Sometimes it takes someone else’s words to let you know that you’re not alone. Sometimes someone else’s art speaks for us. Henry Rollins’s poem I Know You spoke for me.
Have you ever read something and felt like the writer knew you, like they got under your skin and spilled your guts, like they cut to the heart of the matter and found out what made you tick? Have you ever felt apart from the world until a song lyric revealed the connections that bound you to it? Your situation was pegged in the length of a verse by that one perfect line that hit the nail on the head. Something that put your allusive emotions into perspective.
Have you ever watched a movie and saw yourself on screen? You blinked and suddenly you were the protagonist. You heard a love lorn line of dialogue and proclaimed, “I just said that today!” Has a dated romantic comedy had you searching your living room for microphones? Has a line from a screenwriter’s pen found its way into your breakup talk?
Has a stand-up comedian made a punch line of your secret quirk? Has a clever cat got your tongue and started saying things with it? Your thoughts streamed down their teleprompter. They outed you to the world. Did it surprise you to see the audience laugh with the comedian, as if they knew exactly what they were talking about? Did it feel like some of their approval rubbed off on you?
Has an artist that died before your time, peered across time and space, to plagiarize the thoughts from your head? These knowing Nostradamuses, saw your breakdown coming. They stepped on your grave. You felt it in your bones. They knew you before you were even there to be known.
They found a way to put into words the thoughts you believed would go unspoken, unmarked by your nearest and dearest. How you’d lived to find someone with the emotional capacity to share them. Here a stranger has seen you for what you are. They’ve shown you a truth about yourself, and it’s devastating.
Don’t think that this connection is less meaningful, because it didn’t happen face to face. If Stephen King has taught me anything, it’s that writing is telepathy. It doesn’t matter if the author was alive, if their work has been translated, remixed, or covered. Moving into your mind, their thoughts have taken up mental real estate. They’ve cast you as the hero in their story.
You learned that your most private peculiarity, was actually universal. You were stricken with a profound relief. Thank you dear author, dear singer, dear comedian. Thank you for letting us know that we’re not in this alone, that I am not alone. Thank you for making yourself seem vulnerable so that I might feel a little bit stronger. Thank you for quite possibly saving my life.
I’ve never experienced this phenomena more profoundly as I did the first time I heard Henry Rollins read his poem I Know You. My composure melted away in an instant. I collapsed onto my cramped twin bed. True to his word, Rollins knew me very well. I was sobbing by the end of the first read through. Locking myself in my room, I listened to it for an hour straight, staring at the ceiling, seeing into something bigger than myself. This was over a decade ago, a time when I needed to hear it. I needed to know that I wasn’t the only one who operated the way I did, and Henry told me.
He didn’t stutter. He didn’t ramble, nor did he get lost in abstraction. Where I’d felt scatterbrained, he was collected. He preached with steadfast certainty. He’d broken a code and he was showing his data. With a cool composure, he spoke to the screaming silence of isolation. He brought calm to a conversation about rage. While so many growling vocalists brought brute force to their mic stands, he applied just the right amount of gentle pressure.
He wasn’t hiding behind euphemisms like “mental illness.” While psychologists argued about the map, Rollins told us about the terrain. He told it like it was.
He armed me with the language to communicate my inner workings, and instilled in me a strong desire to do just that. He got me thinking about deciphering myself for the benefit of others. He’d given me purpose.
It was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t find the right word for it. Following my roommates out for drinks, a strange pull beckoned me home before bar close. I had every intention of riding the night out with them. I wanted to meet people, to make connections, but my enthusiasm worked on a bell curve. I came out with a pocket full of high fives, only to find my fingers go limp in the middle of handshakes. I spent my quick wit on the pilling introductions, only to watch my jokes fall flat by the time the conversation got light. I was the one who brought the lull to the table.
I got low, but “depression” was the wrong word for it. It was too broad.
My James Bond composure came with a time limit. The moment the clock struck midnight I reverted back to Woody Allen. My charm turned into a pumpkin. The larger the crowd, the more I’d turtle up. Shifting the conversation, girls joined us in the booth. The more competitive the tone, the less I participated. The more overt my room mates’ intentions, the more subtle mine became.
