Get in the Van is the recollections and journals of Henry Rollins' time in the seminal hardcore punk band Black Flag from 1981 to 1986. Starting off with his memories from a decade later of the early years (before he kept a journal), the book then switches to journal entries from his days on the road on tour, from backstage at shows, in various crash houses with fans who put the band up, in the titular van, and some from "The Shed", a literal tool / garden shed he lived in in the backyard of guitarist Greg Ginn's parent's house.
The book presents a stark and harsh look at the life of a DIY punk band of the time. He describes money as always low, never knowing where the next meal is coming from or where they are going to sleep that night. The police are always hassling them, "fans" are always wanting to pick fights, not to mention run-ins with the various neo-Nazi skinheads who were prevalent at punk shows at the time. Additionally, Henry's own battle with depression is prevalent in many entries.
It's not all a downer though. In between, there are funny stories and anecdotes, and a great POV on the recording of Black Flag's most famous album Damaged. There are many rare pictures of the band performing, of Rollins and his various looks throughout those years, plus band fliers and artwork.
The book is often hailed as one of the best documentations of the hardcore punk scene of that era, and additionally there is an audio version (somewhat condensed) which Henry reads himself.
Get in the Van contains examples of the following tropes:
- The Alleged Car: The titular van(s). Many tales of them breaking down on the way to a gig, running out of gas and having no money for more, getting broken into, etc. Black Flag tore the hell out of many rental vans and U-hauls.
- Promoted Fanboy: Henry describes early in the book how friend (and later front man for Fugazi) Ian MacKaye gave him a Black Flag EP and how the band quickly became one of his favorites. He and Ian would get in contact with the band, become friends, hang out with them, and put them up when they passed through Washington D.C. Famously, he describes taking a train to see them play in New York. During their second show that night, Henry had to leave to catch a train back because he had work in the morning. He asked them to play Clocked In for him before he left. In a moment of spontaneity, he jumped onstage to sing the song, and the band let him. A few days later, he got a call from them asking to audition to be their singer, as their current one was moving to guitar. The rest is history (and this book).
- Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Described in spades. The police throughout the country were terrified of punk rockers during this era (Black Flag especially had a bad reputation with them), and harassed, beat and illegally detained punks and bands, along with having shows shut down constantly. Henry describes over a dozen scary moments dealing with them.
- Buffet Buffoonery: A hilarious tale of Henry and Mutt going into Carl's Jr. and abusing their salad bar, which you could take as much as you wanted in one trip. However, they eschewed the salad bowl, instead filling the entire tray with food, as much as they could humanly put on it. The management glared at them, but they looked too scary to approach.
- Celebrity Cameo: Several descriptions of running into other famous musicians, including Jello Biafra, once accidentally landing on him stage diving ("Sorry about that chief") and once seeing him in a restaurant and going in and eating his food (he didn't seem to mind). Another time hearing some band in rehearsal that kept playing songs by The Misfits and him wandering down to the stage only to discover Glenn Danzig and his band were actually there.
- Dude Looks Like a Lady: A hilarious tale of Henry's 25th birthday show, played at a bar that was a transgender hang out after the musical act. Describes watching punkers mix with transgender women, a drunk cop coming in looking for his "black boy," and being hit on by "Peaches," which he found hilarious (and even put her on his lap and had a conversation with).
- Face of the Band: Invoked. He describes being uncomfortable being this, as he puts it, "It was Greg's band." Greg however was rather shy and being the big muscular screaming guy out front kind of takes the spotlight, which Greg was happy to acquiesce.
- Genre Adultery: What some of their fans thought Flag was during their last few years. The band grew their hair long (a no-no in punk rock) and their music became more complex and included longer songs, including a lot of jazz and heavy metal.
- Laser-Guided Karma: In an early trip to the U.K., Henry found himself surrounded by members of the punk band Chelsea while trying to sleep backstage, as their singer Gene October began to "accidentally" kick him every time he walked by, then proceeded to belittle his band and intimidate him while he was alone surrounded by brit punkers. Years later at a punk festival in the U.K., Gene would wander drunk into Black Flag's dressing room only to realize and remember their previous encounter, only now with the tables turned.Flag Member: "Hey Henry, is this the guy you were going to kill?"Henry (not even looking up from his stretching routine): "Yup."Gene: *sputters, stammers, talks about punk brotherhood*
- Mistaken for Subculture: Often when Henry was bald during the early years, for a neo-Nazi skinhead. Once saw a swastika spray painted on a car and he and Mutt (also bald at the time) started laughing at it, only to have the poor owner (who probably wasn't happy about the "decoration" in the first place) come out and yell at them, thinking they were getting off on the artwork.
- Mood Whiplash: The journal entries are all over the place. Sometimes Henry is obviously in a bad mood and ranting, some are depressing as he struggles with his life, others are downright hilarious, describing odd shenanigans of his band or the fans, etc. Given the average length of the entries is a paragraph, you can bounce between all these in a page.
- Motor Mouth: Mike Watt, the bassist of Minutemen, was described as this by Henry, who becomes annoyed with his constant babble when they share a van during a tour together.
- Perpetual Poverty: The band seemed to live this. Money was extremely tight (most of what they made went back into their record label SST, or went to rental vehicles, gas, etc), and Henry describes often being hungry, dirty, and not knowing where they were going to sleep, often having to sleep in their travel vans and U-hauls, even in brutal European winters.
- Revolving Door Band: The last few years of Black Flag's existence. It's hard to keep up with the changing names in the book by the end, as he and Greg were the only stable members since Henry joined (and Henry was the fourth singer by then).
- Sell-Out: One of the constant accusations hurled at them by "fans" as well as becoming "rock stars". This was a band that didn't have two nickels to rub together, slept at fans' houses and ripped off Carl's Jr. for food.
- Sixth Ranger: Henry essentially says lone roadie Mutt was this. Members of Flag formed a side project with him that would often open for the band proper.
- Take That!: Several throughout the book, often at the punk scene itself which Henry began to despise for their close mindedness and behavior. One in particular is at the band's producer Spot, who Henry always thought didn't like him. He would later confront him about it, and Spot admitted he thought Henry ruined the band. Henry shot back that Spot did when he started producing them.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Describes several encounters with these (of the neo-skinhead variety), especially in Europe.
- Working with the Ex: Not explicitly stated, but Kira Roessler was Henry's girlfriend at one point before she joined the band. Their tensions with each other spill out in a few entries during her time in the band.