[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.]
Perhaps this has happened to you in the last few weeks. Your living environment is hot enough to keep you from sleeping all that long or all that deeply. You wake up at an incredibly wrong time, somewhere on the other side of midnight. You stick your head out the window to find the air is as warm as you left it a few hours ago. You realize that this is as cool as it's going to get, and that when the sun makes its appearance in a few hours you'll bake like a loaf of bread.
August in sub-Saharan Los Angeles is one of the great and awful tests of one's endurance, sanity and stamina. In this kind of heat, everything is awful, from traffic to human interaction. The sun obviously has no regard for the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
While I have done my best to avoid prolonged exposure to heat, I have found myself in situations where a lot was expected of me in unfavorable conditions. So many nights I walked onto a stage, realizing the music we were going to play was going to test us to the very limits of our existence. I came to fear it.
As a young person growing up in Washington, D.C., summers were hot, humid and relentless. My friends and I grew more restless and adventurous with every passing year. Skateboarding in the D.C. summer meant the occasional hurl or journey into temporary unconsciousness. We lived in a city with a lot of crime, which the powers that be sought to minimize by putting those intense, slightly pink “crime lights” at the top of every light pole. I always thought those lights facilitated as much crime as they potentially prevented. However, they allowed us to be on the streets at night, affording us great visibility.
It was the oppressive weather of the daytime hours that kept us on the constant hunt for heat and moisture conditions not ripped from the dark turbulence of a Rimbaudian fever dream. We found it in the basement. We became, to a great extent, subterranean.
In the house I lived in for a few years before I went back to apartment dwelling, it was the basement that provided the relief not only from the heat but from the world, which was rarely to my liking.
There was something about the basement that made the music coming from my small, all-in-one system sound perfect. The deadness of the space and the density of the air perhaps had a lot to do with it, but there was something more. The windows at the top of the wall that were level with the front lawn reminded me that I was literally underground.
That was perfect. It was a secret youth. The music l listened to down there — Hendrix, The Who's Tommy album, Zeppelin and Nugent — was the soundtrack for tuning out the world above.
When the punk rock hit us a couple of years later, the basement took on an even deeper meaning. Band practice happened there, as well as a lot of listening to the music of our new heroes of alienation. If we had no basements in which to dwell, we would have dug holes and hopped in to get below civilization.
Perhaps the trippiest basement experience I ever had happened a few years ago. I was visiting my old neighborhood in D.C. and walked past the house where I used to live on W Street. A man was on the front lawn and saw me staring at the house. I apologized and explained that decades ago I had lived there. He recognized me and said he had heard that and asked if I wanted to come in and have a look around.
Upon entering, my mind went in a thousand different directions. I asked if I could go into the basement. He said sure. I opened the door and put my right hand on the banister and descended. As my hand slid down the cool wooden rail, I registered all the marks in the wood like I was reading Braille. Seconds later, I was standing in the basement of my youth for the first time in more than 30 years. It all came rushing back. The Who's “We're Not Gonna Take It” played in my head as I noted that the air still smelled exactly the same.
I tried to explain to the man how much time I had spent down here and showed him the marks in the wall that Ian MacKaye and I had put in it with a pellet gun during the Nixon administration. He seemed unimpressed.
From an early age up to now, I have been awed by the completeness of sitting alone in a room, listening to music, somewhat isolated from the hot and bothered world. It is a small, controllable and, to a great extent, perfect place.
Writing to you now, I have been waiting all day to get here. I worked in my office for nine hours, crawled through a workout and now, in the dark stillness of pre-midnight, I sit in front of a surprisingly good-sounding, very thrown-together system of McIntosh/Paradigm/Rega components that would make Mary Shelley proud. It's been Enfer Boréal, My Cat Is an Alien, Masayoshi Urabe and Fricara Pacchu thus far, with hot-night favorite Getz/Gilberto up next.
I am hoping that album will somehow cool the room down. I don't use air conditioning. I don't know why but it feels like cheating to me. If I didn't have to get up so early tomorrow morning, it would be a Tinariwen record: Their music from the scorching sands of Mali is not written, it is forged.
Like many of you, I have sweltered all over this city in small rooms that I thought were going to kill me. It was the music that got me through the blank and distorted hours of heated dullness.
It is only August and we still have a long way to go. I keep expecting Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif to drop by. Keep your turntables spinning.