Henry Rollins linked up with Art 180 at the RVA Floodwall


RVA is an artist’s town. In spite of all the noise ordinances, CAPS harassment, and venue crackdowns over the past couple of years/decades, the spirit and culture of live music in particular permeates this town in ways that no other city in Virginia can claim. The ever spectacular Richmond Folk Festival is a perfect example of that. And in reality, it’s been that way since before I moved here many moons ago and is one of the reasons that I call RVA my home in 2012.

One of the first things I delved into when I moved to Richmond to attend VCU in 1991 was the punk and hardcore music scene. As a skate kid from Virginia Beach I had been exposed to some punk stuff in the 80s via my older brother Paul and burned holes in his vinyl copy of the soundtrack to the 1984 movie Repo Man. That compilation served as my early gateway to the sounds of The Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, and Iggy Pop among others while expanding my known-sound parameters in a different but equally dramatic manner as the Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa records I was also listening to at the time.

My freshman year roommate at VCU was a musician from Lynchburg who had played in a variety of different bands in high school and had an amazing collection of punk and hardcore cassettes that I would diligently sift through on a regular basis to discover and consume these new and domestically foreign music styles. Digging through his collection I discovered the sounds of Primus, Gorilla Biscuits, Four Walls Falling (an RVA hardcore band I would later record with), and Corrosion of Conformity amongst a plethora of other less talented and much less inspiring noise bands.

Rollins with Art 180 Program Coordinator Mike “Mikemetic” Williams

One name that would repeatedly pop up in the cassettes was Henry Rollins. I knew him nominally as the frontman of the monstrously influential 80s band Black Flag that is credited with pioneering certain elements within the hardcore, punk and pre-grunge musical sounds. Honestly, I hadn’t really listened to much of his musical work (I had listened to earlier versions of Black Flag before he was involved) and his “spoken word” performances usually left a lot to be desired to a kid who was raised on Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets.

In his post-Black Flag days, Rollins has maintained a successful and active career as a public speaker (I hesitate for a variety of different reasons to truly label what he does as “spoken word”), an activist, actor, and hard-edged social commentator that is as well known for his combustible content as his fiery, in-your-face demeanor.  The first musical work of his that really caught my attention was 1992’s The End of Silence from The Rollins Band which was a commercially successful release that landed him a spot on the second Lollapalooza tour which is where I saw him live for the first time. From there, I became familiar with his work in reverse order and his recordings soon earned a solid place in my heart for the music’s inherent socio-political edge and lyrical focus on a full spectrum of human conditions.

Because of my evolved level of respect and admiration for Rollins’s honesty, integrity, and unapologetic opinions, I was more than honored at the privilege of representing Art 180 in a meeting / documentary filming with him this past Sunday, October 21st.  He was in RVA for a performance at The National and getting footage for his new documentary called “Capitalism” which follows his path through the 50 state capitals to talk to “the people” about the democratic process, voting, and personal accountability among other things.

Myself and the rest of the Art 180 staff met Rollins and his producer at the floodwall murals as he had an interest in knowing more about what our organization does, and the mural the kids created during this year’s RVA Street Art Festival was an accurate reflection of the constructive voice that many of Art 180’s participants find through art.  Three of the teens from the Art 180 Teen Alumni group that completed the mural attended the filming as well and were given an opportunity to meet and talk with Rollins about art, the future, and their take on the current State of the Union. The kids, who previously had no idea who Rollins was outside of his appearance in the movie Jackass, took the time before hand to research him so they could be prepared to engage him with knowledge of who he is and what he represents.

Needless to say, they knocked it out of the park! He was so impressed with the dialogue with the kids that he invited one of them to his speaking event at The National that night as his personal guest. And while I am not surprised at the stellar representation of RVA, Art 180, and themselves that the teens provided, I was a little  surprised at Rollins’s even-keeled demeanor and his concentration on objectively listening to what everyone had to say. Definitely a jump from the Henry Rollins I was familiar with through urban legend and book lore. One of the things that I had always heard in my early days of uncovering his works was that he was super-aggressive, condescending and always at war with those around him. And while that is nothing new or particularly unusual for 20-somethings in the punk scene, it was a pleasant surprise that he had transcended that characterization that is still thrust upon him in many of his recent television and movie appearances.

In many ways, Henry Rollins represents an evolution that many people and places go through in an ongoing challenge to define one’s true identity in a world of mass media, stereotypes, and unforgiving pre-judices. A lot of that applies to an evolving RVA as well: while the Capital City has spent many decades trying to re-define itself in the shadow of an ominous and troublesome past, our musical and artistic voice has spoken up in a manner that must be noticed. Credit that to the artisans, musicians, thinkers and everyday people that believe in and support one of the best little music towns on the East Coast. Our art matters and we are putting it up and playing it loud for everyone to experience. Because most of the time, that’s the only way you will ever be heard.

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