Henry Rollins: A Trip Down the Bummer Side Roads of Memory Lane
Photo by Heidi May
I have always been fascinated by time. Everyone gets 60 seconds per minute, so in a way, it’s a fair deal. But depending on what your circumstances are, time as a measurable thing becomes conceptual, and this is where it gets interesting.
I resist any idea of “killing” time. I load up a tablet with films for long flights, so when I get done with reading, writing or listening, I can watch something. Usually, I just keep the music going and the notebook open. Hours pass but not a second is endured. Two bandmates used to drop acid and rock P-Funk from JFK to Heathrow.
Time is that which you can’t get back. Using it wisely is something we all want to do but don’t always accomplish.
I waste time thinking about how to use it. I give myself certain amounts of time to decide on what action to take. Am I leaving the house to get groceries now? I give myself a minute to decide. I have mini-meltdowns when I stand in line, feel trapped at almost any event, and see boredom as a total fail.
There are expanses of time where I feel I have hit the perfect pitch. It’s usually at night and, most of the time, there is music playing.
Different kinds of music elicit different effects, so I choose carefully. Some music is so familiar that when the side of the record is over, I almost don’t notice. It’s not background music, a term I have never understood. It is because it is so much a part of me, it’s like the sound of my breathing. In this instance, music is being utilized to enhance time, to make it more. An LP can be a two-sided mantra, like any Coltrane record from 1965.
At this point, I devote far more listening time to that which I have never heard or am otherwise unfamiliar with. It’s like a workout. I am engaged, invested in not only understanding the new map dictated by new sounds but finding myself in it enough so that the music becomes part of me and I become a part of it. You can’t live all over the world at once, but you can live in the entire world of music if you allow yourself to connect.
This is my favorite use of time. I have never surfed, but I liken time spent purposefully engaging with music to being inside a wave when it forms a tube. It is as if your very existence is creating time, which is a solipsistic notion, but I liken it to matching the tuning-fork tone of the universal hum.
Perhaps this is similar to what is attained during meditation or being at zero gravity. By going deep in, you can get way, way out. This is the vapor trail I chase during late-night listens on the weekends.
The ability of a song to take you back to a time and place, complete with vivid memories, alternate endings and emotional Photoshopping, can be powerful and painful. In “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” written by Betty Nelson and Ahmet Ertegun, sung by many but made famous by Ben E. King, there is a line that nails it: “Oh no, don’t let it play/It fills my heart with pain/Please stop it right away/I remember just what it said.”
But sometimes you want that which hurts, because it’s better than feeling nothing. As the great songwriter TV Smith once wrote: “I looked at the sun/I had to have something.” There is an allure to the melancholic because it is so fraught with humanity. Sometimes your misery finding company isn’t so bad. This is captured perfectly in the Rogers & Hart composition “Glad to Be Unhappy,” which I will leave it up to you to look up.
When I was 18, I worked at a laboratory facility in Maryland with people much older than I. I was a curiosity to them. I played them music I had on my cassette player and they dubbed me “Little Buzzcock” after they heard “Breakdown” from the Buzzcocks’ perfect Spiral Scratch EP.
One of them told me that every weekend, he would go to a bar and listen to “cry-in-your-beer songs.” He invited me to come along. It didn’t seem like fun to me and it wasn’t until years later that I understood what the appeal of that could possibly be.
One time, after a breakup with a woman, I made a tape of Thin Lizzy ballads and let the songs run over me like a steamroller. That’s when I realized I, too, was crying in my beer.
Isn’t this urge to take a trip down the bummer side roads of memory lane the very definition of wasting time? Isn’t it a retreat from the perceived bleakness of the present in favor of the illusory gloss of the past?
But can’t it also be a celebration of experience, wisdom achieved? Life is to be enjoyed now and then, right? Or is that just me trying to justify why I usually start my Friday night listening session with The Damned’s third album, Machine Gun Etiquette, or that I am a Bowie-fixated, Zeppelin-worshiping Stooges freak?
I like flying through time via music. It’s cool to visit but I don’t want to live there. I don’t want to be young again. It was pretty good, but once is enough.
That being said, one of the many upsides of a lot of laps around the track is that you have plenty of listening experience to draw upon as you go bravely forward into new music, a voyager on the sonic seas.
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