Henry Rollins: Musical Elitism Is For Lightweights

Henry Rollins: Musical Elitism Is For Lightweights

[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 Sunday KCRW broadcast.]

A few days ago, I spent an afternoon with Lemmy. For the few who might not know that name, Lemmy is the bass player, vocalist and founding member of a band called Motörhead. The man has waged war on people’s hearing for decades.

Not only does Lemmy keep Motörhead alive and well, assaulting multigenerational audiences who possess brain cells yet to be obliterated, he was also in one of the greatest bands of all time, Hawkwind. They were true, visionary, sonic assassins.

Hawkwind has been around in one form or another since 1969, so not all of the band’s albums feature Lemmy, who eventually left to form Motörhead. But some of the ones he’s on, Doremi Fasol Latido, Space Ritual and Warrior on the Edge of Time, are incredible.

What makes things even better is that the new Motörhead album, Aftershock, is excellent. The riffs are ripping, the lyrics are sharp. It’s a dose of pure energy. Lemmy is almost 69 years old and still rockin’ hard.

Many years ago, when I was first infected by punk rock, I had this ridiculous idea that I wasn’t allowed to listen to any other kind of music — that to do so would in some way betray the dream. (Thankfully, I was eventually able to see the light and not have to deprive myself of Led Zeppelin.)

At some point during this moronic self-restriction, I heard Motörhead.

My pal Ian MacKaye bought their single on the Chiswick label, “Louie Louie”/“Tear Ya Down,” from 1978. It was great. Right after that, we heard their iconic album, Ace of Spades. It blew our doors off. Even though the band had long hair, it was too good to pass up, so I bought it.

Lemmy had to be cool. He played bass on The Damned’s cover version of “Ballroom Blitz,” the B-side of “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today,” and was even in The Damned for a second when they were calling themselves The Doomed.

Being a fan of Motörhead made me understand that I should just listen to the music I liked and leave the elitism for the lightweights.

Every time I have hung out with Lemmy, he has let slip at least one or two cool stories, and he has some great ones. On this most recent visit, he said that Sid Vicious would throw himself at guys much bigger than he was and they backed off because they could tell that Sid had no fear. I try to imagine him and Sid in the same room, and my head spins.

I asked Lemmy, after seeing so many things change in rock & roll, had anything stayed the same? Is it possible that there could be any permanence in such a wild kind of music? Was there an essential core that neither time nor prevailing tastes could alter? I think so, but I wanted to hear what the man who saw The Beatles play the Cavern Club and roadied for Hendrix had to say.

  He told me that, in his opinion, music cuts through all barriers and brings people together, and that’s not going to change.

At that moment, I could see Lemmy walking into a venue anywhere and doing just fine.

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Now and then I get letters from people bemoaning the state of music. They say that it’s all corporate now, there are no more good bands, everyone sounds the same.

I am always so happy to disabuse them of these ridiculous and provably false notions. There are still bands and musicians making exciting, vital music, albums that you can play all the way through and want to play again and again.

From the very beginning, there has been dreck in every possible musical genre. But at the same time, there has always been music that is impossibly great. These are two aspects of music that I doubt will change. Pick any year you swear music was at peak levels of perfection and I can find some of the most dire swill released in the same time period.

A brief example: Vanilla Ice’s Extremely Live, released in March 1991, and Nirvana’s Nevermind, released that September.

So before you say that it’s all over for music, it could very well be that you’re either not looking in the right places or just not trying very hard. Because the truth is, 2014 has been a fantastic year for music.

I’m no expert on the topic, so I can only comment from my personal tastes. But here are a few titles from right now that are totally happening:

J Mascis, Tied to a Star
Ty Segall, Manipulator
Damaged Bug (John Dwyer), Hubba Bubba
Jack Name, Light Show
Electric Wizard, Time to Die
Ex Hex, Rips
Scott Walker / Sunn 0))), Soused (out Oct. 21)
Earth, Primitive and Deadly
Total Control, Typical System
Eastlink, Eastlink
Thee Oh Sees, Drop
Ex-Cult, Midnight Passenger
White Fence, For the Recently Found Innocent
Sleep, “The Clarity” 12”
Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Chambers
Chain & the Gang, Minimum Rock N Roll

And then there are all the cool noise and drone labels, such as American Tapes, Chondritic Sound, Ikuisuus and Elliptical Noise, who continually release great stuff.

And, of course, this is nothing, not even a drop in the ocean of great things currently happening in music.

With parts of the world in one heartbreaking mess or another, and November elections only weeks away, there is a lot to be pretty freaked out about. Without good music to keep you leaning into to the wind, you’re no good to anyone.

So off to the record store with you!

To be succinct — Lemmy was right.

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