[Part two of a two-part column. Read part one.]
I am currently in London, England. I am here to be part of a show that Alan Vega and Martin Rev, otherwise known as Suicide, are doing at the Barbican Theatre during the monthlong Station to Station festival.
Day 4: After Vega, Rev and I did our panel discussion for The Quietus yesterday, we were offered a free dinner by the hotel. During the meal, I asked Rev about the rehearsal, which was supposed to be today.
This is where our two long-held methods of performance made their differences known. Rev smiled and told me there would be no rehearsal.
I asked if we could play the song I was supposed to do for the encore at sound check. He said we didn’t need to. I asked if he could play it for half a minute so I could hear what it sounded like in that room. I was trying for anything at this point! He said I knew the song well enough and sound check didn’t matter, because as soon as he started playing onstage, he was going to leave the riff behind anyway.
I noticed he was enjoying my distress. He added that, in his opinion, Suicide was two people onstage and that was it. I could not agree more and had a very strong feeling that this was going to go sideways.
I don’t think there is any one correct way to approach live performance. As a younger person, when I was in Black Flag, the amount of time the band practiced was a totally transformational experience. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true.
Before I had joined the band, I worked my minimum-wage job, often overtime, and went to practice for the band I was in and managed to keep it all together. I thought I was a pretty hardworking person and was proud of my ability to stick with it.
Then I joined Black Flag and got a lesson in what hard work was all about.
Band practice was pretty much every day we were not onstage. It took hours. We would play entire sets of music multiple times. We did a thing we called “trudging,” where we would play at about 70 percent speed so we could all get a better understanding of how all the parts locked together. The songs became more than songs; they were full-on, high-caloric-burn meditations. You no longer played the songs — you were the songs. It is a hell of a thing.
Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t even for every member in the band and some couldn’t hack it. By the time we hit stage, it was King Crimson on phencyclidine. I took this process of preparation into my bands in the years going forward.
There is something to be said for going out on the night of your performance and just seeing what happens. A lot of work goes into making that come off. But to go out in front of an audience and half-ass it is to show your contempt not only for them but for the stage itself.
The show is tomorrow. I am supposed to go onstage at the beginning of the night and speak for 20 minutes. I have been preparing for quite a while. I am ready. What happens otherwise, I have high hopes, but like Nietzsche, I regard hope as the first sign of defeat.
Day 5: The show is done. It’s near midnight and I’m back in the hotel restaurant. All in all, it was a good night. My internal clock was working. I spoke at the beginning of the show for 20 minutes, as instructed, and hit the stopwatch after I cleared the stairs: 20:16.
After I was done, there were three sets: Vega solo, Rev solo, then Suicide. The two solo sets were really good, but Suicide was the standout. They were massive and completely full-on. I recognized at least one song, but the rest of it was synth riffs, often delivered by Rev smashing the keyboard with his fists and Vega riding the storm with his cavernous bellow. It is fairly amazing how much power the two of them put across. It’s like the decades have turned them into raging street fighters. Neither of these guys is young, but their age doesn’t seem to play any part at all in what they do.
By comparison, the encore, which I was part of, was underwhelming. We did “Ghost Rider” for a couple of minutes, but it was subdued compared to what had come before. Suicide really is two people, and their set was awesome. I am glad I saw the show but wish I had not been asked to be a part of it.
Afterward, the backstage area filled with people. As the level of inebriation and celebratory volume started to rise, I drifted out. Right before I left, a tall man came up to me, thanked me for the performance and, as he walked away, said, “I’m Mark Stewart of The Pop Group.” That rescued the night.
Day 6: Back in L.A. The hotel was conveniently located next to a great record store, Sister Ray. I am going to combat jet lag by trying to get into some of the records I picked up.
It is a great thing to be in a European record store. There are so many titles available there that do not get released in America. Mail order is possible, but the postage is brutal. To be able to just walk in and score is as good as it gets. Scientist reissues; Tamikrest, the great Tuareg band; heavy vinyl pressings; Joy Division bootlegs — all came back with me. It is one of my favorite rituals, to shlep vinyl from everywhere and get it onto the turntable. This weekend is going to rock.
From listening to Suicide in Ian’s attic to being onstage with them 36 years later was a hell of a journey, but certainly not an end.
Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.
More From the Mind of Henry Rollins:
The Major Labels Are Screwing Up Record Store Day
When You Claim Racism Is Over, You Get a Dylann Roof
Why I'm Not an Atheist