August 22, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

(TW: discussion of depression, suicide) 

Most punk fans have their own Mount Rushmore, whether they’ve spoken aloud about it to others or not. The same could probably be said for fans of rock ‘n roll, hip-hop, heavy metal, blues, and country music. (This brand of reverence is not something that generally happens in pop music though, because pop music is inherently disposable.) If you haven’t done so already, take a few seconds to think about who’s on your punk Mount Rushmore right now. Joe Strummer, Ian Mackaye, Keith Morris, Milo Aukerman, Joey Ramone, H.R., Jello Biafra, Greg Graffin, Jesse Michaels, Exene Cervenka, Ben Weasel or Henry Rollins might come to mind, among others. Or, you could go newish school and narrow Blake Schwarzenbach, Brendan Kelly, Dan Yemin, Jason Shevchuk, Chuck Ragan, Paddy Costello, Matt Skiba and Brian Fallon down to a foursome. You also could go cross-generational. You can pick anyone you want, is the point. It’s your Rushmore.

Unlike those other genres of music, it’s often very difficult, or perhaps impossible, for punk fans to separate the art of those on their Mount Rushmore from the artists themselves. Because punk is so inherently personal and its artists on such an even level with the audience, the artists’ extracurricular exploits often color the audience’s opinion of their art, whether or not the connection between the two is apparent. If your hero turns out to be a different person than you thought they were, it can taint all of your past experiences with them and simply cancel any future experiences.

And, though I’m sure he couldn’t possibly care less, Henry Rollins complicated the feelings of a lot of fans yesterday with his LA Weekly column. Titled Fuck Suicide, Rollins focuses on the suicide of Robin Williams and the nationwide mourning that ensued in the days following the beloved actor’s death. At first, he’s very complimentary of Williams’ talents and impact on our culture, but then the column takes a weird turn into a problematic manifesto that dumbs down severe depression into some kind of tone-deaf boilerplate language:

But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.

How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself … When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain. When someone commits this act, he or she is out of my analog world. I know they existed, yet they have nullified their existence because they willfully removed themselves from life. They were real but now they are not.

I no longer take this person seriously. I may be able to appreciate what he or she did artistically but it’s impossible to feel bad for them. Their life wasn’t cut short — it was purposely abandoned. It’s hard to feel bad when the person did what they wanted to. It sucks they are gone, of course, but it’s the decision they made. I have to respect it and move on.

The above is the worst fears of someone suffering from depression wholly materialized. It validates their feelings of dread, of unnecessity, of their depression or suicide being of total inconsequence to those around them. These words from Rollins aren’t just grossly generalized and misinformed, they’re callous and downright dangerous.

What’s more disheartening is that Rollins notes in the column that he’s lived with and befriended depressed people, yet his ability to experience empathy for them appears to be non-existent. For some fans of his artistic exploits, this will be a dealbreaker. Those Black Flag records, the four bars tattoos, the WWHRD? t-shirts, all that stuff may be tainted now. But should it be? Rollins’ stance on this particular topic is undoubtedly idiotic, but are we as fans being too naive by accepting our punk heroes as infallible human beings with perfect opinions on absolutely everything? It’s a difficult and intensely personal question to answer.

Maybe there are no heroes here. Heroes are, by definition, noble people with few if any flaws; punk rock, by historical definition, tends to attract weird, flawed, unsure, outcasted people to its ranks as a safe place to be themselves, exchange ideas, rail against the establishment and generally cause a ruckus. I won’t defend Rollins for throwing so much obliviously mean-spirited shade at depression, or Ben Weasel for hitting women, or Exene Cervenka for believing that the horrific UC Santa Barbara massacre was a hoax. Their words and actions are indefensible. But knowing full well the type of flawed person who gravitates toward punk, what exactly should we have expected?

Damaged, My Brain Hurts and Los Angeles are still some of the best, most important punk records ever. Maybe they’re better served as historical documents separated from their artists’ personal psyches. Maybe the artists’ personal psyches, good or bad, need to be taken into account in order to give their work proper context. Ultimately, it’s up to the listener to decide for themselves whether or not they can continue to enjoy the music. That’s the great thing about music: There’s no right or wrong answer, no objective truths. Interpretation and implementation is up to you, but perhaps it’s time we hurl wrecking balls into our Mount Rushmores and resist the urge to rebuild.

Update, August 23 12:05 p.m. Rollins has posted an apology at his website, and writes that another response from him will be published by LA Weekly on Monday.