From gripes to group hugs, meet AUDIOSLAVE, the band that almost wasn't.
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Tom Morello is turning his back on politics.

Sure, the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist has a Lenin pin stuck to his black Kangol cap, and he’s wearing a T-shirt advocating a Taco Bell boycott — appropriate attire for a visit to a lefty Santa Monica bookstore festooned with ”Dissent Is American” and ”No War in Iraq” posters. But Morello’s so busy describing an elaborate musical concept that he doesn’t notice the store’s Chomsky-heavy ”Politics” section directly behind him.

He’s trying to explain how he absorbed the transcendent performances of Richard Pryor and Secretariat (yeah, the horse) into his guitar solos. ”The thesis was that if you, via the process of osmosis, try to tap into what’s going on in those situations, it will lead your guitar-playing in a very different direction than if you studied some blues licks,” Morello says.

I nod, barely able to parse the sentence; I’m too busy wondering if Morello’s truly oblivious to the activist tomes behind him, if rock really can distract him from revolt. The answer comes moments later, when Morello spots a biography of labor martyr Joe Hill (”this one’s great”) and the anticapitalist Situationist International Anthology (”this one’s complicated”).

So Morello is still raging after all. But barricade-storming fans of his old band shouldn’t expect the same from Audioslave, the new group that plops Soundgarden’s tortured heartthrob, Chris Cornell, onto a Zack de la Rocha-less Rage Against the Machine. Cornell, who still wears a weathered pair of motorcycle boots from his Soundgarden days, is reluctant to abandon that group’s relatively apolitical legacy. ”I would be pretending,” he says, ”if I tried to write politically motivated lyrics all the time.” The 14 songs on Audioslave’s eponymous Nov. 19 debut avoid overt agit-rock; instead, feeling-Minnesota lyrics like ”I can tell you why/People die alone” function as what Morello approvingly calls ”haunted, existential poetry.”

Can this really be the work of Rage — the band that torched an American flag at Woodstock ’99 and jammed outside the Democratic National Convention in 2000? Audioslave, which broke up and reformed before ever releasing an album, may share their progenitor’s volatility. But the new band’s story — which melds an apparently genuine creative bond with a near-fatal business struggle — begins where Rage’s tale fades.

After nine years and just three albums of original material, Rage Against the Machine ceased to exist on October 18, 2000. ”Our decision-making process has completely failed,” rapper Zack de la Rocha, the group’s natty-dreaded lead revolutionary, announced that morning, en route to a solo career.

Three months passed before Morello regrouped with Rage bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. Long fed up with waiting for the mercurial de la Rocha to feel like recording or touring, the trio, ready to seize the means of production, decided to soldier on. Says Commerford: ”Before Zack left the band, we had discussed every option. Are we willing to go through this same thing again and again, or are we gonna empower ourselves and see what we’re made of?”

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