Saturday, November 16, 2013

Henry Rollins Postulates On Songwriting

Henry Rollins writing about songwriting from American Songwriter
Link to article on American Songwriter

"Recently, I watched a brief interview with Iggy Pop from the early 1980s that I found online. He was talking about his soon-to-be-released autobiography I Need More. He said something that really stuck with me. He postulated that rock and roll is a solution to tragedy and that bands were desperately trying to solve the tragedy in their lives by making music.

It occurred to me that this was probably the only reason I ever wrote any song. I was trying to make myself feel better. I was trying to alleviate pain. For me, it’s always been the Blues.

I always wrote from and for myself. I would never assume to know anyone else’s life. I figured it was the only way I could be honest. Any lyric I wrote that would potentially be put to music, would eventually find itself on the stage. What I had written, no matter what anyone else thought of it, would ultimately have to hold so much truth for me, that I would be willing to fight for it, which sometimes was the case.

My first several years as a touring and recording musician found me more often than not, in environments less than desirable. Working conditions were often challenging and the audience could be depended on to be volatile and quite capable of showing their displeasure with the band’s repertoire.

Frequently, these grievances were expressed vocally, which is fine, but often their protestations had a physical component. They always seemed to target the singer. I was the unfortunate recipient of punches, kicks, projectiles, lit cigars and cigarettes, saliva, urine and the occasional utilized menstrual napkin. The lyrics had to be strong.

I think whatever purpose someone writes a song for, expression, financial gain, is all fine. Songwriting doesn’t need to have any rules. This is perhaps one of the reasons the form has endured and will continue to do so. No matter how corny a song can be, no matter how cringe worthy, it could very well be someone’s personal anthem.

The idea that a lyric had to have a “purpose” never meant anything to me. That puts some imagined burden on the songwriter, which can lead to a heightened sense of self-importance, something I have done my level best to avoid at all costs. There was a lot of that in the Punk Rock. Lyrics were often held to a high degree of scrutiny for their political correctness and anti-establishment quotient, lest they be too happy or shiny. In a genre that was supposed to be so do-what-you-want, the thought police were telling you how it was supposed to be.

Many years ago, I was in a band called Black Flag. The two principal song writers, Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, were hugely influential and inspirational to me. They wrote some excellent songs. Dukowski with his apocalyptic/Orwellian/Huxleyesque aggro dark future world outlook and Greg Ginn’s fiercely personal and naked expression gave me quite a bit to consider and draw from. They compelled me to put it all out there without fear of consequence.

I have recorded and released many songs over the years. I have written far more lyrics than I have ever recorded. For one album I made in 1996, I wrote damn near one hundred sets of lyrics. It became quite an obsessive form of writing for me. The worse I felt, about things, the more I would write. I have not looked at any of them since the recording sessions concluded. I tend to move on and start from scratch. This practice of overwriting stayed with me until I stopped writing songs.

In 2001, suddenly, I no longer thought lyrically. It was as if I had never written a song in my life. It was like a switch had been thrown and it was no longer something I did.

In 2003, I did a tour that featured old songs. The single purpose of this tour was to raise money for a group of young men languishing in Arkansas prisons for murders they did not commit, called the West Memphis Three. We went from Arizona to Japan and raised substantial funds for them. In 2006, at the behest of the guitarist from a previous line up, I went out with my bandmates of nearly a decade before for a brief tour. We played old music. Looking back, it was probably not the thing to do.

Since then, I do the occasional song onstage at a benefit but I have not written a lyric for well over ten years or more. The form feels so foreign to me, it’s as if I never wrote a single one.

There is a reason I do not go out on the road in the warmer months to “play the hits” (a dubious phrase in my case), to anyone who would show up. For me, it is resting on past achievements. Most of the tours I went on were wars and the songs were battle hymns. I must respect that. I take my do’s and don’ts from at least two people. Miles Davis, who never looked back and really didn’t care what you thought of what he did. He was only there to serve the music. Ian MacKaye, who was in one successful band after another; Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Embrace, Fugazi and now The Evens. Ian never does old material. Ever. He only goes in one direction.

I should not be afforded the opportunity to submit work to this publication. I am, in fact, not a songwriter, a lyricist or an artist. Never once in my life have I had an artistic twitch or convulsion. I have written and published over twenty-five books. Doesn’t make me a writer. (I own the freakin’ company.)

What I am, is furious. I am a perpetually angry person. This needs to go somewhere. I don’t want to blow my brains out or go to prison. So, I find a form to serve until it no longer requires my attentions and then I move onto something else. This was me and songwriting."