In 1986, the first lady of L.A. radio, Deirdre O'Donoghue, was fired from KCRW for making anti-Reagan comments on the air. More than a decade later, her legacy lives on courtesy of her friend Henry Rollins. Still, Rollins' Harmony in My Head radio show, which airs Tuesday nights on Indie 103, would give even liberals pause. At precisely 8 p.m. each week, listeners are greeted for musical worship with an Islamic chant that Rollins collected during one of his many trips to the Middle East. He and his "brother in Sonic Jihad," Engineer X, assault, inform, deafen and amaze for two hours with uncensored selections, each accompanied by analysis and anecdotes.
Fast-forward to a small studio on Wilshire containing a sound board and two pals, one armed with a Xeroxed yellow playlist and a lifetime of music knowledge, the other with the chops to engineer the so-called rock mosque flawlessly. "If I could do this four nights a week I'd be stoked," says Rollins one recent Tuesday evening during a Harmony airing. "I love it. I love just coming in here, doing my thing, playing great records. I mean, I love being on stage, but it's a different kind of pressure. Here it's not about me being great, because it's the music — the music's already great. I don't get hate mail when I play jazz. I get letters like, 'Play more!'" And for all its bluster, the show itself has a homey feel to it; Rollins invites listeners to e-mail him for the current annotated playlist, which reads like an afternoon chat with an all-knowing, energetic clerk at the local record store. (Think High Infidelity.) Throughout each show, the host and engineer exchange new music discoveries and movie recommendations.
The annotated playlists are extensive and complex, and often take Rollins days or weeks to put together. He's as serious about punk rock as he is about jazz as he is about Islamic street music; on any given night, the new Public Enemy single might be followed by Tuvian throat singer Gennadi Tumat, Deerhoof, the Damned, a Mingus bootleg or highly prized versions of songs you've never heard. Says the mysterious Engineer X: "It's been so strange doing this show with him, because, well, you know him as 'the Icon,' and then you really get to know him and he's so friendly and open. He listens to everything. Doesn't shy away from even the weirdest stuff. That's what makes it so fun."
Should you have missed one of these legendary broadcasts since 2005, or need to know the song he played 15 minutes into last week's show, Rollins the perfectionist has meticulously compiled Fanatic!, a series of books published via his 2.13.61 imprint that preserve his Harmony playlists. The books are perfectly titled to describe the author's music-nerdish sensibility.
The second volume came out a few months ago, and the first copy arrived the day I visited Rollins at the studio. The book had been toted to the Indie studios in Rollins' "briefcase," a plastic mail bin sheathed in bubble wrap. At 470 pages, it was dense and shiny and smelled like fresh ink. Flipping through the book carefully (so as not to crack the spine), I noticed some of the rare show fliers and photos that illustrate the chapters, many of which are from Rollins' personal collection, others pulled from the Internet, including handmade English show posters, ticket stubs and press clippings. Entire chapters are devoted to perennial faves Buzzcocks and the Damned, part of an avalanche of text that accompanies each week's music.
Engineer X takes a look, but he doesn't get to linger; the first copy of every Rollins book belongs to Dischord Records head (and former Minor Threat/Fugazi front man) Ian MacKaye, part of a decades-old ritual that began with the first hand-collated 2.13.61 release. (MacKaye, in fact, was a guest DJ on last week's installment of the show.) The rest of the copies, however, can be bought from henryrollins.com or at the merch table during his current European tour. The book is already in its second printing, thanks in part to fans of Harmony who stream it from all around the world. A third volume, already in the works, will complete the set.
"I spend too much time on it," admits Rollins about Fanatic!, describing the project as the work of "an almost 50-year-old man with his own publishing company putting out a fanzine.
"I wrote five to seven songs a day, maybe 10 on the weekends," continues Rollins. "It was all-consuming. Fanatic! Volume 3 culminated on the last show of 2007." (Although he was in Islamabad, Pakistan, for the year-end wrap-up, he makes an effort to pretape shows and vows never to repeat a set.)
Not surprisingly, the book is dedicated to O'Donoghue, who actually gave him his first broadcasting lessons. Rollins filled in for her sometimes on the air after her health failed, and paid her medical expenses as she succumbed to complications from MS in 2001. "She taught me how to do radio," says Rollins, then harnesses her metaphor for making great radio: "It's like catching a marlin. Give them a little line, then pull them back. Play Harold Budd, then give them Prince. And never play anything you don't like. People see through that." To that end, the DJ already has a prediction: "2008 is going to be the best set of shows ever broadcast. I can't wait. I'm planning them now. You're going to love it."