Henry Rollins: My Breakout From My Own Private Alcatraz
[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.]
For many years, October has been my favorite month.
I can’t remember when it started, but I know I was young and living in Washington, D.C. October was a great combination of early sunset, dropping temperature and nights saturated in poignancy. Music sounded better; emotional swings were more meaningful. I was cooking on a cool flame of loneliness, confusion and severe social awkwardness. I had a few friends but, for the most part, I was weirdo solo.
I was raised in a fairly conformist environment, which strove for solid normality but felt like unimaginative, highly restrictive rigidity. For years, I tried to fit in. No, really, I tried. I went to school dances and watched cover bands play loose-tempo versions of songs I knew from the radio. The girls were from Earth. It wasn’t my scene. I went to a few parties and tried to hang out. The best I could ever do was try to act like the other people there and pass for normal. But the whole time, I knew it wasn’t my thing.
I greatly admired some of these young people. They seemed to have an ease in how they did everything. I was a jittery, Ritalin-jamming, hollow-eyed alien by comparison. I wanted what they had, or thought I did. I carefully checked out the attire of my most well-adjusted classmates, when not in the corny uniforms we all had on during class. I would go to stores with the money I earned working part-time to get those shoes, pants, etc. Of course, it was a fool’s errand. When I wore that stuff, I felt like I was in a play.
I think it was the summer of 1978 when I made the startling discovery that, if I had the fortitude of my convictions, the accumulated disgust at both myself and the state of things could propel me to other ways of going about my life. Making other choices and being different. Different from my parents, different from my classmates.
I hate to admit what a mind-blowing idea that was for me. It was the first time I actually thought of what it meant to be yourself.
This idea required more bravery and self-confidence than I was able to muster, so it was a gradual process of forming myself. I am sure this particular journey is about as generic as it gets, but for me, I believe I stood a good chance of not getting it, ever.
What started this breakout from my own private Alcatraz was punk rock music. By October of 1978, it was more than some songs — it was a soundtrack that was as much a part of me as my genetic code. I started meeting people who were strange, too. They challenged the normality that had been drilled into me for almost two decades and I began to loosen up, if only slightly.
It was then that I came to understand how straitjacketed a young mind can become. Between school, highly opinionated parents (their views slammed hard, one to the left, the other to the right) and my own lack of self-worth, I very well could have ended up a knockoff of the actions and utterances of these people.
During this time, a buddy who had the ability to find import records loaned me the first Clash album. I taped it and listened over and over. It was as if the world had revealed itself to me and could no longer hide. All I had to do was have the smarts and the guts to deal with the truth of everything that was right in front of me. Unsurprisingly, I had neither. The adjustments I made, or tried to make, were extremely difficult. But I knew I was doing the right thing by leaving a far more comfortable yet lethal world behind.
It is in the later months of the year, and most profoundly in October, when all this swells up inside me. This is the month when I go back to all those records and listen to them with intense scrutiny, because in my mind, I am listening to my own history. Joe Strummer, Poly Styrene, TV Smith, Mark Perry, Billy Idol, Cramps, Ramones, Buzzcocks, U.K. Subs, Ruts, Lurkers, Wire, Eater, The Damned and many others are signers of an unwritten Declaration of Independence. Without them and what they did, I don’t know where I would be.
A few times in my life, I have crossed paths with some of the aforementioned. I must admit, I impress myself with the amount of restraint I am able to summon. The logical thing would be to yell, “YOU REALIZE YOU CHANGED EVERYTHING, RIGHT?!” and freak everyone out, but I am able to maintain.
Not as a peer, of course, but as a fan who, for the most part, can keep it from spilling over the side.
Trying to get my East Coast, deciduous-tree-smell-in-the-air, nighttime thing happening in Los Angeles is not always easy, especially when, in the 10th month of the year, we are being warned of temperatures spiking into the 90s and beyond.
It’s hard to sell the wonders of autumn out here. The palm fronds turn a slightly paler shade of green and sometimes it cools down somewhat if you are able to stay up late. However, with the right tunes and caffeinated liquids, I am able to enjoy October in L.A. pretty well.
It is in this month, with this music playing as much as possible, I try to figure out if I have figured myself out. It’s a period of great introspection. I reckon I am still wandering the outer crust, trying to make sense of it all. I would rather have more questions than answers.
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