Henry Rollins: Confessions of a Tape Trader

Henry Rollins: Confessions of a Tape Trader
Photo by Heidi May

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

In the late 1970s, I would help my friend Ian MacKaye put up fliers for his band, The Teen Idles. Sometimes we would come back down the street to see that they had been torn down. I quickly learned that there were forces at work basically trying to keep the music from being heard.

I took this as a personal affront to what we were doing and went out of my way to keep copies of every flyer, in an effort to preserve and maintain what I thought was a really cool and alternate history happening right in front of me. Pardon me for being so bold, but I thought what Ian and bands such as Bad Brains were doing was important. It was to me, at least. By tearing down the flyer, someone was trying to say we were not in the mix. I was determined to prove them wrong.

Almost as soon as I began gathering paper evidence of this emerging scene, I became aware of cassette recordings that bands and fans were making. The mere existence of these tapes — music you could play over and over again, which could not be found in a record store — was in itself a small miracle. That someone had the wherewithal to wrench these moments from the ether was like beating the odds and defying the bastards who would have been happy for us to go the way of the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, unheard and unwitnessed.

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I think the first live cassette I ever copied was The Cramps at the Hall of Nations in Washington, D.C., 2-3-79. Ian MacKaye recorded the show after sneaking into the venue through a window, if I remember correctly.

I am listening to it now. It’s not the greatest sound quality, but it’s more than good enough. It is proof of a great moment in world history.

Yes, you read that right. The Cramps were not just any band. Too bad the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has its head up its ass. The Cramps and Devo should have been inducted year one. Pardon my digression.

This single tape started my fascination and obsession with rare audio from alternate sources, which continues to this day.

There is something incredible about what the live tape allows the listener to experience. It’s nowhere near the same as being at the event, but it’s still really cool. The opportunity to be transported back in time as an invisible witness has never lost its hold on me. Being deprived of the reality of actually being there when the show went down, one’s imagination can run wild. It could be that listening to the live recording allows for the show to be far more epic in the mind.

I looked up The Cramps’ Hall of Nations show online and was able to find two photographs of the performance. The band, easily one of the most photogenic anywhere, look amazing in their youthful rawness.

Up until that moment, I had no idea what the venue looked like or what Ian had seen that night. Over the decades, I had built a completely different set of images in my head. The music on the tape still moves me, but I realize how much of my imagination I had utilized to fill out the rest of the picture.

As the 1980s progressed, most of my listening was done on tape. I was on the road most of the time. Whenever possible, I would set up tape trades with other bands or people I met at shows. Passing through several cities in America, Canada and Europe allowed me to network with a lot of different sources. I worked these angles very hard. Epic tape trades ensued and the results were completely worth it.

I was able to make some cool recordings of my own. Two stand out in the memory.

About 30 years ago, I went to see John Lee Hooker play solo at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. I sat at the back and put my recorder on one of the guitars against the wall. I ended up with a great bit of history. His version of “I Cover the Waterfront” that night is one of the greatest things I have ever heard.

In the summer of 1984, I was in London for shows. I took a train to Bristol to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play Trinity Hall. I recorded the show and it came out sounding great.

Decades later, I am so glad I went to the trouble. Considering that the great Mr. Hooker is gone and Nick has gone to such great heights, recording these shows was the right thing to do.

It can be said that some things might be better off as just footnotes. When it comes to music, I think the opposite is true. I think any band that can afford it should have someone documenting their every move, note and utterance.

How much is too much? All my Hendrix bootlegs brilliantly illustrate that there is no such thing as too much. I think some of his greatest moments were realized onstage.

It rains on the music love parade to a certain extent when these recordings are sold or otherwise rendered for profit, enriching those who do not dare to create. It’s inevitable that someone corrupts an otherwise benevolent music-sharing environment, but there’s nothing new about that.

To this day, I part with fair chunks of change so I can listen to some band rip it for 40 minutes. It’s always worth it. The opportunity to hyper-saturate myself with the work of some band or artist, to be that kind of fanatic, I wouldn’t trade for anything — except more tapes.


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