Sunday, November 2, 2014
My first exposure to Henry Rollins came in March of 2001, when I went to New Orleans with a couple friends and we saw that he was playing at the House of Blues there. We considered going, but none of us were really fans. About a year later, I was watching a rerun of SNL with a few friends in my NYU dorm room. Rollins was the musical guest, and he gyrated in place like a maniac with his shirt off. We all laughed at the performance. He seemed like a show-off.
A year or two after that, I read Our Band Could Be Your Life for the first time, and a couple years after that, I started listening to Black Flag. I guess it took me so long because I never really identified with the "message" of their music until I finished college and realized how much life sucks as an adult. This may sound weird because they seem more like a band that appeals to teenagers - but I believe one can only fully appreciate Black Flag if they have experienced personal rejection so many times that they have abandoned hope for a better result. Of course you can be a depressed teenager and listen to Black Flag, but eventually you may grow into a happy and successful person. Only after going through a prolonged period of psychological pain may a person fully understand the gravity of their music. Perhaps this makes the prospect of appreciating Black Flag an unpleasant idea. Certainly, their recent iterations are a joke, and while I'm sure Greg Ginn still has his number of demons to exorcise, the band has never been the same without Henry. He's not the type of person to be in it for the money (and he kind of reminds me of Morrissey in this regard) but if he ever did reunite with them and played small clubs (such as Reggie's Rock Club, where Black Flag recently played a show for children), no one would complain. Keith Morris has shown that age should not be a factor in the type of music you play, but I have to believe that Rollins has stopped recording and performing music because he no longer enjoys it. Or because he has seen and done everything.
There are a lot of problems with The Portable Henry Rollins, and the primary one may be the author's personality. This book is a collection of excerpts from many others books that Rollins has published through his own literary press 2/13/61, and they often read like diary entries. I am not sure of the exact length of the longest excerpt, but it is probably the first of the three "previously unreleased" short stories that conclude the book--and that is about three pages long. The book is a compilation of fits and starts, and while a few of them get at the kind of truth found in the best literary fiction or poetry, it is much more often "miss" than "hit." It is very repetitive and Rollins mostly comes off as a jerk who hates everyone (except Joe Cole and Ian Mackaye), including himself. I hate a lot of people and have written my fair share of depressing prose, but I always try to end on something very vaguely life-affirming. I highly doubt that reading this book will give you a more positive outlook on anything other than the idea of suicide.
It is ironic, then, that Rollins has most recently been in the news for his op-eds in the L.A. Weekly criticizing Robin Williams for ending his own life. In the first essay blithely titled "Fuck Suicide," Rollins wrote that Williams had performed for troops overseas at some of the same events as himself, and that he considered him a talented and good man. But he had just proved himself to be the biggest coward in the world because he had abandoned his family and failed to become a master over himself. Many readers took issue and wrote angry letters to Rollins, and his second essay effectively recanted the first, admitting that he could not defend the views he expressed.
Personally, I agree with his statement that once you have children, you waive your right to take your own life, and that your utmost goal should be not to traumatize them. After that statement, I can understand where he is coming from, excoriating the weak individuals that would rather die than deal with their problems--but it is a very fine distinction, and miles away from the tenor of the writings collected in this book. Rollins writes about suicide a lot in these pages (and he does reference Robin Williams once in the late 1980's, oddly connecting him to the fashion choices of a yuppie college town coffee house crowd), and it almost always sounds preferable to the depressing chaos of existence.
This book is Controversial. Rollins flirts with misogyny, then unabashedly adopts it. 2014 readers will find this aspect of the book troubling and unacceptable. Perhaps the balance will be struck by his overt hatred of police officers. But I don't think so. Rollins wasn't writing this material to impress anyone, and the vast majority of readers will probably make it through the first 50 pages before putting it down. Most of this was written when he was maybe somewhere between the ages of 17 and 25, and it shows: this is really personal, unedited stuff. I am reminded of the Kurt Cobain coffee table book of diary entries that I never read. Except this doesn't carry the mystique of the "voice from beyond the grave." Rollins may have disavowed a lot of this writing, but I don't know for sure. At the end of the day, it is completely honest, and it shows that the world inside his mind is a dark, dark place. For this act of bravery--boldly admitting that he is a completely twisted motherfucker--he deserves praise. But as a book that really adds nothing new to his oeuvre, and appears to serve as a mere "sampler" to casual fans considering a deeper dive, it comes off like a money grab--a greatest hits collection that lacks the immediacy and punch of an original release.
