Graduation Season starts this month! My line of work takes me through a lot of graduations. I’m there to document this most important moment in a student’s life. I watch the promenades, I listen to the band, and I hear the speeches. I’m sorry if I’m breaking this for you, every last one is the same.
Principals and educators tearfully encouraging the pompous brats they never have to see again, teachers recount a few amusing anecdotes and tell every class that this class is the best class they ever had. The valedictorian’s speech is proud and full of hope, the salutatorian gives a speech that is edgy, and contains several backhanded slights to the class and administration. Somewhere in the mix are a couple random jackasses that have a tenuous connection at best. As in most situations, I was that jackass.
I was asked to speak at the graduation for BOCES EverTech High School. The school provides individualized curriculums tailored to the talents of brilliant students that are not succeeding in a classroom setting. My younger brother was part of the first graduating class, and when he passed away in 2010, we created a scholarship in his name. I was there to present.
I wanted to say something profound, something I’d never heard in any of the graduations previous. Every speech is intended to terrify with chilling insight on the “real world.” Even the proud and hopeful speakers run thick with dour under-tones. When I graduated from Maine Endwell Senior High in 1995, I received the same bleak predictions. The world is large and cold and terrifying.
Endwell is a suburb of Binghamton, and I was always told that was a giant, scary city. I moved there and found out that was not true. I expanded, I wore the heels off my boots on distant roads and saw that the world was giant, and amazing. That’s what I wanted to share. Go out there and see it. I wanted anything but for these fresh faces to stay in the confines of their home town like so many of the same people that still live in Endwell. I shared with them the valuable insight I’d been given that put me on that track.
I hate Henry Rollins’s music. Absolutely hate it. I got a chuckle from a few of his goofy side projects, like Henrietta Collins, and the song he did with Shatner. Beyond that, of all his serious recordings, I only liked Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown.” It’s a badass song. I had a CD with the original studio version, featuring whichever singer that was, and a live cassette with Rollins on vocals. I hate Rollins’s music, but I remain in his debt for all he has taught me.
In November 2000, I was living in Ithaca, NY, a Liberal enclave that sprung up in the gorges beneath Cornell University. I lived on the South Hill, eating most of my meals from Rogan’s Corners and working a 9-5 job counting quarters for a vending company. My life was miserable. I was overweight and unhappy, and drinking like a fish. I’d finished my first novel, and was half-way through a first draft of “Here in This Sorrow.” I had resigned myself to a life of back-breaking work until the day I died.
I was walking in the door after a long day when I got a call from a guy named Seth. Readers from the print edition may remember Seth. He is the owner of Galaxy Brewing Company. You should drink his beer. We were about 23 at the time. Seth asked me if I wanted to go see Henry Rollins speak at Ithaca College. I was young and punk. Of course I wanted to see Henry Rollins. “When?” I asked.
“Twenty minutes,” said Seth.
Nearly every band I ever saw in all my life was with Dr. Filth. I could definitely count on two hands, if not one, the number of shows we did not see together. This was one of them. Me, and Dr. Filth, and Seth have all been friends since the lunch table at Maine Endwell, and Seth and I both knew how much Dr. Filth loved Henry Rollins.
Dr. Filth loves music, and he loves more bands than I think I could ever hope to count. Above all else, he loves Henry Rollins. Every note, every word. Dr. Filth has the same Henry Rollins sunburst tattooed on his back in tribute. Doc’s was done in a basement, and looks like shit. Dr. Filth had never seen Henry Rollins live in any format. I learned about the show twenty minutes before it started, and Seth only a few minutes before that. There was no way Dr. Filth could cover the 50 miles of treacherous winter back roads in time for the show without ending up dead. We opted not to tell him until after so we could savor every nuance of his defeat.
Tickets were ten bucks, and another fifteen for Henry’s new book. I’d read Johnny Rotten’s autobiography and a few other dumb rock star confessionals. I couldn’t imagine what this four-foot muscle-bound Neanderthal could offer. I was probably busy reading something about Jack Kerouac drinking himself to death, or a pretentious Camus play.
Dr. Filth had “Talking from the Box” on VHS, and we watched it relentlessly in high school. I knew Rollins was an intelligent and witty speaker. The tough guy is his costume. He lowers expectations for the cameras as a meathead thug working out and shouting all the time. Rollins is the screaming behemoth driving the jeep across the desert as Steve-O got a new tattoo. Henry Rollins could probably punch out a bison, but when you step back and listen, his message is quite different.
Our seats were somewhere in the middle of the auditorium. Rollins seemed very small when he took the stage. He wore black pants and a black T-shirt. Same thing he wore in every other photo ever taken of him. It was his last show as a 30-something. He had no introduction, no fanfare, he simply walked out and took the microphone, and he seemed small. This was the icon, the punk god, the ultimate tattooed tough man we all apologized to when we couldn’t do more than 20 pushups. This was Henry Rollins, and he seemed small. Then he started talking.
The magick happened. Rollins filled every square inch of that auditorium. I’ve spent entire days watching hours of Rollins spoken word videos on YouTube. He is hypnotic and hilarious. He has been around the world, met interesting people and done interesting things. If only half his stories are true, he still lived a life I’ve dreamed of since those teenage years with punk rock blasting on my headphones. Of every speaker I’ve ever seen in every auditorium through all my life, only Neil deGrasse Tyson was equal.
