Henry Rollins: Tragedy, and How to Carry On

[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.]

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A few nights ago, I'm sitting in a coffee place when a small group of tough-looking men comes in. They have the classic California-lifer hardness about them. Weathered faces, hats that look like they had been worn for years, biker clothes, old tattoos. I take my eyes off them and stare down at my notebook and its blank page. I look up again to see one of the men walking toward me. He comes up to my table and stands over me. Before I can say anything, the man's entire face contorts into a deeply pained grimace and he starts crying. This is easily one of the oddest things that has ever happened to me. I don't know what to do, so I just sit there and wait to see what happens next.

The man, his voice rising as he attempts to speak through his tears, tells me that a film I was in around 1998 meant a lot to him and his wife and that they watch it every year. He says they were married for 38 years with no kids, and that she has passed away. When he sees the film now, it reminds him of her and that makes him cry harder.

His equally intense-looking friend walks over and watches the two of us. Up to this moment, I have not said a word. He mentions a moment from the film and I remember it and nod while I suppress the urge to tell him that interestingly, that particular scene was shot on the Warners lot, only a few traffic lights from where we are right now. The technical details of how an on-set snow machine created a winter's night outside in the middle of the summer, I don't think would have been the kind of trivia he would have found interesting at that particular moment. After telling me all this, he wipes the tears off his face, apologizes for bothering me, shakes my hand and then he and his friend get their coffee and leave.

I sit for several minutes, making notes about what has just taken place. I have never seen the film. It was one of the many where, because I am off the road and would rather be employed than not, I take the work I can get and feel lucky when it goes my way.

If any of the films I have been in strike the viewer as something less than The Godfather, I indeed find myself to be something less than Marlon Brando, so I reckon it's good work if you can get it.

The guts it took for that man to stand in front of me and cry, the power of that image, I will never forget. I bet he thinks about his wife every single day, and the pain doesn't get any easier to take. I sit there, thinking of those who have lost, of hurricanes and school shootings and how some of us have the unenviable task of carrying massive amounts of grief that will never be put down.

I'm letting that hit me and feeling pretty damn bad, I must say, when I hear a woman at the next table fairly yell at me that she loves me. When this sentiment is expressed at that volume, I think it's safe to say that it's not real love but perhaps an expression of enthusiasm, like how someone loves pizza. She explains that she loved me in the television show Sons of Anarchy, where, incidentally, I played a murderous neo-Nazi. It's weird to say thank you for that, but I was raised to be polite. Her friend takes a couple of photos of us together and everyone's happy.

The place is about to close, so I take my leave and drive the rather empty streets of the San Fernando Valley. My thoughts go back to those who have lost. I think of a letter I received the night before from a woman I have known for a few years. It was the anniversary of the night the doctors told her that her husband wasn't going to win his battle with cancer. She is now a single mother with a son who ever more increasingly asks about his father. She is a very good and very strong person, an amazing mother, and she deals with the loss as best she can. I was almost in tears as I wrote her back, her sadness made it hard to breathe.

The aforementioned cases are highly instructive and oddly inspiring to me. When you hear about what someone else is going through and you are unable to distance yourself from it or in any way muzzle your empathy and are inspired to actually do something, these are moments to learn from.

Respect and consideration for others. Two of the hardest attributes I have ever tried to acquire, rationalize and implement. It took years of seeing past incredible amounts of abuse that had been hurled at me and my own vast abundance of bullshit to be able to pull my chin up to the bar. Some days are better than others, but more often than not, I am able to harness my inner Lincoln and reach the right conclusion.

It's not like people always make it easy to tolerate them. From the assholes who told the people of New Jersey that they were stupid to live on the coast and they can dig themselves out of the wreckage on their own, to the two obviously drunk drivers I had to evade on New Year's Eve, it is often very damn difficult to be cool to others.

But then, a grown man comes up to your table and cries in public, and you realize that all is not lost and so you carry on. You must!

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