A polarizing fear had come over me, but “social anxiety” wasn’t the right term for it. I could be social. In my element, in my sweet spot, I could hold my audience’s attention. I could read ten poems a night without so much as blushing. The stage was my domain, yet small talk always seemed like Everest.
Watching the screens mounted on the bar, I found myself paying more attention to commercials than I ever thought I would. Convincing my friends I had a prostate condition, I took more than my fair share of bathroom breaks.
Sure my breath quickened, but calling these episodes “panic attacks” would be a tad too dramatic.
Giving up on waving down bartenders, I paced what little space I could, guarding my precious shoulders from being rubbed. After all, I wore my heart on my sleeve.
Pop psychology would have you wondering where I fit on the social disorder spectrum, where I fell on the Myers Briggs, or where to categorize me in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. You could try to dissect me with all those “blunt little tools,” but you wouldn’t come away with anything of substance.
While giggles turned to cackles, my voice became a whisper. I waited until the group hit a critical mass, until I was sure that I was lost in the crowd. Then I disappeared, Batman giving Commissioner Gordon the slip. Off to fight crime from the confines of my bedroom.
The word “INTROVERT” hung beneath my face like a caption, I just didn’t want to accept it. At the time, I took introversion to mean shy, meek, and fragile. If you only looked at half of the data, you’d say that I embodied all of those traits, but if you watched me lead a counter demonstration against one of America’s most notorious hate groups you’d draw a different conclusion. If you listened to me speak at a writers’ workshop, you might mistake me for an alpha male. Drop me into an argument where I can speak with authority and you’ll hear Sherlock Holmes bubble up from my mouth.
It turned out the right word had been there the entire time, I just thought it meant something else. Introversion had less to do with how weak I felt, and more to do with what types of interactions I valued. While others needed a group to blossom, I excelled at the one on one, bringing things out of people others couldn’t see. While extroverts were the life of the party, I was the king of empathy. While others saw their emotions as splotches in an impressionist painting, I could translate mine into words.
The best part of these revelations was that they defused so much of the hate I’d been carrying. Extroverts were not the enemy. After a lifetime of jealousy, I realized that I possessed qualities that they might envy, that they might even need. Rather than flee them, I sought them out. As Sarah Silverman put it, “I’m looking for a Yin for my Yang, not a Yang for my Yang.”
Turns out, there might not be anything wrong with me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the hole in your heart is an optical illusion. It disappears the moment you change perspective.
After reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts, I found myself drawn back to Rollins’s poem.
I see Henry Rollins as a role model for introverts. He’s one of the good ones. The man wears his solitude like a superhero. He walks the earth, searching for himself, like Caine from Kung Fu, or The Incredible Hulk moving from town to town, challenging authority, saving villagers. He’s a poet, an author, a musician, an actor, a stand-up comedian, and a role model. He’s an international man of mystery, getting in his van, rocking off faces, stopping crime, and giving Ted talks.
Grateful for everything he shares about himself, I have an endearing affection for this man. It takes a lot to be a positive example of vulnerability. Along with George Carlin, Rollins’s candor is something I’ve tried to adapt into my own literary voice.
This all started the night I’d discovered I Know You. I had to capture that feeling of identification. I had to share it. I had to let people in on the secret, that we’re in this together, and there’s a community out there for anyone who wants it.
Rollins’s speech resonated with me all the more, because someone had paired it with A Warm Place my favorite song (at the time) by Nine Inch Nails. A Warm Place has always been my go to instrumental for self reflection. If you’re making a meditation playlist, this song is mandatory (feel free to download my instrumental version to add to that list too, it’s also great for yoga, and other intimate encounters). It hypnotizes with its descending and ascending melodies, both sombre and tranquil, bitter and sweet.
When I decided to cover Rollins’s poem, I realized that I had to cover A Warm Place as well. I’ve always wanted to hear the song with grinding distortion, and heavy beats made from footfalls and whip cracks, so I added those elements to my version.
It’s not enough for me to just throw up a link to Rollins’s original recording, I had to pay homage to it. I had to read it myself. After all, along with Nicole Blackman and Saul Williams, Rollins inspired me to get into spoken word in the first place. Turns out, this is one of the most popular pieces for poets to read live. They’re Rollins’s words, but we all want to inhabit them. It’s his monologue, but we all want to star in it.
