My penchant for walking developed early. It came about first as a necessity during the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year in high school in getting to my first job as an attendant at the town tennis courts. After high school started it took a stronger hold, going from necessity to habit. It was a time of fluid friendships and no clear impetus to make them solid, but also no real desire to stay indoors. So I went out, usually walking to the library and looking for books it didn’t have, then perhaps to the park to pass time on a bench, or to the video store to look for the copy of Doom Generation I was told was there but which I never found, then, rather ill-advisedly, to the convenience store for a Coke and a Ding Dong or some such. If I met some classmates and they weren’t totally dismissive, great! If not, well, whatever.
Naturally this, among other things, made meshing with my peers more difficult. Some were a bit more proactive than others in highlighting this difficulty. One method I disliked the most was drive-by harassment. This didn’t happen often, but when it did it was both embarrassing and a bit frightening. One instance I have not forgotten happened in between walking from my mom’s house to my dad’s house a mile away. As I made my way on Mountain Avenue, a car filled with upperclassmen happened to be making its way as well. As it passed me, one of its occupants yelled something. It was unclear to me what was said but it still jarred me into sprinting, especially as I noticed the car turn around to yell at me again.
After that I walked more uneasily, quite sure it would happen again. Because why not? And indeed it did a little over a year later when I was walking to my subsequent job at Pizza Hut. I was on Snyder Avenue, adjacent to the putrid lake that sits on the property of a small chemical factory. Again some upperclassmen came down the road in a vehicle, again they took notice of me, and again they delivered an unsolicited message. This time the messenger in the passenger seat had a megaphone (I realize that doesn’t make sense but that’s how I remember it). As they passed the passenger turned his head out the window shouting, “Henry Rollins is a bad poet!” in my direction and continuing on their way.
This one seems at first more absurd than terrifying, but it was not a non sequitur. Some time earlier I gave a presentation in a creative writing class on the poetry of Henry Rollins. Poetry like this, from his 1990 collection Bang!:
There was a time
When things weren’t so
And the air was
And people were
When you could go about at night
And hear no gunshots
I remember neither the framing of the project nor anything I said; I only remember that it was not met warmly. In fact it was met with considerable derision from other students, and one student in particular who just generally didn’t like me. “It isn’t poetry,” was the main, extremely adamant, critique. So offensive/amusing was this that it was mentioned to the other members of the artsy clique I was inconsistently welcomed into, leading to the later drive-by.
This all seems rather stupid for reasons that should be obvious; but also because the argument being made to me was one I’d already come to agree with. Of course I agreed with it. Henry Rollins was not the only poet I’d read by that point, and with enough sophistication to know that the quality of Rollins was nowhere on par with, say, Anne Sexton or Jim Carroll. Not liking Rollins’s writing, or his music, or his spoken word, or just him as a concept was and is entirely understandable. Rollins is the primordial edgelord. He set the mold, as yet unbroken, for an affected angst that borders on camp, for an intensity of feeling that passes for intellectual depth, for Devil’s advocacy that passes for moral clarity, and for a surly sarcasm that passes for scintillating wit. It’s the aesthetic of permanent adolescence, typically seen—or assumed—in white males.
Even as he kept writing and publishing he didn’t necessarily get better, just more precise. From 1998’s Solipsist:
All at once she was done with me and I was pushed out the door. Years later the memories of the house and the woman inside haunt me when the weather grows warm. Broken dreams of conquest stabbed with failure. Of hope driven mad by emptiness. Of the long march that ends in muted defeat, tricked by bad maps and dry riverbeds. Blood drying silently on stones under and unrelenting sun. All the time truth was there trying to tell itself to me, but I did not heed the warning. And through the years she has risen out of heat-driven mists like a cobra. Different faces, same killer. Yes, they are all the same. I learned the lesson after many self-inflicted deaths.
And yet, the very public remonstration and my silent acquiescence to it did not cause me to abandon Rollins altogether. There was something sort of necessary in keeping him around, something useful, and which remains useful today, but for different reasons. The first reason being Rollins’s relation to punk.
I wouldn’t say that Black Flag is my favorite band. I find most of their records after Damaged to be rather unlistenable, and agree with the consensus that touring was where they shined brightest. (That Greg Ginn is a Deadhead is not a coincidence.) Yet unlike Slint, the undying admiration of which defies all logic, Black Flag’s artistic legacy is earned. The chief aim of punk is often seen by adherent and critic alike as bringing the higher arts down to its level and nothing more. Black Flag were not content to settle for that and, again with varying results, not only took hold of them, but mutated them in their own image. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski gave Black Flag a distinct aural language. Raymond Pettibon’s drawings for their records and flyers, not to mention their simplistic but striking four bar logo, gave it a distinct visual language. Applying the Black Flag approach to actual language seems rather inevitable in this light, but that wasn’t the case until after Rollins, a dynamic performer who sometimes read Henry Miller aloud at shows, joined the band as their fourth vocalist. The first half of the 1984 album Family Man is made up of Rollins’s early spoken word, and serves as a kind of coming out.