Probably the most valuable portion is the excerpt from Get in the Van, which is a book of diary entries Rollins wrote while on tour with Black Flag in the early-to-mid 1980's. I have wanted to read Get in the Van in the past, and have unsuccessfully searched for it in various public library systems. My current office roommate gave me his copy to borrow, along with a number of spoken word albums by Rollins. Get in the Van, the album, was one of them. I do think this is the most succinct and entertaining portion of the collection, and I think the entire book would make a good read. I have mixed feelings about the album, mainly the way Rollins reads so fast that you really can't be distracted while listening, and also the way it is only broken up into two long tracks (disc 1 and disc 2). It's all about your preferred mode of consumption, as I don't believe the album encompasses the entirety of the text, but as a part of the collection, the parts from Get in the Van are probably the most essential. I would also like to add that my office roommate is a police officer. He would not be the type of "pig" that Rollins loves to hate, but then again Rollins seems to want to make the blanket statement that he hates all pigs. It's a pretty immature viewpoint, though obviously at least partially a result of the many Black Flag shows that were shut down by the police, and I would be curious to know if Rollins took a less drastically hateful view once he got into his 30's:
"After the show I'm sitting in a place eating and a woman sits down and tells me that she likes what I do but the only thing she didn't like was what I said about pigs. She's a pig herself, and she says that she's an individual. I tell the pig cunt that when she puts a uniform on she loses all individuality. I told her that I party down when I hear that a pig has gotten wasted. I hope she goes out and gets shot in the knees by some low-rent motherfucker who laughs in her face. She really thought that she was a human being. I don't know how they brainwash these shitheads into being so self-righteous about being a bag of shit that should be taken out and shot in the face. Fuck these people. You never know when they are pigs in disguise. Fuck you, you stupid pig bitch. I hope you get Magic Johnson disease and die in some ward. I wonder how long I have left with this shit." (167)
Perhaps the vitriol was at its peak, as Rollins had just witnessed the murder of his best friend and roommate Joe Cole. This entry comes from Now Watch Him Die and is dated June 30 in Columbia, MO. One presumes it was June 30, 1992. Maybe this female cop had a certain attitude that really rubbed him the wrong way, but from the way it's written, Rollins appears to be the more inhuman party. And he would never deny that he is inhuman, which is a frustrating part of the book. He doesn't make apologies or rationalize his thought process, and it can be a bit alienating for the reader.
The death of Joe Cole looms large throughout these pages, and I wish that Rollins had written a more formal essay about their friendship and maybe how he went on Unsolved Mysteries to try to find the shooter. But his writings on the subject are more impressionistic:
"The detectives went through my house for hours
I was at the pig station
I didn't know until later
They went through the food in the kitchen
I got back to the house and all kinds of shit was turned over
My best friend's blood was all over the front walk
They're looking for something to bust us for
The pieces of shit even went through the attic
They were curious as to why I had so many tapes
He talks to me and makes me think he's my friend
I look at him and know he thinks I'm scum
If I give these pieces of shit the time of day then they win
There's so many pieces of shit in the world
It's amazing anyone gets by
The pigs asked if me and Joe were faggots
They were so relieved when they found out we weren't
Fuck you pig
Like I have to prove myself to you
I can't think of a more fucked-up situation
I have to talk to these shitheads all the time now
They still ask other people about me
Like I might have been up to something
I'm some kind of suspect?
Nah, but you sure are some kind of pig." (148-149)
Ultimately, it may appear that I really didn't like this book. And truthfully, on the whole, I'll take Lexicon Devil or The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club over it. But as mentioned, occasionally Rollins will bust out with a few sentences of truth, and the power of such moments cannot be denied:
"Reality has become a fear trip. Something to choke on. One in every three women in America will be raped. This is science friction. I see it from all sides. I see the direction of the infection. The facts are stacked and packed into your head. You need the two-hour vacation twelve times a day. Spark the joint and park the car. Look up at the stars. Think about it, you're in the hot seat. You're in a huge shark tank. If you want to beat them, you have to join them somehow. The bad guys kill the bad guys. The bad guys kill the good guys. If you want to survive the bad guys, you have to have some bad in you--a lot, actually. You have to know what they know." (230)
And there is also the occasional bit of indie celebrity gossip that will titillate scenesters:
"November 1. Chicago, IL:...Steve Albini is at the show tonight hanging out with the opening band I guess. I never met the guy before but once read an article he wrote that put me down. I am considering breaking his face up for him, but when I move in on him I see that he's just a skinny punk. It wouldn't have been a good kill, so I let it slide. He'll never know how close he came to getting his face fucked up in front of his friends." (177)
I doubt Henry will ever read this, see me, or recognize me, but on the off chance that it happens, I hope he wants to have a constructive conversation about writing (and not want to introduce his fist to my face). I like some of his work very much, but this collection is so random that it left me feeling cold.