Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins is a singer, a writer, an adventurer, comedian, television host, actor, and radio DJ. If he suddenly announced he was going to become a magician, it wouldn't surprise me. But above all else, he is a teacher. It's through his lyrics and spoken word performances that he distills his life experiences into universal truths. Sometimes these "facts" aren't meant to be taken seriously. When Rollins says "all women are evil, and all men are morons," he only half means it. But when he says this life is all you have, and at any moment it can be taken away, this is not some Lifetime Channel treacle. The man knows of what he speaks.

When he was young, Rollins was walking home with his friend Joe Cole, kidding around as friends do, having fun, when a man came up behind them and said he had a gun. Since they were just about at their house, Rollins ran inside looking to give the man the television or anything that would satisfy him and make him go away. Rollins never saw the man, and he never saw his friend alive again. A gunshot sounded, and Joe's life ended.

I saw Rollins tell this this story on a DVD called Talking from the Box. My friend Rick was already a Rollins fan and brought the DVD over for the rest of us to watch. The spoken word concert was hilarious. But the final story of Joe's murder made me a Rollins devotee for life. I watched him relate how he had to call everyone that knew Joe and tell them Joe was gone and wasn't coming back. Between calls, he had to force himself to stop crying, to lock down his emotions so the first thing the person on the other end of the line heard would not be a grown man heaving in hysterics.

From that moment on, Rollins was my hero.

There are certain ties between Rollins and me. Our fathers were abusive. Rollins taught me it was okay to hate my father. For a long time I felt guilty about not wanting to spend time with him, about not caring what he was doing or asking about his health. But the man failed me, and I owe him nothing. At a show in Asheville, Rollins said he didn't have parents: he killed them in his mind. I feel no more guilt.

The lessons Rollins teaches are mostly about strength. Strength of mind, strength of will. "Don't talk about it. Do it." Which would just be an empty t-shirt slogan if it didn't come from someone so openly honest about his life that you have to believe him when he boasts of his own fortitude. The opposite of strength of course is weakness, and Rollins has a lot to say about that, too. Weakness is when a politician proclaims AIDS to be God's punishment for homosexuals. Weakness is not wanting to know about your world, not wanting to broaden your mind. Weakness is giving up. Rollins says he hates weakness. He taught me that hatred, when tuned and properly aimed, is a useful tool.

My favorite of his songs is called "Shine." "I got no time for drug addiction, no time for smoke and booze. Too strong for a shortened lifespan, I got no time to lose." It was a revelation for me to hear a rock-and-roll singer say those words. I felt the same way. But all around me I saw people getting high, falling down drunk. They called it partying; I called it suicide. I felt alone in this opinion. Then Rollins shouted it at the top of his lungs and validated my thoughts.

He also taught me that depression is universal. It's a necessary rite that we can learn from. Sometimes it's good to shut out the world and live inside ourselves. You clear your mind and see with a lucidity unknown by happy, smiling people. When you come out of your depression, you're sharper, stronger, and you have a notebook full of scribbled, insane poetry to post on your blog. We all want sex, and we all want to be important. We all need to shout "Fuck you!" at some point in our lives. And we all brag of our conquests and tiny victories while carrying the weight of regret. Rollins knows this. He's been around the world more than a few times, and everywhere he goes, he finds the same things. Then he reports back on what he's learned.

I've seen him in concert half a dozen times. The stories blur together. But one instance I remember vividly took place at the Pack Center in Asheville. He said he loved Asheville because that's where Thomas Wolfe grew up. In Wolfe's honor Rollins opened a book and read to us a passage from Look Homeward, Angel. It's strange to think that my hero has heroes of his own. There's a lesson in that. Somewhere.

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Rollins Is My Guardo Camino

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