(If SoundCloud is still down, download the track)
As I mentioned, the idea to combine I Know You and A Warm Place wasn’t mine. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a recording of the poem without the Nine inch Nails song tacked on. I’m not sure who came up with the idea to combine these recordings, but they’re two great tastes that go great together. Although, I always felt jostled when A Warm Place started looping half way through Rollins’s reading, then abruptly faded after he’d finished. I wanted the recordings to fit together seamlessly, so I notated my version to do just that.
I got it in my head to transcribe the song myself, to put together my own minimal interpretation, a distorted melody, made fragile by heavy tremolo and thunderclaps. Not that I could hold a candle to Rollins’s deep rich voice, but I loved his piece so much I had to give it a go. This is a cover of a remix of a poem. I can’t think of a deeper niche than that, but it’s the universal themes that make it so endearing.
Over the last year, I’ve done over five hours of audio recording (if you include my audio book Terms and Conditions). This seven minute piece is by far my favorite. Please share and enjoy.
You can read Henry Rollins’s poem in its entirety by hitting “Continue Reading.”
I Know You
By Henry Rollins
I know you
You were too short
You had bad skin
You couldn’t talk to them very well
Words didn’t seem to work
They lied when they came out of your mouth
You tried so hard to understand them
You wanted to be part of what was happening
You saw them having fun
And it seemed like such a mystery
Made you think that there was something wrong with you
You’d look in the mirror and try to find it
You thought that you were ugly
And that everyone was looking at you
So you learned to be invisible
To look down
To avoid conversation
The hours, days, weekends
Ah, the weekend nights alone
Where were you?
In the basement?
In the attic?
In your room?
Working some job – just to have something to do.
Just to have a place to put yourself
Just to have a way to get away from them
A chance to get away from the ones that made you feel
so strange and ill at ease inside yourself
Did you ever get invited to one of their parties?
You sat and wondered if you would go or not
For hours you imagined the scenarios that might transpire
They would laugh at you
If you would know what to do
If you’d have the right things on
If they would notice that you came from a different planet
Did you get all brave in your thoughts?
Like you going to be able to go in there and deal with it
and have a great time.
Did you think that you might be the life of the party?
That all these people were gonna talk to you and you
would find out that you were wrong?
That you had a lot of friends and you weren’t so
strange after all?
Did you end up going?
Did they mess with you?
Did they single you out?
Did you find out that you were invited because they
thought you were so weird?
Yeah, I think I know you
You spent a lot of time full of hate
A hate that was pure sunshine
A hate that saw for miles
A hate that kept you up at night
A hate that filled your every waking moment
A hate that carried you for a long time
Yes, I think I know you
You couldn’t figure out what they saw in the way they lived
Home was not home
Your room was home
A corner was home
The place they weren’t, that was home
I know you
You’re sensitive and you hide it because you fear
getting stepped on one more time
It seems that when you show a part of yourself that is
the least bit vulnerable someone takes advantage of you
One of them steps on you
They mistake kindliness for weakness
But you know the difference
You’ve been the brunt of their weakness for years
And strength is something you know a bit about because
you had to be strong to keep yourself alive
You know yourself very well now
And you don’t trust people
You know them too well
You try to find that special person
Someone you can be with
Someone you can touch
Someone you can talk to
Someone you don’t feel so strange around
And you find that they don’t really exist
You feel closer to people on movie screens
Yeah, I think I know you
You spend a lot of time daydreaming
And people have made comment to that effect
Telling you that you’re self involved, and self centered
But they don’t know, do they?
About the long night shifts alone
About the years of keeping yourself company
All the nights you wrapped your arms around yourself
so you could imagine someone holding you
The hours of indecision, self doubt
The intense depression
The blinding hate
The rage that made you stagger
The devastation of rejection
Well, maybe they do know
But if they do, they sure do a good job of hiding it
It astounds you how they can be so smooth
How they seem to pass through life as if life itself
was some divine gift
And it infuriates you to watch yourself with your
apparent skill at finding every way possible to screw it up
For you life is a long trip
Terrifying and wonderful
Birds sing to you at night
The rain and the sun the changing seasons are true friends
Solitude is a hard won ally, faithful and patient
Yeah, I think I know you