Henry Rollins: Not Everyone Is Cut Out to Be a New Yorker — Including Me
Photo by Heidi May
I am currently in New York City, inside the Bowery Ballroom, as Dinosaur Jr. sound-checks for another sold-out show, the fifth in a series of seven the band is doing here to celebrate 30 years of rockin’.
Every night, there are two sets. Dinosaur Jr. come out and play their first album, Dinosaur, in its entirety. Then, after a brief changeover, they return to the stage for more songs, often with guests.
So far, standout performances include but are not limited to:
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth vocalizing on “Don’t,” from the album Bug. She absolutely ripped it to pieces in total badass fashion.
Kurt Vile adding vocals and guitar to an encore of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” The jam clocked in at over 11 minutes and every second was great.
Fred Armisen not only singing really well on “The Lung” and “Feel the Pain” but putting fantastic rhythm guitar parts into both songs. He had the material cold.
My personal favorite guest moment so far happened last night, when Bob Mould came out and played guitar on “Freak Scene.” It was almost surreal to see so much energy come off of one person. Then it got even better. For the next song, Dinosaur Jr.’s drummer, Murph, stepped out as J Mascis got behind the kit and he, Bob and bass player Lou went into Hüsker Dü’s “In a Free Land.” I am so glad I was here to see it because no matter how I attempt to describe it, any combination of words will fall short.
Then the band came back out and it was another encore of “Cortez” with Fred Armisen on a second drum kit, Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth on vocals, and Bob and Matt Valentine on extra guitars, sounding much different than the previous night’s version.
All of this is fantastic, of course. But what really shines the brightest is the band going back 30 years to Dinosaur, which has some of the most interesting arrangements of the entire Dinosaur Jr. catalog, and throwing themselves into it completely.
J told me the other day that those were some of the first songs he ever wrote. They are truly great and a few of them, such as “Severed Lips,” “Repulsion” and “Quest,” are signposts for what was to come.
I remember very well that first album. As broke as I was in 1985, I somehow managed to get a copy. I remember how different it sounded and how I knew it was great but had nothing to compare it to, like when I heard the first Swans album.
Luckily, months later on a night off in 1986, I saw Dinosaur Jr. open for Sonic Youth. I thought they were an amazing, explosive, still-focusing wealth of potential.
The band’s first album relies heavily on Lou Barlow’s vocals. Over the years he has become a damn good singer, and to hear him do “Forget the Swan” and “Cats in a Bowl” is a real treat.
The guests need rehearsal. The sound checks have been going for hours every day. As I write this, J is tuning up an electric sitar and Jay Spiegel, shouldering a long drum, has just walked onto the stage. Now there’s a harmonium player and the three of them are jamming out and wow! It sounds amazing! The band is truly stretching, and every night the audience has been getting a unique and incredible show.
The venue is close to where I used to live back in the 1990s when I was an occasional New Yorker. Preshow, after I get out of the gym, I’ve been walking around checking out the streets I used to frequent almost every day.
I went into the John Varvatos clothing store, which used to be the location of CBGB’s. I had not been in there for almost 20 years and was amazed at how much of the old place was still intact. The walls, covered with stickers and graffiti, are almost untouched. I measured off from the hallway on the left to the backstage area and calculated approximately where Joey Ramone and I stood watching The Dictators in 1995. I turned toward the street and tried to figure where the stage was and where I would have been standing.
I am sure I looked nuts. Finally, a man walked up to me and asked, “Did you ever play here?” It made me wonder how often some crusty old buzzard like me, obviously not a customer, wanders in and spaces out. The large security guy followed closely behind me all the way to the door as I exited.
The Bowery is a young person’s part of the city, and in that way it hasn’t changed. University students mix with well-groomed hipsters as they pack the streets, spilling into every restaurant and bar.
I have been here almost a week now and that’s the part that came back to me the fastest: There is hardly any room here. The humanity is so densely packed that you must surrender to almost every setting being cramped and high-volume. Restaurants are deafening with music, laughter and voices. People stand face to face and shout in conversation. It’s great, but being here is a high-calorie burn, and not everyone is cut out to be a New Yorker.
I have always thought NYC is the most amazing city on the planet, but never once in the years I lived here did I ever feel like I fit in. It was like living in a jar with the lid tightly screwed on. The contents are some of the best ingredients in the world, but it was difficult not to feel suffocated by it. Still, I will return anytime I can, because it is an incredible place.
Can’t wait for the show tonight.
More From the Mind of Henry Rollins:
The Major Labels Are Screwing Up Record Store Day
When You Claim Racism Is Over, You Get a Dylann Roof
Why I'm Not an Atheist
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