In the brief window between yesterday’s holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for bending the moral arc toward justice and tomorrow’s efforts to make sure a civil war doesn’t bend it the other way comes this simple story where musical roots trump any racial issues.
“It was never a thing,” Bret Zwier, a white drummer, says about whether race was a factor in his friendship with Tom Morello, the legendary guitarist and activist, who remembers being the only Black kid growing up in Libertyville. “Tom is Tom to me, and I love everything he stands for.”
One of the things Morello stands for is the effort to help Zwier’s 16-year-old son, Beckham, who was born with a devastating birth defect.
“Beckham’s dad played drums with me back in the day and Libertyville looks out for their own,” Morello said in his Instagram post, where he auctioned off an autographed Fender Telecaster guitar to raise funds for Beckham’s care.
The relationship between Morello, who graduated from Libertyville High School in 1982, and Zwier, who graduated from there in 1984 and now lives in Antioch, started because Zwier’s dad, Donald, and Morello’s mom, Mary, both taught social studies at the high school, and the boys would play together during the teacher picnics.
When they both ended up in Los Angeles with the goal of making it as musicians, they got together for cookouts and even performed together.
“It literally was just me on drums and him on guitar,” Bret Zwier remembers. “I lived in Hollywood, which back then was a dump.”
Zwier went on to be lead snare drummer at Disneyland, where he performed in the Marching Toy Soldier Band, visited dozens of nations as a bandmaster for cruise lines, toured with pop singer Tiffany, was a member of Grammy-nominated Liquid Soul, opened for Sting, and backed up artists including Sam “Soul Man” Moore, Little Anthony and the Imperials, saxophonist James Moody, trumpeters Clark Terry and Jon Faddis, and more. Now, he is a sought-after percussion instructor at Libertyville High School and, for the past 15 years, plays for weddings and corporate events with the band Front of House.
Morello, of course, is the Harvard University graduate who uses music as a political and moral weapon and was a founder of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Prophets of Rage. Rolling Stone listed Morello 40th in the list of 100 greatest guitar players, and he’s played on tour with Bruce Springsteen.
“He’s not just a great musician, he’s a great guy and great entertainer. He’s fun to watch,” Zwier says of Morello.
But it was another Libertyville musician from the Class of 1980, Ike Reilly of The Ike Reilly Assassination, who suggested Zwier send Morello an email about the Go Fund Me effort to provide for Beckham’s care.
“I try to be cool. I don’t want to bug him, and anything he can do, I’m grateful for,” says Zwier, whose email resulted in Morello’s offering an autographed guitar and also plugging the Go Fund Me page for Beckham’s Freedom Fund.
“It went beyond our expectations,” Zwier says. The guitar sold for $3,550, and Morello’s promotion led to $5,500 more in donations. “That really made a big difference.”
Beckham was born on May 12, 2004. Doctors warned the couple that there was a one-in-a-million chance an issue with their baby’s brain could lead to very serious complications. “The next day, our whole life changed,” Zwier says. Beckham was diagnosed with agenesis of corpus callosum, a rare disorder characterized by a partial or complete absence of an area of the brain that connects the two cerebral hemispheres.
Some people with ACC don’t even notice the condition until later in life, but Beckham’s ACC is the most severe. His vocabulary is limited to the words “yeah,” “momma,” “mom” and “more.” He can’t walk, can’t operate his wheelchair, can’t feed himself, must have his food pureed, and wears a diaper. He is prone to seizures and had a rod inserted into his spine because of severe scoliosis.
Zwier and his wife, Nikki, an aesthetician who does nails, facials and waxing but has seen business plummet during the pandemic restrictions, pay for their own health insurance. They’ve gotten help from other charities to afford a wheelchair-accessible van, but they worry about the round-the-clock help Beckham will need when they no longer can provide that care.
“He’s super happy. He’s everybody’s cheerleader,” Zwier says. “He’s not interested in toys. He just wants human interaction. He loves hugs.”