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Rollins With the Punches

"I don't want punk credibility," intones Henry Rollins, "because that would mean I'd have to have a heroin habit, shitty hair, no muscle tone and a girlfriend with pins hanging out of her tits."

No question about it: Rollins, 36, gives good quote--and he's parlayed his way with the English tongue into a singular career. A former vocalist for Black Flag, one of the most influential punk acts America has produced, he's transformed himself into a public figure whose job description is longer than that of practically any other musician of his generation. Singer/songwriter/bandleader/businessman/label head/author/publisher/poet/speaker/actor/publicist/celebrity: That's twelve titles and eleven slashes. And with Rollins, you can be damned sure that size matters.

That Rollins is able to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously is a tribute to his apparently bottomless supplies of energy and enthusiasm. But because these attributes are fueled by an equally formidable stock of ego, he has become, for some, an almost irresistible target. Come In and Burn, the most recent CD by the cleverly monikered Rollins Band, is a case in point. The album is loud, passionate and relentless--characteristics that generally attract plaudits. But because the man making the racket is a legendary blowhard, journalists such as Westword contributor James Mayo (whose review of the CD appeared last week in this space) have taken a closer listen to the disc--and they've found it wanting. "Whew," Rollins utters. "I haven't read many of the reviews, but I heard we've just been getting pasted."

Are any of the complaints levied against the platter justified? In Rollins's view, hardly. Ask him to respond to the charge that Burn merely recycles the familiar Rollins Band formula, for instance, and you'll receive a feverish diatribe for your trouble. "We have a bass, a guitar, drums and a singer," he says. "And I don't know how you can change that. What do we need to do? Make a U2 record where we basically rip off techno? That doesn't occur to me as something to do. So all of a sudden, we're not really a contemporary unit? We're antiquated dinosaurs?" After a dramatic pause, he declares, "We're more of a working-class band, I think, and there's nothing wrong with that. I don't see any need to bring in beat boxes and all that stuff.

"There's room for everything. I love Kraftwerk. I love Devo. I like the Beastie Boys. I like Schopenhauer. I like Nietzsche. I like Hemingway. I like all kinds of different shit--it's all allowed. It's just that I'm not interested in doing it personally. I'm interested in doing something else."

Rollins is also determined to shape his image rather than to allow others to do it for him. As such, he keeps quiet about his youth, preferring to imply that his life began in 1980, when the nineteen-year-old Rollins was managing an ice-cream shop in Arlington, Virginia, and hanging out with Ian MacKaye, who went on to give the world the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. Young Henry was such a dedicated admirer of Black Flag, which had been founded by guitarist Greg Ginn in Southern California three years earlier, that he convinced MacKaye to drive with him to New York City to catch the band in concert. During the show, Rollins became so enraptured that he leapt into the spotlight, grabbed a microphone and sang one of the songs. Today this sort of behavior would be rewarded with a cascade of blows from several strapping security guards. For Rollins, though, his impromptu cameo led to an audition to wave Black Flag on a permanent basis. He debuted as lead singer with 1981's jolting Damaged and served as frontman through the outfit's most fertile era, a period marked by long-players such as 1982's Everything Went Black, 1984's My War and 1985's Loose Nut.

The title of this last album was appropriate, since the band was beginning to come apart around the time of its release. In addition to his Black Flag duties, Rollins was giving spoken-word performances and had founded his own publishing house, 2.13.61 Publications, a company whose name ensured that no one would ever forget his birthday again. Ginn, of course, had a business operation of his own--SST Records, an imprint that introduced listeners to Black Flag as well as influential combos like HYsker DY and the Meat Puppets. Nevertheless, he frowned on Rollins's extracurricular activities. Trouble was brewing, and when Ginn dubbed an instrumental side project Gone, it was clear the end was at hand. By the late summer of 1986, he was gone, too.

Eight years later, when Ginn spoke to Westword ("The Original Ginn," September 7, 1994), he was still bitter about Black Flag's breakup and responded to the mere mention of Rollins with barely disguised contempt. "Actually, [Rollins] was the fourth singer in Black Flag," he said while trying to dispel the notion that the outfit was Rollins's baby. "And really, the ground was broken earlier. The group was actually pretty established when he joined, and we were bigger in cities like L.A. and New York before he was in the band. People who were around at the time know what was going on, but there have been some efforts by, uh, some people to rewrite history a little bit."

In defending himself against this implied charge, Rollins makes several of his own. "Oh boy, Greg hates my guts," he notes, laughing. "He's also very nuts. He's really weird. He smokes a lot of pot. And you could never be his friend; that was never going to happen. I don't know him any better now than when I had to pay eight bucks to get into the show. I swear, I don't know him any better." He adds, "I never said it was my band. I published my journals from the days I was in Black Flag [the book is titled Get in the Van], and it says right in there that I was the fourth singer and that it was Greg's band. And actually, I never felt like a bandmember; I always felt like the fourth singer. Nobody else felt like they were a member, either. Ask anybody. And as far as being bigger before, no--the band got much bigger after I joined. But it wasn't because of me. It was because music changed.

