[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 thoughts on why bands shouldn't just rely on their hits live. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
Of Rock and Dinosaurs
This may sound like a parsing of words, willful denial or sheer evasiveness but I don't believe in vacations. I am not saying one should not get out of town and see something else, lest one goes nuts. But the word itself smacks of surrender and defeat. I don't take vacations. I go adventuring into the territory. I want to come back sunburned, five pounds lighter and somehow malaria free yet one more time.
Weeks ago, I got one of the best offers from one of my favorite bands, Dinosaur Jr. The band asked me if I wanted to go on the road and interview them live onstage before they turned it up and played their breakout album Bug in its entirety. See Dinosaur Jr. play eight times in eight nights? This was working for me, like big, huge, colossal time, so of course I said yes. And that is where I am right now. Some may call this a vacation. I call it a really good time. I see this band up to five times per tour.
The band, Lou Barlow on bass, Murph on drums and J Mascis on guitar, made three albums in the eighties that had considerable impact in that time. The self-titled debut in 1985, You're Living All Over Me in 1987 and Bug in 1988. Then, the line-up parted ways. J went on without Lou and intermittently with Murph to record four excellent Dinosaur Jr. albums in the nineties: Green Mind, Where You Been, Without A Sound and Hand It Over. Not a bad one in the bunch.
And then, in this new century, the classic threesome got back together and by way of saying they were not extinct and quite alive, they released the Beyond album in 2007 and Farm in 2009. From that time up to now, they have been on the road, all over the world, fairly nonstop.
I get a lot of flak for this point of view but here goes. I think it is checking one's swing to rely on past achievements in music. Bands who go out every other summer and play the hits strike me as artistically timid. When I think of Mick Jagger still singing that he can't get any satisfaction in over forty years of being in the Rolling Stones, I have to conclude that he's either lying or not all that bright. This is however, the textbook definition of entertainment and there's nothing dishonorable about giving thousands of people a great time every night. It just strikes me as a little too easy and not risky enough to maintain your edge. The water in a river is going somewhere. The water in a swamp got there somehow and just sits around. I have always feared stagnation.
I had a discussion on this topic with Ozzy Osbourne years ago. Ozzy is one of my favorite people. He is one of the most solidly good human beings you will ever meet. I asked him if he ever gets tired singing ancient music every night. He looked at me like I was crazy. “But that's what people want! I am there to make them happy!” I have seen him play many times and he indeed makes people happy, I count myself as one. That being said, I can completely dig that school of thought but I don't want to make that my major. For me, life is too short for trotting it out and slinging it forth over and over. To paraphrase Johnny Dollar, it has to be, “Action packed, you hear me? Action packed!”
Musically, I took my tips from people in the jazz world. Miles Davis comes to mind. He kept pushing forward artistically and made music that brought in new fans and turned away the old ones as well as confounded critics at almost every turn. I don't think he was concerned with anyone's opinion. He had to go where the music took him. When you look back at his whole catalog, it is fairly impossible to imagine how he weaved his way through all of that astounding material. It might be the single most towering catalog of work in the history of recorded music.
So–what of a bunch of middle-agers clambering onto stages all over the world this summer as they anticipate a roaring demand from whom they can hopefully supply the aforementioned satisfaction? Good work if you can get it, I reckon. Rock is ironic in that up to a certain point, you can get better and better at it if you don't mind possibly looking more and more ridiculous. There are, however, a few who are able to maintain their chops and somehow look more rock 'n' roll as they go. The Stones for sure and of course, the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Rock (sorry, not up for debate) Iggy Pop.
So is it possible to have longevity and not rely on a set list as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls? Sure, but you have to be really good.
This is where Dinosaur Jr. really shines. Not only are they rockin' live but they keep making records that are damn good. You might have a favorite of course, but none of their records are awful. J Mascis recently turned in a beautiful solo album called Several Shades of Why that gets better the more you play it.
Dinosaur Jr. are not some coelacanthic relic that refuses to die, they are very much alive and in the present as these shows will no doubt illustrate.
Me, I'm just along for the ride. It's not a vacation!