It was quite a spectacle. Every day at lunchtime, four of my friends assembled outside the high-school cafeteria and slammed full-force into one another while angry music blared from a nearby boom box, a bizarre amusement they called thrashing. A band called Black Flag provided the sonic backdrop. In 1982, few residents of our small North Carolina town had been exposed to the primal squalls of Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins and the scourging atonal meanderings of guitarist Greg Ginn. With accelerated tempos and provocative angst-laden lyrics that ridiculed sycophantic conformists, Black Flag eschewed traditional punk’s nihilistic pretensions and the novel quirkiness of new-wave bands like Devo and the B-52s. When the Black Flag band members weren’t performing live or immersed in their notorious eight-hour rehearsals, they booked and promoted their own shows, a do-it-yourself approach that laid the foundation for what is now known as indie rock.
“If you could survive Black Flag, you knew what it took to approach the next hurdle,” Henry Rollins explains to me over the phone from his office in central Hollywood, Calif. “We played in places that smelled like a men’s room and got paid 11 bucks. But we were tenacious. We knew the music was good and that we were onto something.”
Those were the days when non-stop touring and meager earnings forced the band to reside in their van and subsist on restaurant table scraps, a five-year saga chronicled on Rollins’s Grammy-award winning spoken-word album Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag. Today, he stands comfortably next to his desk in the first piece of real estate he ever owned, just around the corner from his home. The office doubles as a base of operations for 2.13.61, Inc., Rollins’s record label and publishing house, a company named after his birthdate. Over the years, 2.13.61 has released several of his own books, albums by his metal-fusion ensemble, the Rollins Band, and spoken-word recordings.
Born in Washington, D.C. with the name Henry Garfield, Rollins grew up in Glover Park, the same Georgetown-area neighborhood as fellow hardcore pioneer Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi). As adolescents, these two friends spent most of their free time skateboarding and jamming to hard-rock bands like Van Halen and Led Zeppelin. Rollins attended the all-male Potomac, Md., Bullis School, which offered a demanding curriculum accompanied by a strict disciplinary regimen modeled on the U.S. military. After school, he caught a bus to an evening job at a D.C. movie theater, where he could earn money while doing his homework. He also took up weight lifting.
“We played in places that smelled like a men’s room and got paid 11 bucks. But we were tenacious. We knew the music was good.”“I wasn’t as big as the other guys,” Rollins says. “I wasn’t any good at team sports, and being a spaz, I often got the baseball thrown at my head. I started lifting weights because I could do it alone, without getting hazed by the bigger kids. I’d work out at lunchtime because I had the gym to myself. No one is going to throw a ball at your head if you’re benching.”
Rollins enrolled in college classes at American University but left after one semester and began working for the National Institute of Health caring for rodents at one of the agency’s laboratories. An entire week of euthanizing and incinerating hundreds of sick lab rats sent him seeking other job opportunities. His buddy Nathan Strejcek, the singer for MacKaye’s band the Teen Idles, tipped Rollins to an opening at a local Häagen-Dazs shop.
“That was the cool, punk-rock Häagen-Dazs,” Rollins recalls. “I could walk there and [work with] fellow punk rockers.” On the side, Rollins moved equipment for the Teen Idles and stood in as the group’s vocalist whenever Nathan missed rehearsals. He also wrote lyrics and sang on State of Alert’s No Policy, an eight-minute, 10-song EP that was released in 1981 on MacKaye’s fledgling label, Dischord Records.
Around that time, Rollins and MacKaye had become enamored of a hard-edged L.A. band called Black Flag, whose Nervous Breakdown EP had drawn considerable attention from the punk underground. Lasting less than six minutes, this uncompromising four-song barrage captured the essence of adolescent fury in a maelstrom of harsh, grating chord sequences and deranged recollections of personal pain. When Black Flag visited D.C., MacKaye and Rollins befriended the band members, and Rollins maintained contact with bassist Charles Dukowski through frequent letters and phone calls. During a Black Flag concert at New York City’s 7A club, Rollins took the stage at the end of the show and sang “Clocked In,” a raging tirade against the boredom and drudgery of wage labor just minutes before heading back to Washington to cover his morning shift at Häagen-Dazs. Within a week, he had become a member of Black Flag and toured with the band as a roadie, occasionally filling in for vocalist Dez Cadena, who he eventually replaced. This mutual arrangement allowed Cadena to focus on his role as the group’s rhythm guitarist.
Black Flag recorded its most influential albums, Damaged and My War, after Rollins joined the lineup. Released in late 1981, Damaged obliterated the framework that had defined early punk, shucking the genre’s three-chord simplicity and ramping up the tempo to dizzying speeds. Rollins’s ragged voice spewed vituperations about redneck stupidity, police brutality, and the miseries of social exclusion against a cacophony of Dukowski’s smoldering bass runs and the onslaught of Ginn’s labyrinthine forays. A statement of remarkable rhythmic complexity, Damaged is a brilliant synthesis of Rollins’s guttural screeches with meticulously interwoven bass lines and guitar leads that surge aggressively at varying speeds, occasionally stop on a dime, and then explode into abrasive dissonance.
