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Henry Rollins: A Death in the Family

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]

I am in San Francisco. It is a Saturday night and I should have been in Los Angeles watching The Stooges at Staples Center. I would have had a great show to write about, but Morrissey, who was closing the show for The Stooges, canceled and the entire gig was called off! My original plan was to fly to Los Angeles, see The Stooges and then fly back up here for my last San Francisco show. As it is now, it's a Saturday night off in a major city. That's all kinds of wrong.

Earlier today, I was told that an old pal of mine from the Washington, D.C., music scene had just died. He was only in his mid-50s. I have spent the rest of the day and now into the night thinking about him. Those who knew, who know and who were there, have been checking in via email.

He could be a bit much, but in those days, we all could. Partially deaf and sometimes a bit drunk, he would lean in and talk loud, his cigarette sometimes coming close to your face. He meant no harm; in fact, he was a really good guy. He was at all the shows, you could count on it. He was one of the people who made me check myself to see how much I was into it because he was always into it.

People fall out of your life all the time, in all kinds of ways. Death is a big deal, yet so obviously part of the package. Someone goes and with their passing, a door is opened and one can be swept up in a flood of memories. You are reminded of where you come from, what that means and where you are right now. Death is huge and, at the same time, mundane in its certainty. Trying to hold both ideas in your head at once can be hard.

I don't mind hanging around in the past as long as I am on the way to the next thing. I'm sitting across the street from the venue where tomorrow I will be performing for the third time in four nights. Knowing I'll be on that stage after this night off is behind me, I can afford to float for a little while. At this moment, I am only several feet away from the legendary Fillmore at 1805 Geary Blvd. The first time I played in there was 10/31/81, after concert promoter/force of nature Bill Graham had left the venue and the place was called the Elite Club. I didn't really understand the relevance of where I was, but soon after I got it.

I have been back on that stage several times since then and it's always a big damn deal to me. When you see the list of the bands and artists who have been in that building, you can't believe that you are also part of that historical line. No venue moves me like the Fillmore. Before soundcheck, I will stand on different parts of the dance floor, look at the stage and try to imagine what it was like to see Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin there. The building was around long before Bill Graham ever started putting on shows in it, but as far as I am concerned, when you're in the Fillmore, you're in Bill's house.

 

I was lucky enough to meet Bill Graham on July 26, 1991, at the Shoreline Amphitheater on the first Lollapalooza tour. He told me he liked my band. I thanked him and told him he was an amazing man. He said, "I know."

He was killed in a helicopter accident on Oct. 25 of that year. A friend of his called me the next morning and told me. I was listening to Dylan's John Wesley Harding album when the phone rang. It's been hard to listen to that one since.

We used to play a lot of shows with Flipper in San Francisco. They were as heavy as it gets. We were fans of theirs and they returned the favor by laughing at us and calling us rock stars.

One night, we were playing together at the On Broadway, run by Dirk Dirksen, who always fed us, always treated us well. Right before we went on, Flipper's bass player, Will Shatter, put his face less than an inch from mine, smiled and said, "Have a really wonderful show." It freaked me out. Years later, toward the end of 1987, I was in San Francisco for a show and went into the Rough Trade record store. I was buying some Flipper albums, as I only had the singles they had given me. The guy behind the counter asked, "What, you're buying these now because Will Shatter just died?!" That's how I found out that Shatter had recently overdosed on heroin. Dirk checked out in 2006.

 

As the door of memory opens, it soon again closes and you are slammed into the right now, alone with all that silence. I am not in a position to hand out advice, but I try not to trip on things too much. You get caught up. A lot of people from my set have died at a relatively young age. Ironic that as I wrote that, "Dancing Machine" by Michael Jackson is playing in the coffeehouse I am sitting in. Musicians and those in the scenes that spring up around them often hurtle by like wounded meteors. Some of them give it all brilliantly and laugh about it later and some are just found dead in their apartment after not showing up for work two days.

As to my old pal who just died: I am glad we were at all those Bad Brains shows together more than 30 years ago. I am glad that the last time we spoke, and I remember it very well, he was standing up straight and not yelling. We held the line.

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