Henry Rollins On Songwriting

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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.

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