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Henry Rollins: The Column! In Praise of Outsider Music (and Outsiders in General)

[The one and only Henry Rollins contributes a weekly column and far-reaching reportage to the music section of the LA Weekly. Look for your weekly Henry Rollins fix right here on West Coast Sound every week and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.

This installment includes Henry's surprising thoughts about his love of outsider music (and outsiders in general). And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com

For the rest of Henry's columns, go to our Henry Rollins archives. To subscribe to his RSS, click here.]

In Praise of Outsiders

As a young person, I sought to be a part of things. I wanted to be in the right place at the right time with all the cool people. So I tried to fit in. Clothes, music, etc. Once I got there, I found that the scene was not to my liking and that these people were not my type.

There is one image from that time that has stayed with me all my life. I went to a house party somewhere in Washington, D.C., in 1970-something. It was winter and the weather was cold enough that being outside was not the place to be. On my way into this house, I saw a group of longhair guys standing next to the porch, talking quietly and drinking beer in this freezing weather. It looked like they had no interest in or intention of coming inside.

I remember wanting to know what they were talking about. They were the uncool outsiders. I wanted to know what made them tick and definitely wanted to know what music they listened to.

For many years, I have sought outsider anything: art, music, literature or film. If the perpetrators of any of this lived and worked in relative obscurity for the entirety of their lives, that alone made me interested in finding out more. The idea being that if not many people appreciated their work, then perhaps these artistic outcasts were really on to something.

Of course, some artists perpetually toil away on the fringes because they don't have much to offer. However, there are many artists who, while never reaching a broad audience, are completely brilliant and capture the attention and great devotion of those who willfully stand outside of the party.

In 1984, I was listening to KCRW and heard a piece of music by composer George Crumb, Four Nocturnes (Night Music II). I was fascinated and wanted to hear more. This music made punk rock sound as out-there as ELO. Right around that time, I heard an album by avant-garde vocalist supreme Diamanda Galas called The Litanies of Satan, containing a track called "Wild Women With Steak Knives." It was an assault like no other I had encountered before. Thus inspired, I wrote her a fan letter. Incredibly mouth-breathing and moist-handed of me, yes, but I did it. She wrote me back and eventually we met in San Diego.

Diamanda loaned me some records that were to further fuel my outsider curiosity. One in particular blew my mind: Electro-Acoustic Music by Iannis Xenakis. This record, along with the work of Diamanda and others, permanently changed the way I thought about music. Diamanda and I remain friends to this day.

I guess it's perhaps the fact that I have always been a bit at odds with the world that this kind of music has such appeal to me. I also know that there are a lot of other people who listen to popular music and have absolutely no interest in it. Thankfully, there are many bright lights way beyond the city limits, and it's at these distant points that more and more I find myself listening.

 

To those who object that one can run the risk of seeming elitist or pretentious by spending time with more rarefied sounds, I counter that life is too short to go through it in such an incurious and pedestrian manner. If you don't like what you hear, go into the warm and well-lit house and hang out with all the other normals -- there are so many of them. Bring your own box of wine and leave your imagination at the door.

Perhaps you find your curiosity piqued and would like to hear some of this music. This is where the Internet is your bestest friend. I would suggest you check out the Mutant Sounds website for downloads of impossibly cool, often incredibly challenging and, most of the time, insanely rare records from decades past, all the way to the present. One so inclined should also acquaint oneself with something called the Nurse With Wound List. If you type those words into your browser, you will find a universe of bands and artists there's a good chance you have never heard of, from all over the world, who take it waaaay out there.

Last night, I listened to an excellent album called Cleft Foot of the Woods, by Odd Clouds. Just a hand-assembled case and CD-R with the album's title scrawled across it, one of 150 made. This is how I feel in the world, and I spend a lot of time with this kind of music.

Also, the role of the outsider artist in culture is of the utmost importance for balance and resistance to the oppressive forces in any society. There is no country in the Western world that doesn't have, somewhere in it, artists who are pushing back. From musicians to those spray-painting walls, this is absolutely necessary for civilization to endure.

It is these brave and innovative people who are endless sources of inspiration to me. From the "Degenerate Artists" of Germany to writers during Stalin-era Russia like Daniil Kharms and Mikhail Bulgakov, French crazoid literary mind-melters like Alfred Jarry and André Breton to one of my absolute favorite musicians, guitar monster Keiji Haino, there's so much happening on the outskirts of town, it's not to be believed.

Tonight, I will attempt to blow up my house using my stereo when I play one of my favorite albums, the peerless, unassailably great stoner-music yardstick by which all others must be measured: Dopesmoker, by Sleep. One song, well over an hour long.

Definitely could have been of interest to those longhairs outside that party I went to all those years ago. Things are much better on the outside.

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