Henry Rollins: The Column! Henry Speaks On His Consciousness-Expanding Trip to the Library of Congress With Ian MacKaye

by Henry Rollins

Originally appeared September9, 2011 LA Weekly 

Photo reprinted with the "courtesy of the LA Weekly."

I have just wrapped one of the better days this year. It only finished several minutes ago, as midnight draws near.

I met up with Ian MacKaye at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Seventh Street in downtown D.C. at 11 a.m. Our first stop was at the National Archives. We have a friend there who allows us to come in and view some of the rarer documents the massive building holds. Photo reprinted with the "courtesy of the LA Weekly"

Our contact got us visitor IDs, and we went through security checks and rounds of phone calls and code-required doors before finally arriving at a very thick and heavy door that opened like a bank vault.

We step inside and sit down in the chairs provided; walking around, pulling open the drawers, or looking into any of the countless boxes is a no-go. Why? The room we are sitting in holds documents from the first 26 years of America's governmental workings. It is my second visit, and I am even more excited than I was the first time.

Our contact has prepared documents for us to look at. They come out of drawers and boxes big and small. Highlights include letters from Thomas Jefferson, the first and last pages of George Washington's inaugural speech -- written in his own hand -- and Abraham Lincoln's letter to Congress authorizing Ulysses Grant to be put in charge of the Union armies. For fun, our contact has brought in Frank Zappa's notes read at the Parents Music Resource Center hearings. Hilarious.

One of the high points for me was a draft of the Bill of Rights, as it went back and forth between the two houses of Congress. What became the Second Amendment had several more words to it, while the last words of what became the 10th Amendment -- " ... or to the people." -- were a handwritten addition. Wow! I can't tell you how awesome it was to see that. The other high point was reading the words of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln out loud with Ian. Perfection.

After two hours of amazing viewing, our contact had work to attend to, so we thanked him profusely and left, vowing to come back again. Our contact must be a glutton for punishment, as he said that would be just fine.

Our next stop was the Library of Congress, where Ian has the hookup. Apparently, the LOC heard about Ian's collection of Dischord Records and punk-rock ephemera and asked to take a look. They are now helping Ian catalog the pieces.

For two hours we are allowed to walk all over the place and visit with different departments. We first meet with people who are meticulously repairing books from as far back as the 15th century, from Thomas Jefferson's prayer book to a book from Susan B. Anthony's collection with her handwritten notes on the cover. The work is very careful and very slow. Different countries in different times used different bindings, adhesives and paper. Repair must be historically considered, lest we lose a one-of-a-kind book.

These people are all about collecting, databasing and preserving. I am in my element. We are having conversations about acid-free paper and Mylar L-sleeves! Be still, my fanatic heart.

From there, it was off to the audio department. They were waiting for us. They had laid out a few of the millions of pieces of vinyl in their care. Stooges, first album, white label promo, date-stamped August 1969. I pulled out the LP. Unplayed. The superwide band holding the song "We Will Fall" reflected back at me, screaming, "I am pristine! Worship me!" Stooges and MC5 singles, unplayed, looking as new as the day they were pressed. Original Harry Partch, Sun Ra and Fugs LPs, decades old, mint new. I looked up from this table of vinyl and, to my left, saw an old record player standing against the wall. Who do you think it belonged to? Good guess, you're right: Thomas Edison. Fanatic overload!

I have been gathering audio and other music-related materials for more than 30 years now and have seen some serious collections in my time, but the LOC is the biggest dog in the yard. I told one of the people there about some seven-inch punk rock acetates I had just acquired, and his eyes lit up. That's at least two people who care!

I know that collector types can be a pain in the neck and seem perpetually frozen in time -- or at least in their parents' basement -- but someone has to look out for the past, lest it slip away forever. It was amazing to be around people who are dedicated to making sure there is a trail, who work with painstaking care to maintain the integrity of what came before. I was told I was doing the right thing by diligently saving fliers in acid-free protectors and transferring my analog sources to digital, and to keep up the good work.

A day of nonstop awe and inspiration. Whenever any great song or album gets lost in the ether, someone is deprived of the joy of hearing it, and the great effort of those who created and recorded the work is damaged. Thankfully, the fanatics are there to make sure the jam session never stops.