This installment includes Henry's thoughts on learning to appreciate challenging music. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
Rock & Roll: Suicide
Many years ago, Ian MacKaye and I went into Orpheus Records on M Street in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. The place usually had a lot of cutout records, which were what we could afford a lot of the time.
I don't know how I came upon it, but I remember holding the album, looking at the cover and marveling at the artwork, which was lots of dripping blood coming down from the band's name -- Suicide.
Just the name blew my young mind. I turned the cover over to see what was on the back. The band, all two of them -- Alan Vega on vocals and Martin Rev on "machine" -- stared through sunglasses back at me. They looked like disinterested strangers to the human race, perhaps even reluctant menaces to society. So, with a corner cut off and at the bargain price of $3, Suicide's first album left the store with me.
Later that day, Ian and I were sitting in his small room in the attic of his parents' house. We listened to the Suicide album. Out of the speakers came an assault of freakish, tortured, synth-driven minimalism that was completely new to me. I had never heard anything like it, had nothing to compare it to and therefore had no way to deal with it. This album was much bigger than I was. But I did not know this yet.
The album contains a song called "Frankie Teardrop." It is perhaps one of the more confrontational pieces of work you will ever hear. It is about a man, Frankie Teardrop, who cracks up and shoots the members of his family and then himself. It was perhaps so intense that, out of discomfort, Ian and I tried to diminish the impact it had on us by making fun of it. For the rest of the evening, we would do our best Vega vocal imitation and laugh, but even then I knew that this band was no joke.
I put the record away and did not pull it out again for weeks.
At some point, the record demanded further listening. I started playing it often, but couldn't understand what it was about it that compelled me to keep listening over and over. This was the first album that ever grew on me.
It took several listens for me to raise myself to the album's level. I had to retrain my ears and rewire my idea as to what I thought music could be. I knew this album was good, but I didn't know how to appreciate it. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was the first great musical hurdle I ever had to make. Not all the punk rock I had heard or the many interesting records my mother had played while I was growing up had prepared me for something this ultimate.
The first Suicide album showed me how musically conservative I was. At that time I thought my tastes were fairly broad, but this album showed me what a lightweight I was. Today I count it as one of the most important albums ever made.
I have played it for many people over the years. Some dig it and some don't. It seems to attract or repel with equal force. Since the time I became a fan of Suicide, my musical tastes have expanded exponentially, but it was this album that got me through the door and into a fairly limitless consideration of what music can be.
You perhaps hold in high esteem a few albums that didn't register, or perhaps even annoyed or angered you upon first or fifth listen. It begs the question, what is it about that music that kept you coming back? The music on the record is incapable of changing. It must be something in you that makes the change. What is it?
I don't think it's any one thing for anyone and I don't think any general rule applies.
Actually, this is one of the many things I love about music. There are relationships you have with songs or albums or bands that no words strung together can articulate. There is so much about music that is indefinable, even beyond description, like a passage of a book that you keep coming back to because the words create something much more than the words themselves. This kind of thing happens routinely in music, hence its presence all over the world. I believe it is humankind's greatest achievement.
Perhaps one of the reasons the records that didn't immediately win us over end up being some of our favorites is because we had to put more of ourselves into the interaction to get something out of it. The music made us have to evolve somehow. Thus, the appreciation of the music becomes that which was earned by pushing our boundaries farther outward.
Perhaps I do myself a great disservice, but over the years I have developed an aversion to music that I feel is trying too hard to be my pal. I like music that isn't striving for my approval. I like music that doesn't seem to notice that I am even in the room. Music that has no interest in what my opinion is of it. When music strikes me this way, I know it's real and I am drawn toward it.
Can an artist or band have a lot of fans and still create in this environment of purity? Absolutely. I don't hear a hit single on a Fall or PJ Harvey record, but I sure hear music I like. When it's real, you know it as acutely as you know when it's not.
For me, the less traveled and more arduous musical paths are the most rewarding. More than 30 years later, I still have that Suicide album, and it still has the same effect on me.
I wish I could remember which jazz player I either heard or read say the following to a reviewer who didn't understand or particularly like what he was putting down. It sums up this week's hangout quite well, I think. He said, "I played what I played, you heard what you heard." I wrote what I wrote, you ... only kidding. Until next week.