As a recent convert to punk and one with literary leanings, “Can punk be literary?” was a question I asked myself a lot at that time. Initially it appeared that writing was subservient to music by way of zines and journalism. It was an angle of promotion, not an end in itself. If it became one it had to match the scope of intensity and introspection set by the music—which meant poetry or memoir. Rollins’s transition into poetry was nursed by Harvey Kubernik. His spoken word compilations that included Dennis Cooper, Exene Cervenka, Chuck Dukowski, and Susanna Hoffs calcified that standard. But however interesting those are as cool projects or historical documents, their interest was not lasting to me personally.
One way to think of punk is as a road beset with a series of tollhouses. You come to one, pay some sort of vague due, and pass through to the experience it offers—a record, a show, a scene, etc. Each subsequent tollhouse offers a different experience commensurate with one’s maturity. Not everyone stays on the road at the same length, and those who stay on long enough might only have a faint memory of the first destination. (Or, conversely, that is all they remember.) But the road is still the road. Henry Rollins, however, was more of a detour or an off-road attraction. He didn’t really reveal anything to me that, at the time, I hadn’t already encountered with other poets. The real tollhouse was very nearby, though.
After Raymond Pettibon fell out with the band (and especially Ginn, his older brother from whom he is still estranged) over the use of his artwork, he set off on his own career that is arguably more independent of Black Flag than Rollins’s. Though his ink-based comic strip-esque artwork remains starkly minimalistic, it has grown more sophisticated. It’s singular personality is much clearer as Pettibon became a fixture in the contemporary art world, exhibiting in MoMA and the New Museum, and contributing cover art to other bands. Ultimately, for all of Black Flag’s artistic innovations, their real testament is to discipline: the simple, but defiant, act of getting things done. Pettibon, on the other hand, embodied development, the more anxious act of moving forward.
Nearly 20 years after receiving my mobile criticism, however, I find myself defying it even more than I did originally. True, I’ve since encountered people who’ve done what Rollins has done much better. Steven Jesse Bernstein was a better “punk” poet; Jim Goad is a more savage and transgressive polemicist. But Rollins works well within the strictures of his skill set, which isn’t nothing. He’s above everything a gifted performer. Much of his best work comes from his faculty for talking. His essay on 7-11 in the second issue of SPIN begs to be read aloud. He has his substance as well. His minor hit song “Liar” is a pointed character study in someone many of us have had to deal with at one point or another. He is, moreover, one of pop culture’s best chroniclers and archivists. His diaries during his time in Black Flag best capture in real time the milieu of brilliant misfits in which he found himself—not just Ginn, Pettibon, and Dukowski, but D. Boon, Mike Watt, Kira Roessler, Spot, and Keith Morris.
Most of Rollins’s recent publications are diaristic and based on his world traveling, but he admirably never shied away from his early work. There is something admirable still in it. Whereas in the ‘90s it was praised for its “rawness” or “realness,” what comes through now is its modesty. His writing does not aim higher than it needs to or should. It serves a concise purpose of articulating an experience or feeling as the writer saw it, which is the base purpose of most literary expression. It just happens to resonate with a lot of people. “I fell in love with Henry Rollins when I saw an episode of his spoken word show,” write an Amazon review for Black Coffee Blues, considered by some his best book after Get in the Van. “I have never seen such raw emotion and a genuine sharing of feelings. It hit home and helped me understand that no matter how many people are around, you can still be totally alone.”
That Rollins’s work never aspires to greatness or art is the point. Rollins witnessed and directly facilitated feats of greatness that came with costs not even the people willing to pay for them could afford. What you lose in excellence you gain in wisdom, and strangely a kind of perfection. “[James McNeill] Whistler was an amateur,” Max Beerbohm wrote of the painter’s book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, something of a predecessor to Get in the Van. “But you do not dispose of a man by proving him to be an amateur. … His very ignorance and tentativeness may be, must be, a means of an especial grace. Not knowing ‘how to do things,’ having no ready-made or ready-working apparatus, and being in constant fear of failure, he has to grope always in the recesses of his own soul for the best way to express his soul’s meaning.”