[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
A few Saturdays ago, I paid tribute on my radio show to a band called The Ruts. The band's vocalist, Malcolm Owen, died of a heroin overdose on July 14, 1980, at age 26. Since the anniversary happened to land on Saturday, when my show airs, I decided that lots of Ruts songs were in order.
The Ruts were a great punk rock band from England whose songs were as excellent as their time together was short. They were able to release a few singles and an album called The Crack, one of the best records I have ever heard.
A few months after the release of their single “Staring at the Rude Boys/Love in Vain” — a song that, ironically, says that heroin is a bad idea (“Don't want ya in my arms no more…”) — Malcolm died.
Frustratingly, the band recorded a number of tracks for the BBC's John Peel show that gave fans a glimpse of what the next Ruts album might have been like. The songs were excellent.
To make it even worse, weeks after Malcolm died, Virgin, the band's label, released a Ruts single, the previously unreleased A-side of which, “West One (Shine on Me),” was just so damn good.
I remember all this very well. In 1980, I was living in my hometown of Washington, D.C. What monies I was not using for essentials, I was spending on records. When the “Staring at the Rude Boys” single came out that spring, I figured The Ruts were going to be the biggest band in the world. The single cost me an hour of minimum-wage work and, like every other Ruts single, was worth every penny.
Later that year, we got the news via one of the English music newspapers of what had happened to Malcolm. I was crushed. I was never going to see them play and one of my favorite bands of all time were done before they had a chance to start. One of the greatest voices I had ever heard was forever silenced.
The Ruts were one of those bands I never stopped listening to. In the years after Malcolm's passing, I always kept my eyes open for anything Ruts, from different pressings of their records to interviews, press photos, anything I could find. I listened to their music with a mixture of wonder at how a band could be so good and sadness that it was over and never coming back.
Fast-forward several years to the summer of 2007. Out of nowhere, I get an email from someone who tells me he is a friend of the three remaining Ruts, drummer Dave Ruffy, bass player Segs Jennings and guitarist Paul Fox. The friend informs me that Paul has cancer and won't survive it. The band wants to do one more show, to salute the songs and raise some funds for Paul's family. They need a singer and want to know if I would do it.
Emails go back and forth, plans are made, a show is booked. The U.K. Subs and others are on the bill. The Damned, old friends of The Ruts, will be doing a surprise set. The tickets sell out in a matter of hours. I have not met them yet.
Eventually, I am in a London practice room with Segs, Ruffy and Paul, who is in a great deal of pain just standing. We start playing the songs. The sound of these three — who have not played together in decades — is overwhelming. I am fitting in well and it sounds incredible. I can't believe where I am at this moment.
A few days later it's showtime. All the opening bands give it the maximum. We hit the stage and the audience goes nuts. They understand that this is probably the last time they are going to see Paul Fox. We look at each other, we are ready, and so we start playing.
Out of the more than 3,000 shows I have done in my life, that one is going to stick with me.
We finished the set with the band's first A-side, the excellent “In a Rut.” All the other bands are onstage with us; Charlie Harper of the U.K. Subs has his arm around me and we are singing together. It's an insane combination of great and awful. Great that we pulled off the songs so well and awful what has brought us all together.
Postshow I was alone in a room with Paul Fox as he prepared to leave. I thanked him for all the great music and hoped that I had not let him down. He said that expectations were exceeded. He left the room and was gone about 100 days later.
I still keep in touch with the other two. I see them when I am in London. We will always have a very heavy bond. It is one of the most intense relationships I have ever had.
On the 14th of this month, I wrote to Segs first, asking him if he was listening to Ruts music. He wrote back immediately and said he was. I then wrote Ian MacKaye and asked him if he was on point. He was. I jammed Ruts music all afternoon. Hours later, we kicked ass with four Ruts songs on the radio.
At this point, I am so close to their music, it feels like my own. And in a way, it is. That's perhaps the greatest gift of music. Once you let it in, it's part of your DNA.
Whenever I hear a Ruts song, it's as if the music is coming out the marrow of my bones.
Ramones music has a Pavlovian effect on me — the song starts and the world blurs around the sound.
For many of us, music is how we hear life. It reminds you that you have a pulse, that you are an analog being and that you are very much alive.