Thanks to my brother-in-law’s wild life touring with the Trews, he wasn’t able to use his fifth row tickets to see Henry Rollins‘ spoken word performance at the Music Hall. My love and I were happy to step up and take one for the team, putting the tickets to good use.
I’ll start with a confession. I am NOT punk rock. Not even a little. I don’t gel with the music and I’m not edgy. I apparently didn’t get the dress code memo that black t-shirts were the required uniform. I wore a horned Loki sweater to the event. But my love has listened to Rollins’ spoken word albums since we met over 20 years ago and Rollins’ books of poetry and performances in works like He Never Died speak to me on a weirdly personal level.
Still, I had never seen him live and I’d never listened to his bands. I expected I’d be going on a night that my love really enjoyed and his joy would make the night wonderful. After some waiting, Rollins took the stage. He wrapped the mic cord around his hand, took a deep breath, and spoke like a machine gun on auto-load for two hours and twenty five minutes.
Here’s the thing about me. I’m old. I mean, I’m not Pop’s Soda Shoppe old, but I remember when plaid was king and orange and brown were considered a reasonable colour scheme for a living room. While I talk about my trauma on my blog, for the most part I go through the world like a normal human being. I smile at jokes. I read books on the bus. I watch cheesy movies. I pass for normal. Unless you speak to me and I’m open about it, nothing about me screams ABUSE AND RAPE SURVIVOR. Yes I have PTSD, but generally I’m pretty good at keeping my symptoms to myself. I camouflage. I blend.
Still, as Rollins progressed through his talk, it was like he was dancing on every one of my triggers. He talked about his friend RuPaul. Weirdly, RuPaul’s autobiography was the first book I bought when considering that I might be queer. He talked about global warming and the end of the world. He talked about how music gave him proxy parents, musicians who spoke to him in ways his own parents couldn’t, when he needed to be understood. He talked about being the weird, spazzy kid whose brain worked differently than other people’s. He even talked about misogyny, homophobia and racism, problems that hit close to my heart – an organ I don’t always protect like I should.
So yeah. I cried a few times as he raced through his anecdotes. I was watching a dude at the front of the room be honest and beautiful and real and it tore me up. Here was a guy at almost all the intersections of privilege, choosing to challenge every advantage he had and to be naked in the face of scorn. I dug it.
When he talked about his discovery of punk, I found a place where our paths diverged.He was looking for music that spoke to the anger he felt, his base emotion being rage at the world around him. When I discovered music, I didn’t go that way. Rage wasn’t a colour in my palette. Anger wasn’t an emotion I had permission to feel. So instead, I reached for sorrow. I gravitated to blues and folk, to R&B and soul. In tunes about lost loves and do-wrong partners, I found my companions. Sure, their loss was of a different flavour to mine, but it still spoke of heartache and destruction. I remember the first time I heard Joplin’s Cry Baby. Hell, I knew it was a sin, but I loved the way she wept in tune. I loved the way she bellowed pain. Here was my avatar.
As I aged, I discovered Janis Ian and Ma Rainey and Odetta and Joan Armatrading and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Damn, but those women could wail. Rather than anger, I immersed myself in sorrow and I survived.
Near the end of Rollins’ set, he told a story about a young woman who waited outside one of his shows, seeking an autograph. As a storyteller, he told her story. He talked about her rape. He talked about her experience with not being believed, about how her rapist was allowed to share space with her – to smile at her – because she was not believed. By this point, I was weeping silently. It would not do to weep loudly or burn the feeling down. He talked about her suicide attempts and her cutting. He talked about her attachment to his music, how it gave her more of a voice for her anger.
That’s when, despite it all, I felt hope. She wasn’t like me, attaching meaning to the blues. She saw her reality in a genre that felt anger and expressed it. She had found a connection to a genre that demanded that anger be seen, acknowledged and felt.
I was shaking.
Rollins ended his set and left the stage. All my nerves were activated, all my sense peaked. I knew I couldn’t push my way through a crowd, a press of bodies, to get to an exit. Still, I sing the blues. I do not rage. I sat and waited for the crowd to pass.
Then a security guard, a uniformed man standing a good foot over me, came over and tried to hurry me up. As always, words caught in my throat and ideas stammered through my head like unruly passengers. I needed to wait until the crowd cleared. After all that exploration, I couldn’t leave through a crowd. Not yet. He raised his voice, impatient with what I’m sure he saw as my impertinence, an accusation a woman doesn’t escape until she meets soil and headstone. I managed words, as the crowd waiting for the VIP Q&A started to gawk at the scene developing by them.
“If you give me a moment, I can explain. Just come over here.”
I knew he wouldn’t understand unless I explained. Still, 100 strangers didn’t need to know my life. For me, electing to tell my story only when I wanted had helped me find my voice. Being cornered into it didn’t appeal.
The guard would have none of it. He was brisk. He had a job to do. I was in the way. Still, I waited. I took breaths. I waited and eventually I left.
I thought about what Rollins had told the woman who had come to his show. He had asked her if people had been telling her, of her rape experience, that it would pass. Of course, they had. Rollins had explained to her that this was probably not the case. It would live inside her, like an energy. It wouldn’t pass. It rarely does. But it was an energy she could harness. As I walked home, I thought about this. I thought about the energy that, after all this time, still takes up space in my body. It wearies me. It has changed the lens through which I see the world. I thought about the space it occupies and the shockwaves I still feel, decades later, when a man on stage talks about abuse and rape and falling apart.
I know he’s right. It hasn’t gone away, no matter what people promised. It’s here inside me. So I do what I can. I describe it. I examine it. I am honest with it and about it. I write even if no one reads. I write because it spreads the energy out. I write because I can.