I was lost at sea as I read the first chunk of White Girls. The book opens with a 93-page powerhouse of an essay named “Tristes Tropiques,” which weaves an entrancing narrative based almost exclusively in descriptions of feelings, which made me wildly uncomfortable. I felt nearly as embarrassed reading the particularly emotionally transparent parts when anyone was around, like when I listened to love songs in my room as a child, ready to bolt over to the boom box and slam it off at the first sign of a passing adult. “Tristes Tropiques” is about deep love for friends, so I was convinced eventually it would take hold. Friends? I love friends! Friendship is high on my list of valued things, coming in two notches above staying on my high horse, and one notch above Groucho Marx. Friendship is the reason I’d stayed with the text. As a casually narrow-minded person and occasional idiot, I’m more than happy to close myself off to things that are not directly up my alley for weeks or months at a time.
I had to see the book in stores, for sale on the shelf, next to the other books, to actually then go to my girlfriend’s apartment and casually pick it up and start reading as if this hadn’t been suggested to me five thousand times over. Something about the cover suddenly feels like home. At first, I thought it might have been the Garry Winogrand photograph splashed across the front: You can unpack the picture for hours, and I enjoy that sort of parsing much more in the visual realm than the verbal one. l was raised down the hall from a darkroom, and there’s a little boy in me that knows that Winogrand’s name gets respect from the old heads in red-lit rooms that still smell of toner and fixer in 2015.
The photo depicts a bench full of white girls. There’s a black man talking to the one nearest to the end on the left, listening to a gesticulating woman. The three central white girls are folded into one another telling a secret, laughing, or both. Still another two white girls turn full away from the crumpled mass of other white girls on the right hand side of them, toward an older white man in the far right corner reading a newspaper, as if to remind you that The Man is always halfway in the picture, even when he’s not really in the picture, because he’s always in the picture. The picture goes on and on. The title of the book, boldly lettered, acts as a punctuation mark that the image does not get when framed on a white wall.
It took me a while to recognize where I knew the cover from, a very different book of essays I’ve had since I was 15: A collection of diary entries and remembrances by a certain Henry Rollins, from his long(er than anyone else’s) stretch fronting the band Black Flag. The band that was bigger than a band, because it was an idea, until it all got murky, then brought back and re-warmed too many times. The band’s founder and sole constant, Greg Ginn, is and was a bastard legend with a translucent guitar. He filed through members of the band, discarding those who could no longer hack it. Henry Rollins was “plugged in” as frontman before the band recorded their monumental LP Damaged. He stayed on through various permutations of line-ups and sounds until the band dissolved in 1985. He self-published Get In The Van in 1994.
As depressingly comfortable as I am with the text inside Get In The Van, I had no interest in reading it when it was lent to me 15 years ago. I was the sort of high school sophomore who was so hell bent on remaining friendless that it wasn’t enough to someone to be the one other kid in a Black Flag shirt in a teeming mass of 3,000 adolescents. I walked up and asked the kid who his favorite singer was, pointing at his shirt. Nic answered “Rollins,” setting us back months. I was such a profound asshole. (The correct answers according to older people I trusted more than myself at that time: Chavo (for voice), Keith (for being Keith), and then Dez, (he wasn’t Rollins).
For a certain kind of person, Get In The Van is the sort of book you can judge yourself against in an unkind way. Transmissions from a very angry young man who became swept up by a musical swarm of locusts. Branded by one of the most iconic logos, Black Flag is so emblematic that I am shocked I don’t have the bars tattooed on my body. I always intended to do so, but the longer I waited, the more people I saw with it that I didn’t see myself in, until I decided that loving and listening to The First Four Years was more than enough. However, if you yourself ever Get in the Van, having read the book, and never splash your life across that early-’80s narrative of cult building, only to re-emerge, drool down your shirt, still on the interstate, with your newish van’s A/C still working, knocked down five to seven pegs as to what your adventure amounts to, then really, why be in a band? When the instance finally comes that you get to suffer on the road, you’re rewarded with the truth: That shit is miserable, and the romance is rarely present in the moment, if at all.
Get In The Van begins on the same note as White Girls, though for not nearly as long. Rollins’ best friend Ian pushes him into the adventure that begat the career that begat the book. Where “Tristes Tropiques” leaves me in the dark about everything outside the people (their physical surroundings) until their backdrops are necessary, Henry Rollins and his best friend Ian MacKaye work at a Häagen-Daaz together. There’s a bunch of pictures, and they’re adorable. Hilton Als, most regularly read in the New Yorker, has avoided writing about the great loves of his life for the entirety of his career. These loves are the people found in “Tristes Tropiques”. At one point, this squeamish energy boils over as he writes, “Fuck them and love them for making me do it,” by which he means, for setting down his oblong, multifaceted love for them in the fixed format of words. (Maybe Als and l are more similar than l originally thought, when it comes to reading and writing about love.)
