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Toad Toxins or Transcendent Music: Whatever Gets You Through The Night

[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 Thursday and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast.

Come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com

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It has been an eventful last few days, and I haven't gotten much sleep.

Two major ingredients have determined my actions and led to my achievements in life: improvisation and opportunity. When it comes to work, my instinct is to say yes to an offer and worry about my health and sanity later. I also have learned from years of touring and making a life in the world of music that sometimes you just have to go with the moment, even if that moment takes a few years to extract yourself from. Basically, I often find myself in interesting situations and don't always have a clear idea as to how it's all going to end up. I plan it this way. It keeps things interesting.

Inspiration is where you find it. I search for moments that stand out. Instances that I will never forget. Some moments are more important than others, and things can change in a fraction of a second. This is what makes life worth hanging around for, even at its worst.

I say this because I had one of those moments about two hours ago, and it became the inspiration for this piece.

I'll get to that shortly, but first I want to tell you what happened a few nights ago, when I found myself wandering through a magnificent expanse of Arizona desert, camera crew in tow, documenting and interviewing men who were looking for a desert toad called Bufo alvarius. It was just another night of keeping it strange.

This toad has multiple glands that emit a mucus-like toxin that is potentially deadly if ingested. However, if it is dried and smoked, the active ingredients in the toxin deliver a brief but incredibly powerful sensation. It is illegal to capture these animals, extract the toxin and smoke it -- and so, of course, we find ourselves along for the ride.

A toad is located and its toxin squeezed out onto a pane of glass for the benefit of our cameras. Some toxin that was already dried is loaded into a glass pipe and given to one of the men. He prepares to go on his "journey"; a sleeping bag is rolled out and he sits on it. The pipe is heated from underneath with a lighter, the smoke quickly builds up, and the man inhales. He gives the pipe back, lies down and immediately starts convulsing and retching. A few minutes later, he is back up on his feet, swearing he had a really great time. Fantastico!

Hours later, I'm on an airplane headed back to Los Angeles, wondering what all that was about. No matter -- a couple of days and not much sleep later, I am again in the air, flying all the way across the country in search of another great moment or two.

One of my many rules is that if I am in America when the Evens -- a duo composed of Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina -- play their annual free outdoor show at Fort Reno in Washington, D.C., I am there. For one thing, it's a great night under the stars. For another, people I have not seen in years often show up. Tonight, a virtual who's who of independent music is wandering around the site. They include Eddie Janney of Rites of Spring and One Last Wish, John Stabb of GI and Kid Congo of the Cramps, to name a few.

The Evens hit the stage at 8:37 p.m. There are way more people this year than last year. Ian and Amy pull out new songs; they are fantastic. Everyone is digging it.

At one point, Ian starts talking to the crowd. It gets very quiet, and the massive field of people begins to feel like you and me sitting across from each other. Ian humorously and gently admonishes the audience for being so absorbed by their phones. "You blue-faced people, stop texting!" he says. Then he offers up the line of the summer: "Music is serious. Look where we are. This is happening right now."

He lets that hang for a second -- it feels like a lifetime to me -- and in that microscopic bit of my existence, I feel connected to everyone there, I feel the entirety of my life, as well as more than 30 years of watching this guy onstage.

Then Ian hits the downstroke of "Cut From the Cloth," from their first album, and a few songs later the show is over. It is the last of the Fort Reno series until next year, and one of the better shows I have seen lately -- which is saying something, as there have been so many.

I talk to some young people after the show. The cool opening band Laughing Man give me their record; other bands give me their website addresses, so I can check out their music. I meet a man who has been working with Elizabeth Warren, one of my heroes. The place is electric.

Right now it's 2:39 in the morning. I will be leaving for the airport in about two hours. Another night, not a lot of sleep. Completely worth it.

The point of all this? There are myriad ways to get through it all. For example: smokin' tha toad. For me, however, it is music, especially live.

These moments with the band and with each other -- this, to me, is what it's all about. As things grow more intense all over the world, I know that we will survive because there will be more nights like the one me and more than 1,000 others just had. I know that you and I will be there. My conclusion? There is no way we can lose.

Until next week.