Friday, February 29, 2008

Henry Rollins at Warsaw

At some point during Braveheart, Robert the Bruce and his father are having one of their creepy fireside chats where Mel Gibson beats us over the head with the internal evil/external corruption symbolism that the father's character represents. No one would deny that the elder Bruce is not a loathsome person, but he makes an interesting point during this particular conversation. As Robert gushes over William Wallace's passion and contemplates joining the revolt to establish Scotland's independence, his father silences him with a salient bit of wisdom: "You admire this man, this William Wallace. Uncompromising men are easy to admire."

I've applied that piece of thinking to my own measurements of admiration many times, and the same truth always emerges: as someone who embraces compromise with perhaps a bit too much alacrity, uncompromising men are always easy for me to admire. That doesn't mean I agree with their principles - I express admiration for both Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent though I find Simmons' thoughts on music as art shortsighted and Nugent's ideas on cultural values disturbingly unenlightened - but I do admire their confidence of expression.

Henry Rollins, though...Henry Rollins is different. I've written in the past about how much I admire the man and his work, but Rollins is the exception in my list of admirable celebrities, because he consistently states his principles in a way that invites discussion, not defiance. "Don't let anyone else live your life for you or make your opinions for you," his stories say, and not because it's the "right" or "wrong" thing to do, but because you'll have a less fulfilling life and miss out on so much. His principles aren't swinging dick objectifications, but just a desire to really live life to the fullest in the way that makes the most sense to him. It's inspiring, not bull-headed.

That inspiration was on full throttle last night at Warsaw, a converted Polish social hall in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn where Rollins performed on one of the first stops of his Provoked spoken word tour. For three hours, Rollins became a conduit, his stance in an aggressive foot-forward position of the hardcore singer (with but the occasional deviation of movement to illustrate a point), his gaze locked on a point at the back of the hall as the stories flowed out in rapid-fire succession, connecting through complicated segues that all somehow resolved themselves into a single theme he brought up at the beginning of the performance: exercise your critical thinking skills, because the moment you don't is the moment you're vulnerable to influence from fear. He talked about his lifestyle, how he's channeled his energies into a work ethic that keeps him going from job to job and city to city so that he's always doing something, always kicking life's ass. He talked about his fundamental curiosity about other people that motivates him to visit Islamabad and Damascus and Beirut and Tehran and Johannesburg and Cape Town (all in one year) just to see what other people are like, shake their hands, make connections, and try to bring everyone a little closer together, despite the perception of danger. He told stories about how meeting his rock idols turns him into a self-conscious music nerd, about the sad, beautiful story of Paul Fox and his goodbye benefit concert, about how he obsesses about making every performance as awesome as possible. He spoke without whining or preaching about his deliberately lonely lifestyle, and how he uses his lack of deep personal connections to motivate himself to go out and do more.

It was a powerful performance, a pure and simple demonstration of Rollins' ability to capture an audience with the truth and beauty of his storytelling and communicate a point, to inspire new thoughts and personal reflection. If you get the chance to see Rollins on this tour, go: immerse yourself in the flood of energy from the stage and revel in it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Raging With the System

A confluence of factors - an impending street cleaning, an evening class, and my possession of the household's sole drivers license - found me walking along a street near my apartment at 9:45 on a cold night, listening to Rage Against the Machine's first album. I love this album; every track (with the exception of "Settle for Nothing," which never sat right with me) is an excellent song with a host of things to recommend it to the ear over and over again. The associations I've added to most of the track over the years don't hurt, either: "Bombtrack" became the all-too appropriate theme song for a table top game campaign I played in high school; "Killing the Name" and "Freedom" were radio staples with a powerful influence on my impressionable ears; a friend inscribed the final line ("All of which are American dreams...") of "Know Your Enemy" on a doorway in the cabin at a camp I attended in high school; hearing "Wake Up" at the end of The Matrix made for some of the most appropriate film closing music ever chosen, and I left the theater wanting to fight someone or something...and on and on.

Silently mouthing the words of "Bullet in the Head" - I'm not much of an exhibitionist, and don't care to attract the stares of passersby - while they screamed through my skull at the high volume I reserve for only the most special songs, walking along that nearly empty Brooklyn thoroughfare, I pondered why I still felt any attraction to the ideas that De La Rocha's lyrics express. I'm no longer a teenager, and much of the hard-headed idealism that I felt when I was younger has been tempered by the all-too pragmatic realization that no one can see everything the same way, and that compromise is the only route to true progress. It's not disillusionment, but more what Hüsker Dü talked about in "Real World": "You want to change the world / By breaking rules and laws / People don't do things like that / In the real world at all / You're not a cop, or a politician / You're a person too." At the same time, though, I don't just love Rage because the riffs get me pumped up. Besides, I'm an MBA student, and I live in a yuppie neighborhood - why would I want to overthrow the system?

Then I came to the end of "Know Your Enemy," to De La Rocha's litany against the dark side of the American Dream: "compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite" and I realized what still appeals: I may have submerged myself into the life of the middle class American, getting the job, the family, the aspirations towards future success, but that doesn't mean I've bought in to being anything other than me. I won't be the person who looks back in 20 years and feel like I've wasted my youth, and I won't become the power whore who sells out everything he believes in, neglects his family and destroys his friends to the top. It's not something that's ever far from the surface of my mind, but it felt good to have music I love bring those thoughts to the surface and remind me of what matters.