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Henry Rollins: The Column! Rebelling in Sweet Home Alabama

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]

If you are a fan of American history, Alabama is a very interesting place. To say that a lot has happened here would be an understatement.

Whenever I'm here, I think of America's turbulent past and of the rebel flag that you sometimes see on car bumpers and elsewhere in this part of the country. It is a symbol that holds many different meanings, depending on whom you ask. To this day, its appearance can get emotions running hot. To me, it's an appendage of America's past, not offensive, just sad.

Before the Civil War, the Southern states were selling a lot of cotton to England and didn't seem to mind British occupation. By and large, the Revolutionary War wasn't at all great for business. It very well could have been the start of the tension that would eventually reach a boiling point. In 1861, America tore itself in half; by 1865, the tragic, nonstop massacre had come to an end. Was there a winner? Americans killing Americans? No. No winners, just a lot of dead soldiers, blood-soaked land and an infamous assassination. America was a different country afterward.

The Southern states, to a great degree, lost their way of life. Slavery came to an end, having been abolished forever by the 13th Amendment. These states had to make some radical changes in how they conducted business.

Change comes very hard to some. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was vigorously and vociferously opposed by the Southern states. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law nonetheless.

So whenever I see the rebel flag on a band's backdrop, or anywhere else, I find it curious that someone would want to display a symbol that carries so much baggage. To the Southern states, the "rebellion" was what, exactly? Their push back against the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal"? I don't understand the rebel part of the equation here. The being on the wrong side of history part, I understand. Not a flag I would be raising anywhere but, hey, knock yourself out.

While not everyone is onboard with equality and freedom for all, great songs keep kicking the ass of those who choose to hang on to the dark days of America's recent past. Because of slavery, there is blues music. People could be held captive, but the music could not be. For me, jazz will always be the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Music levels the playing field. It provides inspiration beyond measure and drives a stake into the heart of oppression.

 

Without music, surviving high school for many of us would have been impossible. At this point, it hardly matters which bands or artists got you through those sometimes absolutely dreadful years. As long as you had the jams, you stood a chance. Adolescence is a plague on the senses. One of the only things that makes sense in those years of frenzy and uncertainty is the music that speaks to you.

The question is sometimes asked: Can music start a revolution? I always thought if the songs of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley weren't enough, then no, not on a large scale. Perhaps the question needs to be phrased differently. Can music start a revolution of thought and practice? Does music have the ability to change the way one looks at oneself and the world?

With the power vested in me by Joe Strummer, I say yes. That music can inspire and increase the stamina to sustain a "revolution of the mind" is an absolute. That's why Beatles records were burned. That's why Elvis Presley was censored on television. Rock & roll drove J. Edgar Hoover crazy. Jazz was drug music, the players and the audience were undesirable outsiders. Cool.

Music provided so many of us with an opportunity to separate ourselves from our parents, peers we felt nothing in common with and the establishment where antipathy was going in both directions. Our soundtrack was always better than theirs. Jimi Hendrix put it nicely in his song "If Six Was Nine":

White-collar conservatives flashing down the street

Pointing their plastic finger at me

Hoping soon my kind will drop and die,

But I'm gonna wave my freak flag high

High!

 

No one who attempted to stop the music has ever succeeded, and the music has never stopped coming. Music is always right. When it is time for music to change, it will always find the right people to move it forward. Music is generous. It allows people to play it fraudulently and insincerely, but it also exposes the perpetrators as quickly as it blesses the truly inspired and their audiences.

There are periods of American history that are dark, regrettable stretches of deplorable ignorance, intolerance and sheer madness. Despite the mistakes and incredible waste in America's past, there has never been a period where there wasn't amazing music being made. It's the music that responds, reacts, rectifies and endures, always.

So, I'm still not getting the rebel flag thing but I am getting the rebellion thing, big-time. The show in Birmingham is now behind me and we are miles down the road toward Athens, Ga. It was a great night. The audience was fantastic -- even the drunken man sitting right in front of me did his best to keep it together. Things are getting better all the time.


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