In another century, I frequented a record store/gallery/performance space called Bebop Records, located in Reseda, California. I heard a fair amount of lousy poetry there, and made a point of seeing the wonderfully funny, lamentably underrated band the Victor Banana each time they played. But most often I went to see Henry Rollins, then the lead singer of Black Flag. I didn’t fit in with the cool kids smoking their clove cigarettes, which filled the tiny space with choking smoke over the course of an evening, forcing owner Richard Bruland to crack open the front door, letting in some comparatively “fresh” San Fernando Valley air.
I stood within five feet of Rollins on numerous occasions, who was always gracious, polite, and approachable. The idea of speaking with him petrified me. I never even managed to stutter a ‘hello’.
Rollins gave riveting spoken performances at Bebop. He ranted about his military father, his distant mother, current events. Amid a lot of poseurs, it was evident that Rollins was deadly serious about the state of the world, and despite the youthfully righteous anger shared by all in the room, he possessed a quality of sincerity, even sweetness, beneath the pumped biceps and heavy tattooes. Rollins was, and remains, the real thing.
Black Flag broke up, but Rollins kept touring, making documentaries, hosting a cable television show, writing, and traveling. The man is nothing if not restless, and out of his relentless travels, the Chicago Review Press has assembled Occupants, a book of photographs and commentary.
Rollins readily admits his work is that of an interested amateur. He further admits that Occupants, reached publication because it bore his name. Yet Occupants is no vanity project, and Rollins is to be commended for using his stature to generous ends rather than personal gain. He’s honest about his limitations: despite the fine printing and saturated colors, the photographs are indeed the work of an amateur, albeit a passionately engaged one.
Each photograph in Occupants is accompanied by writing, ranging from a paragraph or two to a page’s worth. The writing does not comment directly on the photographs, instead riffing off them in classic Rollins style—angry screeds, commentaries on war, history, the imagined thoughts of powerless young soldiers realizing they are being fed propaganda. Rollins successfully creates profoundly discomfiting reading—and looking—aimed squarely at armchair Americans. In his introduction, Rollins writes: “If some of the sentiments expressed rub you the wrong way, there’s a good chance they rub me the wrong way as well. A lot of the things I see in the world rub me the wrong way. Some of them are in this book.”
Occupants will indeed rub some readers, specifically American readers, the wrong way, as the book is largely devoted to the extreme poverty and suffering caused by the American inclination to exploit poorer nations in exchange for its own creature comforts. Rollins repeatedly pushes American readers to see the negative impact of their government, particularly the George W. Bush administration, whose aftereffects have left a lasting mark on the rest of the world.
If, like me, you are an American reader, caveat emptor. Prepare to be scourged. We are physically and mentally weak, overweight, lazy, lulled by moronic entertainment. We are content to wallow in our general ignorance; we thoughtlessly bear ever more children in a world of depleted resources. We could never handle a day of true labor or the deprivations common throughout most of the world.
The vast majority of Rollins’s images come from the Third World: India, Mali, Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia. Other images come from repressive regimes: Burma, again, China, Saudi Arabia, with a little Ninth Ward thrown in to wedge the knife a little deeper.
Rollins’ accusations are accompanied by photographs of families rummaging through garbage for food, packs of underfed, underclothed children, and people performing grueling, often dangerous labor in grim conditions. A group of Bangladeshi men sit amid piles of used hypodermics, sorting them. When Rollins asks them to be careful, they laugh.
A filthy butcher’s market in India is filled with barely dressed workers handling enormous knives while rats run about freely. (No OSHA regs here, friends.) Rollins detours to Bhopal, home of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak, to the find the plant still standing. People are still living around it, pumping contaminated water from the ground to drink and wash in.
An Indian children’s clothing store displays its wares on dummies whose faces are hooded, an innocent act evoking sickening memories of Abu Ghraib.
