It is refreshing and necessary to be influenced by people that not only echo, but build upon and challenge our beliefs. They serve as a reminder of both human and self potential, something much needed in a world where our surroundings often inspire too little. I had the opportunity to see in spoken word, someone who I have for several years held in this light: Henry Rollins.
Rollins is a punk rock icon and former front-man of the bands Black Flag and The Rollins Band and was recently engaged in his “Capitalism” spoken word tour that I caught in Augusta, Maine. Rollins, an author, speaker and one intense dude, is touring all fifty U.S. capital cities prior to the 2012 presidential elections, to give his unique and commanding take on life, politics and the current state of people and the world. I’ve been a long time fan of Rollins for his honesty, humor, candor and insight. Here are three lessons (that I) took from his musings:
1. “Don’t be the dike on a bike guy.”
Yeah, Rollins can be a bit raw, but there is a lesson in this curious statement. He recounted a story of an elderly gentleman waiting in an airport security line who upon viewing Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, on a nearby news broadcast exclaimed: “Look at that dike on a bike!” Stunned in silence and awkwardness, the man drew no follow-up commentary from Rollins or the many others waiting in the security line. Seemingly expecting to recruit others into a chorus of Janet Napolitano bashing, the man became frustrated with this lack of response and figured he merely needed to repeat his statement, with a bit more volume and fervor. Once again, more loudly, he shouted, “Look at that dike on a bike!” At this point people are cringing and silently pleading to get through the line and away from this man as soon as possible. Yet the man is stunningly, somehow, still unable to interpret this social awkwardness and silence, so once again he shouts…
Ok, it should be obvious that shouting similar statements anywhere is not a good idea, especially in an airport security line. However, what Rollins was cautioning the audience against was the unexamined opinion and letting the integrity and depth of our conversations falter at a critical time in history. We all have past experiences and prejudices which may lead us to quickly pronounce that a politician, public figure, situation or person in general is simply [this] or simply [that] without embracing any investigative responsibility. Yet, if we are concerned with the direction our country, and we personally are headed (and we should be), a deeper and ongoing conversation and questioning is needed as opposed to quick, unexamined, prejudicial opinions and statements. If upon closer examination we find change is needed, we must assume the responsibility for change over cynical passivity. Translation: We cannot afford to be the “dike on a bike guy.”
2. “Punk Rock instructs me how to live.”
Rollins detailed a story of being a teenager exploring many different types of music and finding Punk Rock, a genre of music that finally echoed his level of anger and isolation. He would, of course, go on to become the legendary front man of the band Black Flag, however, he began as simply a young, passionate punk rock fan immersed in the venues and culture of the movement. He specifically recounted being packed into a small, sweaty club pressed against a herd of young and enamored fans to see the band, The Ramones. The band was an assemblage of awkward, social isolates that produced a raw, intense and even ugly sound and performance. They were real, functioning without pretense, and their determination to be their unfiltered selves presided over any sense of social conformity to look, sound or act a certain way. Their lyrics suggested that it is ok and sometimes necessary to question authority and the excesses of mainstream while promoting personable acountability. It was within this ideal that Rollins and many others found a belonging: a place to be themselves free from the constraints of societal expectations to which they knew the could not adhere. The venues were up close and personal and while there was admiration for the performers, they were not inferior. They were a part of and co-creators of the movement. They found their voice. They had a purpose. It was their tribe.
We and our leaders can learn from the punk rock culture. Rollins explained that punk rock was a way to start a conversation and it gave him a notion of community that he had never experienced before. He could get close to the stage, feel it and participate. How often does our political system produce the same feeling in us? Modern politicians speak to us in well polished, meticulously planned, short sound bites. Their words and actions often feel contrived and they seem inaccessible as real people. They go to great lengths to present themselves as impervious, and inhumanely unsusceptible even if there promises and self accounts are littered with deception. Can there be a reciprocal political conversation if we never actually know who are leaders are and what they truly stand for? Can we really be co-creators of the movement that is our nation if we don’t know who we are talking to or if they really care to hear our voice? If not, punk rock instructs us to demand this and take personal accountability for it.
Rollins advocated for the adoption of the unfiltered rawness of punk rock principles. Maybe it was somewhat ugly, but it was real and you knew where you stood because people dared to be unfiltered. We should inspire our leaders and ourselves to embrace the same.
3. “Widen your lens of perception.”
Rollins has been traveling throughout the world for many years on band and spoken word tours. He shared that he feels driven to continue touring and traveling because he is interested in connecting with others and testing his and mainstream perceptions of what people are really like. Throughout the world and the country, he found that people were mostly trying to satisfy their needs for survival. These varied greatly; for some, it was wanting access to health care. For some, it was the ability to have a romantic relationship without government restriction. For some, it was to simply have clean water–nothing else. Some have experienced overwhelming loss by way of loved ones to wars and are attempting to cope with tragedy. In places deemed by mass media as “hostile” and the people “savage,” he found them different, yet welcoming and engaging in mutual curiosity toward each other.
Of course, most of us don’t have the ability to see the world first hand as Rollins has. However, the lesson is still pertinent: people often do not conform to personal pre-conceptions or popular perception. We cannot truly know the world or its people from our living room through the lens of cable television. Rollins cautioned against harsh judgments and explained that while governments may be corrupt, restrictive and misguided, people often share in tragedy and the common desires to survive and thrive the best they can.
Rollins brings the attitude and presence that made him a powerful front man in Black Flag and The Rollins band to his spoken word performances and I trust that he would advise us to bring the same type of attitude to our daily lives: one of self accountability, creating community, the questioning of authority and action.
Miscellaneous from Rollins:
“A third party will become viable.”
“If you don’t like your government, blame yourself.”
As far as those aging rockers you see get on stage that have clearly lost it: “I don’t want to be that guy.”