I’m in Charing Cross in London at an affordable hotel that caters to business types. I arrived a few hours ago.
I didn’t even try to stand up to the jet lag that almost mugged me when I walked into the room. I fell out for a few hours and woke up just in time to watch the gray sky drain away and turn dark. I‘ve been staring out of the window, down onto the street.
Tomorrow I’ll be at BBC Radio 6 for some production work. The length of my stay here will be approximately 43 hours. It’s a long way for a cup of tea, but to me it’s worth it to be at the BBC and have a few hours to walk around.
Most places I go I can relate to musically. In almost any major city I frequent, I have memories that are tied to music. Some of the first shows I ever did in a touring band were here. They didn’t always go well, but by the time I was 21, England and especially London were part of my life.
There are at least two versions of this city for me. One is a place where I have performed for four decades, which is very real. The other, to a certain degree, exists untroubled by facts. It is the latter I greatly prefer. When I think of England, I think of all the bands and the thousands of records I have that come from here, the countless hours I’ve listened to them since I was 6. Almost all of those bands played London. The world comes here.
Whenever I’m in London without a show breathing down my neck, I walk the streets trying to wrap my head around all the shows that happened here, from Jimi Hendrix playing club shows to The Ruts tearing it up a decade later. This is where I lose most of my perspective (which I am happy to part with) and become one of the more in-need-of-a-life fan types there ever was.
I never liked being in a band all that much. That’s how I know it was real. It was in me and it had to come out. I had to do it and I did until there wasn’t any more left. I would much rather be a fan. I am in awe of the music I like as much as I am of the people who made it and where they played.
Once, when I was in Islington, a district of London, I walked by a pub called the Hope & Anchor. I asked the person I was with if this was the Hope & Anchor. She said yes. My mind started reeling as I thought of the live album, Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival. One of the greatest moments in rock music was realized on this album by The Saints, the legendary band from Brisbane, Australia — a live version of their song “Demolition Girl,” which absolutely pulverizes its studio counterpart.
I’ve got a flier from an X Ray Spex show at the Hope & Anchor. I could have stared at that place all day.
When I’m here, I feel closer to the moments of discovery I made listening to the records that journeyed across the Atlantic to the record store where, 30-some years ago, I went almost weekly, hoping another single had made its way to the bins. I wish I could say that I’m as obsessed with this music as I was when I was younger, but it’s only gotten worse as I‘ve grown older. The music of bands like The Damned, Buzzcocks, Alternative TV and countless others from London seems even more miraculous now than when I first heard it.
Now and then I meet some of the people from these bands, and I do my best to not freak them out with my enthusiasm. Earlier this year I did two shows at the Barbican Theatre in London and after one of the shows Gaye Advert, along with Segs and Ruffy of The Ruts, came by the dressing room to say hello. I’ve met them several times before, but it was all I could do to keep my cool.
Have you ever walked around some place, looking for the clues to some mystery of your life? You don’t exactly know what you’re looking for or what you would do if you found it, but it keeps you on the streets for hours. I do this in a lot of places, from where I grew up to cities all over the world. The context the music from these places gives me when I walk around is completely invented in my mind; that being the case, it’s all mine and the perfect definition of freedom. My thoughts are the songs the band left off the records, knowing I would eventually find them on some night, somewhere. I guess it’s that music I want to thank these bands for.
One night later: The session at the BBC went well. We tracked the voice drops for four shows in 2 hrs., 43 mins.
It’s Friday night and the streets are packed with young people of all kinds. Punk-rock kids, Muslim girls, the martini crowd with their short skirts and tight pants — all parade past the window of the coffee place I’m in. I’m listening to Machine Gun Etiquette by The Damned, as I try to do every Friday night. It sounds better here. I live for moments like this.
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One night later. Back in Los Angeles at a coffee place. I got in a few hours ago and almost immediately started running a fever. It’s the crossing-the-finish-line comedown. My body knows it has a few days before the tour resumes and it’s letting me have it. Despite feeling bad, I had to get out of the house. So here I am, as always, listening to the soundtrack that lives between the notes.
More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
White America Couldn't Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day
Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier