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Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford Reveals Private Battle With Prostate Cancer

Musician toured this year with Rage Against the Machine just two months after having surgery
Tim Commerford
Tim Commerford (photo: Anna Lindahl)

On Black Friday last month, Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford unveiled his latest side project, 7D7D, with the trio’s first single “Capitalism.” The song’s upbeat music provides the perfect paradox to the anti-capitalist message at the heart of its lyrics. “I want to make music that isn’t political, but I just can’t,” he tells me. “I don’t know why, but I just can’t.”

The usually stoic Commerford beams about how different the band’s music is compared to anything he’s done previously, with its weird time signatures and intricate instrumentation, including the use of harp and saxophone (“I think the guitar is going the way of the saxophone in the way that it’s not going to be the main instrument in a band anymore,” he says).

In addition to working with 7D7D, which also consists of his longtime pals Jonny Polonsky and Mathias Wakrat and is signed to Ben Harper’s Mad Bunny label, Commerford spent his summer on the road with Rage Against the Machine for the first time in 11 years. The long-delayed tour dazzled fans across North America, proving that the band’s songs mean just as much as when originally released nearly three decades ago. The Rage tour nearly fell apart after just a few days, when singer Zack de la Rocha tore his Achilles tendon during a show in Chicago. De la Rocha finished the itinerary by performing while seated, but what the public didn’t know was that Commerford was also battling a significant challenge of his own.

“I’ve been dealing with some pretty serious shit,” Commerford tells me. “Right before I was about to go on tour with Rage, I had my prostate removed, and I have prostate cancer.” With the support of his girlfriend and two sons, the 54-year-old musician, who is the embodiment of a chiseled rock star, suddenly faced the toughest battle of his life. “I’ve been someone that’s taken a lot of pride in being in shape and taking care of myself,” he says. “But it’s something where either you’re either lucky or not.”

Before our conversation, the only people who knew of Commerford’s condition were his family, bandmates and a tight-knit circle of close friends. In addition to his cancer, the musician discussed his excitement about launching 7D7D, touring with Rage and remaining optimistic.

Tim Commerford
(Credit: Stacie Hess)

SPIN: How have you kept a positive outlook?
Tim Commerford: You can find yourself in a situation like I’m in where it’s like, fuck, my whole life changed. With everything that happens to me now, I wonder, am I feeling this way because I have cancer? Am I losing my hair because I have cancer? Whatever it is, it makes me wonder if it’s happening because I have cancer. And prostate cancer is a very, very, very tough one because it’s connected to your sexuality. It’s hard to disconnect from that and when you’re forced into that situation, it’s a brutal psychological journey. I’ve been trying to find support groups, and it’s hard to find people and hard to talk about it. The suffering part of it, the physical suffering after the surgery, I’ve never felt pain quite like that. I have metal plates in my head and cadaver parts in my body. I’ve done a lot of damage through sports and mountain biking and this sort of thing and I’ve always felt like I had a really high tolerance for pain, and that shit brought me to my knees. After the pain went away, I still haven’t really been able to get up, even though I’m working out and doing shit, but psychologically, the damage is severe. It’s very hard for me to not break down and get emotional.

It’s courageous of you to share your story.
Thanks. I wasn’t planning on going here with you until last night. I’ve been struggling and it’s hard. It might not sound like much, but to get through a conversation and not choke up and get emotional is a win for me. It’s a little victory. But then over the last 24 hours, I’ve been thinking about it more, and a weird thing happened. I was with my girlfriend and we were watching the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony on TV. Duran Duran was on and I was like, ‘Ah, fuck, I used to learn those songs when I was a kid. I saw them on stage and wondered, where’s Andy Taylor and why do they have this other guy in here?! Then it was like, ‘Andy Taylor is suffering from stage four prostate cancer and is unable to make it.’ My life is sort of like that. There are a lot of people who have it. There are a lot of people who are like, ‘Where do you go?’ You can’t talk to a therapist. You can only really talk to someone who’s going through it.

I just got my six-month test, and it came back at zero. I was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ That’s the best I can feel for the rest of my life. Every day I get closer to that test is like, ‘Fuck man, is this going to be the time when the number is going to go up and I’m going to the next thing, whatever that is?’ I already went through some pain and shit. And I’m continuing to go through like, some crazy shit.

How did you find out you were sick?
I went to get life insurance but my PSA numbers were up. I couldn’t get it. They wouldn’t insure me. At first, the number was very low — like one-point-something. I watched it over the course of a year and a half, and it kept elevating further. Eventually, they did a biopsy and found out I had cancer, so they took my prostate out. I had been thinking, well, because they’re watching it and let it get to this point, maybe it’s not that big of a deal. I blame myself. I should have said, ‘my numbers are elevated and what does that really mean?’ I should have taken it more seriously. I should have looked into alternate therapy instead of getting sucked into the most disgusting, capitalistic machine on the face of the planet: the medical establishment.

