All journalists and critics are ants at the picnic," Henry Rollins declares from the offices of his vanity publishing company, 2.13.61, in Los Angeles. "I'm not curious to see what you write about me. Not curious about any review about anything I do. I don't care. And I defy you to stop me. I would be loath to read anything about me by someone who wasn't there. I'm not gonna see it their particular way -- me, having been there."
With clear boundaries established out of the gate, Rollins settles in for the duration of yet another niggling phone call from a reporter. For a guy who currently makes his living talking -- rambling on about everything from Baywatch to the death camps at Auschwitz to how world peace might best be realized if political leaders would only give each other an occasional hand job -- Rollins sounds downright irritated to be speaking to me.
"I like communication, and I like the idea of the interview," Rollins says. "But I don't enjoy being taken out of context. Usually people are cool with me. 'Cause I think you get what you give. I'm always respectful and try to give good, clear answers and basically write your article for you. I do every interview that's put in front of me. I'm doing five hours of phone press today."
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No stranger to venting his personal unease upon the world, Rollins, 41, seems to do every project that's put in front of him, as well. He was the ferocious mouthpiece for pioneering hardcore outfit Black Flag as its fourth, and final, frontman; he also founded the decade-old Rollins Band and has sat confidently behind the wheel of his own company truck since 1986, the year he launched a successful solo career as a spoken-word artist.
Since then, Rollins has parlayed his menacing presence into films both notable (1996's Lost Highway) and stinky (1998's Jack Frost). When Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe passed on the chance to make a cameo in the box-office hit, Jackass: The Movie, Rollins filled in by recklessly driving a Hummer through a motocross track while stuntman Steve-O bounced around in the back seat, getting a messy tattoo of a smiley face jabbed into his deltoid. In a similarly themed spectacle, Rollins currently co-hosts the Learning Channel's Full Metal Challenge, a program that pits 27 homemade high-endurance vehicles against one another in rugged terrain. ("I'm the color man, the wiseguy," Rollins notes.)
Plenty of commercial voice-over work (a far cry from his days making porn with Lydia Lunch) also keeps the tattooed colossus busy year-round: Rollins mouths car commercials and spots for Life cereal and SPC Specific Broadband; he even does "an on-camera thing" for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
"I've always been against drugs," Rollins says. "That's how you destroy yourself: You take drugs." (Rollins debunks the popular notion that he's an over-caffeinated coffee achiever: "A cup a day: That's about all I've ever drunk.")
As one of the founding fathers of America's hardcore-punk movement, today's version of Rollins poses more than a contradiction for rabid fans from the days of yore, when news of a warehouse show complete with circling police helicopters was spread by word of mouth, or by spray paint on a highway overpass. Now you're more likely to see Henroid making a guest appearance on The Drew Carey Show (joining the cabal of the "TV Party" that he once mocked so effectively) than rattling the cage of a world that he can't stand. But work is work, consarnit. Rollins has certainly paid his dues, having lived out of vans, scrambled for pennies on the gig and clawed his way to get where he is.
Exuding hypermacho excess and something he calls "the courage to allow myself to be stuffed and mounted," Hank certainly knows the value of a good zinger. And like so many celebrities from the smog-choked City of Angels, Rollins can drop names with the best of 'em: The late Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Tom Petty, Rick Rubin and Robert Stack are a sampling of the monikers that roll off his tongue with little prompting in conversation and performance.
"If you've ever seen the first seven minutes of The Dennis Miller Show, where he just goes off, that's what I do," Rollins says of his current stand-up routine. "It's everything from the last movie I was in to the thing that happened to me in traffic the other day to my theory that Donald Rumsfeld is the new Henny Youngman.
"[Rumsfield] has these great one-liners," Rollins continues. "I've never seen anybody at a press conference be so blunt and just shut reporters down. He just blows them away with the shit he says: 'How can you justify having all those prisoners in Guantanamo Bay behind chain-link fences and in prison?' And [Rumsfeld] says 'What? They're in shorts on a sandy island in the summer. I wish I could be so lucky. Next question.' He needs a rim-shot man."
Rollins's own past is, perhaps, less of a joking matter. Well before his current incarnation as a paid social commentator, he cut off contact from his divorced parents and reinvented himself as a punk legend. Following a hardass upbringing at the all-boys Bullis Academy for problem kids (an institution that favored corporal punishment over slam dancing), a Ritalin-addled only child born with the name Henry Garfield discovered rigorous self-discipline on military time.