A woman sits on the steps of her destroyed Ninth Ward home. “I loveded (sic) this house,” she told Rollins, then described how she escaped it during Hurricane Katrina, her grandchild held above her head.
Rollins also comments extensively on the futility of war. Though recent American military action predominates, Israel, Russia, and the Middle East also figure prominently in a series of bleak images. Strangely, although the book is often angry and accusatory, Rollins has a surprisingly optimistic streak: “My travels have led me to the conclusion that the world is very small and that humans are a fairly sane bunch a good deal of the time. We are often capable of great acts of bravery and kindness when put in situations that require extraordinary measures.”
Yet no thoughtful American reader will find the above consoling. In addition to being scolded for the unseen costs of our thoughtless comforts, we are exhorted to abandon the soul-crushing safety of our dull lives, with their meaningless jobs, health insurance, and comparatively ridiculous life insurance policies. Opposite a photograph depicting the prow of a boat headed into open water, Rollins writes:
“You have to liberate yourself from the camp and leave it behind. Family, friends—they all have to be relegated to your rearview. While you’re at it, throw out convention. Quit your day job and see what happens next…Your life will start immediately. From then on, it’s all real, and you will always know when anyone, including yourself, is faking it.”
Elsewhere, Rollins mentions the impossibility of reconciling a “conventional” American lifestyle with being “real”. Rollins is dead right about American ignorance and our general unwillingness to sacrifice for greater good. But his accusations sweep broadly. Rollins has never lived a conventional American life himself—he is single, childless, and spends much of his time on the road. When not traveling, he lives in Los Angeles, a city not known for its intellectual populace or interest in political action. (Yes, I realize I am now guilty of sweeping with a broad brush, and that intelligent people inhabit Los Angeles in spite of my depiction.)
Rollins is either unaware or dismissive of the many Americans unable or unwilling to throw over “conventional” lifestyles in favor of what he feels is “real” life. As one of these Americans, who depends on Western medical care to survive, throwing over my day job and its attendant benefits would ultimately accomplish little. Am I not better off educating myself with books like this one? Am I not better off remembering that recycling, being mindful of water use, taking public transit and eating organic food all have deeper ramifications than ego gratification? This, too, is “real” life.
Once the reader reaches the back of the book, Rollins abandons his writings in favor of plainspoken captions accurately describing each image. These captions would have made a fine book themselves, one equally if not more affecting for their descriptions of largely horrifying realities. Beneath a photograph of an Okinawa memorial, Rollins writes of a woman smiling at him, pointing to the memorial, and saying “My father died,” leaving Rollins speechless. Amid piles of skulls in the Cheoung Ek killing fields of Cambodia, Rollins writes of bending down to collect the bones still littering the land:
“I leaned the larger bones against trees where others had been placed and put the smaller items in containers that had been provided.” In containers that had been provided. As if the litter of human bones were no more than trash on a KOA campground. Of a Ronald MacDonald statue in Thailand, Rollins writes, “I hope it burns to the ground.”
If the net effect is a bit schizoid, the book is no less worthy for it. Occupants may leave you feeling defensive, as it did me (rubbing me the wrong way, therefore it was successful in its intent), or it may move you from a slumber you were previously unaware of. It may broaden awareness you already possessed. Unfortunately, simply by being himself, Rollins is preaching to the choir. The very people who need this book most (Say, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, I could go on….) will be those who are never even aware of its existence.
I write this review the day before American Thanksgiving, a holiday I am on dicey terms with. It’s difficult to celebrate what amounts to the colonization and mass destruction of Native Americans. Yet we are also admonished to be “thankful”. After reading Occupants, I am more than thankful. I am rubbed the wrong way: tomorrow I will dine on duck with all the trimmings, in the company of my beloved husband and a dear friend, while the people captured in Rollins’ narrative continue to starve and suffer.
Despair looms: is there no reconciling such injustices, such disparities? Is reading a book like Occupants action enough? I doubt Henry Rollins would think so.