A few weeks ago, I invited a friend around for dinner. She came armed with goodies: a bunch of orchids from her garden and, unrequested by me, a book, Smile, You’re Travelling- a journal of his travels, written in 1997-1998 by Hard-core/punk/rock muso, Henry Rollins.
I read it immediately. I enjoyed it so much that I really wonder why it took me this long to read a book by Rollins.
In case you are not familiar with him, Henry Rollins was the front man for US hardcore/punk band, Black Flag, in the 80′s, and then led The Rollins Band through the 90s, through to 2003. He is also known for his spoken-word performances, and that is the only capacity in which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Rollins many years ago (as I’m not into Hard-core, I’ve never followed his musical output). Around the same time, I purchased a CD compilation called Live At The Wireless, produced by Melbourne radio station 3JJJ, that included his spoken word piece, “I Know You.”
So I knew that Rollins was a searingly honest observer of himself and others, and could be articulate and funny – with a very black sense of humor – but was equally capable of plumbing the depths of human vulnerability and weakness, particularly his own. I knew that he told stories with an energy that conveyed his intense, driven approach to life. I just hadn’t realised that all of this was captured in his journals. Smile, You’re Travelling was written in 1997 and 1998, when Rollins must have been about 36 – 37.
I am where I should be right now. It is early. I am alone and Thin Lizzy is on the headphones. I am in a small room in the middle of nowhere chasing one of my dreams. I think that is about as good as it gets for a guy like me. (p 5)
The final sentence of that paragraph sums up Rollins. His view of himself is pragmatic and humble. By “a guy like me” Rollins seems to mean, “a bit of a geeky loner, with no particular ties to anyone or anything.” Yet, he is aware that he has drive and ambition and his “as good as it gets” really is a contented, almost joyful, statement of achievement. In this case, he was writing from a small town in England, where he had flown to document a Black Sabbath reunion concert and hang out with his all time heroes. (Sabbath.)
Rollins’ writing in these journals alternates from observing, and offering harsh, sometimes witty criticisms of the world around him, to turning that harsh analytical eye on himself. He often falls short against his own high standards, and is only saved by adhering to the values he reiterates constantly, of striving to live with integrity, and live a life that is meaningful. His toughest judgements are reserved for those who put up with, but complain about, dull, unsatisfying lives.
I don’t want to hear about people’s little trials and tribulations about their car fucking up or their bullshit job getting to them. What did they expect? How can you complain that you’re bored and unsatisfied when you surround yourself with mediocrity and a grind that slowly drains you of your will to live. (p46)
Yes, he is extremely harsh – and Rollins doesn’t just pay lip-service to his intolerance of mediocrity. This is a man who doesn’t answer his phone, because he can’t be bothered with the superficiality of small talk! I didn’t keep the quote, but I’m sure he says somewhere that he hangs up the phone if people ask him how he is. Clearly, it would be a challenge to become a friend of this man!
It seems his whole life (at least up to the point when these journals were written) is based on that philosophy. He puts his money where his mouth is, and is determined to constantly challenge himself with new and, if necessary, difficult situations. He believes in the value of forcing yourself outside your “comfort zone”. One of the ways he chooses to put himself outside his comfort zone in 1997, is by travelling to Kenya, and staying in a one-man tent out in the Kenyan desert.
Out here I have to prove myself night after night. At least I feel I have to. If I don’t somehow prove my existence regularly, I feel as though I don’t deserve to live. Some say that is taking life too seriously. If you’re lightweight, then blow away back to your television set and your beer. The mediocre life awaits. (p39)
I saw a Masai tribesman with a stick walking along the road today. I have a discman. I have motion detectors in my home. I have a manager. I have an accountant. I have a Visa card and a body full of vaccines. He has a stick and some cows. He deals with lions and leopards. I deal with canceled flights, soundcheck and lawyers. I know who’s in charge around here. I should have come here a long time ago. (p18)
Rollins clearly keeps himself grounded with his intense soul- searching, and has no delusions of rock-star grandeur. From his tent in Kenya he recalls that Jane’s Addiction will be playing a concert in Seattle while he’s away. He muses that he could live in Seattle, but decides he feels more at home in a wet, cold, tent in the wilderness:
…(Seattle is) a very hip city and when I go into the stores and see the locals, I know that I will never be hip.
