Today is Henry Rollins’ birthday, so I’m going to write about him. If you’re not a fan, that’s okay. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
I am a huge fan of Henry Rollins. I think Rollins Band is great, I’ve enjoyed his acting career, and I think he’s an excellent host and interviewer. I like but don’t love Black Flag, which probably loses me points with some folks, but whatever. The album with Mother Superior is my favorite of Rollins’ musical endeavors.
Mostly, though, I’m a fan of the guy talking. I’ve accumulated dozens of hours of his spoken word over the years and I’ve probably listened to Henry Rollins talk more than I have most other individual humans.
In our lives we have things that we love that were introduced to us and things that we found on our own. Both have their value, but to me the things that I discovered myself have some extra meaning. I think we’re lucky if we have people – older siblings, connected friends, maybe even cool parents – who can give us the keys to the cool stuff, but there’s something special about that band or director or writer that’s just for you.
I’ve been fortunate throughout my life in that I’ve always had one or two of those cool friends who shows me the cool stuff. One friend got me into metal. Another introduced me to punk. Another exposed me to foreign horror films. For whatever reason my friendships never seem to last, which might be why my tastes have been so varied for so long. I’ve never been a one genre guy and there’s always someone new with some new cool stuff.
Many years ago I was criticized for this and at the time it was taken by some as a fairly severe insult. To this day I’ve never quite understood why categorizing yourself one way or limiting your interests would be considered “right”. Over the years I might have leaned more one way than another at times, but I’ve collected and cultivated my interests rather than shedding them or conforming myself to any single thing.
I discovered Henry Rollins sometime around 1992, a critical time in my development. I was sixteen and everything was coming together and falling apart simultaneously, as it does during the teenage years. Life seemed like barely controllable chaos and music was one of the few things that could distract me from the nonstop confusion.
I bought the Rollins Band album The End of Silence from my local record store, MusiCDrome, after weeks of looking at the cool album cover. They might still have been going by Chapter 3 Records at the time; I can’t recall when they changed. It’s possible I had seen something from Rollins Band on MTV’s 120 Minutes prior to that (I don’t think so), but I certainly hadn’t heard them on the radio.
The opening track “Low Self Opinion” hit me like an electric shock. I’d present some of the lyrics, but you get the idea. It’s all there in the title. How was this guy talking directly to me? How did he know?
I’ll admit that at the time the music was not a style that I particularly liked. “Tearing” was about as close to a song I’d normally like as the album got, but to me the instrumentation was secondary. It’s the lyrics that were reaching into me and sinking hooks into my guts. I had never connected to music in this way before. It had always been something that I listened to for enjoyment, never for any sort of emotional, revelatory experiences. And I’d certainly never felt like James Hetfield or Joey Belladonna or the Beastie Boys or even Weird Al knew who I was and were staring into my soul.
To me at that time music was either storytelling or celebration. It was mythical and mostly fiction. Anthrax singing about Stephen King books or weaving musical tales of morality. Run DMC rapping about a guy ordering a Big Mac from Kentucky Fried Chicken. Weird Al and his top 40 polkas. I loved all of that and knew every word. That stuff lived in my heart, but Rollins was inhabiting my soul.
When I was young I was miserable and full of self-loathing. I didn’t relate to anyone and I had very little hope for the future. No options appealed to me, it never seemed like I’d find a path for myself and the joys I did find were often crushed or taken away. Much of my misery was of my own making, but there were definitely outside factors that didn’t do me any favors. This Henry Rollins guy was talking about isolation and hopelessness and fear in a very personal way and every time I listened to that music that stuff within me… relaxed for a while. Knowing that someone else in this world felt a version of what I felt was incredibly reassuring. Even if it didn’t change my life, it was a relief.
I didn’t love every song on The End of Silence and I didn’t even listen to the entire album all the way through many times – this was the new and improved CD era where you could skip the stuff you didn’t like! But I realize now that that album meant more to me than any other that I had heard at that point in my life.
Note: I have since listened to the entire album many times.
At some point I bought a new CD with Rollins’ name on it and I was dismayed to discover that… this guy was just talking?!?
Where was the music? Where were the angry, grinding guitar riffs? Where was the bass that was like a punch in the gut? NO DRUMS? I hadn’t loved the music, but I wanted the music!
I mean, it’s not like this guy had actually been singing on that album anyway. And… is he being funny? Are these people laughing? Is Henry Rollins a… comedian?
This whole thing was weird and unexpected, but I stuck with it. I had never heard a rock star just talk like this before. These people were supposed to be secretive and mysterious, only expressing emotions through song! But here was ol’ Hank, sharing to a degree that far surpassed his already vulnerable and personal lyrics. And making me laugh my ass off.
This “spoken word” stuff not only gave me a whole new aspect of Henry Rollins to appreciate, it also introduced me to a world of storytelling that I was completely unaware of. I was a HUGE fan of stand-up comedy in the late 80s and the 90s. It’s when I discovered another of my heroes, Marc Maron, and was also introduced to They Might Be Giants via a Jake Johannsen special. I watched every bit of comedy I could find, from MTV’s Half Hour Comedy Hour to The Comedy Channel/Comedy Central to premium cable specials that my parents would not have been happy about me watching.
Oddly enough, Bill Cosby’s Himself was probably the closest thing to Rollins’ storytelling I had seen, but even watching that when I was younger I had a sense that there was an element of fiction and embellishment. It was longer-form and more masterful than other stand-up I would see, but still essentially a guy telling jokes.
Henry Rollins was not a comedian or a guy telling jokes, and while the difference was not as easily definable to me in 1993, I was very aware of it. Just like his music was more real than anything else I listened to, his spoken word was as well.
This guy who understood my sadness and my loneliness and my frustration could also be funny as fuck. And that might be the most important thing Rollins taught me. That we hurt and we regret and we resent, but as long as we use our experiences and our hindsight as lessons and try to build better things on top of those foundations of pain, none of it has to be useless or meaningless. Because the worst thing isn’t to fuck up or be hurt or have sadness; the worst thing is to experience pain and get nothing out of it. To fail to learn or grow or benefit in any way. To take the hurt and just let it fester inside; that’s the worst thing to do.
Rollins was taking every experience and turning it into something. If you want to look at it as a hopeful, enlightened person he’s putting parables and lessons and hope out into the world.
If you want to be crass, he’s creating a product.
But whichever way you look at it, he’s taking his pain and making something from it. Rollins is making the most out of everything he can, and that’s inspiring.
Because of what he creates he can travel, he can have experiences. He’s had opportunities to interview great people, host shows, talk about music, create art, and do things most people only dream of. Because this guy chose decades ago to share stories of his shitty experiences touring in a band, he has a whole career and lifestyle that is one to be admired. He’s not some faded-out rocker, he’s a cultural icon who has touched and influenced thousands of lives in a meaningful way.
I can’t say that I’ve followed Rollins’ example as closely as I might have. I’m inspired by his drive, but I don’t have it. I’m motivated by his passion, but mine is for different things. Sure – I wish I’d listened a little more closely and taken his words more to heart than I did. But the things that I have accomplished as far as speaking and performing come in no small way from the inspiration I experienced listening to Rollins for the past three decades.
There’s definitely more I could say here about Rollins’ work and output, but my main point was to express what it has all meant to me and to get that connection across.
Thank you and happy birthday, Henry Rawlings.
NOTE: If you haven’t checked out The Henry & Heidi Podcast, you should. It’s fantastic.
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