Henry Rollins: Notes From the Festival Circuit, Where Bands' Careers Never End

Henry Rollins: Notes From the Festival Circuit, Where Bands' Careers Never End
Photo by Heidi May

Writing you from the Isle of Wight. I never thought I would get here! I first heard of the place because Jimi Hendrix played one of his last shows at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. Hendrix was set to play on the 30th. Things ran late and he hit stage on the 31st.

This performance is one of the first live concerts of his that I connected with as a budding Hendrix obsessive. The single-LP, six-song slice of the concert, released in 1971 as Isle of Wight, was a good appetizer. But from the intensity of these few tracks, a mere third of the whole near-two-hour show, I knew that it would be worth it to try and find the rest.

Thankfully, the world of Jimi Hendrix bootlegs is a fan-favored environment. I was able to find a two-CD set of the concert called Island Man that has the full version of “Machine Gun,” clocking in at almost 23 minutes. It took until 2002 for the Hendrix estate to issue the full set.

Some say that this show is for Hendrix super-fans only, as it’s not one of his best. I do not agree. It’s true that his frustration is quite evident at times, as the security personnel’s radio system bleeds through his speakers and he battles jet lag and equipment malfunction. After the last song, “In From the Storm,” Hendrix’s final words to the audience were, “Thanks and peace and happiness and all that other bullshit.”

Nonetheless, it’s a burning performance. Amazing to hear only three years after his first album, Are You Experienced, that he had evolved and deepened so much. His frustration at the hassles in his life impeding his rapidly morphing songwriting and performance style, the audiences not coming along nearly fast enough for his liking, is all brought to bear. It is a man ahead of everyone, and even with his best rhythm section of Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass, Hendrix is on his own.

The Isle of Wight show is that of a man almost out of time. Jimi Hendrix would be dead 19 days later.

As soon as my best friend and fellow Hendrix fan Ian MacKaye and I got the lay of the land of Hendrix’s output, we found ourselves both solidly landing on 1970 as our favorite year of the man’s playing. It is so incredibly heavy and charged, it is at times almost too much.

It is Sunday night on June 12. From the tour bus, I can hear Queen (all two of them) playing. “Somebody to Love” is filling the air and Adam Lambert is showing off with his vocal gymnastics. The man can sing his ass off. The audience is into it.

In the festival setting, I have become used to hearing bands whose careers never seem to end. The night before, The Who (all two of them) headlined to great approval. It’s almost as if festivals are the gateway to dreams of the past, partially realized for an hour or two.

I reckon it must be a hell of a thing to be in Brian May’s shoes. You were in one of the greatest bands ever, with a singer who was beyond belief, and then he was gone. You are sitting on one of the best catalogs of recorded music and the only people playing it are in tribute bands. No wonder you might decide to get a new singer and get back out there.

There are probably thousands of people watching who weren’t alive when Freddie Mercury passed away in November 1991. Sounds like they’re having a great time. Now and then, a naked Brian May chord floats through the air and it’s just perfect.

There is a strange eternity and simultaneous rapid deterioration to rock music and its practitioners. The music lives forever, but the humans who make it are maturing and rotting gracefully, under far more scrutiny than regular folks. That these two bands still tour might strike some as a bit of an oversell, but at a festival, the sets have the feel of a celebration and tribute and work quite well.

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I performed hours ago and it was fine, but not at all interesting compared to what happened the day before, when I got a fan boy threefer.

I had a day off. The band in our production is also Iggy Pop’s band, so we got here early yesterday for their set.

I was walking to the main stage when Captain Sensible of The Damned ran by me and disappeared into a production office. If my life is a movie, that was the best cameo this year. I yelled out, “Did you see that?! That was Captain Sensible!” People looked at me and kept walking. I like being a fan — it keeps things in perspective.

Iggy hit stage at 1900 hrs. Who crew members frowned at us as we leaned against their many road cases. Iggy had a hard out at 60 minutes, so it was song to song without much in between, but it was a vigorous show and Iggy was all over the place, sending high kicks into the air, which was really cool. The set ended with a great version of “Mass Production” from The Idiot. Within several seconds, Iggy was sailing into the sunset on a golf cart and I was looking for a way off the festival grounds.

The last third of the threefer happened when I managed to get online later. I got an email from Brian James, the legendary guitar player from The Damned. I have been begging him for years to get an email address. He wrote to inform me that he has finally dragged himself into this century.

What a score! Two members of The Damned and Iggy all in one day.

Soon this bus will be full of men in varying states of inebriation. I don’t know how they do it. Onward to Bilbao!

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.


More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
Let's Invade Canada

Bend Over, America — Here Comes President Trump
I Am Basically a Vinyl Cat Lady

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