The Last Days of Rage?

With no lead singer, Rage consider their next move

On the morning of October 18th, guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine got a phone call from vocalist Zack de la Rocha, who told Morello he was leaving the band. There was no room for discussion. The singer issued a press release announcing his exit later that same day. "He tried to call everybody that morning," Morello says a few weeks later. "Just got me." De la Rocha also contacted bassist Tim Commerford, an old friend from grade school, but did not connect with drummer Brad Wilk, according to Morello. "I don't believe he and Brad have spoken yet," the guitarist adds.

Morello was not shocked by the suddenness of de la Rocha's action, which came just before the release of the band's new album of covers, Renegades. "I thought each record could be the last, each show could be the last," Morello says, referring to the internal strife that has plagued Rage since their formation in Los Angeles in 1991. "Also, the announcement came when Zack was taking a couple of years off. Zack was not planning on playing a Rage Against the Machine show or writing a Rage Against the Machine song until 2003."

De la Rocha declined to be interviewed for this story. In his statement, he said it was "necessary to leave Rage because our decision-making process has completely failed." He is now recording his first solo album, to be released on Epic late this year, with a tour likely to follow.

"There's always been this looming solo-record thing -- Zack was vocal about what he wanted to do for a long time," says Commerford, noting that the issue first came up during the making of Rage's second album, 1996's Evil Empire. "It's hard for me to get bummed out about it. I'm looking back on ten years, thinking that was a great thing. But there is a lot more to be accomplished." Commerford, Morello and Wilk plan to recruit a new singer and continue as Rage or under a fresh name, depending on the direction the music takes. Morello says the trio has already discussed "calls we have gotten from some amazing and interesting people."

De la Rocha's departure ends a decade of great success and struggle for Rage. The group's first two albums, 1992's Rage Against the Machine and 1996's Evil Empire, set an incendiary standard for politically charged rap metal and together sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. On- and offstage, the band vigorously campaigned on behalf of numerous causes, including the Zapatista revolutionaries in Mexico and the jailed activists Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

But emotional tensions hampered the band's progress. Rage took nearly two years to complete Evil Empire and spent another year making 1999's The Battle of Los Angeles. Commerford claims the quartet played less than 300 shows together. "Some people have played more shows than we have in one year," he says ruefully.

The final rupture came amid a whirl of trouble. The group scuttled live-album recording dates at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco three times. A summer stadium tour with the Beastie Boys was postponed after Mike D of the Beasties suffered a bike-riding injury, then canceled entirely. Rage also parted with managers Gary Gersh and John Silva. Then on September 7th, Commerford was arrested by New York police after he disrupted the MTV Video Music Awards by clambering up a stage prop.

The bassist is unrepentant about the stunt. "The Mickey Mouse Club -- that was all I saw, everywhere I looked," he says of the ceremony. "There is no one who has been able to convince me that I did a bad thing." But de la Rocha was later quoted as being "humiliated" by the incident. Rage finally recorded two gigs in September with producer Rick Rubin at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in L.A.; they were the singer's last shows with the band.

Yet in the midst of the trauma, the quartet made Renegades with Rubin in just two and a half weeks. The sessions, meant to yield a few bonus tracks for a live record, mushroomed into a separate complete album. "You hear stories - they don't show up and they hate each other," Rubin says of the group. "It was not like that in the least. It was nothing but pleasant."

Morello likens the band's mood at the time to "the atmosphere of spontaneity when we made the first Rage record. If we had been operating with business as usual -- 'Hey, we're gonna do a new studio record' -- Renegades would never have come out."

For three nights, Rage met at Rubin's home in L.A., where they listened to records and compiled a list of sixty possible titles, from which the four band members each chose three for recording. Songs considered for the album included the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" and "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. A hybrid of "Working Man" by Rush and Eazy-E's "Ruthless Villain" was attempted in the studio but never finished.

Of the songs on the final album, Morello's picks included the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" and a stark reading of Devo's "Beautiful World," while de la Rocha suggested the remake of Afrika Bambaataa's Eighties electro-funk classic "Renegades of Funk." Commerford chose Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man." "When Zack and I drove to rehearsal every day in '91," he says, "it was Cypress Hill on the tape player most of the time."

Ironically, Cypress Hill's B-Real is among the singers Morello has talked to about the Rage vacancy. But Morello says no decisions have been made and none will be made in haste -- he is aware of the precedents set by other bands who lost their star vocalists in midstream. "The last thing you want is to be Van Hagar-ed," he cracks. Morello says an album of Rage's last shows with de la Rocha will be released "at a time that makes sense."

Rubin believes that with the right new voice upfront, Rage Against the Machine could become something very special. "It could turn into a Yardbirds-into-Led Zeppelin scenario," he says. "In many ways, Tom Morello is the Jimmy Page of today."

"Every song we ever wrote in Rage Against the Machine - we wrote the music first, and then the words got put on it," Commerford points out. "We will still be able to make those musical sculptures. And I think it's a great opportunity for someone, a singer who has a different style. Like, 'Wow, what a great place to speak from.'"

DAVID FRICKE


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