Henry Rollins: Joe Cole and American Gun Violence

[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.]

Editor's note: Joe Cole was a friend and roommate of Henry Rollins' as well as a roadie for Black Flag and Rollins Band.

On April 10 of this year, a man named Joe Cole would have been 52 years old. On 12/19/91, this man was shot and killed in Venice while being robbed at gunpoint. I was a few feet away. Even though it has been more than 20 years since he was killed, I think of him often.

Joe Cole's murder gave me a powerful tutorial on guns and America. The United States is full of some of the most resourceful, generous and hardworking people I have ever encountered. Yet statistically, America is a nation of killers and the killed.

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We Americans have a familiarity and fascination with guns, murder and those who kill. From soldiers to serial killers, we study, immortalize, fanaticize and fear them. Try driving the streets of Los Angeles without seeing a billboard depicting a film with a lead actor holding a gun. It's almost as if guns are harmless props used to bring out the cheekbones and jawline of the screen star. It is hard to think of a leading man who hasn't at one time posed with a gun. Guns are part of the American identity.

See also: Henry Rollins: George Bush's War Is Still With Us

While guns are constantly in the hands of wealthy actors, their more meaningful use is often by those several rungs down the fiscal ladder. These are the people who live in the other America, the one that Wayne LaPierre warns you about and implores you to arm yourself against.

You can pass all the gun legislation you want. None of it will make me feel any more or less safe than I do right at this moment. The murder of my friend taught me that America is a 50-state-wide killing field. None of that red state/blue state bullshit means a damn thing to me. As soon as I leave my house, I am on the kill grid. If I am anywhere in America, as far as I'm concerned, it's game on for Murder One.

Dead bodies at crime scenes sometimes look ridiculous. People often fall and land in positions reminiscent of a game of Twister gone awry. They look lonely and small, like the punchline of an elaborate and incredibly cruel joke.

The morning after the murder, I was released by the police after being held overnight, as apparently is common with witnesses. I went back to the front lawn of the house I was renting, where Joe Cole was killed. I had to clean up his remains before his parents arrived. There I was, my friend's blood and brains all over my hands, trying to figure out what to do with this human matter. Do I throw out the bloody towel? Wash it? Bury it? What about the water in the bucket or the bucket itself? I felt completely stupid and worthless at that moment.

Joe Cole, who spent the last several seconds of his short life in pathetic, animal panic, had perfect taste in music. He was completely connected to the main stem. Hendrix, Stooges, Sabbath, Coltrane -- like that. He was a way out guy, a total Space Brother. He had a lot of friends yet was very alone. His killer has never been caught.


In the weeks and months after his murder, I was inundated with letters of condolence and, sadly, stories from other Americans who had been through the American gun homicide experience. Some of these stories would peel the paint off your car. The instances of sadness, loss and horror expressed in these letters was unbearably heavy. It was perhaps the pointlessness of the deaths that was the hardest part to deal with. The convenience store that suddenly turns into a blood-splattered box with a young fiancé on the floor. Someone gets a phone call and everything changes forever.

As the years after Joe Cole's murder passed, I started to understand that the crime component in America was a massive revenue stream. The Military Industrial Complex, the Prison Industrial Complex, Hollywood -- all thrive on constant conflict as the standard modus operandi. Without the threat of violence and the fact of violence, the American machine, as we know it, would seize.

As a demographic, the ones doing a large part of the killing also are doing a large part of the breeding. Much of the time, they kill each other locally. A Los Angeles policeman once characterized this as "the self-cleaning oven." Gun manufacturers and their lobbyists don't live in these places or know where they are. Beyond the point of purchase, they don't give a fuck.

I am neither pro- nor anti-gun. I am gun-conscious. I live in America. I know I can get taken out, almost any time, anywhere. I don't subscribe to the John Wayne concealed carry horseshit -- they're the ones who shoot themselves in the balls and bleed out in the church parking lot. It's almost funny. I have reconciled myself to the hard fact that I live in a country of consequences.


I am all for background checks, yet completely understand why a bitch like Wayne LaPierre isn't -- it steps on his clients' cash flow. I happen to think that selling a gun to a person with mental health issues is a bad idea. I also think that when someone becomes a gun owner, they often acquire some mental health issues. The lunatics have not taken over the asylum, they own it. As your birthright, you are a life member of the great American gun show.

I sometimes catch myself wondering what Joe Cole would have made of the Internet, cellphones and downloaded music. So much has changed in America since he was murdered. A lot hasn't.

Joe Cole was like thousands of other Americans. He was shot and killed by another American. I can assure you, if he were somehow able to read his obituary (which I believe I wrote for the L.A. Weekly), he would not be at all surprised as to how he went out. This is who we are.

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