What’s It Like to Join the E Street Band? Morello Looks Back at His Time With Springsteen
By Brian Hiatt
For anyone who lived through the Nineties, it’s still absolutely wild that the guitarist of Rage Against the Machine joined the E Street Band for a while, even considering Rage’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” cover . Tom Morello ‘s first collaboration with Bruce Springsteen (who stars in our latest cover story ) was on a live revamp of “Joad” that they performed multiple times, and eventually committed to record on 2014’s High Hopes . When guitarist Steve Van Zandt was busy filming his show Lilyhammer in 2013, Springsteen enlisted Morello to fill his slot for a series of shows. Springsteen started adding in spotlights for Morello (even, of all things, a cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”), and wound up featuring his playing extensively on High Hopes .
“The E Street Band is a pretty big house,” Springsteen told Andy Greene in 2013 . “But he builds on another room… With that idea in mind — that I had another architect — I re-looked at the music that I had and said, ‘Let me run this one through Tom.’ So that’s what I started to do. His influence is very noticeable on maybe half the [tracks].”… I’m not sure if the record would exactly exist without his influence. He really allowed me to tie it all together, in a way that I’ve been looking for that I hadn’t found. He just really brought that stuff to life.”
On Springsteen’s 71st birthday, here’s what Morello had to say about his time with him in a recent interview that appeared on Rolling Stone Music Now and as an episode of our RS Interview: Special Edition video series.
To hear the entire episode, press play above or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify .
“It’s part of the bizarre and incredible mosaic of my creative life. Really, Bruce is probably the only person where I would be a sideman in their band. I don’t feel like I’m kind of built that way. I love Bruce Springsteen. He’s the only friend I have that I subscribe to a fanzine about. That’s kind of rarefied air there. The last tour that we did in in North America, it was 34 shows and 182 different songs. And I never had the jukebox gene which a lot of musicians have, who played thousands of cover band club dates. I never had that. So, for me, it was work . I learned about 250 songs before the first show, because I wanted to be ready! I didn’t want to be the problem.”
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“You know, the E Street band had been great for over 40 years without me in it. So that is first of all, don’t cause no harm. You know, and then secondly, when Bruce gives the nod, you know, try to blow the roof off the place with some crazy solo that E Street fans would not be expecting. I’ve found so much inspiration in Bruce’s work, and to be able to be a part of it for a period of time is something that’s such a fulfilling and wonderful thing to have happened. I know that some of the non-traditional elements of my guitar playing may have divided some of the faithful, but Bruce asked me to play like me.”
“Watching him work on a daily basis was very inspiring. He was, as a friend and as a person, absolutely as advertised. And grounded and committed to excellence in every aspect. And, you know, we would play shows in Johannesburg and in Peoria, and some of the same fans are in the front rows of those shows! And they’re very excited to see Bruce Springsteen. But no one’s more excited to be in the room on that night than Bruce Springsteen is. He has that kind of commitment to, ‘I’ve played shows for 42 years and tonight’s going to be the greatest show.’ It was inspiring to be around that. And honestly like every night I might give myself 15 or 20 seconds, maybe during ‘Born to Run,’ to just stand there and look over and trip out: “I am rocking ‘Born to Run’ with Bruce Springsteen.'”
Download and subscribe to our weekly podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on iTunes or Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts), and check out three years’ worth of episodes in the archive, including in-depth, career-spanning interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Halsey, Neil Young, the National, Questlove, Julian Casablancas, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Marr, Scott Weiland, Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, Phil Collins, Alicia Keys, Stephen Malkmus, Sebastian Bach, Tom Petty, Kelly Clarkson, Pete Townshend, Bob Seger, the Zombies, Gary Clark Jr., and many more — plus dozens of episodes featuring genre-spanning discussions, debates, and explainers with Rolling Stone’s critics and reporters. Tune in every Friday at 1 p.m. ET to hear Rolling Stone Music Now broadcast live from SiriusXM’s studios on Volume, channel 106.