The two friends in “Tristes Tropiques” settle into a decades-long platonic love affair that is tempered and charged by sexuality, race, and art. Still, the essay doesn’t stick to my bones until they are placed inside a moment in time, and I am allowed to enjoy moments of the essay like a dad watching a documentary. They are placed at a Basquiat exhibit, which almost feels like a trap. How’d you know I’ll never get sick of hearing about a city I live in but cannot touch? As much as I loathe the ill-advised op-eds that seem to pour from the heart and soul of every ’70s below-the-Bowery creative, I want to wash myself in all their stories. I will not, however, be getting off Lou Reed’s lawn any time soon.
Pulling up the covers next to each other now, l see two projects, decades apart and so radically different from one another, that got the same graphic treatment. I actually didn’t think anything of the appearance of White Girls until someone mentioned how much they liked it because it didn’t look like a “book cover.” Get In The Van, for its part, is formatted like a coffee-table book, and splashed with glorious photos, making it seem less weighty than it is. The writing is terse and dense, and now that I am older than the author at the time he was writing these passages, it is also incredibly immature, which is fair. It portrays someone in their early 20s making dramatic choices, taking control of their life by giving up so many facets of it:rejection and expansion, all at once.
On the cover of Get in the Van, a strong, though infinitely less nuanced, photo than the one that graces White Girls juts out matter-of-factly. Police with hands on their billy clubs march into a venue bearing the band’s name on the marquee. It is a fantastic, bold photo, but there’s not a whole lot to unpack. Hardcore punk was the enemy, Black Flag was hardcore punk, and Henry fronted Black Flag, and so he was the enemy. If you read beyond the cover, you find that the cops are always coming to stop the band, and when they don’t, their own fans will attack them anyhow. A blunt photo for a blunt book. Effective, direct, black and white; all ways you could describe Rollins. The Winogrand image, taken at the ’64 World’s Fair in Queens, is more nebulous. lt is tied to Hilton Als’ city and times purposefully and subtly. Bold, sure, but the way in which the image is dynamic and open to various reads fits perfectly with the mélange of styles within the covers. The similarity is that both authors know whom they are and how to represent that in what they wrote. They both, apparently, work under similar appreciations for visual directness when it comes to layout. Bold author name, bold book title, big beautiful image that services the words.
There are intersections with these two, aren’t there? I made a document called White Girls Get In The Van and put the covers side by side to stare at before I finished the entirety of the former, or reread the latter. Where’s the sticking point? Well, both of the authors names begin with an “H.” Henry’s last name, by birth, is Garfield. I wonder if Hilton Als hates mondays? For all the feelings put forth, all I can figure out about his schedule is that it allows him to write very well. I bet Henry Rollins loves Mondays, because it’s when everyone rejoins his nonstop work schedule. He seems very organized. They both seem forced to use the internet.
I initially treated“Tristes Tropiques” the same way as I treated Get in the Van, putting myself in the shoes of the author’s friend, S.L.; A lovely charismatic, gaudy, outspoken, talented, unsuccessful artist creating work that is either “before or ahead of his time.” As l read about him, l am late on rent, bartending, getting nickel and dimed by editors and snubbed by show promoters.I find it easy to feel bad for myself in this context, but in a world that functions so heavily on racial privilege, my whiteness accounts for a seismic difference in my reality. Still, I want what he wants—“success”‚and until I find my footing in the narrative background, this is the dynamic in the story that plays to my selfishness.
The moment the essay really begins to stick to me—and the romance on the page grows less laborious isn’t the Basquiat opening. It’s not S.L.’s professional unhappiness, and it’s not the scenes from their office at a weekly local paper that is probably the Village Voice. It’s when everyone in the story starts dying. With those deaths comes a voice reverberating with dread and sorrow, one that anyone who’s hung around death knows when they hear it. Get in the Van was forced on me by a loved one, just like White Girls was. Nic died a few months later. The person that gave him the book insisted I keep it. It sits in a drawer at home on top of a Hillary Duff calendar he gave me that I never used.
Sorting out the death of a mutual friend is one of the trickiest things no one wants to talk about. It’s like you’ve been running for miles, and you’re only still functioning off muscle memory, and then someone pulls up alongside you, and they’re running too, but now you’re back in the real world, and you just wish they would run somewhere else. That exasperation builds in “Tristes Tropiques,” as central characters creep into the story midway through. The way you talk about a dead person you loved is crazy, it just is. Als is no different. He stands across the bed from his old friend, with their mutual love dying in between them. Ultimately, the friendship between two black men is characterized in the text by a magnetic white woman who loves them both in different ways, and then she dies.
