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The Rolling Stone Interview: Henry Rollins

No pain, no gain

December 23, 1993
henry rollins
Henry Rollins at home in Los Angeles.
David Tonge/Getty Images

Pearl jam, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Belly, the Lemonheads, Porno for Pyros – all the major alterna-heavies got name checks in Time magazine's recent cover valentine to Generation Rage. All, that is, except Henry Rollins: the guy who helped set the noise in motion over a decade ago with the viciously independent Los Angeles band Black Flag; who largely pioneered and popularized the current spoken-word movement; and whose performances with his own SWAT-rock team, the Rollins Band, continue to set new standards in brain-frying punk metal and personal exorcism.

Rollins couldn't care less about being left out of the hoopla. "I'm too busy with my head down, getting it on, to wonder who likes me and who doesn't," he says bluntly while washing down a big plate of pasta with a half-dozen coffee refills in a restaurant on New York City's Lower East Side. Actually, Rollins doesn't think he even belongs in such tony crossover company as Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain.

"Put it this way," he argues. "When everyone who is now 18 turns 40, they're not going to be saying, 'Oh, Henry Rollins.' They're going to be going, 'Oh, Eddie. Oh, Kurt.' That's the way it is. I'm opening for Eddie Vedder next week. Fine. Good gig. Great guy. But those are the guys on the cusp. I'm not. I'm too old. I'm not hip. And you can't dance to what I say."

Well, Rollins is right on one count: You can't dance to most of what he sings or says. His thing, onstage and record, is sweating out the poison – turning up the rage and pumping out the angst, often burrowing deep into his own traumas (like the 1991 murder of his best friend, Joe Cole, during a robbery attempt outside Rollins' house in Los Angeles) for source material.

But Rollins, 32, is hardly over the hill. As for not being hip, consider his résumé of the past two years: a major-label deal with Imago Records; a Gap ad; sold-out spoken-word tours; hosting MTV's Alternative Nation as well as his own spoken-word edition of MTV Unplugged.

Whether he likes it or not, Rollins has become a kind of alterna-guru – the sort of father figure that Vedder calls for friendly advice and whose no-nonsense attitude toward his art and life is considered a marvel by his peers. As Living Colour's Vernon Reid put it one afternoon while watching the Rollins Band tear it up on the '91 Lollapalooza tour: "Henry Rollins is not about whether the audience is into it or not. It's about how he's into it."

A native of Washington, Rollins describes himself as "a generic dysfunctional child from a dysfunctional, shitty marriage." His parents divorced when he was young, and he was raised by his mother. After graduating from high school in 1979 and having a one-semester go at college, he did the day-job grind until auditioning for Black Flag in the summer of '81. For the next five years, he became the voice and, for many of that band's rabid fans, the soul of the Flag.

When the group broke up in 1986, Rollins hit the solo trail, forming the Rollins Band in '87 with guitarist Chris Haskett, drummer Sim Cain, bassist Andrew Weiss and soundman Theo Van Rock. At the same time, he worked parallel shifts on the then-fledgling spoken-word circuit and ran his own independent publishing company, 2.13.61 (named after his birth date).

If the last two years have been hyperaction time for Rollins, 1994 promises no letup. The realigned Rollins Band, with new powerhouse bassist Melvin Gibbs, recently played its official coming-out gig at CBGB's; the group's follow-up to 1992's The End of Silence is set for spring release. Works in progress due out under Rollins' 2.13.61 book imprint include efforts by Iggy Pop, Alan Vega of the legendary electropunk group Suicide and Rollins' own personal journals covering his Black Flag years. And the archival One Records label Rollins recently founded with producer Rick Rubin is in the process of exhuming late '70s and early '80s recordings by Vega and No Wave sax maniac James Chance.

"I'm not into fame. I'm not into making money, outside of financing my books. I'm not into status," Rollins insists. "My thing is basically about time – not wasting it."


In your music and writing, you've become associated with rage and hatred. But sitting here, you don't seem like a particularly hateful guy.
I don't want to kill people. I like the idea of it. Sometimes I get so mad I want to kill everyone. But it's a way to vent that very real frustration that you feel. I don't have a gun. I have a microphone and a typewriter. Big difference.

I just try to get what's inside of me out. That expression is often very harsh, aggressive, crude, whatever. But to me, rage is something that can be very soulful. If you listen to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by Gil Scott-Heron, that album is dripping with rage. But the guy is so articulate, the burn is a beautiful burn.

Then again, when you played at CBGB's the other night, the first words you sang were "You're so fucking weak/You repel me."
I wrote the song about a guy who repels me. I usually wouldn't waste time immortalizing someone like that in song. But this guy really disgusts me. Yeah, that song is a full-on attack.

And it's the only time in a song I've ever used the word fuck. I don't cuss in songs. It's too easy. I love the idea of us coming out with a record that is heavier than N.W.A – hopefully, in my mind – but you can't put a sticker on it.