But if Damaged put Black Flag at the forefront of the hardcore vanguard, My War managed to alienate a hefty slice of the band’s fan base in 1984 with its lurid, dirge-like tempos. Hardcore purists hated the album, which contained three songs that took up an entire side of the record. Although a few of the selections bore some resemblance to the group’s earlier work, side two’s sluggish chord changes and Rollins’s prolonged agonizing screams epitomized the funereal dreariness of a Black Sabbath tune played at half speed. Way ahead of its time, My War inspired generations of artists later associated with late-’80s grunge. Kurt Cobain made flattering references to Damaged and My War in his posthumously published journals, and his vocals on Bleach, Nirvana’s 1989 debut album, sound as if they were lifted from Rollins’s My War voiceprint.
“I know [Cobain] was a fan of the band,” Rollins says. “I saw photos of his room with the Black Flag flyers on the wall, and I knew he had a Black Flag tattoo. But I never met the guy. Whenever I’d see him, he’d avoid me. I’d ask Courtney [Love], ‘What’s up with your boyfriend?’ And she’d say, ‘He’s high and he’s afraid to talk to you because you’re not.’ But he was also a big fan of Ian MacKaye’s, so whenever he was with Ian, he would sometimes ask what I was doing. I liked the guy and I liked [Nirvana]. I thought they were the real thing.”
Authenticity is a characteristic Rollins frequently alludes to whenever he mentions artists he admires, whether it’s jazz legends Miles Davis and John Coltrane, rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Iggy Pop, or hardcore innovators like MacKaye, Ginn, and Dukowski. But according to Rollins, a successful artist must also have a work ethic and a willingness to seek new challenges. Since the breakup of Black Flag more than two decades ago, Rollins has followed his inner voice, dabbling in acting, publishing his own books and the works of others, and creating innovative music through multiple incarnations of the Rollins Band—generating sonic excursions that have taken him well beyond the parameters of hardcore by mixing the unbridled intensity of his singing with psychedelic textures and elements of heavy metal, jazz, and punk.
The group’s 1992 release, The End of Silence, included “Low Self Opinion,” a hard-rock number that earned a spot on college-radio playlists and was made into a video that frequently ran on MTV. The personnel for the Rollins Band’s 1994 album, Weight, consisted of experimental jazz and funk bassist Melvin Gibbs, the versatile guitarist Chris Haskett, and drummer Sim Cain, who had played with a diverse assortment of avant-garde rock and jazz outfits. The video for the single “Liar” became an MTV favorite, and the funk-jazz influences of Gibbs and Cain gave new meaning to heavy metal. By the time the Rollins Band recorded Come In and Burn, its 1997 release, the ensemble defied categorization. Although other iterations of the Rollins Band followed, the lineup of Gibbs, Haskett, and Cain was by far the most talented. In 2006, they reunited with a tour and a performance on The Henry Rollins Show, his two-season IFC program.
“What I’m doing now continues to challenge me. I’m doing something that feels like jumping into cold water.”“We played well and the shows were well-attended,” Rollins explains. “But about 10 days into the tour, I remembered why we broke up. We were done. Last year when I saw Van Halen, they played very well and it was a professional show. But men in their 50s playing music they wrote in their 20s—I just don’t want to be that guy. I’m not putting it down, it’s just not for me. I think that’s the eventuality of rock ‘n’ roll. You become that thing, that trademark. It’s like maintaining a franchise.”
“What I’m doing now continues to challenge me,” Rollins adds, referring to his spoken-word performances. “I’m doing something that feels like jumping into cold water. I’m not finished with music per se, but I’m definitely done singing ‘Liar’ and ‘Low Self Opinion.’ I’ve got no problem with those songs; it’s just not a challenge anymore.”
This hiatus from music has allowed him to focus on writing and developing material for his stand-up performances. As a blogger for Vanity Fair’s website, Rollins has an outlet for serious reflections on politics and world affairs while his spoken-word material serves as a humorous conduit for addressing similar topics. But most of his poetry and prose, particularly his magnum opus Black Coffee Blues, consists of a profoundly disturbing mix of grim slice-of-life vignettes, morose meditations on urban decay, and violent free-associative ramblings—dolorous themes that seem entirely at odds with his positive demeanor, his optimistic outlook on the creative process, and his insatiable thirst for unique experiences.
“I disagree that there’s a contradiction,” Rollins replies. “Life is a series of vicissitudes—valleys, peaks, dark times—and that writing accurately reflects how I was feeling at the time. I write about where I’m at during a given moment. I don’t push any of it too hard because I don’t think I have any real talent. I just go with what moves me and try to be accurate, brave, and honest.”
Henry Rollins is currently in the midst of Recountdown Tour 2008, a series of spoken-word performances to mark the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. Information about upcoming shows is available at his website.