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LONG STORY SHORT: Waits Against the Machine

A rock star walks into a café, plonks himself down at the table of the coolest cat of all, and complains about his own band. Tom Waits sits politely through Zack de la Rocha's venting, but you gotta wonder: can't a man just read the sports pages?
Maintaining the Rage can be very hard sometimes, or so it sure seems one day at an L.A. cafe. Zack de la Rocha, second from right, with his Rage Against the Machine comrades. (Credit: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

I was absorbing one of those cortados that are Cafe Tropical’s glorious gift to the universe, those surface-to-air missile cafes con leche that make safe the L.A. corner of the Havana/Miami/Hollywood Triangle. Yellow legal pad, couple of good pens, L.A. Times in case I needed work-avoidance while hanging here doing wife-avoidance. Late mid-Saturday afternoon, corner of Sunset and Silverlake, sunny, warm and scented with golden-crusted guava-and-cream-cheese pasteles. Excellent parking spot on Parkman, too. Life can be a fine thing.

Tom Waits settles in at the next tiny little table over. Gives the social nod; gets it back. Over the years, paths had crossed a bunch of times, his and mine — we both liked that funky old Filipino diner on Temple Street, for example, with the mystery hours — but in L.A., you observe Hollywood celebrity etiquette. Unless you’re a tourist, or maybe a bubbling-over actress who only just hit town last week. Or, I guess, maybe if you’re the singer in like the fifth or sixth biggest band in the world. Otherwise, you just give each other the gracious minimalist nod.

You can count on those cortados if you’re out scouting for inspiration. Any day, any time of day, any slow Saturday afternoon. Probably why Tom Waits was here again. Or maybe just doing some wife-avoidance of his own.

Done with the sports page?

Sure, you bet. All yours. Hand it over; another nod. Waits rips a hunk of tire ad off the back page, works it into a wad, bends down and wedges the wobbly leg of his table. Wouldn’t want to spill that precious cortado. Back to the sports section.

Thanks to my own magical cortado, I’m jauntily jotting entire sensible sentences, sentences that not only make sense but have hopes of walking proudly out into the wide, wicked world. Maybe even order a cortado of their own, as long as I’m buying. Waits is minding his own beeswax, deep in the sports section. Lakers win; Dodgers rebuild for the future.

An expert at thoughtful nodding. Tom Waits enjoys some diner time. (Credit: Philip Gould/Corbis via Getty Images)

Suddenly, radiantly (not suggesting it wasn’t already radiant with me and Waits sitting there, but radiantly), that guy Zack de la Rocha is there. Pulls up a chair, parks at Tom’s tiny table. Radiating radiance. It helps to be radiant that way when you’re like the lead singer of like the raddest band around. He’s radiant that way. He was probably already radiant and beautiful before he was the lead singer dude of Rage Against The Machine, but there’s a shiny shine, a buffed-out polish, a glistening gleam that comes with being the mega-platinum voice of the suffering, struggling people. You can’t buy that shine in the wax, polish, and rubbing-compound aisle at AutoZone.

Turns out that Tom doesn’t actually really know Zack so much. If at all. No worries! That’s the kind of radiance Zack radiates. When you’re that kind of mega-platinum, that super-shiningly handsome — dude is handsome! — being the radiant voice of the rad-ass raza means you’re perfectly comfy busting right through the halting holdbacks of Hollywood etiquette. You just park yourself at Tom Waits’ tiny table — !Don’t spill the cortado! — pull up a chair, and commence talking, sharing your woes and your sorrows. Radiant handsome mega-platinum voices of the struggling people have troubles too.

Let me clarify something here. I wasn’t eavesdropping, not whatsoever. Absolutely no do’-poppin’, as we say in New Orleans. Dude double-parks at Waits’ tiny little table, which is squeezed up within share-the-sports-section distance of where I’m working and wife-avoiding and all, so there’s no way I can keep from hearing. Everything. (Unless I tore off some more sports section, and wedged it in my ears, maybe.) Especially hearing Zack’s side of the passionate conversation. Which is most of both sides of the passionate conversation. Waits, it turns out, is expert at thoughtful nodding. I should’ve already known that.

Zack de la Rocha bailed up Waits to vent about his Rage Against The Machine bandmates. (Credit: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)

(Oh, and !Cuidado! This all happened a good while back, so any quotes I might quote here are more like quotes of quotes of what my current sadly un-caffeinated memory might cough up, so …you know? But other than that, they’re all probably dead-on accurate. As simulated quotes go, anyway.)

Zack was troubled, if radiant. He’s got trouble. Trouble of the worst kind — band trouble. Worse than money trouble, worse than woman trouble, worse even than wife trouble. Doesn’t matter if your band is like the fifth or sixth biggest in the world, and by far the most rad. Even if your band is Rage Against The Machine, you still have all the typical band problems. Even if they don’t seem typical to your own radiant, radical, righteous sensibility, but instead seem totally unique. And uniquely troubling. Probably that’s why Zack automatically figured Tom Waits would totally understand and relate and automatically be super simpatico. Or willing, anyway, to share his tiny little table and hear all about it all. All about it. In detail.

It’s really a hassle being in a band. When your band is as big and as rad as Rage Against The Machine — maybe the fifth or sixth biggest band in the world, but unquestionably the raddest — it’s even more of a massive hassle than usual. Or at least that’s the way Zack was seeing it. And telling it to Tom Waits, who was holding tight onto the sports section. With kind of a death grip.