I think I fit in well in this tent here though. The tent is wet. The air is damp and cold. The cover of my notebook is curling up. I like this trip I’m on…. (p39)
In a hotel in Melbourne, Australia, he is woken by a drunk woman knocking on his door in the night. He is later told that she was naked.
Whoa, at this late stage I’m a rock star? She must have thought I was someone else.
Rollins perspective on life is fairly black, and his capacity for introspection and soul-searching is intense, but his imagination and vocabulary are shaped by a sharp intelligence and a voracious appetite for literature (he constantly refers to books he is currently reading). As a result, the book is full of observations and responses that are funny because they are at once dry, and extreme.
(In Madagascar) At the airport. What a trip. The airport is just chaos. There’s no lines at check in. You just run at the desk and aggro your way up to the front. (p43)
(on a safari tour in Kenya, in a bus with what he describes as “a pack of camera wielding seniors”) I start thinking that if I was that guide, I would get that three-hour tour down to a brisk, exhilarating half hour. We wouldn’t stop for anything….I would narrate the tour by screaming out the name of the animal I nearly ran over at the top of my lungs. ‘Lion!’ ‘Zebra!’…
On arriving by car to Coventry, England. Let’s take a moment to contemplate the sheer horror of this town called Coventry. We arrived yesterday to the mangled snarl of confusing roads that strangle the city center. With the hotel a mere one hundred yards away, your journey to it has just begun. Just begun you say? Why, that hotel is right over there, why don’t you simply drive over to it and be done? Oh no, no, no! That example of efficiency would require streets that would allow such a minor feat to be accomplished…..
He reserves the greatest scorn for the bland, the insipid, the superficial and the pretentious. The ultimate representative of these hated values, and target for much contempt from Rollins, is MTV.
MTV are the harvesters of musical death. In their hands, music has become a sterile, cute, horror show of mediocrity and weakness. The Russian version is wonderfully underfunded, amateur and refreshingly fun…….(p 123)
On another occasion, Rollins is invited to program an episode of MTV. Perversely, he chooses to fill the program with music that he holds in complete contempt. His reasoning is that because the music is so atrocious, it might make at least one person switch off MTV and put on a CD.
Smile, You’re Travelling feels as though it’s written by a man who has been blessed, or cursed, with enough insight into his own failings as a man, to know that he must keep his highly intelligent mind and intense emotions, busy, and under control. I suspect that Rollins maintains this tight control over himself because he senses that otherwise he would be likely to spiral out of control, into drugs or violence, or crippling depression.
I get along alright because I am a maniac who works too much. I work out so my body can take what I put it through. I keep a hectic schedule so I don’t slip. I know myself. I am human, fragile and prone to all the mortal shit. With an iron work ethic, one can pull oneself up a few degrees. It’s like going out for a run, if you can get out the door, you’ll be fine. It’s the couch that will kill you.(p 150)
His strategy seems to work. There are many moments where he expresses self-doubt, frustration and exhaustion, and the desire to give up, but like a character from Waiting for Godot, he rallies himself to go on, reminding himself that the alternative is a soulless, bland existence.
So why did I sign on for this? Oh come on! You got to go. What else are you going to do, go home? This is where you get to see what you are made of. Most never get the chance.
It’s Rollins’ unstoppable energy, and determination not to give in to depression or introspection, that takes you along for the ride and makes this a great read.
I must maintain this urgency. It is in the rhythm of life. Life is furious. It explodes in foliage and rots in damp heat. Follow that. Jump into the river that takes you to it. Otherwise life is a pause before death. (p110)
You can also check out Rollins’ writing on LA Weekly.