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Radical Chic at the Kennedy Center

8:01 AM, Dec 31, 2013 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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The Kennedy Center Honors always present an odd spectacle. One of the hottest tickets in town, it brings D.C.'s elites together to sit in black tie and cheer for old rock stars (among others). It's hard to imagine FDR mumbling along to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," an arm slung around Eleanor. But that's the world we live in today.

Tom Morello

As the Kennedy Center honors more and more aging rockers—Led Zeppelin last year, the Who in 2008—we'll have to get used to such scenes. But this year's induction was perhaps the strangest scene yet. Not because of who was inducted—i.e., Carlos Santana, whose decades-long career is responsible for "Oye Como Va" and "Smooth," among other crimes against humanity. Rather, this year's Honors should be remembered for who performed in Santana's honor: Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine.

Now, to be fair, Morello's skill as a guitarist is beyond question. He's probably the most innovative electric guitarist since Eddie Van Halen. And he tends to wear his Harvard education on his sleeve, with quotes from Orwell (He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past) and offhand mentions 1990s-era leftist causes like the WTO and Mumia Abu-Jamal. The band's 1996 album, Evil Empire, came with a full list of recommended readings, from Abu-Jamal to Che Guevara. And, of course, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

But Rage's broader appeal probably owes less to their literary tastes than to their musical tributes to wanton violence. The band's recording career is bookended by songs about killing cops, beginning with "Killing in the Name Of" (Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites), and ending with a cover of Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man" (How do you like my chrome then I watched the rookie pass out / Didn't have to blast him but I did any way, young punk had to pay). Vocalist Zack de la Rocha reiterated the point in a 2000 solo effort, explaining to Mayor Giuliani, "to the mayor, may I say I endorse the wholesale murder of your force of course?"

Rage broke up in 2000, not long before the band's web site was engulfed in controversy for its message board's ramblings in support of the 9/11 attacks. (Morello urged, perhaps ironically, that the band was "diametrically opposed" to acts of "horrible violence committed against innocent people.") But the band reformed a few years ago and continues to tour sporadically on its back catalogue—sort of a left-wing anarchist version of Hall & Oates, introducing new fans to songs such as "Guerilla Radio," "People of the Sun," "Bullet in the Head," and "Year of tha Boomerang." 

Morello still carves out time to perform solo tours, playing left-wing folk songs under the moniker, "The Nightwatchman," to support conventional left-wing causes, such as protesting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or protesting NATO. But perhaps his single most iconic moment of activism was the band's burning of an American flag at the 1999 version of Woodstock.

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