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"I want to make a record where I don’t have to play by the rules or have any hit singles": Bruce Springsteen on his acoustic masterpiece The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Inspired by the classic novel The Grapes Of Wrath, The Ghost Of Tom Joad became a staple of Bruce Springsteen’s live shows, and led to The Boss teaming up with RATM’s Tom Morello
Tom Joad, the hero of John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 American novel The Grapes Of Wrath , has had a pretty good life as an apparition, thanks to Bruce Springsteen and some of his friends.
Inspired by the book and John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation, as well as by Woody Guthrie’s The Ballad Of Tom Joad , Springsteen wrote The Ghost Of Tom Joad , a modern-day appropriation of the same Great Depression-era concerns, during the early 90s.
It became the title track for his stripped-down 1995 acoustic album, and a staple – usually the opening number – for the live shows that supported it. The song was also rocked up, dramatically, two years later by Rage Against the Machine , and in 2014 Springsteen – with Rage guitarist Tom Morello in tow as part of his E Street Band – released yet another version for his latest album, High Hopes .
“I want to make a record where I don’t have to play by the rules… have any hit singles or none of that stuff,” Springsteen said of the Tom Joad album, backstage at an early stop on his solo acoustic tour to support it. “I can make whatever kind of music I want to make. I hadn’t done that in a real long time. I guess I wanted to see if I could do it again.”
Tom Joad was actually the latest in a series of curve balls Springsteen had thrown his audience since Born In The USA . There was the calculated come-down of Tunnel Of Love and the shocking subsequent dismissal of the E Street Band. The group’s reunion for the early 1996 Greatest Hits album was just as surprising, and The Ghost Of Tom Joad was one of the songs he worked on with the band at that time. “It started out as a rock song. But It didn’t feel right, so I set it aside,” Springsteen wrote in 1998 lyric book Songs .
He returned to the Los Angeles area, where he was living at the time, and began work on starker material, “just myself and my guitar”, and the new version of Tom Joad became a linchpin for his next project, a kind of musical sibling to ’82’s Nebraska .
“Once I cut Tom Joad , I had a feeling for the record I wanted to make,” Springsteen said. “It was an acoustic album where I picked up elements of the themes I had worked on in the past and set the stories in the mid-90s.”
That was certainly true of the set’s title track, which chronicled the other side of the Clinton era’s prosperity, using subtle and minimalist instrumentation and a mournful melody to deliver timeless images – ‘ Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest / No home, no job, no peace no rest ’ – of ordinary Joes, along with migrants and a criminal or two, grasping desperately for an American Dream made elusive by class schisms and corporate greed.
But Springsteen rejected any notions of despair. “There’s always something being revealed – about them, about you. That’s always exciting,” he explained. “Even if the stuff is dark, even if there’s tragedy involved, it’s still exciting. The truth is always hopeful. It’s always inspiring, no matter what it is.”
It wasn’t an easy sell, however; Tom Joad was the first Springsteen album since 1973 to miss the top five, although it did win a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. “I knew [the album] wouldn’t attract my largest audience,” Springsteen wrote in Songs . “But I was sure the songs on it added up to a reaffirmation of the best of what I do.”
Rage Against The Machine certainly heard the truth of Tom Joad and found in it a firm fit with the group’s own populist, leftist leaning. “I was a huge fan of The Ghost Of Tom Joad ,” Morello recalls. “It was my favourite record for a long time. I think I gave the CD to Zack [De La Rocha, Rage’s frontman] for Christmas that year.
"We were about to set off with U2 on the PopMart tour, and we didn’t have any new material. I suggested that we do a Rage-ified cover of The Ghost Of Tom Joad . I think at first that suggestion was met with some scepticism, but then it came together and sounded great on the tour. The lyrics were certainly not out of context for Rage Against The Machine. And I brought a bulldozer riff or two to it that worked very well.”
It sounded so good that, during the tour, Rage ducked into the studio to record a version of Tom Joad for a CD single accompanying the group’s self-titled 1997 home video. Rage later re-cut it for a version that appeared on their 2001 covers set, Renegades , and later on the No Boundaries: A Benefit For The Kosovar Refugees benefit album. It became Rage’s second-highest charting song.
Morello first performed Tom Joad with Springsteen and the E Street Band in April 2008 in Anaheim, California, when Springsteen surprised the guitarist by asking him to sing some lead vocals as well as play on it. “That was the first time I ever sang with an electric guitar in my hands,” notes Morello.
