[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 trip down memory lane one night in Washington, DC. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
Now It's Dark, and I Am Real
I am in Washington, DC, at the moment. On the flight up, I listened to the first Dinosaur Jr. album to ease myself off the Dino-flow. While I walked the old streets and sweated in the ninety degree heat, I listened to Devo's Duty Now For The Future, a constant spin of mine in the summer of 1979.
As the sun set, I met up with Ian MacKaye, my best friend since I was twelve. We went to his house and he played me some unreleased Teen Idles and Minor Threat material he had come across during a recent cassette excavation in his archives. While the unreleased Teen Idles played, I read Ian a piece I wrote about the band to be included in a book of photographs called Hard Art by Lucian Perkins who documented the early DC scene in amazing black and white.
Ian dropped me off at a hotel we watched get built decades ago. Moments after I got to my room, the night called me outside. It always does.
Washington DC in summer is one city by day. Hot, humid, oppressive. When the sun finally goes down, it is a different thing altogether. The nights are epic. The quality of air makes for one of the best outdoor environments you could ever want. The air on a summer night here is rich with the smell of leaves. It is dense and almost pours itself into your lungs. The dark coolness of the DC night makes me think of Proust and Fitzgerald, of youth, the past and the early work of Thomas Wolfe.
In one of Roky Erickson's more extraordinarily beautiful songs (I know, so many to choose from), “If You Have Ghosts,” there is one of the best lines ever penned: “In the night, I am real.” As far as words strung together, that's about as fine as anything I have ever read. Those words have been on my mind for the last couple of hours.
It was thirty years ago next month that I left these streets and these nights to join the band Black Flag and to test myself in the world. Tonight, I went out walking on Wisconsin Avenue and took the same route I did when I walked to the train station to go up to New York City to audition for the band's vocalist slot all those years ago.
A twenty-year-old walked up that street, wondering what was to be. Tonight, a man of fifty, hair gray and face lined, walked more slowly and thoughtfully up the same path.
I looked at a building and remembered that years ago, the same space was a vacant lot I used to park in and try to sleep as I had run out of options at that time. I had a small tape player in there and the mix tape's songs all came back to me. Charlie Harper–“Talk Is Cheap,” The Skunks–“Good From The Bad,” The Germs–“Lions Share,” The UK Subs–“I Live In A Car.”
I reached a familiar intersection and looked over in the direction of a house I lived in for a few weeks and remembered that we would listen to The Damned's Machine Gun Etiquette album in the dark there. A song on the album, “Plan 9 Channel 7” still brings me back to that time and place whenever I play it, which is almost once a week. Fanatic is as Fanatic does.
I stopped at a part of the sidewalk and remembered at that spot, I spoke to a pal of mine from the early DC scene last year. A few months ago, he hung himself in a basement a few blocks from where I was standing. I thought about him and my heart broke a little.
I walked by a part of the avenue where over thirty years ago, Ian and I pulled over and listened to Trouble Funk's “Pump Me Up.” The song blew our minds so hard we just had to stop. I looked across the street at the building where I first saw them play a year or two later on a visit between Black Flag tours.
Thirty years ago, my life stopped being even remotely conventional in a very abrupt and spectacular manner. In a taxi earlier, on the same avenue, I drove by my last place of employ. The last place I held a time card and pushed it into the machine on the wall that smashed the date and time into the pulp in two different colors of ink. I think I still have that card.
Every day, as the years are herded into decades and amass in a long line behind me, it's still all about the music. I travel all over the world and take this city and the songs of my youth with me. I come back here and walk these streets at night to make sure I never forget any of it.
The perfection of the nights here could perhaps be captured in words by Rimbaud or Baudelaire but not by me. I think of the bands and the shows I saw here after I bailed on arena rock and before I left town: The Clash, Gang Of Four, Bad Brains, Stiff Little Fingers, Damned, 999, Buzzcocks, Cramps, The Mad, Slickee Boys, Minor Threat, Untouchables, Enzymes, Slinkees, Half Japanese, Ramones, DOA and so many others, they all walked with me tonight.
If I were a doctor, I would prescribe that you addict yourself deeply and irrevocably to music and never, ever seek cure outside of more music. It really is the best drug available.