"I got a lot from [Bullis]," Rollins says. "I probably would not have achieved all the things I've achieved without it, just getting through that place by the skin of my teeth. I hated it when I was there, but I got a really good education and the ability to apply myself to something."
Rollins spent time in a band called S.O.A. (short for State of Alert), an outfit that included Fugazi's Ian MacKaye. The onetime manager of a Häagen-Dazs store, Rollins caught his break in 1981 when Black Flag's third singer, Dez Cadena, handed him the mike to sing "Clocked In" at a show in New York. Soon after, Rollins replaced Cadena and, along with guitarist Greg Ginn, bassist Chuck Dukowski and one of several rotating drummers, put So-Cal on the map as ground zero for the American hardcore-punk scene.
Rollins's tour diary, Get in the Van, chronicles the era in blunt, graphic language ("I bit a skinhead on the mouth and he started to bleed real bad," reads a typical passage), and set the course for the cocksure singer's literary pursuits: writing brutal prose in the name of destroying the system, making sense of it or at least satirizing it somehow.
"I've always been fairly cynical in what I think the American impact on the American way really is," Rollins says. "This one guy wrote me the other day: 'I think there should be a revolution in America.' And I said 'No, pal. You're never gonna get a revolution. 'Cause if you think you're gonna stand up to the National Guard, local law enforcement -- now that every police agency in the country is paramilitary trained since the Watts riots -- what are you gonna do?'
"I've hung out with cops," Rollins says, his voice livening. "I've hung out with the elite sniper guys. I've hung out with SWAT guys. I've hung out with TNT guys. It's unbelievable how lethal these people are. It's not like it is on TV. These are very bad people to mess with. They want to kill somebody. That's why they signed up for the job. I've always thought that there's good cops and bad cops, and I'm on the side of the good ones. And the bad ones, they do more harm than they might understand.
"It's so thoroughly destabilizing to have an authority figure break the rules," he adds. "To live in this country and have that kind of fear -- fear of cops -- well, we always talk about how emancipated we are. And we always put down Stalin and his evil regime. Well, how different is it when you fear the authority figures? When you're innocent? That's my problem with bad cops."
Rollins has been vocal in his opposition to bad justice, as well. In an attempt to raise money for the defense fund of the West Memphis Three -- young men who received life sentences without due process for the murder and castration of an eight-year-old boy in 1993 -- Rollins issued Rise Above on Sanctuary Records over a year ago; the star-studded benefit album features Chuck D, Ice T, Hank III, Iggy Pop, Slipknot and Dean Ween, among others, covering Black Flag hits in order to raise awareness of what Rollins considers a horrible miscarriage of justice. But way beyond either Officer Goon or the failings of the court system is a corrupt political system that Rollins doesn't think comes close to representing the will of its people.
"We don't really have a voice," he says. "From what I have always been led to understand, your vote is nothing but something to be taken into consideration. There's, like, the electorate vote, and there's the popular vote. But it doesn't really matter. And I hate to have that kind of dissipated apathy in the face of all that. But I can't help think it's true sometimes."
For Rollins, staying guardedly playful in the age of terrorism and imminent war seems like just another day on the soapbox, raging until he's hoarse. With his "tumultuous teens, turbulent twenties and therapeutic thirties" out of the way (that's how Rollins sums up three decades of his life on his official Web site), what can Mr. Angry look forward to in his forties?
"Probably a receding hairline, increased bitterness and bile, and a layer of ass-fat I'll be unable to get rid of," Rollins says. "Yeah, that'll be me. Just kind of Volvo-drivin', lookin' like Alan Alda, wearing those kind of have-no-sexual-ambition kind of pants that you can buy at Banana Republic. I can get laid, but of course I'll have to go to the ATM. You never know. I'm just postulating here."
Does Rollins ever think that he takes himself too seriously?
"Not at all," he says. "I take work seriously, but not me."
Does Rollins ever, in the dead of night, wonder if he's sold out?
"No," he says. "I don't think I've sold out."
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And now, the burning question: How much can the Rollins bench-press?
"For the true measure of real strength," he says, "you never ask a guy what he benches. If you want to call him out, ask him what he deadlifts or what he squats. That's the real strength exercise. That's where you shit your pants and scream."
"I just do an occasional push-up now and then," I confess.
"Well, I know. You act like it," Rollins snaps. "But when you get in touch with strong mind/strong body, you might see things differently. And who knows? You might get laid."