39) Happy Birthday, Henry Rollins!
“Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.”
― Henry Rollins
Today is the day before that revolting holiday that makes single people want to vomit a box of chocolates onto a bouquet of black roses before ingesting a lethal dose of cyanide.
With that disclaimer out of the way, in lieu of tomorrow’s twerpy twitterpated, chocolates for sex love fest, I am celebrating Henry Rollins birthdate 2.13.1961, the day the Soviet Union fired a rocket from Sputnik V to Venus. Romantic, isn’t it?
Henry was born in the year that marks the beginning of Generation X – 1961, the erection of the Berlin Wall. Henry shares the same birth year with Barack Obama, Princess Diana, and Douglas Coupland.
Henry is unique in many ways among his contemporaries. He understands America and the globe more profoundly than most Americans. He has been to damn near every major and minor city all over the U.S. and abroad thousands of times over throughout the years of his spoken word tours and intense gigs with Black Flag and Rollins Band.
He knows the streets, the crowds, the unique culture of every place he has been, spending long nights drinking black coffee and writing in dingy hotels, reflecting on everything he sees and feels and hears. A true solipsist, he is a master of himself and a friend of no one in particular. He is a productive, sober, and explosive voice of our time, kicking his ego to the curb with genuine and excruciating self-reflective truth. His razor sharp insight cuts deep into the corpse of the Gen-X zeitgeist.
I met Henry the first time in March of 2003 in Eugene, Oregon after a spoken word show. I have never witnessed anyone blister through a performance with the same elevated composure, perfect articulation, biting commentary, and thundering voice raking the audience into bleeding stitches for two hours without a pause or drink from the unopened water bottle on his stool. I was impressed by his intelligence and unique perspective on politics and relationships.
Five years later on another day in March of 2007, I found myself driving to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood to attend the book signing of Punk Love. Henry had co-authored the book with an old friend, Susie J Horgan, a photography student and co-worker with Henry at Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop, who unknowingly photographed the emerging punk movement in the late 1970s in DC. This time I brought a personal letter to give to Henry.
Driving down the 101 to Laurel Canyon was like cutting through a crack in the pavement; windy and craggy, down into the bowels of the places cockroaches live and rock stars overdose on heroin. A meandering, overused road, dizzying homes of celebrities past, and suddenly, after several turns I was quickly approaching Sunset Boulevard.
I stopped at a light and viewed a man, looking older than he likely was with a creeping beard and red eyes holding a cardboard sign ‘NEED BEER.’ He posed with the sign next to his head, did a little hop and transferred the sign switching it like an old flip clock radio. He hopped again and rotated the sign in an upside down arch to read ‘FREE PIZZA BOWL,” his eyebrows twitching.
I couldn’t help but think of Vanna White turning the letters around on the Wheel of Fortune. The man grinned, showing his yellowed-teeth standing outside a small shack with a broken door hopping from side-to-side and assuring me that I didn’t need beer or a free pizza bowl.
My whole life living in Southern California, I rarely came to Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard was more like a gaunt figure in an outdated, oversized designer suit: colorful and small with bold billboards jutting out like rusty railroad spikes half jammed in the ground. I wondered what other burned out creature with yellowing teeth might want to have their way with me, stick a knife in me, stick a cock in me just because I’m walking around with this hole. I turned on Sunset Boulevard, then made a left on the side street adjacent to the Viper Room where River Phoenix overdosed on a speedball in 1993, an event I remember shedding tears over.
I pulled around the back of the bookstore where Henry’s website instructed to park in a tiny lot, where I found a space. Thank goodness I showed up an hour early.
I walked from the minuscule back parking lot around to the front. The sun was low in the sky and the orange of it saturated the streets. Long, jagged shadows haunted the sidewalk. Outside of the bookstore, magazine racks lined the small entrance of Book Soup. Everything on Sunset Boulevard seemed like a small rabbit hole into a perceived illusion of space, oddly private and strangely decadent. Inside, I was bombarded by towering vertical shelves of books – the opposite of the sprawling big-box bookstores I was used to. There was no room to walk, claustrophobic corners with no place to sit, like a cat in an undersized box.