That is not the purpose of “Mrs. Vreeland,” as Als calls her, in the story. She is not a disrupter who simply dies. She is a love in Als’ life that has a gravitational pull all her own, and in the larger context of White Girls, She is the first of many White Girls that represent something larger for the author’s point. There’s large swaths of fiction in play to talk about very real feelings. As he has stated in interviews since the book’s release; everything didn’t happen exactly as it is written. The feelings are the truth, not the actions. The dying friend is called Mrs. Vreeland, “From the first,” Als says, “because she was stylish, and everything she wore was unfussy and the opposite of fashion…” This is happening in New York in ’80 or ’81, as Henry’s moment is happening in New York in ’81. He’s seeing Black Flag for the first time with all the DC kids he drove up with.
I do wonder if Als was sitting next to Tim Summer when he wrote his scathing review of Blag Flag, and Rollins in particular, in 1984. A prominent female critic, for a time, to Als, is Truman Capote. The second essay in White Girls, titled “The Women,” opens with the scandal surrounding Capote’s first back cover photo. He looks feminine, and as the author astutely points out, he wants to get fucked. I like the photo just fine, but I cannot connect to the photo. I look for simlarly sexualtraces in the photos that line the pages of Get in the Van. By all accounts, Rollins was sexy, but what I see are the starving men described in the pages, and they look like they’re reading to do some fucking. I’m not sure I felt like either person at 15 or now. Rollins’ entries affirms these scowls with tales of violence, but he absconds to a gentleness when his conduct isn’t entirely of Black Flag. He begins to look like a guy waiting for a hug in a world of fucks.
Early in Get in the Van, Henry’s total surprise about cops at hardcore shows in LA being the first violent and hateful cops he’d ever seen, pops out as truly suburban, truly white: “I grew up in a neighborhood where Pigs went after the bad guys, not kids standing there with their hands on their heads, repeating, ‘I’m not resisting’ over and over again,” strikes me peculiar, as he starts his journey in Arlington, VA, a town right over the Virginia border that is most closely associated closely with Washington, DC. I do wonder who these “bad guys” were. Still, the story is one of forfeiture of privilege. He follows; “I understood that I had no rights and what went down was up to the Pig in charge.” From that moment on, the cops play a central role in the text. They are at every show,. and they are there to hurt you.
The cops figure prominently in White Girls when they do make an appearance, but exposition as to why is understandably absent. In Hilton’s world, the cops have come to do what they’ve always come to do, and they had come to do it to him, or another black body, as they always have. The first time the cops burst into his pages, he is placed next to a white friend in a car. Looking through the windows, the man with the gun and the badge sees two friends as a victim and an attacker. Following his training, he bursts into their moment, the real attacker as ever. In the essay “GWTW,” Als describes how he goes out of his way to not scare the shit out of white people, in order to maintain peace in his life, and his own safety. This is prompted by Als’ reflection on a photo of a lynching. lt is not included in the text.
Toward the middle of The Van, after a few tours, Rollins is in Europe for the second time in his life.On having to confront and fight a gauntlet of violent skinheads every night, he says: “Only a cowardly idiot would align themselves with some organized faction.” But what was Black Flag in that moment, if not a small organized faction? They even had a logo and a leader. By the time you’re halfway through White Girls, you make it to an essay named “Buddy Ebsen.” His refrain, “It’s the queers who made me,” is so lovely, and I shoehorn it into the punks who made me, like I subbed myself in with S.L. in “Tristes Tropiques,” or how I do in everything I write. Als’ friend in this piece, maybe probably definitely another character introduced in “Tristes Tropiques,” tells him something and he agrees; how an author uses “…the word moralism to describe people who divide the world into “us” and “them.” I wonder if he’s referring back to the “us” of he and S.L. in relation to the friend who shared this affinity for a third party’s take on moralism. These two parties certainly exist in the world of Get in the Van, which is filled with all sorts of moralism.
Understand that Black Flag isn’t an “us” at all. It’s a creation of a man named Greg Ginn, and everyone else in the band at any given time has their own individual understanding with him. Black Flag, between the lines of Rollins’ diary entries, begins to read as a tacit agreement between driven men who felt they had no other place. When they found another place, they left the band. People love to describe Blag Flag as pirates. A kind of people who also operated together under agreement, rather than a full acceptance of “us.”
I look at the two covers again. l think about how the directness of each matches the writer’s blunt voice and opinion. Henry Rollins uses Black Flag to spotlight a specific set of young memories that shaped him, the van becomes a stage where everything plays out. Als uses White Girls (the entity) as a prism to fluidly speak about race and gender, and, in that kaleidoscope, he is also looking at himself. The portraits that the two writers have forged here—of Black Flag and White Girls, of themselves and their times, are colored with the thoughtful detail of two lives lived, however differently, under the direction of detailed, curious exploration
Edited by: Amy Rose Spiegel