The night before MTV’s Video Music Awards, Rage Against the Machine playfully debated with video director Michael Moore how they would accept their award if “Sleep Now in the Fire” won Best Rock Video. The running joke was that they should get Fidel Castro — in New York for the United Nations Millennium Conference — to accept on their behalf.
That might have caused less of a stir than what actually happened — with Rage losing out to Limp Bizkit, while RATM bassist Tim Commerford climbed the stage props only to get arrested afterwards. “I had no idea what he was planning,” guitarist Tom Morello said afterwards. “I didn’t expect an evening of Tim vs. the NYPD.”
“Earlier, Tim had mentioned something about toppling the podium if we won, for no particular reason, which seemed like a silly idea to me,” Morello said. “Right before the award we were up for was announced, Tim asked [singer] Zack [De La Rocha] and me if he should do it. We both said no.”
Commerford, an avid rock climber, seemed fueled by presenter D’Angelo’s comments about the spirit of rock (“fueled by risk and bound by nothing”), Morello said. Before Limp Bizkit even left their seats, Commerford had bounded up on stage and was climbing the stage prop while Morello yelled, “Tim, no! Don’t!” he recalls. “I was cowering in my seat while he climbed up there, squatted on the MTV precipice and started rocking back and forth, seemingly trying to make it fall over and on the two sexiest people in the industry, Jennifer Lopez and D’Angelo.” Then, while Limp Bizkit were on stage, they seemed unaware of the situation, Morello said. “They had no idea there was a gargoyle up there giving the rock & roll sign and saying, ‘This is bullshit.'”
De La Rocha didn’t stay to see the aftermath, having left Radio City immediately after Commerford’s climb to go back to his hotel room. “I was so humiliated,” De La Rocha said, “I left.” He added that he needed to take a long walk to think about it, declining further comment.
When security and police tried to retract Commerford, Morello said, “all the fists from Pete [bodyguard Perrin Beattle] and Tim were defensive. Security did not know [Tim] was a band member. They thought it was a crazed fan.” From what he witnessed, Morello believes that “the police overreacted.”
Video director Moore, who told Commerford at the time, “I’m not going to tell you what to do, just don’t hurt anybody,” looked back at the incident and reconsidered his advice. “Maybe I should have talked to him more like a teenager and told him not to do it. But hey, this is rock & roll — stuff happens. That shouldn’t be a surprise.”
As to what Commerford’s motivation was, though others attributed it to his champagne consumption prior to the show, Moore thought the bass player was “just bored,” citing his increasing agitation with some aspects of the show, especially Britney Spears’ cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Sisqo’s win for “The Thong Song” and the army-like procession of Eminem lookalikes. “In America, we reward the mediocre,” Moore said, quoting Kurt Vonnegut. “The more you’re like ‘N Sync, the faster and higher you’ll climb. Rock & roll used to be about playing music that stood for something. Now it’s background music for Burger King and McDonald’s commercials. I think the bass player of this band is against really bad MTV props.”