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The Rolling Stone Interview: Henry Rollins

No pain, no gain

Henry RollinsHenry Rollins

Henry Rollins performs on stage. Circa 1994.

Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

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.

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.

In This Article: Black Flag, Coverwall, Henry Rollins


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