Friday, June 15, 2018

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Get In The Van

Christopher Owens reviews a book by the inimitable Henry Rollins.

For those of you who kept diaries or journals when you were young, have you ever read through them as an older person and thought you overreacted a bit?

Half articulated thoughts, dubious decision making and an overall sense of melodrama prevails throughout most of them. So it's refreshing to see that Henry Rollins is exactly the same when it comes to his scribbled musings.

Get In the Van is a collection of journals by Rollins, going through his time in legendary US hardcore band, Black Flag. Spanning the years 1981-1986, it inadvertently captures how the hardcore scene, and America itself, slowly evolved into a parody of itself thanks to the onset of Reaganomics.

For those of you unfamiliar with the band, it is not an exaggeration to say that Black Flag helped shape the face of American alternative/independent music through their constant touring (often playing 200 shows a year), unusual venues (basements, gay bars, vet halls) and their own label SST Records (releasing seminal LP's by bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Minutemen, Husker Du and Saint Vitus). Despite never hitting the Billboard charts, the band were able to sell copious amounts of records to keep them on the road and funding the next LP.

While their peers were steeped in rock n roll history (X) or politically scathing (Dead Kennedys), Black Flag were a rage. An uncontrolled, primal rage that hated cops, authority, society and itself. Working their way through so many members (with only guitarist Greg Ginn as the one constant), their back catalogue stands tall.

Told directly, we follow Rollins as he evolves from being the manager of an ice cream store in Washington D.C, to becoming the fourth singer of Black Flag, to the end of the band in 1986. In between, there's constant touring, ruminations on the self and humanity, and various morbid thoughts and observations, such as this:

How much are you supposed to take before you just napalm the place? Fat, fucked up hippies with their butt faced women...Made me feel like a million bucks...It's real strange to me that you can get out of the truck and be in New York and get out of the same truck and put your feet down in California. I can look at the truck and see crud that has been there for over a month and remember the place where we picked it up. I know no one else thinks of stupid shit like this besides me. 43 days. 40 shows.

As you can guess, Rollins does not come across well here, seeming more like a petulant teenager at times than a thoughtful front man whose discipline and work ethic have steered him all his life. Having said that, considering he had to face an endless barrage of moronic punkers trying to set him on fire, throwing beer bottles at him or asking him to spit on them because "that's a compliment coming from..." him, one might be inclined to be of a similar mindset after a while.

What is important to bear in mind is that, in the 1980's (especially in Reagan America), punk was not a scene for casuals or posers. It was a fucked up scene for fucked up people. It wasn't just suburban teenagers with edgy haircuts and skateboards. It was hustlers, fuckups and untreated psychopaths, junkies, hookers and other people you crossed the street to avoid.

People fucked over by Reaganomics, left behind by the Carter administration and who had witnessed the 60's dream of utopia descend into chaos and violence. Is it any wonder that notions of "right" and "wrong" were so fluid in their minds (hence Rollins being assaulted on a nightly basis)?

Of course, with Rollins being in the middle of it, this isn't fully reflected upon. But the subtext is telling.

By the last tour in 1986, the band were alienated from the scene (which had become more openly meat headed and violent), punk rock (the last few records saw experimentations with jazz, spoken word and heavy metal) and even themselves (Ginn and Rollins were not on speaking terms). Having paved the road for other bands to drive on and claim the glory, Black Flag had become both a symbol of an earlier time and also an inscrutable organism that changed style from record to record.

Although Rollins is firmly in the eye of the storm and unable to see the bigger picture, his writings from this period reflect this alienation from everything and everyone:

I used to try and be polite but now I see where that got me. If I say nothing, it gets me the same reaction...I will hate the fact that any asshole who wants to fuck with me will. If I stand up for myself, I'll be given boatloads of shit by the band and the audience...My ship will sail into the sun and burn. No abortions on the lake of fire, no promises in the company of alone.

Of course, 1986 also saw the infamous Tax "Reform Act from the Reagan administration. With the rich paying less and the poor paying more, it's no surprise to see a correlation between this and an increase of violence in the hardcore scene. Sure, it wouldn't have been fun to be in the centre of, but it's no surprise.

For a view of America through a tour bus, you can't go wrong with Get In the Van. Unglamorous, completely DIY and truly down in the dirt of the world, Rollins captures a side of society that we see on the news every day, but are keen to avoid. Fate would bring him even closer to this world, but that's another story.

Rollins continues to write and follow his own path (who can forget his interview with Willie Frazer for an American documentary on this country) but, for many, he will always be the drill instructor for Generation X. 

And Get in the Van is a document of this time. Read it, and blast the 'Loose Nut' LP at the same time. Take matters into your own hand and do what you want with your life.

Henry Rollins, 1994, Get In the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, 2.13.61 Publications, ISBN-13: 978-1880985762

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212