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How Tom Morello Called the Dean of His High School A Dick

The Rage Against the Machine guitarist recalls his rebellious days as a student journalist
Tom Morello
(Credit: Travis Shinn)

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello began a lifetime of defying authority in the name of self-expression as a Clash-loving teenager in his aptly named hometown of Libertyville, Il. Before he was a rock star, however, Morello was a student journalist who wanted to call out the school faculty.

In a conversation with Ryan J. Downey for FIRE and SPIN, Morello told the story of one of his earliest encounters with being censored and fighting for his First Amendment rights. “I was on the high school newspaper, Libertyville DOI, Drops of Ink,” the guitarist recalls. “One day a fella by the name of Dave Vogel came in with the London Calling record. And for the first time, I heard opinions on songs that I shared. This was a record that was talking about death squads in Central America.”

“There were a couple of us that had similar points of view, and we wanted to write about death squads, we wanted to write about apartheid. And we wanted especially to write about the fact that the dean of students was a dick,” Morello says with a laugh.

After Drops of Ink repeatedly rejected the political stories Morello and his friends wrote, they rebelled. “There was a mass exodus from the paper, and we formed an underground paper called the Student Pulse with a vendetta. So we wrote about Central American death squads, we wrote about apartheid, we wrote a lot about how the dean of students was a dick. And of course, it had four times the reach of [Drops of Ink],” Morello remembers. Libertyville High School tried to prevent the students from distributing their underground paper in school, but Morello and his friends sought out and received help from the Chicago chapter of the ACLU.

Watch Morello discuss how Rage’s first video got past MTV censors, why the band stripped naked to protest at Lollapalooza, and why the guitarist is a free-speech absolutist.