Henry Rollins: My Parents Gave Me Existence, but Punk Rock Gave Me Life
I’ve been living in Peru for a little less than a week. I spent several days in Lima, but for the last few, I’ve been in Cuzco, way up in the Peruvian Andes.
It’s great to get a few days off from the proximity of comrade Trump. Watching him blow out so hard from such a great distance is almost like watching the battle scene in a film with the sound turned off.
A few days ago, I got a letter from a teacher at an East Coast university, who told me he had enjoyed a recent radio show I had done on KCRW with my bestest friend, Ian MacKaye. The topic and accompanying music, all selected by Ian, were shows that we went to together from 1979 to 1981. We saw some great ones, and there are plenty of stories to tell. Music changed our lives.
What the teacher found interesting in our conversation were the ideas of going to shows as ritual and of the music you like as a self-referencing identifier. Both of these, especially the latter, are major concepts in my thinking. You can tell a lot about someone — what interests them, their idiosyncrasies and priorities — just by what’s in their living space.
It was a long time ago, but I remember occasionally going to my father’s house on the weekends. His wife had a lot of stuff, mostly books on law and crime investigation. Besides clothes and reading glasses, my father seemed to have no personal items by which to offer a clue on who he was. There were no records, just television and news radio. Almost everything in the house seemed to belong to her. He just lived there. The only thing I remember him by are the things he said.
My mother had paintings on the walls, several shelves of books and a whole lot of records. There was always a stack of New Yorker magazines that she tried to keep up with. For information, she mainly read The Washington Post and The New York Times. She often had the turntable going for hours. All high-density stuff: classical, jazz, Streisand, Dylan. She went to the museums and galleries in the Washington, D.C., area over and over, like someone goes back to a favorite restaurant. She went to the Kennedy Center, Ford’s Theatre, took classes at night. She was a woman of Irish descent and the middle class, who worked for the government. But really, she was all those books and records.
When I was in high school, I never really understood why people wore T-shirts of bands, even if I liked the band. It seemed like a lot of work. This changed when the local skateboarders in the neighborhood, all four of us, decided we were a team and had T-shirts made. It wasn’t the idea of a uniform look that appealed to me. I wore one five days a week at the prep school I went to. The thing I liked was that by merely wearing these shirts, we had individualized ourselves and, in our own way, peeled off from others.
A few years later, I heard bands like The Ramones and The Clash, and that was it. My feet were finally on the ground, and my shield had an insignia. I was still me, but I identified so deeply with these records and how they made me feel that they became me as well.
The records were one thing, but actually being in the same room with these bands — that was the point of no return. Those shows changed the way I thought about everything, and I have never come back.
Every once in a while, I have crossed paths with some of the people from these groups. I try to say as little as possible and just thank them. What I am thanking them for is so much more than the music they made. As far as my thinking goes, my parents gave me existence, but these bands gave me life. I can’t pay that back. All I am usually able to do is thank them and look at the ground.
Perhaps the best way to thank them is to go to the show when you can. Some bands I see whenever possible, and others I just listen to the records a lot, but I try to keep the conversation going — one-way as it is.
Going back to the observation the teacher made, and turning the harsh light of scrutiny on myself, my record collection could explain my countless insecurities and the fact that we’re living in a material land, and I am a material man. The more records, the better.
A few days ago, in Lima, I walked across the city to get to Kat Records. The directions were less than great. By the time I got there, I had sweated through my shirt, used up my bottle of water and wasn’t looking forward to the multimile hike back to the hotel during rush hour.
Kat was more of a record stall than a store. There were perhaps 200 records in a narrow row of bins. Also, it was closed. The great part was that there were two guys waiting patiently for the owner to return. I asked them when they thought the store would reopen and neither of them knew, but that didn’t seem to matter. I think they knew that the wait was worth it, because there was a chance something they could soon internalize and make their own might be waiting for them in the bins.
That kind of discovery is as important as air. It’s one of the ways you find yourself.
More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
White America Couldn't Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day
Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier
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