Henry Rollins: The Column! Postcards From the Edge of the Stage

[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 early stage experiences in Florida. 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.]

Postcards From the Edge of the Stage

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I am working on a documentary series for National Geographic that never seems to end. We have been hammering away at three episodes for weeks now. In the morning, we leave Miami, Florida, for North Carolina.

I have done a lot of shows in Florida and they have ended up being some of the most memorable of my approximately three thousand nights onstage. Florida is a very special place, to say the least. My ties to Florida are many. One of my favorite American folktales comes from here.

A few years ago, one Adrian Apgar was naked, smoking crack and reclining on the banks of one of Florida's waterways. Poor Adrian was torn from his crack-induced coma by the fact that he was now in the jaws of a ten-plus-foot alligator who was tearing off his right arm and doing great harm to his buttocks. Adrian yelled very loudly into the night and thankfully, a neighbor heard him and called the police, who bravely waded into the swamp and actually played a tug-of-war with Adrian and the gator, who mercifully didn't find Adrian to be tasty and let him loose. Adrian recovered. I told his story to thousands of people from stages all over America one year. He got word and had a relative call my office to thank me. No Adrian, thank you.

My first foray into improvised music happened in Florida in the summer of 1982. I was in Black Flag and we had been touring across America for some time. Having lost patience with punk rockers we met at shows who preached anarchy yet had so many rules and dress code specs, we decided that we would go against the grain. We all stopped cutting our hair and started wearing Mardi Gras beads we picked up in New Orleans earlier on the tour. So, by the time we got to Florida, we looked rather strange but we were playing really well.

How quickly things can change. We ended up in some small, hostile venue, the city's name I have long since forgotten The sound in this dismal den was extremely challenging. Basically, it was almost impossible to hear anything onstage. It ended up being one of the band's most interesting shows. Within a few songs I was reduced to improvising lyrics to this rather cool sounding White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground v. Armageddon wall of noise, while the band flailed away in a sonic wasteland of confusion. No one in the audience (all fifty of them) seemed to be all that concerned or even interested in what we were up to, so band and audience left each other alone to get on with things. It was my first brush with the avant-garde.

Two years later on Halloween night, we were back in Florida, Miami this time. We were playing a place called Flynn's On The Beacha very small, angry space. The place was packed and out of control. Near the end of the set, I came up with an idea. As usual, I was broke and needed funds to try and eat post show. I found an empty cup onstage and sent it into the crowd. I told them if they filled it with money, I would do something really stupid. Moments later, the cup came back with at least three dollars in coins. I took off my shoes and socks, emptied the coins into my pocket, took the empty cup and rung out my socks into it, then poured in the accumulated sweat from my shoes. The sweat more than filled the cup. I drank the contents and took a bow. The audience was completely grossed out. We finished the show. Later, I went to a Denny's next to the venue and used the money to eat. A few people from the show actually came in to watch.

Fast forward to the year of 1996 and my favorite Florida live show story. My bandmates and I were opening for some guy named Ozzy Osbourne. I had met him for the first time a few hours before the show when he came bursting into our room and said, "Hey! I'm Ozzy! We'resofuckinggladyoureonthetourmanifthere'sanythingyouneedjustletmeknow!" I knew he meant it. We have been friends ever since.

As we were taken by golf cart through the dark tunnels of the arena to the stage, I briefed the band on the tactics we would utilize to survive the wrath of approximately twenty thousand people who only wanted to see Ozzy. I told them to stay moving if they could, as that would lower their chances of getting hit by projectiles. If they saw laser dots on their chests, that meant the snipers had arrived and they should feel free to run. I wished them luck, but deep inside, I knew that we were going to be torn to pieces.

We got out there in front of this sea of people. I told them who we were, and I heard this amazing sound like a jet engine raise in volume slightly. Arena roar! We played a song, we heard the roar. We played another one and another one. More roaring. I reckoned we would be playing in venues this size in less than a week. We were on our way, rock stardom was surely ours! We got to the end of the set and I thanked the crowd, just to hear that roar one more time. We exited stage and floated back to our locker room/dressing room. We were now rock gods.

About half an hour later, I watched Ozzy walk onstage. The sound of the audience was deafening. I quickly realized that the sound I heard during our set was thousands of people clearing their throats and talking amongst themselves as they waited for this annoying band to conclude. Rock stardom had not even shown enough interest to evade us. We had to settle for apathy, but at least no one threw anything.

Years later, in an amazing reversal of fortune, I landed a job at the LA Weekly and now I am on top of the world. Wheels up for North Carolina in less than six hours. Sleep is for squares.

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