Henry Rollins: Why I Refuse to Shut Up and Play the Hits

Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins
Heidi May

This is about Miles Davis.

It is early evening in Zagreb, Croatia. I have been on the festival circuit since last week, living on a tour bus where every bunk is occupied. It’s crowded and we all know each other quite well now.

The festival setting is often a tragiclectic mix of ancient and new.

I woke up in my small bunk in Clisson, France, a few days ago. I staggered into the cloudy afternoon and milled around by the rows of buses. I heard what sounded like a band playing pitch-perfect versions of Foreigner songs, one hit after another. They were free world rocking without irony, complete with “Are you ready?!” crowd-rousing banter. From their roar, it sounded like people were into it.

I checked the roster. It was indeed Foreigner. I looked up the history of the band. At this point, it’s Mick Jones, one of the founding members, along with a talented crew of musicians. There was a period when Jones wasn’t in the band, taking a timeout to recover from a medical condition. The band kept touring, with no original members, proving that corporations really are people after all.

Hours later, Twisted Sister were onstage playing their most recognizable song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which seemed to go on forever. “Let me hear you!” preceded the audience’s massive, sing-along response.

A lot of bands do these blasts from the past. I sometimes go to the shows but can’t understand how the members get through it night after night.

I think it’s safe to say that there are many motives for why groups do this. The most frequently reached conclusion is that it’s for money, and perhaps that’s the biggest one. But what if Mick Jones just has it in his mind that the world needs Foreigner playing “Hot Blooded” now more than ever and will not rest until it is done?

Since no one is making you go to these shows, I figure it’s all good. I just think the past is sad. It holds all your failures, humiliations and unrecoverable victories. The future offers opportunities to improve, so why wouldn’t you run at it with all speed?

A mega rock star once explained to me why he sings 40-year-old songs at every show. He said it was his job to make people happy and to give them a good time. He then asked if that wasn’t the reason I performed. He was confused when I said that the idea of making people happy had never occurred to me as a job descriptor.

I did one tour many years ago that actually achieved that very result. It was to benefit the West Memphis Three. My bandmates and I played old and much-loved music. Every song was met by cheering and singing along as if we were all around the campfire. It was strange and, after a few nights, almost narcotic in effect. Everyone knew what they were going to get and was primed on arrival. It’s like the show played itself.

We did the work and raised the funds, but I was glad when it was over. It wasn’t the real world to me.

I have spent the last few days among hundreds of band and crew members in backstage areas. Sometimes it seems as if most of them were gathered together, given their black T-shirts, black jeans, boots, tattoos and beards, then sent back out into the general population. It’s as if the items were wearing the men, rather than the other way around. The black hair dye with gray roots showing was a great touch.

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But I think I get it. This is not wearing a uniform and accessorizing, nor is it denial. These are displays of attitude. A refusal to go gently. Perhaps after a while it’s no longer even your own hair you’re dying but a lion’s mane you’re maintaining. The shortness of life is a fantastic reason to do all this.

For myself, I wouldn’t want to be part of anything that would allow me to hang out so easily. I believe in pushing artistic situations into distortion, exhaustion, collapse and eventual extinction, to where the only thing left besides the recorded or photographic evidence is legend, tall tale and flat-out lies. In this scenario, there is no “getting the band back together” without it being awful, because you burned every synapse and ruined all relationships the first time. I think if you do it right, it cannot be done again. There should be nothing to come back to but ruin, hostility and the threat of litigation. The practitioners should for the most part be destroyed.

While I feel bad when looking at some boxers toward the end of their lives, their punished bodies starting to fail them, I see a feral integrity to it. There is no way they didn’t know this was part of the deal. Yet they went for it, and they paid dearly.

Willful self-harm isn’t a good idea, but if it didn’t inspire awe on some level, then there wouldn’t be stadiums or pay-per-view. (My views on this subject are obviously extreme and only posted here for your amusement, ridicule and rapid dismissal.)

I think I understand playing the hits, even without all the original members present. It is the band’s total submission to the will of the fan. The customers get what they want and can leave with a feeling of fulfillment and having been duly served. The rock stars get the adulation, proceeds and whatever else falls into their enclosure. Everyone wins but nothing is risked. Did the fans get art, or product? Does it matter? I think it does.

I know of at least one artist who risked and challenged unceasingly. A hard-core genius who dropped material when he started liking it too much. Who does that?!

I told you this was about Miles Davis.

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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