[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 Wednesday 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 recent nostalgic visit to NYC and a very special memory of an encounter with Joey Ramone. And come back Friday for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
ps: Henry is currently appearing at Largo with a spoken-word set celebrating his turning 50. Don't miss it.]
This week, I am in freezing New York City for five shows. It's been going great so far. I used to live here in the '90s. I am sure many of you have visited. If you have not, you should. Actually, you'd better. Everyone should. Of all the cities I have ever been to, New York City is the most amazing one I know.
The list of great bands that have come out of this city would exceed my allotted word count. Stories told to me of shows that went down in this city fill me with envy. Hearing Hubert Selby Jr. talk about the times he saw Billie Holiday, Coltrane, Parker and other jazz giants still blows my mind. Just walking around the city has often given music fans quite a jolt as they are casually passed by a major rock legend on his or her way somewhere. This city is all about music and there are countless tales to tell.
Luckily, I have spent enough time here that I have one or two New York music stories of my own. This is my favorite:
I believe the year is 1996. I'm living in a by-the-month hotel on Rivington, right off Bowery. I know the Dictators are playing at CBGB's and there's no way I can miss it.
I hit the street and endure those incredibly cold blasts of wind as I walk the few blocks up to CB's. Louise is at the door and waves me in, which makes me feel like a big deal. (I will never get better validation than that.)
The Dictators are soon to go on, so I stand by stage right and get ready to rock. The Dictators hit the stage and the band's vocalist, "Handsome Dick" Manitoba, looks into the crowd and yells, "H-D-M?" The audience responds, "King-of-Men!" and roars with approval and laughter. Everyone's into it and we're off to a great start.
The band starts playing and, damn, they're absolutely killing it. Their records are cool, but live is where this band shines. I notice someone standing to my right and realize I'm only looking at this person's upper arm. Whoever it is has some considerable height.
I look all the way up and see that my very tall fellow enthusiast is Joey Ramone. Joey looks down at me, I see the wheels turn for a second and then his face brightens and he says, "Hey! You're a Dictators fan?" I say I am and he smiles. (I had done some shows with the Ramones in the past and had hung out with Joey briefly in different places over the years. He knew I was a big fan and was always very friendly to me.)
So the two of us, standing together, watch the Dictators rip it up on a cold February night at CB's. After the show's over, Joey and I hang out with the band and their friends, and it's one of those great nights where you feel very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Doesn't happen all that often to me, but it's definitely happened a few times in New York City.
I remember there was a photographer who took pictures of all of us. I always wanted one but could never track down the person with the camera. I finally found a photo of that night online. I typed "Joey Ramone Dictators" into Google and hit "images," and my past was staring right back at me. Sadly, it was the last time I ever saw Joey. He passed away in April 2001.
Around that time, I knew Joey was not doing well. I had shows in Australia and left for Melbourne out of Los Angeles. On the way there, I listened to the Ramones' Subterranean Jungle album and thought about Joey. Several hours later, I arrived in Melbourne. My press agent picked me up as I had to go from the airport straight to a radio station for an interview. Upon greeting me, she handed me a newspaper, pointed to an article and said I'd better check it out. It was an obituary for Joey, who had slipped away while I was en route.
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When you walk the streets of New York and have music on your mind, there are so many landmarks to check out. Many of the actual places are gone now, but one still can be moved just by knowing that Hendrix walked out of that doorway or Buddy Holly used to live in that apartment building, or being able to find the spot where a famous Janis Joplin photo was taken. I don't know about you, but that kind of thing goes a long way with me. I can't help it, I am a fan.
It's not that New York City is the only place where great music comes from, but it has to be said that some of the mightiest musicians came to New York City to make their name. These people are giants to me, and to walk the same streets and see some of these hallowed spots always makes a visit here very memorable for me.
Every time I am in NYC for more than a day or two, I want to move back. There is something, perhaps the incredible speed and volume of this city, that makes me feel like I'm plugged into some immense power source. New Yorkers are some of the most resilient, charismatic and high-spirited people I have ever been around, not to mention one of the most amazing audiences anywhere. You have to earn them, for sure, but if you do, you're going to outdo yourself or keel over trying. Without question, some of the best shows I have ever done in my life have been here.
As they say, "You can't stop New York." It is so true.