[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 week and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.
This installment includes Henry's belief in music's power to unite us. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
Howdy Neighbor, Let's Rock This Joint
I am the first to admit that I am perhaps too much of a reeking-of-patchouli-oil, looking-for-a-tree-to-hug optimist when it comes to the power, majesty and unrivaled brilliance of music. I dig genius and am in awe of a soaring intellect like Michelangelo, but as cool as he was, what Coltrane did for music is just as incredible as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In my opinion, music is humankind's finest achievement.
I am never more sure of humanity's bright future than when I go to see bands play. Witnessing all these young people drawn by the music, I conclude there is no way they will be suckered into intellectual dead ends like racism or homophobia. Ever since I played on the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991, I always thought that music was the way out of ignorance's darkness. Every day on that tour, I checked out the thousands of people and knew things were changing for the better. Twenty years later, I am still convinced I am right.
Last week, I attended two shows that further solidified my outlook.
Omar Souleyman of Syria played at the Echo and Mali's Tinariwen performed at the Troubadour. Two very different and fairly eclectic strains of music. Two sold-out shows. I was happy for the musicians and happy for Los Angeles.
I went to the Echo a little before showtime, thinking I would be able to purchase a ticket easily and see the show with plenty of room. I rounded the corner onto Sunset Boulevard to see a line about a block long. For Omar Souleyman?! A man who makes wild vocal/keyboard music, whose exposure in America is a few releases on the most excellent but decidedly nonmajor Sublime Frequencies label? This line on a Tuesday night?! I was happy about his audience size and not as elated about my prospects of getting into the show. Luckily I was able to procure a ticket and several minutes later was in a very packed venue, awaiting the man.
After a brief introduction, he and his keyboard player hit the stage and the place went nuts. I couldn't tell what Souleyman's reaction was, exactly. There he was in his trademark kaffiyeh, mustache and sunglasses. I think I detected a slight smile. The music started, and with the propulsive beats the keyboard player was laying down, the place went off. Youths were getting onstage to dance, hugging Omar as they hopped up and down. It was a great scene.
After the show, I walked back to my car thinking: All is not lost. How could it be? Omar Souleyman had a sold-out show in Los Angeles.
(On a music-fanatic side note, I must tell you that Omar Souleyman gave me one of the best record-store experiences I have ever had. In 2009, I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and hit a CD shop, looking for Souleyman releases. The men behind the counter just stared at me while I held Omar CDs in my hands, yelling, “No way! What a score!”)
The next night I went westward to the venerable Troubadour and awaited the amazing Malian export Tinariwen. I have seen them in both Mali and America, and they never disappoint. They walked onto the stage and everyone cheered. They jumped right into the music and had the entire audience with them every minute until the end. Tinariwen play a very sinewy, utterly beautiful music that escapes description. As great as their records are — their latest, Tissali, is no exception — it's live that the band really shines.
What a show, what a great audience they have here.
Life throws challenges at everyone, and things in America are testing the patience, decency and tolerance of many. There are moments, however, where all these very real concerns are momentarily sidelined for the enjoyment of life itself. That was what happened for me at these two shows. Both were weeknight events and, no doubt, many of us were facing early mornings. Nonetheless, this great music from far, far away drew a few hundred of us together. We might not all know each other, but the fact that we were all together at the show proves we definitely have some things in common.
Again, I am perhaps too utopian, too “we can all get along,” but when I am at a show and the music is playing, I feel closer to the human race than at any other time, and I am 100 percent certain that whatever comes our way, we can deal with it.
For me, nothing else takes the human state to such a height of greatness as music. Nothing comes close. It was great to see this validated two times in two nights in a city that often makes me feel like a stranger, even after three decades of living in it. Howdy neighbor, let's rock this joint!
Until next week.