Henry Rollins, the muscle bound, big necked front man for hardcore band Black Flag and The Rollins Band, used to get the shit beat out of him at school. He used to be weak. He used to be bullied. But he was transformed from a snot nosed punching bag into a snot nosed punk.
Rollins was full of fear and humiliation. Terrible at sports he was picked on and made fun of by those playing the games. Terrible at schoolwork, the people who should have been his educators, scoffed at him and said he had a permanent future mowing lawns. His teachers even went so far as to call him “garbage can.” And like a garbage can, he reeked, emanating self pity and rage.
Being bullied and getting picked on, and being full of rage led him to getting in fights and boxing, but he was a spastic, wild, unpredictable.
I can relate to Rollins. For some people school is a time of fun, an escape into a world populated by peers and friendly mentors. For others, those peers were the people who pounded you when walked the halls, or waited at the bus stop. The teachers and mentors who could have helped, were too busy fawning over the pretty underage girls in their class -when they weren’t fawning over you. I can relate.
At lunch time, it was often the best bet to sit at the freak table, or the loser table. Sometimes adjacent to the stoner table, the kind of smart but drug addled kids who think Rush is the best band in the world. On the inverse, these are actually the cool kids. The ones you’d want to have your back during a black swan event, because freaks have fucking skills and know how to get shit done. But that doesn’t make it any easier being part of the underclass.
In my experience the skill set of the freaks tended towards the intellectual and artistic domains. To be open to the beauty of the natural world, to alternative types of music, and to a poetic way of looking at the world requires a certain degree of sensitivity. That sensitivity, sensed and picked up on by jock meatheads who interpret it as a threat, tend to lash out. By the same token, the sensitive typed attuned to abstract intellectual thinking, and inner worlds of poetic fancy, would do well to balance out their life by taking up activities that keep them in touch with their physical body. We are made of meat and bone, muscle and mineral, and our physical presence can be cultivated. Besides the many benefits to mental clarity and to living an embodied life, remaining in touch with our physical sides also gives the down home punk a chance to fight back and defend themselves when threatened with physical violence.
The hand of fate touched Henry Rollins when the path of his life crossed the path of teacher and Viet Nam vet named Mr. Pepperman. Rollins thought Mr. Pepperman was scary, and apparently so did the other students. Mr. Pepperman maintained a strict discipline in his classes where no one dared to talk. Once somebody did talk, that student had an example made out of him when Mr. Pepperman picked him up and held him against the wall.
Just from looking at “Garbage Can” Pepperman could see that Rollins was a bonafide member of the loser club. He saw how bad off he was. At this point in his life, Rollins had little confidence, but he was not without redemption. Not without the possibility of being whipped into shape. Some hidden potential lurked underneath the wiggling spastic mass of nerves and fear.
One day Mr. Pepperman asked Rollins if he had ever worked out with weights, and the answer was no.
As Rollins tells it, “He told me that I was going to take some of the money that I had saved and buy a hundred-pound set of weights at Sears. As I left his office, I started to think of things I would say to him on Monday when he asked about the weights that I was not going to buy. Still, it made me feel special. My father never really got that close to caring. On Saturday I bought the weights, but I couldn’t even drag them to my mom’s car. An attendant laughed at me as he put them on a dolly.”
When Monday rolled around he had to report back to Pepperman. So began Rollins high school training sequence that transformed from a nobody into the muscle bound frontman known and loved across the punk diaspora today. Part of Pepperman’s program to beef up the young punk was to hit Henry in the solar plexus at random times during the day in the hallway, when he wasn’t looking, much like the bullies had done. Pepperman’s first aim with this method was to get Rollins to a place where he could take a punch in the stomach. That required he do something practical, such as hitting the weights he’d bought and making something out of himself. Yet Pepperman gave a caveat, and one of his rules was that Rollins was not allowed to look in a mirror to check out his physique and see if his body was changing, if he was putting on muscle. He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what the hell he was doing. He had to keep silent.
I feel this secrecy was crucial to his success. By not telling the other kids, not even the other losers, his mind was kept free from the additional stress of their disbelief in his ability, and the ridicule they would have rained down on him for trying to get in shape. If no one knew, no one could release barbs from the tongue, and these would not damage the self respect that was forged between himself and his trainer.
Mr. Pepperman showed him ten basic exercises in the gym, and for once Rollins actually paid attention to what a teacher was telling him. He went home and practiced, knowing this was his lifeline. Every so often in the hall Mr. Pepperman would deliver a punch to gut in the hall, shocking the tudents. As the weeks passed he added in the weights to his regimen and he started gaining strength.
Then one day out of nowhere Mr. Pepperman popped him in the chest on his way into a class, and Rollins just laughed it off. It didn’t buckle him, it didn’t cause his books to spew out on the floor like it had before. From that moment on he was hooked on lifting iron, a habit he has kept for life. A new measure of self-respect was born inside.
Weightlifting continued to teach Rollins. “It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.”
Strength of body lends itself to strength of mind. Over the years Rollins took his training regimen, and combined it with meditation, and the power of being active in the world: fronting one of the most prominent hardcore bands in punk rock, writing, acting, doing radio, and all the things Rollins has done.
“I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind. The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.”
For those who follow the path of the down home punk, it is critical to have some kind of discipline around physical health and the maintenance of the body. It need not be weight training, though it is an option with a venerable pedigree. Depending on the state of ones health, simple exercises ranging from gentle to stretching to casual walking can be enough. Others may start with activities around a sport such as roller derby, or revolve around transportation such as cycling and skateboarding.
Out of high school, I was not much in touch with my own body. I dabbled in yoga and tai chi, practiced some light qi gong hear and there. Later I found pilates and stuck with that on basically weekly basis and have added in some light weight lifting and additional stretching, along with regular walks, and seasonal hiking and occasional biking excursions that basically round out my level of activity. Punk rock is about individual discovery and finding the right kinds of exercise for your particular body is very individual.
However, it is an important component in living your own life on your times. The alternative is increasing debilitation which lends itself to increasing inactivity, and deterioration of health. If health is to be maintained outside of the strictures of Big Medicine and Big Pharma, looking after the body is as imperative as is looking after the mind, emotions and spirit.
Physical health however is only one way of understanding and interacting with the punk body. Modifications to the body in the form of tattoos, piercings, and other methods have a long tradition within the punk milieu. These will be looked at next.
Read the other articles in the DOWN HOME PUNK series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.