Henry Rollins: Want to See Humanity at Its Best? Go to a Music Festival

A scene from Wacken Open Air festival 2007
A scene from Wacken Open Air festival 2007

Roughly 22 hours ago, I stiffly rose from my seat after the second flight of the day, grateful that the multihour stress position, yoga-for-idiots pose (seated dummy), was over. Los Angeles to Frankfurt to wonderful Hamburg, Germany, where I am currently stored in the Radisson across the skybridge from the airport.

Today is a day to adjust and prepare for three shows at Wacken Open Air, a heavy metal festival.

I cannot explain to you how much it means to be back for the third time to this event. I was invited two summers ago but couldn’t make it, due to a shoot schedule. I was gutted that I was unable to be in both places at once. If I had my way, I would be onstage at Wacken every year.

Beyond it being excellently run, the values of the Wacken festival are best illustrated by the fans, who buy up the 80,000 tickets for the next year’s festival only days after the current one has finished. This is with no bands on the bill yet. People trust it and make it a part of their lives. I think this is one of the coolest occurrences in modern music.

I’m fully aware that I tie thousand-mile-long tails onto kites. I know that I wax enthusi-spastic about bands, records and countless other things. That being said, I think life is too short to be cool all the time.

To be a fan, to show fidelity to a band or an event, using Wacken as an example, is a human bright spot. To respect yourself and still be able to have a roaring good time digging the efforts of someone else, to hold the people who make the music at a level that you are not always able to articulate, is as good as it gets for humankind. It’s right up there with decency and respect.

I started performing at European festivals in the 1980s. I have been lucky enough to have been on a festival stage almost every year for almost three decades. There are a lot of great ones all over the European continent, the U.K. and Scandinavia. I have not performed at anywhere near all of them but I have put a pretty fair dent in that list.

It is my opinion that festivals make life better and actually have cultural and societal impact. I am glad that so many summer festivals have been popping up on the American landscape. People gathering to dig music at a small club or in a massive field is so much better than a gun battle anywhere.

Again using Wacken as an example, you can see what humans are capable of when they agree to the basic contract of a situation. At Wacken, you have 80,000 ticket holders plus thousands of staffers, crew, etc. This is not a sustainable environment. You cannot expect all those people to live in that physical space and proximity for more than a day longer than the event. The fact that the festival comes off every year is something far more brilliant than any idea of metalhead unity.

I don’t think Homo sapiens is a herd animal. What makes Wacken and other multiday events so amazing is that thousands of people, as individuals, make the decision to drastically alter their lives for a few days to live and experience something truly unique.

No government has been able to establish a delivery system that is completely sustainable. You would hope that with every passing election, every country would be striving to further perfect their model. This is the premise of the Constitution, as stated in the Preamble. Humans are too damn wily to be pinned down, so we need amendments, elections and new laws. We humans are not all bad, just complicated.

That’s why I think the music festival is such an important part of a young person’s diet. This is where the long tail on the kite comes in. I don’t think one can overstate how much going to festivals can open a young person’s eyes to human potential.

Several months before the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991, I was on tour with Jane’s Addiction. I was told to get on the Jane’s bus for a meeting with Perry Farrell. I had never been on a tour bus before. I was called to the back lounge and sat down with Perry. In great detail, he rolled out an elaborate idea about a touring festival. After he was done, he looked at me and asked what I thought. I said it would be amazing but I couldn’t get my head around an idea of that size and scope possibly happening.

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The Rollins Band was the first band onstage at the first-ever Lollapalooza. I don’t think the touring landscape for bands in America has been the same since.

The point I am making is this. Elections seem only to divide and polarize America further and further, both “sides” saying it’s the other that is the cause of all the problems. Germany is a great country but, like any land mass occupied by people, it has its challenges and divides. What is the one thing that both nations get right, immune from congressional gridlock or whatever other governmental frustrations? Music festivals. Same goes for all the other countries that have them.

Can you imagine how enormous the turnout would be for music festivals in Russia without Putin interfering? In Iran, without Ali Khamenei tossing the celebrants in jail? Neither country would be the same afterward.

This is why I believe so strongly in music festivals. At Wacken, each person is constantly reminded by the other 79,999 that they can be compassionate, civil and hit one altruistic high note after another as well as have an amazing time. I’m in the right place.

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.


More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
Let's Invade Canada

Bend Over, America — Here Comes President Trump
I Am Basically a Vinyl Cat Lady

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