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Henry Rollins: New York Was Where Things Took Off

[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.]

See also: Henry Rollins: The One Thing I Got Right

I am in New York City. I arrived several hours ago to perpetrate promotional duties for a television show I worked on earlier this year. We start very early tomorrow morning. The PST-EST time warp will have me starting the day's proceedings at 0300 hrs. L.A. time. Twelve hours later, after I wrap out of whatever will be thrown at me, I fly back to Los Angeles.

I am staying at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Pretty nice digs, not that I'll be spending much time there.

Being in New York is an almost overwhelming experience. While Washington, D.C., is my favorite American city, I regard New York City as the most amazing city in the world. No other comes close. It is an incredible, inexhaustible engine. Everywhere you look, you see everything humanity has to offer, from the beautiful and good to the horrible, pathetic and wretched, sometimes all at one intersection. It is almost impossible for me to sleep when I am here for a short visit. I don't want to miss a second of it.

I have lived here on and off for years and drag around a lot of memories of the place. This is perhaps the hardest part of being here at this point. When I am on these streets, they all come back at once and I want five left hands to write about it all at once.

The hotel puts me about two blocks from Carnegie Hall. Earlier, I walked by it and stared at it for a good while. Whenever I do this, I always think of Duke Ellington and all those great, live albums he recorded in there. Next to Carnegie is the building where a label I was on for almost five years in the early 1990s, called Imago, was located. I remember when I would go up the elevators to their office on the 40th floor, my ears would pop.

It was an interesting turn of events for my bandmates and me. We had been signed to this major label and things were taking off. I didn't exactly feel like a big shot, but there was definitely a sense of optimism. That was the first and only time I ever felt that way in all the years I was making records. We were young, the label was enthusiastic about what we were doing, and it was pretty damn exciting.

I was advanced some money in a publishing deal and, for the first time, could pay my rent in advance. On my way to the label office one day, I noticed that my watch had stopped working. I looked up from my watch and right into the window of a watch store. I walked in and bought a watch. It wasn't expensive, but the fact that I could just do that was indescribably empowering. I really felt like I was on my way to something. I didn't know where it was all going to take me and that made it all the more momentous.

I got to know this part of New York pretty well, and associated the streets around the label with the success the band had found. After two well-received albums, things were going so well that it was just too good to last. It didn't. Eventually, the label lost its funding and its owner and I sued each other, much to the delight of lawyers who made small fortunes from the both of us. Nothing like cutting a check for $16,000 for "Xeroxing and other printing" to make you want to vomit continuously for a few years.

Earlier today, seeing that my favorite pizza place around here had closed, I went to the other place that has never, ever been good. I keep going in there and it never gets better. It's pizza. Pizza makes me think that anything is possible. Dependably, it wasn't very good but it did the job.

 

Years ago, in front of this pizza place, I had a very cool conversation with Laurence Fishburne. That's one of the many amazing things about this city -- you never know who you're going to encounter. I always enjoyed hearing about musician sightings. Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, Joey Ramone, Iggy would be seen regularly when I was living in the East Village in the 1990s. I always thought that was barely believable, that these giants walked among us. I would sometimes see Martin Rev of Suicide near my apartment and thought that was just the coolest thing ever.

Being in NYC with these memories puts me in that edgy space where riding the big waves of your ambition can place you. If you want to see what's at the top of something, you will eventually have to come down. The landing can be extremely hard.

I wrote a lot of songs in this city, and a few books as well. I fought for all those words. New York made me dig deep. I expended insane amounts of energy here. I simply do not have the strength to push it that hard again. But even more than that, I think at least a part of what drives us is trying to know the unknown. To get to that door, so it can be opened. You find that, more often than not, you really weren't all that interested in what was behind the door -- getting there was what it was all about. The climax is often a heartbreaking anticlimax.

In 1996 on the weekends when we were not at band practice, I would walk to where I am sitting now, about 55 blocks and back, to try to exhaust the depression and anger that had their teeth so deep in me.

New York takes guts. I only come here to work, to prove it to anyone watching. It's my favorite place in America to test myself. I just checked the call sheet for tomorrow. It's a 20-person crew and me. I'll take that action.

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