Henry Rollins is right.
I should end this post right there, but that would be nowhere near narcissistic enough. Over the past week I’ve been reading Smile, You’re Traveling, which is probably the tenth Rollins book I’ve read. It is framed as a travelogue circa 1997, but essentially it is a couple of years’ worth of journal entries written by a depressed man with self esteem issues. I mean no criticism with that comment; after all, I’ve spent the majority of my life as a depressed man with self esteem issues.
What makes reading, listening, watching Rollins difficult for me is that he is dead on with the majority of his observations, and unfortunately a lot of those observations are leveled at the likes of me. I’m the Ugly American with two kids, a job, and a mortgage. I’m the guy who has gone soft. I’m the guy who compromised his own dreams for a different life. I didn’t go to battle. I won’t be carried home on my shield. It’s easy to feel defensive when the finger is pointing at me, but he’s spot on.
I find myself cringing while I’m reading. How can I like this guy so much when he wouldn’t even burn any calories to hate me, much less like me? What would he think of my childhood Manilow fixation? How much would he berate me if he knew how much time I’ve spent idle and paralyzed by fear, anxiety, and depression?
This is jumping ahead quite a bit in my little narrative, but what the hell. In 1984 I was seventeen years old. I had a girlfriend and a couple of good friends, but for the most part I was an outcast. Boiling Springs, South Carolina was a small town that appreciated conformity. Members Only jackets, parachute pants, and Camaros with a case of beer in the back seat. I wanted out. Badly.
But what could I do? I wasn’t the type of kid to run away or drop out of school, so I took my little war internal. I dressed funny. I got a bad haircut. I listened to “weird music.” But finding music outside of the mainstream wasn’t easy in a pre-internet small town. I managed to find X’s More Fun In the New World, the soundtrack to Urgh! A Music War and a few other records that I’m sure will get much ink at a later date, but for the most part “weird” was anything that wasn’t Def Leppard or Night Ranger.
The movie Repo Man was another one of those wonderful gateway drugs. The film itself is worth your time, but man what a soundtrack. Alone in a darkened theater I heard Black Flag’s “TV Party” for the first time. It was funny and simple and captured succinctly the rednecks who offered daily to kick my ass: “We’ve got nothing better to do / than watch TV / Have a couple of brews.” I felt better about myself, not so alone. I didn’t know these Black Flag guys – never would – but if somebody out there felt the banality that I felt then I wasn’t alone in the wilderness.
I worked at a record store at the time — not a cool record store with lots of imports and a $75 Lynyrd Skynyrd Street Survivors with the original “flame” cover hanging behind the counter, but a mall record store. We sold stacks of Huey Lewis, John Waite, Springsteen, Madonna, Paul Young. Michael Jackson and Footloose. Regardless, I wasn’t flipping burgers so it was a step up.
A few months or so after Repo Man, Nina the Polygram rep dropped in to push the new Bon Jovi record. They had a minor hit named “Runaway” on their first album, so they weren’t a complete unknown. I was the guy who did the in-store displays, so Nina gave me tickets and backstage passes to the upcoming Bon Jovi show.
Sweet! I’d never been backstage, and honestly the reality of being a music fan in a small town is that you go see whatever act is nice (read: small) enough to come your way. Bon Jovi it was going to be, but I didn’t really know the band’s music so I picked up their new album, 7800 Degrees Farenheit. I took it home, carefully slit the shrink wrap open, gave it a swipe with the Discwasher and dropped the needle.
I tried, I really did. I wanted to like it. I was going to meet my very first celebrity. I wanted to tell him how much I was into his new record. But I couldn’t. It was a piece of crap. I wanted to kick my own ass for listening to it. I wanted to cruise The Beacon in a Trans-Am. It was really, truly, honestly horrible.
I think I own pretty much every record I’ve ever purchased with exception to my fine junior high 8-track collection, and I still regret giving that away. There may be some horrible misfires in my stacks, but they are all part of my collective life story. I even have all of the promos that I was allowed to take home from the various record stores I worked for through my late teens and early twenties. I think I may even have a Fat Boys promo, but this Bon Jovi record exceeded my threshold.
So on my next working day I took it back. I begged Steve, the store manager, to let me exchange it. He was a great guy, but he was a stickler for rules. After much pleading he allowed me to swap it straight across for an album of the same price. I flipped through the bins and was surprised to see that we got a Black Flag album in. This was amazing for a mall record store – a record on the SST label? This was a first for us. The Raymond Pettibon sleeve looked nothing like the slick ’80s dreck that we stocked.
Man that album was great, and if it wasn’t you’ll never convince me otherwise. I loved every track on that record. I loved the intensity. It was immediately in my regular rotation.
(Incidentally, I went to the Bon Jovi show and I got my moment backstage with Jon Bon Jovi. He was maybe twenty-four at the time. I was a ridiculous eighteen year old. He was kind, polite, gracious. He fielded every stupid question that I threw at him during my little precursor to “The Chris Farley Show.” I felt terrible for hating his record.)
That was twenty-five years ago. I’ve had relationships, relocations, marriage, kids, school, careers. I’ve experienced depression and anxiety for the bulk of that time, and it has crippled me creatively. Rollins? His life is his, it’s not my place to reiterate here. But from what I can gather he has dealt with shit that is exponentially heavier than anything I’ve been thrown, and on top of that he’s had to deal with the same depression and ego issues. But he’s soldiered on. He’s found his magnetic north and he’s stuck to it. It shows in his music, his writing, his radio show. I know his magnetic north isn’t mine, but it still makes me feel small sometimes. Other times I feel like that kid listening to Loose Nut – like I’ve found a kindred spirit. There’s another guy out there with a room full of books and records who would rather not look in the mirror. This is why music matters.
Do yourself a favor: Visit Rollins’s site and pick up some of his books, music, and spoken word performances. He has a bunch of stuff for five bucks. You can afford five bones to expunge “Livin’ On A Prayer” from your long-term memory.