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The Rolling Stone Interview: Henry Rollins

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So far, much of '90s rock is rooted in '70s music, which can be a real cul-de-sac. Besides, the 70s were not all that great a decade. It wasn't all Kiss and Black Sabbath; it was also the Partridge Family.
You have all these '70s revivals because there was nothing in the '80s to revive. The Cars? New Wave? Skinny ties? There's nothing we want to go back and get.

But this slacker thing – I don't know about these heroes of today. This is my not-so-PC opinion: These people should get themselves to a gymnasium with all due speed, watch their diets, start standing straighter, get the greasy hair out of their face and not be famous for being a couch potato who plays great music.

My thing has always been: Get up, get into it, get involved. Not drop and tune out. That never works for me. What are you doing slacking? The world's on fire. For me, the '90s are a call to arms.

The spoken-word movement went mainstream in a big way this year. You even hosted your own "MTV Unplugged" special. Why are rock fans making the connection with spoken word? And why now?
People need to hear, they need to communicate. They need to hear other people. You don't always get that with music these days. A lot of lyrics just aren't saying a lot of stuff. And a lot of times, at a concert, you can't hear what the singer is saying, anyway.

I think there's a need for people to hear things without a bunch of racket behind it. To hear a human voice, not 80,000 watts. It's very intimate, and you can do it anywhere.

But as soon as it becomes popular, you have to put up with things like the pseudobeatnik poet shtick in that Gap ad on TV.
Spoken word is going to get its own bin at Tower Records now. There will be so many talking records now, and like any other genre, you're gonna get 90 percent crap and some stuff that might be worth listening to. Like rap now. In my opinion, most rap records now really suck. It's really generic, not a lot of people saying a lot anymore. Too bad, too.

You also run the risk of being mistaken for a stand-up comic, especially on "The Boxed Life," when you do the bit on air travel and call Edie Brickell an "agent of Satan."
This year, me and Denis Leary were on tour at the same time. He'd play New York on a Monday, and I'd be there by Thursday. And we'd always get reviewed together, and they'd draw cartoons of us, like me holding him over my head – the big muscle-bound guy and the guy with the cigarette.

I watched his video and thought half of it was cool. I like his MTV spots better, that quick 20-second dis. But it was really weird that I was getting lumped in with him. Wow, is this how I'm being perceived?

Do you ever find yourself getting up onstage and having nothing to say?
No. I have things on my mind. I make notes on things I want to get into. Something I talked about the night before that I want to take to another level.

I'm really sick of talking right now. I want to play with the band. I need the balance. But I think you're going to see more talking shows. I've seen some people who try and imitate me. And a lot of people send me their indie-released books and tapes, and they write "Henry, I'm sorry if some stuff on this sounds like you, but you really influenced me, and I only started writing from reading one of your books."

Hell, man, that's why I sought out Hubert Selby Jr. I hit a massive block after reading his novel Requiem for a Dream in 1986. It was so good that I couldn't write anymore. It choked me, it was like inhaling a Buick. So I found him in the phone book. I said, "Sir, this sounds weird, you don't know me, but is it possible to meet you? Requiem for a Dream has really fucked me up." And he said, "Here's my address, come on over."

He was a big inspiration to me. He taught me a lot about writing, just big lessons in life. Because that's writing – how well you reflect how life comes into you and out of you.

Do you ever get a sense that your rage is lessening?
That's what I'm working toward. I'm not an entertainer. Believe me, when I'm done, when I have nothing left to sing about, I'm not going to stand around and milk it.

Why aren't you as angry as you used to be?
I understand that people are people, and I'm one of them. I don't feel the need to be right all of the time. I know my truth, and I know my truth is necessarily not yours. And I'm OK with that. Didn't used to be.

What caused you to change?
I hate to get into this topic, but a thing that really changed me was the death of my friend [Joe Cole]. When your best friend gets murdered five feet away from you, it changes you. I always have that experience now permanently riding on my shoulder. I'm more aware of time, more aware of mortality, and I'm not so precious about life anymore. You're eventually going to die. Use the time wisely because it is running out, but don't freak out about it.

As far as the rage, what I'm working toward in the writing and music is trying to get what's in me out of me. And once I'm done doing that, I'll stop doing records. In fact, I think I'm within two or three records of being done. I think I got maybe a few more years of touring, and then I'm on to something else. Because I'm not doing it to be a rock star. I don't feel a duty to get out there for the kids every year.

What makes you think your music can't be a vehicle for expressing a more positive attitude?
Because in my mind, music is made by those whom music saves. Jimi Hendrix could not have done anything else with himself. John Lee Hooker, what else is he going to do? Work at McDonald's?

I have some of that in me. For me, playing is vital, whether it's in front of 20 people or 2,000. But unless I feel hellbent, unless I'm ready to play 150 percent, I'm walkin'. Where some bands can't get off the ego trip. The Stones should leave it alone. Pete Townshend should leave Tommy alone.

Now that I've got some money, and a lot of people pay attention to me, it's a wonderful opportunity for me to say, "I'm not gonna sell you out. I'm not going to make you embarrassed that you bought my record." You're gonna be 60, and you're gonna look back – if you remember me at all – and go, "You know that guy? He really was all right."

To me, that is the coup to pull. Go in, do the thing in the marketplace, have the supreme opportunity to be a dick – but you never sell out. And you go out the back door without asking for a curtain call. It's like the way a samurai would go out: 30 years of service to his lord, and then walk out and never look back.

This article is from the December 23rd, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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