A week before leaving his hometown of Irvine behind for a new life in Nashville, musician Jon Knox had a parting suggestion for his longtime friend Tim Commerford that proved providential. Knox played drums with Lock Up, a funky Los Angeles rock band that split in 1990, when he paid special mind to its prodigious talent on guitar. Tom Morello, a ‘fro sporting Harvard grad, began melding his shredding solos with more experimental sounds, an innovative skill set that made him seemed destined for stardom.
“Look, this guy is really serious,” Knox told Commerford. “I think he’s someone you should connect with.” Knox passed along Morello’s contact info for Commerford and fellow friend Zack de la Rocha to follow up on. It wouldn’t be too long before Commerford, De la Rocha, Morello and Brad Wilk began rehearsing and making some noise. They called themselves Rage Against the Machine and Commerford kept his Nashville friend up-to-date on how his musical suggestion unfolded.
Rage Against the Machine dropped its eponymous self-titled debut a year later, recorded three multi-platinum studio albums in all, won Grammy awards and is sure to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “There’s something that those guys must have needed to accomplish for all of them to be together,” Knox says, calling it fate. “I’m glad that it worked out for them.” But Knox’s role in assembling one of the greatest political rock bands ever is little-known factoid, save for a brief sentence in Lock Up’s Wikipedia page or a faithful mention by Commerford in interviews like the one he gave in Alternative Nation in August.
It’s a story that begins in Irvine. The son of a military dad who ended up at the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro base, Knox originally took up drums to escape the pain of his parents’ divorce. “When you go through those difficult times in life, you either sink or swim,” he says. “I jumped into music and tried to put my joy and focus there.” Knox’s incessant practicing didn’t go unnoticed in the otherwise quiet Irvine neighborhood he lived in with his mom. One day, some rock musicians stopped and asked him if he knew about Rush drummer Neil Peart. “They gave me this record All the World’s a Stage and that was it,” he says. The classic Rush album and Kiss’ Alive drew him into the world of rock n’ roll for good.
With a newfound appreciation for Rush, Knox eventually met Commerford, a fellow fanatic who lived in the nearby University Park neighborhood and played bass. They formed bands together during their high school years and Knox eventually met De la Rocha through Commerford. “Zack would come out to a couple of our rehearsals and hang out,” he says. “He probably wouldn’t admit it, but he had slicked back hair and he played this Gibson guitar. He’d be playing these guitar riffs and the girls would go wild at the time.”
After Knox graduated from Woodbridge High School, he formed The Gift with Commerford and No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont, also from Irvine. The band played shows in LA in hopes of landing a record deal. Knox and Commerford even encountered a legend one night and tried to hand him their demo. “We saw Rick James stumbling out,” he recalls with a laugh. “Rick was gone, though.” The Gift went through several lineup changes until disbanding. That’s when Knox starting looking through Music Connection magazine and networked with Morello’s band Lock Up. “I ended up auditioning for them and got the job,” he says. “It’s funny because for some reason I beat Brad Wilke out in the audition.”
Wilk reentered the mix after Knox put three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine together before heading to Music City. “I started doing Christian music and moved out to start touring with bands,” he says. Knox always believed his talents came from God and felt he needed to be in the heart of the Bible Belt. The drummer met his wife in Nashville, started a family and got to work with legendary musicians like Steve Cropper. He joined Christian rock band White Heart and played with them until 1996.
Years after the move, Rage Against the Machine’s tour in support of The Battle of Los Angeles brought them to Nashville in Dec. 1999. “I’m driving in traffic and didn’t know they were in town,” Knox recalls. He spotted a man walking around the city’s West End main drag that looked like De la Rocha, though with his hair knotted in dreads, not slicked back as in Irvine days. “Zack!” Knox yelled out of his car across the traffic. “Hey Knox, what’s up!” the front man responded, recognizing his old friend. Knox met up with his Irvine pals the next day and took them around town.
Life came full circle again after the band played what turned out to be its final show during LA Rising in 2011. By that time, Knox returned to Southern California. He flipped through a music magazine one day when Commerford mentioned Knox by name in an interview. He brought a copy home when his friend read it and reached out to the music journalist who put the two back in contact again. “We talked on the phone for a while,” Knox says. When Commerford started Future User in 2013, he tapped his friend to play drums. The band released #SteriodsOrHeroin two years later. “It’s like putting on an old shoe,” Knox says. “Those relationships and abilities are all over that album.”
These days, Knox is happy to see Commerford playing in Prophets of Rage. He’s in a super group of his own on the Christian music scene, drumming for The Union of Sinners and Saints—an amalgamation of Petra and White Heart members. “We’ve got some shows coming up this year,” he says. “We play some new music and some of the older stuff as well.” When he’s not booked as a session musician, Knox plays drums for his home church in Corona or is busy guiding his musician daughters on their path.
He’ll always fondly recall those early days in Irvine. “It was a real good music bed in Orange County at the time,” he says. And while De la Rocha always claimed Rage Against the Machine for LA onstage, the band’s story is undeniably an Irvine tale, too. Three musician friends—white, black and Chicano—found a place in suburbia to carve out a space for themselves that became bigger than any imagined.
“I do have a love for Irvine,” Knox says. “I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I hadn’t lived there.”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.