Springsteen & co had already turned Tom Joad into a powerhouse electric showstopper inspired by the Rage version; when Morello stood in for Steve Van Zandt for Bruce and his band’s 2008 tour of Australia, it was a regular part of the set. It was also a logical inclusion for High Hopes when Springsteen decided to make Morello an integral part of the album.
“ [Tom Joad] was the one I felt I really had to hit the nail on the head with,” Morello says. “It’s been such an exciting live moment and a great melding of the two worlds of the E Street Band and my playing on it. I was hopeful that we were going to be able to capture the spark of those live performances and I think, in my humble view, we may have surpassed it. It’s a really great recording of that song."
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Gary Graff is an award-winning veteran music journalist based in metro Detroit, writing regularly for Billboard, Ultimate Classic Rock, Media News Group, Music Connection, United Stations Radio Networks and others. Graff’s work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar World, Classic Rock, Revolver, the San Francisco Chronicle, AARP magazine, the Detroit Jewish News, The Forward and others. Graff has co-written and edited books about Bob Seger, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. A professional voter for the Grammy Awards and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Graff co-founded the Detroit Music Awards in 1989 and continues as the organisation’s chief producer.
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The Ghost Of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen
- Tom Joad is a character in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes Of Wrath . Near the end of the story, Tom makes his famous "I'll be there" speech, which is also noted in the lyrics. The idea is that the ghost of Tom Joad, the spirit of working together as a community, will prevail in times of great injustice (police brutality, economic corruption, etc.).
- The Ghost Of Tom Joad is an acoustic album. Springsteen released it with very little publicity.
- Springsteen wrote this as a rock song to complete the 1995 Greatest Hits album. Not liking the result, he set it aside and used it on his acoustic album a few months later.
- The album has a focus on storytelling. The music is minimal and simply supports the stories.
- Springsteen performed this for the first time at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit concert in 1995.
- On the 1999 E Street Band reunion tour, Springsteen usually played this about two hours into the show. Many fans took the opportunity to grab a bathroom break or a beer.
- Springsteen performed this at the Grammy Awards in 1997.
- Rage Against The Machine recorded this in 1997 and released it as a single. Their version reached #35 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and #34 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. It also appeared on their 2000 album Renegades .
- In 2008 Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello joined Springsteen and the E Street Band onstage in Anaheim to perform an electrified version of the song. Five years later, Springsteen recorded a full-band rearrangement in Los Angeles, the day before traveling to Australia for that country's leg of the Wrecking Ball Tour . This version, which featured Morello on guitar and vocals, was included on his 2014 album High Hopes . "I am not a casual Bruce Springsteen fan – I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan," Morello told Rolling Stone . "And 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' is one of his best songs. It cuts to the core of his social-justice writing. This version starts as a plaintive ballad, which feels like a lament, and becomes a full-bore rocker that feels like a threat."
- Speaking to NPR correspondent Ann Powers, Bruce said the High Hopes version of the song was his "original realization of it." He explained: "I originally wrote it as a rock song for the E Street Band and we didn't quite pull it off and that led to The Ghost of Tom Joad acoustic album, but I always had in my mind that, you know, that was its inception. That was how it was originally conceived, so we started to fool around with it onstage. I came up with a version of it and then Tom walked in one night and just exploded the boundaries of the thing and turned it into just something else."
- Springsteen admitted in a 2014 interview with The New York Times that he didn't read The Grapes of Wrath until after he released The Ghost of Tom Joad .
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- Anyone from Us Thank you Bruce Springsteen and band. God bless you!
- Jack Nelson from Portsmouth, Nh My favorite version of this song is on the bonus NPR CD issued in 2007 as part of a fund raising campaign. It was recorded with the Sessions band in Dublin but the song is not on the Sessions CD or DVD. Great contribution from the horn section.
- Kipperlenko from Canberra, Australia Just saw Bruce and Morello do this in Sydney last night, best song of the Gig for me, Morello smashed it, I think at one point he was playing with his face :) Agree with Evan above, youtube it.