On this tour, Henry talked about his recent trip to Madagascar, sleeping in a hut on the beach for no other reason than he found it on a map. I was captivated. Rollins spoke for two hours easily, maybe more. He told stories, shared philosophies, and told us his secret plan to defeat the Klu Klux Klan. The next time the Klan held a rally in Ithaca, Rollins planned to organize a huge counter protest, where all the decent people of the city got together to sew their own Klan costumes. These costumes could be of any color or design. Rainbow Klan outfits would be encouraged. When the real Klan organized to march, the protestors would show up and claim to be the real Klan, and everyone would play kissing-tag until the authentic Klan were crushed by the absurdity of their own line of thinking. One quote that night stayed with me longer and stronger than anything else I’ve ever heard him say. “Knowledge without mileage is bullshit.”
It was late when the show ended, but after watching a man pace back and forth and rant for two hours, I would have gladly sat another hour to watch him rant more. It was the single-greatest Rock show I’ve ever been to, and not a note of music was played. On the way out the door, I bought “Smile, You’re Traveling,” and read it in the next week. Few books have moved me as far.
Literally far. Sure, I was already reading the Beats and Hunter Thompson, and my first big excursions were already under my belt, but it was Henry Rollins that changed my perspective on the world. I could read all I wanted, but what good is learning without application? How could I know anything about the world until I got out there and saw it? Knowledge without mileage is bullshit.
A month later I was on a plane to the opposite coast, and that summer circling the nation by train, bus, and car. I’ve urinated in 46 states, tossed bottle caps off the Hoover Dam at midnight, vomited in two oceans, and peed in the Red Sea. I ate space cakes in Amsterdam, and I climbed on the Great Pyramid. My life has been spent in motion and exploration, and any time my motivation flagged, there was an inspirational Rollins clip on the Internet to shame me for not working as hard as I possibly can at all times. Never stop working, never stop trying to better yourself. Never cease the quest to learn more. Knowledge without mileage is bullshit.
In 2013 I raised some money for a print run of “The Salvation Shark.” I sold the books at live events, and I had a few copies left that I wanted to put in the hands of the artists that inspired me. I started with Casey Orr, the longest-running Beefcake the Mighty, who played in GWAR during the years I was at my biggest fandom. The Salvation Shark took 10 years to complete, and I listened to a lot of GWAR in that time. Casey accepted and sent me his address. I was so elated I set my sights higher.
Henry Rollins had his email address listed on his website. It was an AOL address. I didn’t even know there was an AOL anymore. I thought the company had become irrelevant and faded with the decline of dial-up. I was afraid if I emailed him, AOL would need to print out the message and deliver it through the Post Office. If Rollins were paying anyone to answer his emails for him, the first thing they would do is get him a new email. Preferably an email with his own domain, henryrollins.com. This had to be the real deal. I sent an email asking Rollins if I could send him a signed copy of the Salvation Shark.
A few years ago, Dr. Filth was giving out copies of “Glenn & Henry Forever” as Christmas gifts. The webcomic is the story that capitalizes on the friendship between Rollins and fellow punk legend Glenn Danzig. Several recordings exist of Rollins joining the Misfits on stage, and in the Misfits Coffin box set, Eerie Von recounts a tale of Glenn and Henry chasing Motley Crue down Sunset Strip trying to fight them. That story did not appear in “The Dirt.”
Glenn & Henry Forever reimagines the two as a gay couple working through their rock star emotional problems, and having their satanic neighbors, Hall & Oates, over for dinner. On the back cover of my copy, Rollins is quoted: “Has Glenn seen this? He would not be impressed.” His own reaction to the comic is non-committal, but visibly distressed. He says he signs the book but never looks inside. “Glenn does not have a wide berth for humor,” says the real Henry of the actual Glenn, but it seems the same is true for Rollins. In interviews he grows cranky quickly if he’s not allowed to talk uninterrupted, and in one video he starts a verbal altercation with a drunk girl in a record store when she shouted his name. This does nothing but bolster Rollins’s own story that he’s a flawed, regular person, no better or worse than anyone else.
I get up very early, and if I remember correctly, I was up at 3am for work the day after I sent my fan mail to Rollins. It was short. “Big fan. Saw you speak. ‘Smile… Traveling’ changed life. I wrote a novel, can I send you a copy?” That was a paraphrase. Casey Orr’s book was already in an envelope to go out in the mail that day. I don’t know how an AOL email made it past Google’s spam filters, but there in my inbox was firstname.lastname@example.org. The delay was too great to be a robot, and I doubt America Online even offers that kind of advanced email technology. This had to be a real person responding.
The answer was no. The man who wrote the book that shaped more than a third of my life commended me on completing my novel, something he believed he could never accomplish. He was polite, and humble, and the answer was no. He would not have time to read my book. Good luck. I appreciated the honesty. I didn’t expect him to read it. I just wanted my book to be on the shelf touching the books that put him on the path to be Henry Rollins.
Henry Rollins is a globe-trotter. He has made music that will be remembered. Henry Rollins is a machine built for improving himself and as much of the world as he can reach. He reached me. He reached Dr. Filth. He reached a lot of other people I know. Less than 12 hours had passed between when I hit ‘send’ and Hank replied. As much as this guy has done, he had the time in his day for me.
That summer, I was on stage at EverTech. Henry Rollins has plenty of quotes I could use about working hard, and aspiring, and persevering, and improving. These were no different than any other speech we heard that night, and would be forgotten just as fast. I had a message these kids would remember in the years to come. I advised all the mothers to plug the ears of the toddlers, and I told the graduates, “Knowledge without mileage is bullshit.”
Paul Juser lives in Brooklyn. He is the creator of Dr. Filth, a superhero with the power to convince himself anything. Read the adventures of Dr. Filth and more original art, fiction, scripts, and very little poetry at www.printisbetter.com.