Henry Rollins Remembers the Life-Changing Decision That Brought Him From Häagen-Dazs to Black Flag

Metafilter recently featured this Big Think clip of Henry Rollins telling the story of his most life-changing decision. This choice, of course, was the one that brought him to the front of punk rock band Black Flag. Before he made it, he could call himself only a college dropout assistant-managing a Washington, D.C. Häagen-Dazs. In 1981, after catching one of Black Flag’s New York shows — during which he happened to climb onstage and sing a song with them — he decided to try out to become the group’s actual singer. When Rollins ditched the ice cream game for the day (a forfeit, he recalls, of no more than $21) to audition, Black Flag went from his favorite band to his band. Thinking back, he realizes he had little to lose: if he didn’t give it a shot, he’d find himself looking down the barrel of a long, hard existence on his feet, answering to customers all day, every day. If he gave it a shot and didn’t make it, he’d at worst feel humiliated, but, as he puts it, “humiliation and young people kind of go together.”

“I don’t have talent,” Rollins insists. “I have tenacity. I have discipline. There was no choice for me but to work really hard.” You may recall him making a similar point in his previous Big Think video we featured, in which he recommended going at one’s pursuits with a “monastic obsession.” But this time, he adds a note of fear. He talks about coming to understand that, without relying on his four pillars of “application, discipline, focus, repetition,” an entity he calls “the America” would have gotten the better of him. This term seems to refer to the constant threat of crushing mediocrity he feels in the United States. ”Every moment I am alive is because I have not been murdered by the America,” he says in another interview. “The tasks I set out for myself are what I do to beat the perfect pointlessness of life.” Even if you don’t conceive of your own situation quite so grimly, Rollins offers a perspective worth considering. Perhaps his recruitment into Black Flag strikes you as a lucky break; he certainly considers it one. But as Brian Eno, another cultural figure as well known for his point of view as his music, once said, “Luck is being ready.”

Related content:

Henry Rollins Tells Young People to Avoid Resentment and to Pursue Success with a “Monastic Obsession”

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.



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  1. Robert David Steele says . . . | July 14, 2012 / 6:21 am

    VERY NICE. Included under Open Culture in 20120714 Open Source Everything Highlights (http://tinyurl.com/OSE-ALL). You might find the new pocketbook, THE OPEN SOURCE EVERYTHING MANIFESTO: Transparency, Truth & Trust, worth a look Free review copy for bloggers, send me an email to robert.david.steele.vivas AT gmail DOT com.

  2. Benjy Portnoy says . . . | July 26, 2012 / 6:53 am

    Thanks so much for posting this. Rollins is one of my absolute heroes — probably in my Top 5 MOST influential people in life. He has a way of telling stories about his life that absolutely engage, entertain, and educate that inspire me whenever I go to see him. He does three-hour spoken word shows — no intermission; just him and a microphone — and never seems to lose his fire. He’s not kidding…he works REALLY hard, and for all the fringe success he’s had and people he’s met, he’s a man who really does seem grateful to the universe for the opportunities he’s had and things he’s seen in his life. If you have the chance, watch more of his videos on YouTube, or better yet…GO SEE HIM! : )

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