American hardcore punk icon Henry Rollins was in town about a week and a half ago, and Larissa and I were there. Originally known as the singer with legendary hardcore band Black Flag, Rollins spent the ’90s working as frontman of the Rollins Band and has spent most of his 30-plus year career writing and publishing his words not just in the form of lyrics, but in tour diaries and spoken word poetry performances and collections as well. When his Winnipeg date was announced a couple of months back without any specifics as to what kind of show it would be, Larissa and I weren’t sure what to expect: music, poetry, or some impassioned ranting could all possibly be on the menu and in any combination. It turns out the third option was what we were in for that night, and what delightful ranting it was. Rollins told stories about his Black Flag days (once, when knocked out by a serious kick to the cranium, he remembers Greg Ginn waving at him after he came to, not to see if he was alright, but to alert him to the fact that they had to continue with their set despite the fact that their singer had just been knocked unconscious), his letters from fans, his longtime friendship with Ian MacKaye (they went to Aerosmith shows together when they were really young, something I can’t quite wrap my head around, especially knowing what MacKaye would come to stand for in a few short years), seeing the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung in North Korea, and his addiction to the road and to touring, among many other things. He also spent plenty of time mocking his own country and (perhaps somewhat misguidedly) praising ours. All in all, though, he was on amazing form and full of the legendary energy and passion that I’d heard and read about for so many years.
One of the more recent places I’d read (my reading it is recent; it was published in 2001) about Rollins and the music scene from which he emerged was in Michael Azerrad’s excellent book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. While he begins with Black Flag and the hardcore scenes in California and Washington, D.C., Azerrad’s central thesis is that when Nirvana seemingly exploded into popular consciousness with the release of Nevermind in 1991, what actually brought that event to fruition was the slow, steady workup of significantly more underground, indie bands during the preceding ten years. When grunge “broke” in the early ’90s, it was because of the work of American bands who refused to let go of punk when it dissolved in the late ’70s, instead morphing into hardcore and, later, college rock, before hitting critical mass with the advent of grunge. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Azerrad focuses on thirteen bands who carried that punk ideology through their influential but ultimately still obscure work in the ’80s. From the overtly political post-punk of San Pedro’s Minutemen to the art rock scene in New York City that gave birth to Sonic Youth, the bands profiled by Azerrad are incredibly important to the way we understand American punk and alternative rock music today. He explores the crushing ennui and restlessness that made and then ultimately destroyed The Replacements, the strident activism of Ian MacKaye and his two bands, Minor Threat and Fugazi, and the educated and curious urge to experiment that drove Mission of Burma’s music.
While I was familiar with most of the thirteen groups that are featured in Our Band Could Be Your Life, there were a couple bands that the book prompted me to investigate further, like Mudhoney and the Butthole Surfers. His writing is excellent in the way that it brings together and finds similarities in scenes and genres happening all over the country over the course of more than a decade. One of those uniting features of these bands is the hard work put in by them, the relentless touring, and DIY, often working class approach to financial decisions, from choices in record labels to the ultimate in economy touring. Think of this week’s mixtape as the musical accompaniment to Azerrad’s book, offering a glimpse into the power, enthusiasm, and success of these bands.