Henry Rollins digs deep for KCRW's "Rare Cuts and Conversation" benefit event.
Henry Rollins may be best known for his raucous punk spirit, rapid fire radio show and uncanny ability to stoke audiences into a frenzy, but Thursday night, he added the title of punk professor -- or audio archeologist -- to his resume while hosting a benefit event for Los Angeles radio station KCRW.
For "Rare Cuts and Conversation,” Echo Park’s expansive Echoplex club became one large living room where the rock pioneer, actor, and miscellaneous media man shared the rarest of tunes from his secret stash. Instead of a crowd posed for rocking out, attendees lounged on couches and chairs in the candle-filled the venue, setting the scene for an evening where listening was most certainly the main event. Likewise, Rollins positioned himself on stage with nothing but a chair, microphone, and some key audio equipment. Cueing up tracks for the crowd of just a few hundred, he promised, "This is some top-shelf gear."
Kicking off the night with a seldom-heard recording of Queen's "Killer Queen," which had the rhythm track removed from the song, Rollins said the track came from a "secret source" who had access to the original master tapes. It featured just the soaring voice of Freddie Mercury and Brian May's epic guitar work, stripped down to the scaffolding of Queen's towering sonic architecture. "This is before auto-tuning," Rollins explained, "when people really knew how to sing."
The 49-year-old rocker dug into his own past and revealed cassette recordings of the seminal Los Angeles punk innovators, Black Flag. Rollins told the audience of his days living in the band's van down in the "sleepy suburb" of Redondo Beach, and played dubs of alternate takes of Black Flag including a rendition of "Louie Louie," which his associates jokingly deemed "Baby Henry." "This was before I fully developed as a man," Rollins quipped.
He also presented artifacts from his time in Washington D.C. when Rollins was associating with hardcore punk pioneer, Ian MacKaye. He talked about his first experience seeing the Bad Brains with MacKaye, and how later he met lead singer H.R. in a Georgetown dorm room where Rollins made him write down the blazing fast lyrics to a track from their debut album. Later, the "often homeless" H.R. asked to borrow Rollin's mom's car, which "still had a dent in the hood from having tear gas being blasted at by cops during a '60s protest." Rollins said yes.
"So I loaned my car to the Bad Brains for a tour, what could possibly go wrong? Then, about a week later they paid me back with their first single," Rollins explained before producing the small vinyl and a copy of the paper on which he scrawled the Bad Brain's front man's lyrics.
Rollins also divulged some of his most challenging musical experiences. When he was "living in moldy broom closet" at SST Records in Southern California, Rollins was commissioned to help produce and record an album by an unconventional artist: Charles Manson. The notorious killer's lawyer contacted SST and Rollins corresponded with Manson while he was recording acoustic pop songs in his jail cell. In fact, he mixed the recording called "Completion," which was only pressed into five copies before SST decided not to release the album due to death threats sent to label employees. The young punker kept two of Manson's records, one of which he played for Echoplex's audience.
"I can hear you all listening to your hair grow," Rollins told the nearly silent audience, after playing the chilling, twisted love song produced by one of America's most reviled killers.
Rollins produced two hours of less terrifying music including Dee Dee Ramone's abysmal rap album featuring Debbie Harry, a demo version of Public Enemy's "Bum Rush the Show," Nick Cave's raw recordings for "From Her to Eternity," and Black Sabbath studio tracks.
Of special significance to Rollins was a cassette that Iggy Pop handed him while Rollins was practicing in a dank rehearsal room in New York. "We were playing in this dark space when Iggy walks in and says, 'This is cool, man' and gave me a tape. When I got home put down the tape and didn't listen to it for two days," Rollins confessed. When he finally played the tape, it was a melancholic acoustic version of a song called "Untouchable," which Pop wrote based upon Rollins' writings. "Lightning could have struck me that day, because I knew it just couldn't get better than that," Rollins said.
Rollins then revealed that plans are in the works for a Stooges' 40th anniversary performance in Michigan, where he would host and potentially sing with Pop on a few songs. "We're just working on it right now, but whatever they ask, I'll do it," he said.
As for a traveling show of Rollins' rare recordings, rock 'n' roll ephemera and tales of punk's past, it’s not out of the question. Said Rollins: "We're thinking about it.”