Now I’m in the situation that I’m in, which is, hold your breath for six months. It’s not a good one and not one that I’m happy about. I’m just trying to grab ahold of the reins. It’s gonna be a long journey, I hope. My dad died in his early 70s from cancer and my mom died from cancer in her 40s. Split the difference to 65 and I’ve got 10 years. I’m trying to get to the 100-song mark — I have some goals now. Songwriting has become a catharsis for me. Back to the original question, how do I find the time? That’s all I’ve got, is time

How were you able to go out and play arenas with Rage this summer?
Two months before the tour, I had surgery and my doctors said I wasn’t going to be ready. That was brutal. I would be on stage looking at my amp in tears. Then you just kind of turn around and suck it up. Because of Zack’s injury, we had planned these little video interstitials that came in between blocks of songs. We were meant to go on stage, play some songs, go off stage, and on to the interstitials for a few minutes. It was seamless. Then he got hurt and we couldn’t leave the stage. So during the interstitials, we’re just sitting there. That was surreal. I would sometimes sit down and try to not think about certain things. It was weird. I kept it to myself throughout the touring we did and it was brutal.

Did your bandmates know?

Based on the videos from those shows, the performances, and the reviews, no one would ever have suspected anything was wrong.
That’s the way it went down. You can still be in great shape. When I got my physical, my doctor said I was in the best shape of any 50-year-old he’d ever seen there. There’s plenty of people that are in great shape that have cancer. And I’m hoping to continue as long as I can be that. I work out religiously, and I try my hardest to stay in shape. I’m still very proud of who I am. When I first got diagnosed, it fucked with me on that level. But now I’m starting to feel this level of, ‘I’m going to be the fittest motherfucker with cancer that’s 54 that you’ve ever fucking seen in your life.’

That’s the best and only way to look at it.
Just try to see how good I can do against that adversary, you know? The dark passenger. It’s tough, man, but I have a great support system. I’m friends with Lance Armstrong, and he gave me some great advice that probably is going to extend my life.

The glass is half-full. That’s the beauty of songwriting and bass playing. When my mom was sick, that’s when I learned how to play bass. When I was on stage with Rage, there were times that I wasn’t thinking about cancer for moments. When I play in 7D7D with Mathias in the studio, I don’t care what we’re doing. I go into a trance, and I just completely forget about it. And it’s so beautiful. When I wake up in the morning, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a new day. Dope!’ Then it’s like, ‘Oh fuck, I have cancer’ and you can’t stop it. It puts a dark cloud on the day. When I go jam with Mathias, I just tune out and it feels so good. Music has always been there in the toughest of times.

It’s easy to tell with the energy of the first singles.
I got played into the fucking biggest offender on planet Earth. You can look at a country of Americans where a lot of people don’t have insurance. And then you can check out some of the billionaires. And to me, that’s it. It’s not a joke. It makes me very, very, very angry. I feel offended by it on a high level.

But what made the Rage tour so urgent was the charity element the band established. Few bands are as open about where its charitable donations go.
It was a beautiful thing. There are a lot of things that happened on that tour that were amazing. That screen … before we went on that tour, I was thinking, ‘Fuck that screen. Let’s just play with a fucking backdrop.’ Then Zack got hurt and it became a very useful tool. In Canada, it said how indigenous women are more likely to be raped than other women. We had the facts and figures up on the stage. It was a powerful tool.

How did 7D7D spark that creative fire in you?
I wrote a record’s worth of material. Mathias and I wanted to write 10 songs. Mathias’ neighbor is Ben Harper and he got into it. That actually was empowering, because here’s a guy that comes from a different genre, but one that I still respect, and he likes it. It was like, ‘Cool! Not everyone is going to hate it.’ Maybe I’ll be able to play clubs one day. I just want to be able to get to like a spot in my life where I can go play clubs and people might come to the club to see us play.

Timmy C and Mathias
Mathias Wakrat and Tim Commerford (Credit: Erik Colvin)

How many songs do you have ready?
We haven’t hit 20, but we’re close. I’m going to get Logic and learn how to use it. Then just get 100 songs done. I want to be like, ‘Fuck yeah, I wrote 100 songs.’ I just go in [to record] with nothing and get inspired by Mathias’ weird-ass drumming and build on the spot. Like, we should be leaving here with a song that’s done. Tom Morello is the king of that. When we got together with Rage to write our demo tape [in 1992], we were like, ‘Fuck that. We’re making a record.’

Based on everything you’re going through, it seems like this razor-sharp focus is giving you a positive sense of purpose.
It feels that way. Everything happens for a reason, and that’s what I always tell myself. That’s what a lot of people say, but I really believe that. It’s been hard for me to imagine cancer and getting anything good out of it. But there’s this little light at the end of the tunnel that I’m seeing right now where I feel like I can get some really solid goodness from it in other areas. I hope there’s one person who reads this and is like, ‘Fuck, I need to get checked out’ when they find out about it. It’s going to be OK because they found out about it, and for me, that’s good enough.