See, bands are like — well, see, in this case — Rage was like — Zack kept telling Tom what Rage was like, you know, in the shorthand, familiar way — ‘cause it would be way too corny, probably, for Zack to ever say Rage Against The Machine instead of Rage, because, I mean, he’s talking to Tom Waits, after all. I mean, obviously Tom Waits knows all about Rage, right? He’s Tom Waits! He’ll understand.

Understandably, Tom looked thoughtful, pensive. Tom Waits’s pensive thoughtful look pretty much makes Rodin’s “The Thinker” look like he’s jacking off. (Kind of does anyway, arguably, especially if you address him by his proper name, Le Penseur — the statue, not Waits.) Zack figures pensive means Go right ahead, dude, tell me more — lots more. So Zack goes right ahead. In radiant detail.

“Get away from me, kid, ya bother me,” Waits sings on his 1976 album, Small Change. (Credit: Antonin Cermak/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

You know when you’re Catholic and you go to confession? But the priest is Tom Waits? But you’re in a Cuban bakery on Saturday afternoon at Sunset and Silverlake? But you’re not really confessing your own sins so much as bringing up those of the dudes in your band? This was a lot like that.

Ahem. Fascinating as all the detailed righteous details might be if you were, say, Tom Waits, I was trying my damnedest to keep my own flow going. I could use another cortado, actually, so I get up to go to the counter. There was something about some of the band-member dudes’ attitudes about voting, and then their dietary ways, or them not being vegetarian enough, so there was like no band consensus, which is like, like, both a symptom and a symbol, you know? That was going on when I left and still kind of wrapping up when I got back. Waits was looking pretty darn pensive.

I never figured Tom Waits for being such a diehard sports fan, but he had a hell of a grip on that newspaper. At one point he started to roll it up, and I thought maybe he might be gonna swat Zack. Then he unrolled it real carefully and started spreading it out on the tiny little table, smoothing it and spreading it out again. Maybe he was looking at the horse track results — I’d bet he was more like a Hollywood Park guy than one of those Santa Anita railbirds, but that’s only just another guess. Maybe he was using the sports section for inspiration under the circumstances. Either way, Tom was back to looking at the nice smooth, flat, spread-out sports section again. Swatting somebody, especially the radiant lead singer of the fifth or sixth biggest band in the world, would be a complete breach of Hollywood etiquette.

Zack kept on track too. That’s how you become lead singer of the fifth or sixth biggest band around, even if while you’re plagued with terrible troubles. Like it turned out Zack really hated being lumped in with all those Nu Metal idiots. Drove him crazy. Understandable, of course, but I wasn’t quite as sure as Zack if Tom was in perfect agreement. I mean, for all I knew, maybe one of Tom’s kids was a huge fervent fan of Korn or Limp Bizkit or Slipknot. Then again, it’s possible Waits rolled up a newspaper and smacked his kids if they reached in from the back seat to crank up the Cookie Monster vocalisms. Then once again, Tom Waits’ kids probably hear plenty enough of that kind of vocalizing from the old man. Hard to say, really, especially from the vantage point of the Tropical bakery. Still, Tom seemed pretty darn handy at rolling that sport section up. Hollywood etiquette doesn’t apply to your own kids. Or shouldn’t, anyway.

Zack and his band working Gitmo chic. (Photo by Louise Wilson/Getty Images)

I don’t want to suggest that Waits didn’t say anything at all. Or that Zack did all the talking at the tiny little table. Zack did most of the talking, definitely, at a proportion of like 99 or 98 percent or so. Waits held his end up, primarily with those thoughtful looks. Every once in a while, though, he said stuff. Zack would be explaining, in depth, how troubled he was about the whole band thing, or some small detailed part of the whole band thing, and Waits had already used up all the nodding and pensive thoughtful looks any thoughtful pensive guy could be expected to offer, so every once in a while, when Zack would pause for air, Waits would say something, somewhat. When he could. Sympathetic, empathetic things, sports section stuff. You’re out there giving a hundred and ten percent… Gotta be a team player… Can’t pull any punches…Gotta keep your eye on the ball …

I was tempted, given the eavesdropping as I was desperately not doing, to ask to borrow the sports section back, so I could roll it up and swat somebody myself, but I guess Tom Waits was higher up the Hollywood etiquette evolutionary chain, or ladder, or scaffold. He just kept nodding, and pensive-ating, and every once in a while he’d drop a penny into Zack’s deep well. Remember, there’s no ‘I’ in team … You got a lot of natural athletic ability… When the going gets tough, the tough get going …

Me, I got going. I want to let you know that this story has a happy ending. I really do. Tom Waits leaped up — maybe his cortado finally kicked in — tossed away the sports section, seized his early model iPhone — the flip-phone model — put together a conference call that included all Rage Against The Machine band-members, all their various individual managers, their booking agency, their catering crew, a few spare posse-flunkey-homies and in that inimitably wise Tom Waits way of his, healed every festering open wound, so that Rage Against The Machine could go on to destroy capitalism and sell out stadiums everywhere, and so Zack could be his untroubled radiant self. If Tom Waits didn’t have other stuff to do, he’d probably have made a terrific band manager. Or a badass coach, spilling forth a fountain of inspirational slogans.

Well, no. Sorry. Zack sort of kept going, and Waits was kind of wedged in between Zack and the wall and me, so I did the gracious thing. I got going. Gave Waits a way to get out. I can be gracious, too, you know. Hollywood etiquette rubs off sometimes.