- Ethan from Sunderland, Vt Bruce is a devotee of Woody Guthrie. Woody's son Arlo tells about how his dad wrote his song "Tom Joad" [http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Tom_Joad.htm] after reading John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." After writing the song, Woody apparently got a letter from Steinbeck saying in essence, "Damn you! You wrote in twelve verses what took me a whole book. " Arlo then goes on to tell how the Steinbeck - Guthrie feud was only healed when Arlo married off his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie (a great singer/songwriter/story teller in her own right) , to Johnny Irion, Steinbeck's grandson. Is a great story, as only Arlo could tell it.
- Gladys from Chicago, Il Perfect example of a song slightly ahead of its time... written about a character from a book set in the Great Depression, and back in 1995 when it was released, the Great Depression was some chapter in a history book.... ...and yet, here we are again.
- Evan from Washington Dc, Dc this may have been a bathroom break years ago and i would have to agree, but not the way the band performs it now. An incredible solo is placed in it usually by nils that is just absolutely incredible i recommend youtubing this
- William from Carlsbad, Nm Watch the Rock and Roll hall of fame concert, Bruce does this with Tom Morello and Morello breaks into a solo that is just awesome, really good to watch.
- Gregg from Southampton, United Kingdom if you really did miss the song for a bathroom break and dont regret it because ur not a fan of tom joad your not a fan of bruce springsteen your a fan of bruce springsteens catchy tunes which are unmistakably good but the real beauty in "the boss" is when you hear the words behind the music such as Born in the USA's "sent me of to a foreign land to kill the yellow man" Tom Joad just happens to be more about the words than the music. If you just like the tunes though i suggest you find his live in Dublin album with the sessions band..its amazing
- Airk from Skagway, Ak "I don't think people who 'took a bathroom break' while bruce performed this songs are real Springsteen's fans." Ever heard of the term "ya gotta go, when ya gotta go."?
- Bruce from Johnstown, Pa Very Dylanesk.
- Bruce from Columbia, Sc I really like this song. Reminds me of Dylan. Bob Dylan that is rather than Dylan Thomas.
- Kyle from Belleville, Canada Just because people take a piss break during this song, doesn't make them "not real fans." Get a life, people can pee when they want to pee, or grab a beer when they want. I am not a big Tom Joad fan, but I love mostly everything else. Not a real fan?
- Aaron from Brisbane, Australia This song is one of bruce springsteen's most beautiful songs, one of his best, as Carlos said anyone who took a bathroom break during this song can't call themselves real fans
- Megan from West Liberty, Oh The line "He's waitin' for the time when the last shall be first and the first shall be last" is based on a Bible verse, Matthew 20:16, which states, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last" (NIV).
- Julian from Oakland, Ar The great Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad in the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath.
- Don from San Antonio, Tx Rage also has it on their home video. Morello playes it on a Gibson double neck. This is a MUST SEE for Bruce OR Rage fans.
- Sylvain from Montreal, Canada Springsteen once performed here in Montreal to promote the "Ghost of Tom Joad" Album. Intersting is the fact that he did not play at our Local Arena or Olympic stadium. Instead, he went to "Place des Arts," which is usually reserved for classical music or Opera. He was alone with his Guitar and Harmonica. I'still bite my tongue because i missed the show.
- Carlos from Albacete, Spain I don´t think people who "took a bathroom break" while bruce performed this songs are real Springsteen´s fans.
- James from Montague, Canada Rage Against the Machine covered this song. They played it live for years, and finally released it on their album of covers called Renegades (their last album).
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Tom Morello is een genie op zes snaren. De Amerikaanse autodidact heeft grenzen verlegd met zijn gitaarspel. Hij is de bedenker van een exclusieve melange van funk, punk en hiphop en haalt unieke geluiden uit zijn instrument. Morello is het meest bekend van de jaren met Rage Against The Machine, de baanbrekende groep waarmee hij twee keer Werchter bezocht. Hij was eveneens te gast met Audioslave en Prophets of Rage. Morello heeft ook getoerd met Bruce Springsteen wiens ‘The ghost of Tom Joad’ hij zelf live brengt. The Boss is aanwezig op ‘The atlas underground fire’ (2021), het tweede album onder eigen naam van Morello. In een onuitgegeven duet met Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) covert hij ‘Highway to hell’ van AC/DC. Om maar aan te geven welke imposante vriendenkring de man heeft.