One of the weird things about being a music fan – not a casual fan, but a “this is how I make sense of my life” fan – is that certain artists will always be present across the years, even though you’re not necessarily a huge fan of their work. They flit in and out, you occasionally listen to an album, it registers when they release something new (although you probably won’t buy it), and when their latest tour comes to town, you at least check ticket prices in case it’s happening on a night when nothing good is on TV.
Henry Rollins is that guy for me.
I definitely don’t dislike his work (and he’d probably punch me if I said I did), but it’s just never quite clicked with me. At the dawn of my voracious music phase (a phase that’s now lasted 27 years), where I was crazily tracking down influences of influences of influences of that week’s new favorite band, I discovered Black Flag’s Damaged album. I didn’t know what to do with it. I was mopey, but not angry. I appreciated humor, but couldn’t figure out how to interpret “TV Party” against the backdrop of Rollins’ supposed straightedge lifestyle. I liked stuff with an edge, but didn’t exactly connect with the sludgy aggression of what I was told was a landmark album.
So I just sort of let it slide on past on my way to Echo & The Bunnymen or whatever. I revisited his work a few years later when he had a minor college radio hit as frontman of The Rollins Band with “Low Self Opinion.” I certainly connected with the song lyrically, and musically it was a little more melodic than Black Flag, but it was hard to escape the fact that it was unseemly for a grown man to be singing about such things – what I imagine David Cross would call “15-year-old white girl lyrics.”
For a while, Rollins and I didn’t see much of each other. I read his work when it appeared in various publications, and I was intrigued by his transition away from music and into spoken-word performance, but even as my musical palate expanded, there was never a point where I thought, “It’s time to immerse myself once again in the Black Flag oeuvre.”
But I never wrote him off, even though his music never quite did it for me. His spoken-word material was too smart, too funny, and too relatable for me to discount him. This was reinforced by his 2009 performance at Coachella. If I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of it except that it was sharp, clever, and much better than I was expecting. What I do remember is that he made a point of emphasizing that all the people at Coachella, whether they were at his set or not, were part of the same tribe. By virtue of traveling to the desert to immerse ourselves in good music, we had more in common with each other than we realized. I don’t think that’s true of Coachella anymore – the target audience has sadly shifted away from the music fan to the L.A. teenybopper douchebag who wants only to be seen at the party – but Rollins’ sentiment resonated. As one of only a handful of people at my high school seriously into independent music, I understood the value of finding like-minded friends. And I especially appreciated Rollins’ Coachella set because it was at this point that I recognized him for what he really was: a fan. No more, no less.
This was reinforced by an article he wrote last week for LA Weekly. I encourage anyone who’s trying to understand the music obsessive in his or her life to read this article. It’s a little rambling and discursive, but at one point Rollins articulates simply and truthfully why I think many of us listen to – and buy – as much music as we do.
I buy records because I medicate with music. It makes the day-to-day horror show of existence endurable . . . I am less an audiophile than I am a vinyl cat lady. You can never have too many records – aren’t they all just so wonderful?
I think I’m often viewed by friends and acquaintances as simply a collector, the Crazy Music Guy™ who has a lot of records. But I can’t stress this enough: music saved my life. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. I was struggling to come to grips with who I was. I felt unpopular and unattractive. I know I’m not unique in these feelings – I probably just described everyone who’s ever been a teenager – but music is the way I survived. I knew when I was feeling down I could listen to The Smiths and take solace in the fact that Morrissey felt the same way I did. I could listen to R.E.M. and be comforted by the arty weirdos from exotic Athens, GA, or put on The Joshua Tree and think about how I could help U2 save the world. Was I self-destructive? I don’t know. I’ve got almost 30 years in the rearview mirror, which makes it a little hard to say, but, yeah – my parents probably should have been concerned. The point, though, just like Rollins says, is that music was my medication, my therapy. I owe it a debt I can never repay.
And, while the circumstances are different, I still use it to medicate. My feelings of inadequacy linger, they’re just different now: I’m crap at my job, I should be a kinder person, I need to write more, I’m not being all I should be for my students, and on and on. At home, in my car, at the office, right now – music is playing nearly all the time, and it helps me get through the day. I enjoy the music on an aesthetic level, of course – that is, after all, my primary concern – but there’s undoubtedly a therapeutic value to it, too. It isn’t just a tune to whistle as I idle away the time.
At a time when vinyl records have become just another hipster affectation, it’s important for those of us who depend on music to make sense of the world to periodically remind people that, at its best, music transcends entertainment. Henry Rollins, vinyl cat lady proclivities notwithstanding, makes a convincing case for that. And in doing so, he reminds me that some musicians will always be there for us, whether we ask them to be or not.
Fugazi – End Hits (1998)