“Rage Against the Machine” guitarist Thomas B. Morello ’86 has been arrested for civil disobedience, played in protest concerts of both Republican and Democratic National Conventions, been immortalized as a video game boss in “Guitar Hero III,” and worked as a male stripper to support himself after his college graduation.
Morello, who has made his mark in the music industry with his guitar virtuosity in numerous bands, is also well known for his strong, left-leaning political views—having once described himself as being “the only anarchist in a conservative high school.”
But twenty-five years ago, Morello was still a student concentrating in social studies in Currier House—one who worked hard in school, but practiced guitar even harder.
SETTING THE STAGE
Before he came to Harvard, Morello’s family was enmeshed in anti-establishment politics: Morello’s father was a Mau Mau rebel in Kenya and subsequently became the first United Nations ambassador of Kenya.
Though his mother taught U.S. History in Libertyville, Illinois—where Morello was raised—she later founded an organization to support free speech in music to counter the censorship movement spearheaded by Tipper Gore in the 1990s.
At Harvard, friends say Morello was devoted to both music and academics.
“He practiced every night between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m. with his guitar unamplified, I would say at least six nights a week,” says Ethan C. Anderson ’86, who was Morello’s roommate for three years in Currier House. “He really got twenty hours of practice in every week.”
Morello also played in rock bands as an undergraduate, prior to his mainstream music success.
But while his hard rock-hip-hop fusion with Rage Against the Machine often rails against the government, corporations, and other social structures that perpetuate inequity, his junior year band “Joey Thunder and the Electrical Storm” instead expounded upon more mundane topics. Their songs, often inspired by life at Harvard, included “Library Love” and “Action Man”—a reference to a Cambridge local who had taken to prank calling numbers from the freshman phonebook, claiming he was “looking for some action,” according to Gerald J. Roper ’86, band drummer and friend of Morello’s.
During his time at Harvard, Morello also performed in a number of other bands, including “The Zoo”—named after his six-man suite in Hurlbut freshman year—a band called the “The Deviates” his sophomore year, and “Bored of Education” his senior year.
According to friends, Morello’s musical prowess was a product of his discipline, but other areas of his life sometimes fell by the wayside.
“He could be unbelievably sloppy and incredibly lazy about everything, except for playing guitar and going to class—he never missed class,” Anderson says. “He’d often set his alarm for 1:55 p.m. after [going to bed] late the night before, and he’d always make it to the dining hall in sweats to catch the last five minutes of lunch.”
When not practicing guitar or studying, Morello was also an active intramural athlete.
“I remember our claim to fame was during our senior year, when we won the Co-ed Touch Football House Championship,” says John P. Daley ’86, who lived with Morello for four years.