Henry Rollins: From Russia, With Incomprehension
Photo by Heidi May
I am writing from a utilitarian, mildly cold, blue-walled room, behind the stage at a venue called Moscow Hall in Moscow, Russia. Snow has been coming down for hours. If tonight’s show is anything like the ones I did here years ago, it’s going to be challenging, to say the least.
Years ago, a fearless promoter here named Nick Hobbs, with whom I had done band shows, contacted me with the idea of doing two talking shows in Moscow. I asked him how hard he thought it would be for the audience to understand me. He said he would have a translator and there was no way to see if it worked until we tried it.
I’ve always liked Nick. There is an element of unpredictability with shows here that I think he enjoys. There was no way I could refuse.
What ensued over the two shows was cheerful, medium-grade disaster, one word at a time.
On the evening of the first show, I asked to meet the translator, figuring we would take some time going over material so he could see how I spoke. I thought we would be at it for quite a long time, as we collaborated on what would be a co-joined effort.
Our meeting took less than a minute. “Peter, hello, I’m Henry. How is your English?” Peter’s upper lip smashed into his nose as his lower lip pressed powerfully upward, his eyes turning to slits as his head waved left to right. “Pretty good,” he said in heavily accented and, as I was to find out, not often utilized English.
Show time. People sat in front of me like a massive UN conference, holding single earphones to the sides of their heads. As I spoke, I saw them press the earphone harder toward them, as if volume helped. Peter, who looked down at me from a small square in the wall where a projectionist usually worked, would stare, squint and occasionally talk into a microphone.
Minutes passed much as they do during a deposition, or while you’re sitting in that massive room with all the other potential jurors, waiting for your name to be called. Time, with a ball and chain tied to its ankle, dragged its way forward.
I have not a single memory of anything I said. Imagine the existential, comedic hell of waiting around all the next day to do it over again that night.
This time, there will be no translator and, hopefully, people attending this nearly sold-out event know what they’re in for.
I have been going into record stores all over the world for decades. Not by chance. We plot and plan! We contact the promoter of every venue and ask what they know about local record stores. We get the information, select what we hope are the best choices, and off we go. Never have you seen two more optimistic adults bounding into a vinyl-slinging establishment than road manager Ward and myself.
Of all the stores we have been to, the Sound Barrier shop here in Moscow might be the most amazing of the bunch.
On the street level, almost hidden in a square of old Soviet apartment buildings, is a door with an image of an LP above it. You think that this will be interesting but over quickly. Then, down some stairs and into a massive space, you find more records than you have ever seen at once.
Long aisles of shelved albums, boxes of them on the floor, records on top of records. There are so many records, it is almost impossible to access any of them. It’s like walking into the Library of Congress in the midst of an “everything must go” sale. Over 150,000 pieces.
In order not to lose my mind, I just found some bands that I was familiar with and pulled out titles to see what was there. For example, Nick Cave. Almost every studio album, all the soundtracks Cave has done with Bad Seed/Dirty Three monster musician Warren Ellis, and bootleg LPs that I have not seen since I bought them in the 1980s.
By moving piles of LPs, I managed to find the Joy Division section. Bootlegs I have only seen on CD were staring at me in LP format.
As I was trying to keep records from falling, I heard Ward yell. He had just found a record he has been seeking for years, Achim Reichel & Machines’ Echo LP from 1972. He had never seen a copy and there it was, sitting on a pile of records. It wasn’t cheap, but I begged him to remember the golden rule about only regretting the records you don’t buy. Ward concurred and made the purchase. Score!
If we ever get back here, Sound Barrier will require at least a half day just to get our heads around the enormity of it.
2347 hrs. Back in the hotel. Up in a few hours to catch a train to St. Petersburg.
The audience was fantastic. I had a feeling it was going to be a good night almost as soon as I walked out there. I am glad that we will be able to put Moscow into the next tour’s itinerary.
That is the best part of a tour’s success — the idea that there might be another. To at least imagine that you can go out there one more time is the best possible thing. In this line of work, you have to enjoy it while you can, because they’re usually done with you way before you’re done with them.
Living tour to tour, with zero guarantee of a future anything, can be nerve-racking. But it is stagnation’s enemy.
I can’t wait to be back in St. Petersburg again.
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