie Libertyville, but his birth certificate is uniquely New York -- the hospital was in Harlem and his father was Ngethe Njoroge, a onetime guerrilla who became the first ambassador from Kenya to the United Nations.
Morello's best job in L.A. that didn't involve a guitar was a $13,000-a-year stint in the office of Sen. Alan Cranston. Morello kept moving left politically and has been a staple of protests in the city. His fury has deepened in recent years too. In Rage, he never wrote the songs and when he finally did pick up a pen for his solo project, that fury came out.
" 'California Dark' is one of the first songs I wrote and is part biblical prophecy about the future of Los Angeles being thrown into chaos and revolt, and part is my personal -- and literal-- journey from the Midwest to California. That journey was from the suburbs to being an activist and now an aspiring revolutionary." The young man who once jumped into snakes in the dust sounds comfortable in the venom of the city streets.
Smoke and ashes
Tonight hide the stars
The stoplights are red now, love
We've come for what's ours