"The reason people might think it was my band is because I was the singer when they started snapping all the photos. And any singer in any band is going to get all the photos, you know. But it didn't matter to me. I even proposed one day that we put Greg at center stage and I would sing behind the drums, so they would take all the photos of him. I didn't care, because I don't get off on getting my photo taken. I don't collect magazines I'm in. All that stuff's a hassle, really. All recognition means is that you have to wait longer to go places because people want to talk to you all the time." As he puts it, "I'm sorry that Greg is all wrapped up like that. Maybe he's a little insecure or something. But he sure can play a gee-tar."

Indeed--but in spite of Ginn's talents, his star fell in the years subsequent to Black Flag's demise, while Rollins's rose. The Rollins Band, formed mere months after the Flag was lowered, bowed with 1987's Hot Animal Machine, gained indie cred with 1988's Life Time and Do It, both produced by MacKaye, and stepped closer to the mainstream after being chosen to fill the opening slot in the inaugural Lollapalooza festival, in 1991. Weight, issued on Imago in 1994, even scored something of an MTV hit with "Liar." On other fronts, Rollins posed for print ads (America learned about the information he stored on his PowerBook), made innumerable speaking engagements at colleges all over the country, earned raves for the vivid postmodern stand-up routines captured on Rollins: A Boxed Life, and began making appearances in high-profile movies like the dreadful 1994 Charlie Sheen vehicle The Chase, 1995's far better Heat and the latest David Lynch-directed opus, Lost Highway. Still, Rollins insists that he has no interest in going Hollywood permanently--and uses his experiences on the Keanu Reeves catastrophe Johnny Mnemonic to explain why.

"I think the producers and the studio wanted one thing, and the director [artist turned filmmaker Robert Longo] and the writer [sci-fi author William Gibson] wanted something else," he says. "And they all compromised. Tri-Star thought it was getting Speed, Part 2, and Longo and Gibson were going for this super-intense cyber-thriller--but it wound up being neither. I remember going to see the rough cut and walking out with Longo and Gibson, and they were just furious. They were cursing: 'Goddamn it, I've been working on this film since 1988! Goddamn it! Motherfuckers!' They were freaking.

"The movie business is just so full of heartbreak. Entertainment in general is rough, but the film industry is way more cutthroat, because there's way more money involved on all levels. Our album didn't cost even a quarter of a million dollars, but Titanic is costing $200 million. Think of all the people who are involved in that much dough. And the press--if anyone slips, they just love to rip them. Look at Entertainment Weekly; they'll go after anyone. I mean, they take me out to lunch any chance they get, and I'm not even in their world."

Punk purists have been going after Rollins, too, taking him to task for supposed sins such as his signing with DreamWorks, the music arm of the massive conglomerate founded by David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Time cover boy Steven Spielberg. But Rollins rejects any suggestion of a sellout. "I passed Spielberg in the hallway at Dreamworks one day and I said, 'How do you do? My name is Henry Rollins.' I've never seen him again, and I doubt if I ever will. I met David Geffen for ten minutes, twenty minutes, something like that. And I've never met Katzenberg. I don't even know what he looks like, and I don't really know what he does. So it's not as if these people are involved in the writing process, nor are they in the studio with us, nor did they tell us what to do. I did everything. I picked the photographer for the record. I came up with the cover for the record; that's an X-ray of my skull on the cover. I wrote all the lyrics. I picked the producer. And the only thing the people at the record company did was say 'Okay.' We gave them a demo and said, 'This is what we do. It's not going to change that much from the demo to the album. I'm not going to bring in a string section, and I'm not going to turn into some chick. Can you deal with that?' And they said, 'Yeah.' So if you don't like it, don't blame them. Blame me."

Many people are, but Rollins claims that these barbs don't faze him. His 2.13.61 firm has a busy year in front of it. Music-wise, Rollins has just reissued several albums by Nick Cave's original band, the Birthday Party, and plans to roll out the red carpet for efforts by revered free-jazz players such as Matthew Shipp and Charles Gale; on the publishing end, he's enthusiastic about a collection of violent short stories by Vietnam veteran Bill Shields and a potpourri of material from Cynthia Geller, whom he describes as "an ex-prostitute, ex-porno actress and very talented writer. She's very lucid, very sharp, and one of the most brutally honest people I've ever met."

With so much on his plate, Rollins could easily decide to put his musical efforts on the shelf. But he swears this won't happen, no matter how much his critics might wish that it would. "The band isn't a moneymaking proposition," he says. "I make all kinds of money doing speaking dates, but with the band, I make a tiny little salary. So I'm not doing this for dough. I'm doing this because I like to rock out with the guys. I show up for work and do my thing with all the guts I've got, and I've been doing it for seventeen years. So after a certain point, I don't give a fuck anymore."

Rollins Band, with Skunk Anansie. 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 28, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $17.50, 1-800-444-