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Henry Rollins: The Column! We Are the Aliens, Everyone Else Is Earthling

[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.]

Coming to you from a small room offstage in the very cozy and cool Belly Up in Aspen, Colo., the smallest venue I play on tour. Aspen is one of the most beautiful slices of land in America, what Abraham Lincoln referred to in 1838 as "the fairest portion of the earth." On the way to the local gym, I watched skiers carving lines into a massive and extremely steep mountainside of snow. It occurred to me that I had never seen skiing before except on-screen.

The streets of Aspen were full of people in athletic, ski and snowboard attire. The jock/mountaineer/somewhat baked look seems to be prevalent among the youth, and the Euro-Beverly Hills casual look seems to be happening with the older folks. The stores sell clothing, gear, fur and other items that those with liquidity can afford.

It's a very rarefied atmosphere. The quality of air reminds me of Scandinavia. It is a very clean, civilized and tranquil environment.

As I walked back from the gym, I kept hearing the voice of the late Paul Winfield in my head, narrating an episode of City Confidential. "Aspen ... the last place anyone would expect ... murder."

If you spend a lot of time on the road in the touring racket, the whole thing can take on a great degree of strangeness after several weeks. The tour bus -- the "Steel Horse" that Bon Jovi refers to, or, perhaps more apt, the "Kinky Machine" that Hendrix talks about in "Third Stone From the Sun" -- is our transport from city to city. When we step off, we are always the same, but the surroundings are different. We are the Aliens, everyone else is Earthling.

This constantly changing landscape of people and places keeps it all very interesting and has made Sun Ra and Acid Mothers Temple albums a large part of the music I have been digging in the small rooms I inhabit preshow this year.

Touring musicians and performers deal with this blur of temporary dwellings and cramped confines as a constant. Some adjust to it or find a way to deal with it; others, not so much. Often, these travelers try to make the road more like home, never fully embracing their surroundings. They spend weeks at a time on the road, fighting every mile of it.

Their denial-driven misery seeps into every aspect of their lives and, unfortunately, into their shows. It is one of the biggest wastes of time to watch a dialed-in performance that cost you time and money. It is an insult on every level. Rarely does someone who doesn't want to be onstage fool an audience. To watch this is like witnessing an animal dying slowly -- the best part being when it's over and the communal suffering stops.

 

Either you are into it or you're not -- that's all there is to it. It's one thing to be out on tour for a season or a year, but to make it your life, or at least a large part of it, is something else altogether.

I was happy to find out that when on tour, Dolly Parton doesn't use hotels but stays on her bus every night, to the point of having her buses shipped from Austria to Australia so she can tour the way she sees fit. I used one of her buses once, an honor. It was good to know that one of my tour-for-life heroes, Duke Ellington, preferred hotels over nights spent in his own bed.

It's a rare breed who would actually rather be on the road than not. Some may say that they prefer all the movement, hassle and jostling that come with it, but quite often it's bravado and they indeed count the days until they can be back to the comforts of a life that doesn't bounce around nearly as much.

I have likened this way of living to what it might be like to be a sailor at sea, coming into port to provision, trip on the locals for a time and then set out again. While some might find the 1972 song "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass nausea-inducing, I think it's a rather poetic rendering of a man. As much as he feels for Brandy the bartender, he calls the sea his home and must return. Brandy does her best to understand. In the real world of touring, Brandy often files for divorce.

 

I find this mode of existence much to my liking. I feel bored and unproductive while off the road and back in the real world. I liken it to how Apocalypse Now's Captain Willard feels while sitting in a Saigon hotel room, waiting for some action. At this point, even a night off is a strange thing, and it is a relief to get it behind me.

I have been touring part or most of every year since 1981. Tim, our bus driver of well over 10 years, has been out here since the early 1970s. We have been through a lot. Years ago, we hit a deer -- it felt like we had slammed through a brick wall. In February of last year, the driver of an 18-wheeler fell asleep in front of us around 0930 hrs. outside of Chicago and nearly took us out. Everything in the front lounge flew forward as Tim went into evasive action. He said it was close. A few days ago, a man drove into our left side in broad daylight. We're in a different bus now.

Are you kidding? This is the best deal ever. Out here, coffee tastes better and music hits harder. I would like to think I am only getting warmed up.

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