Which is the one thing I learned from Jim Morrison, in one interview where he said, "Guns aren't dangerous, minds are dangerous. You want a weapon? It's right here" [points to his head]. You hear that song "Five to One"? That's so incendiary.

But the power of Morrison's music has long been cheapened by overfamiliarity and overexposure on classic-rock radio. Do you think the new rock & roll – the so-called alternative music – has the power to change people's lives or the world around them?
The media and the means to broadcast the music has never been more effective. Imagine that Jimi Hendrix had just done Electric Ladyland now. With MTV, with Pay-Per-View, with stadium gigs, Lollapalooza. Imagine Jimi Hendrix with 32 tracks of digital access. He would be like Prince on methedrine.

But the music isn't as strong as the media. I've seen a lot of concerts; I've seen stuff that was cool. But I've never seen harder rock and more out-and-out scary talent than Led Zeppelin on the U.S. tour before Bonham died. Me and Ian [MacKaye] from Fugazi were there; they opened up with white light and "Kashmir." It was a powerful moment; I'll never forget it.

Or seeing Ted Nugent in the '70s at the Capitol Center in D.C. This was a band playing up to 300 nights a year. I see these reviews – "This fierce band, blah, blah, blah." I go, "You know that guy in Damn Yankees? He kicks your fuckin' ass." That's why if you bring me to some gig these days, I'm like "You got me out of my room for this?"

So what is so important about the new rock & roll that it makes the cover of 'Time"?
This is my own little rock theory: In my mind, Nirvana slayed the hair bands. They shot the top off the poodles. All of a sudden, all those bands like Poison, Bon Jovi and Warrant became like Rommel in the desert: overextended, bloated, no more Vaseline. And now they're just rusty tanks in the desert with no gas. It's those bands like Nirvana, that came along at that time, who are going to be remembered for changing the face of rock.

That generation of bands also recognizes the independent ethic of your solo work and days with Black Flag as a major influence and a kind of moral rudder. In our recent Pearl Jam story [RS 668], Eddie Vedder mentions actually calling you for advice about dealing with his newfound superstardom.
Yeah, he called me. We rapped for about 80 minutes or so. My take on the whole thing was, here's an honest guy in a very weird situation. I said, "Eddie, usually people as big as you are are real schmucks. Because they pulled every string to make that happen. But you haven't. You put the shit out there, and people went, 'Thank you, that's what I've been waiting to hear.' "

I said, "Man, there's no experience I've ever had that can help you. I've done about 22 albums in my life. If you added them altogether, you still would not million sales. So what do I know about putting out one album and selling five million copies?" I just said to him, "Drink your carrot juice, breathe deep, have fun, and don't do what you don't want to."

Do you often get other bands calling the Rollins Advice Line? You've got plenty of war stories to tell. Even someone like Vedder, for all his scuffling, didn't spend as much time storming the battlements as you did with Black Flag.
Most of these young bands, Belly or whatever, did not have to break the paths like D.O.A. or Black Flag did, where you would play and go to the club owner, say, "Can we have our money?" and he would hold a billy club and say, "Let's fight for it." When you go out on the road and take it in the nose like that, it gives you good seasoning, puts a little timbre in your voice and outlook, puts some interesting lines in your face and your thinking, which a lot of these bands might not be getting. Because they drop one album and it's star time all of a sudden. I don't know what effect that will have on the music. All I know is my reality.

Your reality is changing as well. When we talked on the first Lollapalooza tour, you did not disguise your contempt for MTV. But this year you actually hosted "Alternative Nation."
Here's what I see when I see MTV: really boring videos by a bunch of boring bands. But I also see nothing but potential. You've got millions of impressionable young people watching avidly every day, anything they put on. I see MTV, and my mind goes, "Why don't we give them a half-hour a day on what HIV is or what heroin or cocaine can do to you?" Let's give them health food instead of endless Swatch ads.

I'd done Alternative Nation before. When Kennedy was out of town, her producer called and said, "Do you want to host for two weeks?" I said absolutely. I did my best improv, ripped on the bands in a fun way, poking fun at the Cure. Like "What's up with a 34year-old guy with that hair? C'mon." I didn't hype myself. I took advantage of communication, having some fun, ruffling some feathers.

What about the Gap ad you did?
I do different jobs for different reasons. When I did the first Gap ad, the money didn't mean shit. These days, $850 is nothing to me by the time the agent and management get through with it. So why? Because I knew the ad was going in Rolling Stone. Two years ago, you wouldn't cough at me. I wanted to get a full page ad in Rolling Stone, like walking into your house and going, "Ahhh, I need some room to stretch."

I've also done voice-overs for the Gap. Why? This sounds loaded – I did it for the money. Do I enjoy standing in a studio reading copy? No, I'd rather drink paint. But with the money I can make in 10 minutes doing that, I bought more software [for the book company] and put out two hooks. I love going into major media holes, slick agencies, taking that money and putting it into my own little art projects. I love spending corporate money on counterculture art. To me, it's a Rambo mission.

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