Happy 60th Birthday, Henry Rollins

The first disturbing event of first-year university was the day I went to meet a childhood friend of mine when he was discharged from the insane asylum.

I can’t remember the exact details, but smoking too much pot had triggered a psychotic break of the ‘everyone is out to get me!’ variety.

There was nothing his terrified parents could do, aside from call the police, who came and put him in a padded van and dropped him off at the St Vincent’s psych ward.

I’d never been in a psych ward before, and I sat bolt-upright on the moulded plastic chair as rigid as I did in school photographs, waiting for him.

When he came striding down the hallway, he was about forty kilos heavier with an enormous beard and hair all the way down his back.

Ironically, this is the man who introduced me to Henry Rollins.

This friend and I were part of a small high school clique of nerdy, long-haired kids with a passion for extreme music. My hair was short because my father forbade me growing it.

We went to see Slayer when they played in Australia for the first time in 1991, and later Morbid Angel at the Palace, in St Kilda.

Both bands, through speed and distortion, were pushing popular music toward the outer limits of what it could be, and used the music as a medium for exploring aggression and Satanism, the two most simple and obvious incarnations of taboo.  

The crew went to see the Rollins Band while I was overseas. When I got home, they reported the experience, wide-eyed and awestruck.

Rollins had delivered something beyond anything they had seen before; a kind of extreme that reset our definition of what that meant, just as he reset our definitions of being an adult, and being a man.  

He had toured behind what is to me his essential album, The End of Silence. The cover features the large tattoo of a pitiless sun that stares down from his back.

The back cover features a photograph of Rollins transfigured in performance; ripped, stripped and travelling along on his personal wavelength of ecstasy. Slayer and Morbid Angel were invoking demons; Rollins was one.  

…I think this was in year 11. Someone loaned me the album, but I just couldn’t get into it. In fact, it was so acerbic, listening felt like it was literally burning my ears.

The speed metal bands we listened to were intensely rhythmic; The End of Silence grooved rather than galloped through long, complex song arrangements with Henry literally screaming and shouting over the top of it.

I don’t know what made me pick it up again later, but it may have been after my soon-to-be institutionalised friend and I had a spat. He insulted me after we’d been to see King Lear, saying, ‘Get a self-opinion, Jarrod.’

The End of Silence was a loose thematic suite of songs that began with ‘Low Self Opinion’.

“The self-hatred that blinds you

Binds you, grinds you, keeps you down

The world falls down around you

You build up walls around you

You wear disgust like a crown…”

What Henry said was true of me. Finally, I heard all the things I hadn’t wanted to hear.

Rollins was the diametric opposite of what constituted a rock star. Most of them were (and still are) overgrown adolescents, while Henry was in his early thirties, wore short hair, was evangelical about weight training as the means for attaining both fitness and sanity, a voracious reader of ‘serious’ books and completely abstemious.

The difficulty of the music is like Shakespeare; it’s closed to those unwilling to do the work. You have to learn it, and in so doing, are taken deeper into its coils of meaning. You have to dig in to find the mechanisms of the storytelling, which are often unique to those works.

The other kids grew their hair longer and began experimenting with increasingly harder drugs. Meanwhile, I started journaling literally thousands of words per day, shaved my head down to the skin and went in to the gym.

1994 was year zero and I was ready to begin again. The way I saw it, drugs wouldn’t solve my problems, and at that point, neither would suicide. I hadn’t reached the stage where I could clearly countenance it.  

My university counsellor directed me to read a book called Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. In it, Herman writes that, ‘An atrocity is, by definition unspeakable because to speak of it is to break the social compact.’

The social compact I had come to understand was ‘Don’t cry. Be polite. Play along with the game that everything’s okay, so you don’t upset other people. Dance politely, wear nice clothes and get a job that earns lots of money so you can acquire the symbols to make others approve of you.’

With The End of Silence, the Rollins Band had produced the ultimate soundtrack for the detonation of the social compact. And everything nobody was supposed to say came roaring forth, calm and huge like a river of violence. Morbid Angel and Slayer were metaphorical; Rollins was literal.

“Believe me when I tell you: life will not break your heart; it will crush it.”

The last song on the album, ‘Just Like You,’ is about his father.

My friends’ fathers were permissive wimps; mine was a savage. Terrifying, capricious, aggressive and brutal. He’d put all kinds of marks on me – some were visible on my body, but there were other secret, more insidious ciphers in my posture and my eye contact that other bullies would recognise and home in on. My father was furious with me, and even more disgusted, when I would come home from school crying.

I’d never read or heard anything about such a father anywhere in literature or music. Aside from Cronos in Ancient Greek myth, the diabolical father is the monster hiding in plain sight.    

In the mirrors of the gym, I came to understand why I was subjugated to my father’s cruelty. My reflection symbolised everything he hated and was the justification for everything he had done.

My body was small, skinny and weak, and the whole pitiful streak of skin and bone was crowned with a simulacrum of his face. His chin, his nose, his hair. And then, when I looked closely, I found him lurking in the wells of my eyes.  

Rollins’ body, on the other hand, was the platform for his mind. It was the means for shaping, refining and controlling it. Henry’s tattoos were not pretty pictures; they were scars that symbolised ideas and decisions.

His body was a weapon, not an object. And his fitness wasn’t a commodity; it was the cornerstone of survival.

I loved university and I learned a lot, but for most of that time, I was training and walking around in the ever-shrinking concentric circles of rage drawn on the floor of my life by The End of Silence.

And then, the night my father challenged me to a fistfight, I was ready. The day after, I walked out into the stark, beautiful sunshine of an adult life.

**

I still listen to Slayer: it’s pure aggression, distilled to a sort of hormonal purity. I can’t really listen to Rollins anymore, though. The End of Silence is dominated by songs between seven and ten minutes long, and is a cycle of profoundly negative emotions.

It takes me back to the bench press in the bedroom of my family home, with my father listening to the roaring of the Rollins Band crawling through the house he built like the thunder of the precipitant storm moving down the hall towards him.   

I own a gym now, and earn a living by helping people take little sips of the poison Henry taught me how to drink, transforming it into a steroid within the mysterious crucible of the human heart.

The final thing I picked up from Hank but didn’t recognise at the time, what is probably his enduring legacy, is ecstasy.

What you see when you watch him in performance is ecstasy. Ecstasy is the practical experience of love for the world; of a lust for life. And, over time, that loving experience of life comes to supersede the feelings of angst, grief and self-loathing. Ecstasy is what stays with you. It is the ‘real’ you; it is the thing that is truly yours.   

Happy 60th birthday, Henry Rollins. I don’t know how I would have made it here without you. 

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