A tall man with greenish eyelids was sitting behind a cramped counter like a morbid doll stuffed inside a child’s closet. I landed on an oversized art book at the front entrance; the largest book I’d ever seen. It was the size and thickness of the Ten Commandments, or so I speculated. I opened each page and watched it fall like an enormous leaf: a collage of handwritten journals, splattered with color and images cut and clipped in strange juxtapositions. I felt a nagging for a design project, the excitement of creating something new, washing over in smooth overlapping layers. As I was feasting on this wondrous book, just to my right, I see Henry Rollins walk through the door. I continued turning pages as his eyes looked in my direction and scanned the perimeter like a cyborg.
“Hey, Henry,” said the man behind the counter in a familiar tone.
“How’s it going,” Henry Rollins replied, disappearing into the meandering cavern of the bookstore. I was glad he was here. Like me, I suspected, he wanted to show up early and hang out browsing books, taking in the scene before the throng of strange creatures showed up.
I decided to explore, passing through the fiction aisle and up to the information desk. I wanted to know where the science and technology section was located. A girl with blonde hair and smudgy black eyes took me to the spot. I found Richard Dawkins’ books and looked through titles I hadn’t seen before. After a few minutes, I made my way to the entertainment and music books, knowing I would find Henry there. I shuffled into the little room.
Standing with his back to me, he was wearing his usual plain black t-shirt. I could see his tattoos poking out underneath, a skull and snake and the word ‘Damage.’ I stared at the Black Flag logo on the back of his neck just under his hairline. It reminded me of a barcode label. His long dark brown wavy hair from his Black Flag days was now short with flecks of grey; his face unchanged, still severe and handsome.
I walked across from where he stood to a large section of music biographies and saw The Lady Sings the Blues, the story of Billie Holiday and smiled at her solemn gaze. I found a book on the Pixies, and remembered seeing them at the Hollywood Palladium in 1991. I almost turned around to ask Henry if he happened upon a band that merged jazz and punk together, but decided against it. I didn’t want to bother him while he was immersed in books. So I just looked through mine enjoying the moment of sharing the space with him knowing that I was standing next to this amazing person who rages inside like me. I felt calm and content as two lonely birds on a rusted wire sit, lost in thought, sharing a moment of serenity between storms before flying away to another experience.
The bookstore began to fill up and Henry stole away and met up with a tall woman in a black dress in boots with long curly brown hair. It was Susie. She and Henry chatted while they hung Susie’s historic photographs for the presentation. Since I was there first, I stood nearby to make sure I could be up close. When most everyone filed in and we were all crowded around the back of the store, Henry and Susie introduced themselves and told us stories of how they met, the ice cream shop, and the infamous photo of Ian MacKaye’s brother, Alec that ended up becoming the icon of the American punk movement.
Susie continued her career as a photographer. Just like any movement, she and Henry were caught up in the swirl of a youth rebellion against a world that seemingly felt ineffectual. The moments they shared with us were precious moments of the spirit of youth in a collective expression of music and primal connection in a world that was indifferent to their lives, their hopes, their pain, and their future.
I couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness that I couldn’t be a part of this moment in time, with all of these young and beautiful faces full of life and energy and angst creating something new in a worn out world. I was only 4-years-old when Susie snapped these photos. My own experience with hardcore punk came much later after the core of the movement had merged into New Wave. Sometime in high school in the early 1990s, that’s when I discovered Black Flag, Rollins Band, Fugazi, and Minor Threat. It was fresh to me, but the ice cream had already melted by then and Nirvana was the new youth movement.
I remember giving my letter to Henry and shaking his hand again. I asked him if he had any career advice as a writer. I was immediately embarrassed after I said it. He laughed and tweaked his face.
“Career? Career?! What I do… it’s not a career. It’s painful.”
Henry was right. Writing is painful. And I’m sure he would agree that writing, just like music is also cathartic and healing and necessary.
Whenever I am in doubt and feel terrible about anything, I retreat to Henry’s collected work. He makes the most sense, speaks to the darkness inside all of us more than any person I know. When I am depressed and angry, I know that he is also depressed and angry. Whether he realizes it or not, I have him to thank in many moments in my life because he is a stubborn rocket burning on in a futile universe.
Happy Birthday, Henry!
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