A Preferred Blur
by Henry Rollins
August 2009, 304 pages, $17.00
Outside his work as a punk-rock frontman, Rollins is known for his poetry and free-form prose. Early works, such as Polio Flesh, were filled with the disjointed and angry ramblings of an angst-ridden young punker. Poetry collections, Eye Scream for one, occasionally had a Hubert Selby vibe but haven’t aged well. And See a Grown Man Cry, Now Watch Him Die is just plain harrowing as it details the murder of Rollins' close friend, former Black Flag roadie Joe Cole.
Rollins-the-poet pops out with less frequency these days. Instead, the writer sticks to his strength -- detailing his interesting life. Travel writing has always been Rollins' forte. In Smile, You’re Traveling he outlines his first jaunt to Africa. The follow-up Broken Summers recounts the period Rollins spent working on behalf of the Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, collectively known as the West Memphis Three, accused of a triple homicide in West Memphis, Arkansas. A Dull Roar includes trips to visit soldiers with the USO and travels with the reunited Rollins Band. And the best of the lot, Get In The Van, is all about Rollins' experiences as the vocalist for Black Flag in the 1980s, and the blossoming American hardcore scene. The common thread in all is a documentarian's zeal for life.
In some ways Rollins reminds me of famed English diarist and anthology perennial Samuel Pepys. True, there are major dissimilarities between the two -- Rollins prefers a monastic lifestyle and once penned an essay about the joys of weight training, while Pepys wrote of carnal delights:
The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.
Both, men, however, relentlessly catalog the world and mix the public and the personal. Pepys riffed on the black plague and was fixated on breasts; Rollins riffs on the war on terror and hotel coffee. Both men were also primarily known for pursuits outside of writing. Rollins sings and performs spoken word shows; Pepys was a Naval administrator and a politician.
I’m not suggesting Rollins will be anthologized in the future or that his prose rises to the level of an acknowledged master. However, in the days when everyone seems to “tweet” about each inane event in their day it is reassuring that some in the public eye still write compelling narratives about their lives with motives other than self-aggrandizement.