Henry Rollins: I'm Well Into My Fourth Decade of Totally Winging It
Heidi May

Henry Rollins: I'm Well Into My Fourth Decade of Totally Winging It

I’m in a small hotel room, where I’ll be living for the next few weeks. I have gained temporary employment working on a television show and am out of Los Angeles, on location. It is, for me, a non-touring year, and I pick up work where I can. When in this mode, I’m constantly reminded that I’m well into my fourth decade of winging it.

In 1979, I graduated high school with no plan for my future. I saw all career paths as variations of prison. I understood, from working so many hours at small jobs I had held for years, that all employment comes with frustration, boredom and obligation you’re not always on board with. I figured the real world, which I was now very much out in, would just be more of it.

I tried a semester at a local university but disliked it as much as and in the same way that I disliked the previous 12 years of classrooms. From there, I went full-time into minimum-wage work. A couple of years later, I was living in Southern California and in a band. From then to now, I have been obsessed with having a job. There has never been a situation where I have had too much work, at least not so much that I couldn’t get it all done.

And yet desperation, the feeling of treading water, never leaves me. No matter how much work I’m able to secure, I always feel one job away from no more jobs. I have no idea if this is good or bad for one’s constitution. In my case, it’s just how it is.

Two nights ago, I went to a meeting for cast members, the director and some of the producers. I consider these to be of the utmost importance and never to be missed. An opportunity to meet the actors before the work starts is often the only chance for me to get an understanding of who I’m going to be working with day after day.

I’ve never understood actors. They have a unique and alternative current that courses through them, which has always kept me at a distance. I’m always polite but have learned to keep it short.

In these settings, anxiety is never far from me, because I know that I’m not exactly cut out for this work and will have to push myself very hard just to keep up. It might be like what a spy goes through. I do my best to remember everyone’s name but find it almost impossible, as I am just too nervous to commit them to memory. I rehearse later. Earlier today, I went through tomorrow’s shot list and started attaching names to all the faces I have met since I got here. My call time is 5:05 a.m., and I’m in almost every shot. I will run tomorrow’s lines over and over again until I am able to get some sleep.

As nerve-wracking as all of this can be, there is an intensity to it that holds a powerful attraction. This is how my life ended up. Here I am. It’s too late to evaluate what I got right or wrong. Pushing 60 years old, everything is what it is. Comparisons are useless, and the past is so far behind me it’s nonexistent. I feel like someone lost while climbing alone up the side of a mountain. I got my gear wrong, didn’t plan well and will pay in full.

This “no plan” non-plan didn’t come from some notion of badass-ness, like I’m going to take on the whirlwind and see what happens. That’s way too brave and charismatic, and reads like fiction. Also, it would be a plan.

I clearly remember the summer of 1981, when I was sure my life was going to be a multidecade dead end where days blurred and I would get desensitized enough to where a year would pass and I wouldn’t feel it. It would be a toughness and a numbness earned from the daily brain kill from work that demands little thought and a lot of repetition.

In one of the straighter jobs I had, working at a lab facility, cleaning animal cages by the hundred, I saw my future in the other employees who were older and had been there for years. Their weekends, as they would recount to me, were full of beer and country music. In my mind, I saw us all on the same train that was taking a stationless route to the end of the line. The only way out would be to jump and deal with the consequences that would be waiting upon impact.

One of the things I have come to enjoy about adulthood, at least in my case, is the 100 percent responsibility I must take with how I ended up. From the parts of my body that no longer work all that well to the mistakes and misdeeds I am still able to perpetrate, whose resultant slings and arrows I must rightfully endure, I can only blame myself. I have never wondered how I arrived anywhere at any time. I know enough to understand that it was every single thing I ever did, thrown into a blender and pureed.

For the next three weeks, for hours at a time, I will be another person. As soon as I read the part weeks ago, I knew exactly who this guy was. I will have to rely on that shaky truth to direct my every move and word, take after take. It is at times like this that I appreciate the total truth of my situation. I know that “no matter where you are, there you are” is the same for us all. So here I am.

The thing I like most about acting, or trying to, is that it requires incredible amounts of honesty. As nervous as I am, I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

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:
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No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier

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