Henry Rollins on Reading, Noise, and the Benefits of Legal Cannabis

Most people know Henry Rollins as the former frontman of Black Flag and the Rollins Band. His 1994 memoir, Get In the Van, should be required reading for anyone coming up as a musician. A writer, spoken-word performer, actor, world traveler, radio-show host, cultural commentator and activist today, Rollins has kept himself impossibly busy; his insatiable curiosity has led him to work with some of the most consistently entertaining and engaging performers and writers of the modern era.

Rollins is refreshingly honest and straightforward, and a perusal of his writing, his live spoken-word videos and spoken-word albums reveals a man who is thoughtful, struggles with his own issues with an acknowledgement of his personal shortcomings, and always strives to do the right thing. In advance of his spoken-word performance on Saturday, May 16, at the Boulder Theater, we talked with Rollins about his life-long love of reading, his appreciation for the musical genre noise, and the benefits of legalized cannabis.

Westword: You always talk about books and writers that have inspired you. Why do you think literature and writing generally still have the ability to affect you in ways that other forms of art may not? Are there newer authors that have impressed you?

Henry Rollins: I think it's because I find writing to be so incredibly difficult. When I read something that I find truly excellent or amazing, I can’t understand how someone was able to hold a storyline for that long and have it all make sense. It’s like depicting a tree losing its leaves and designating a spot for every single leaf to land. Writing had a more substantial impact on me than music. Not to say that music can’t be so good that you just can’t believe the person is real; someone like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane just blows your mind. I have been greatly inspired by music and continue to be, but I find myself more amazed by F. Scott Fitzgerald than a fair chunk of my records. For the last several years, I have read nonfiction — history, mostly. In that arena, Eric Foner’s book The Fiery Trial, about Lincoln, was amazing. I read books by journalists like Robert Fisk. I am currently reading 88 Days to Kandahar, by Robert Grenier, an ex-CIA guy. Crazy how some people make a living. One of the last fiction books I read was by Michel Houellebecq. I thought he was pretty amazing.

You did an interview at SXSW that one can find on YouTube that seemed especially insightful. Your remark about using music, books and work as a means to quell your depression hit very close to home. How have you found that the ability of those things to stave off depression has changed across your lifetime — assuming your relationship with each has changed or evolved? 

Music, for me, is like the wreath of garlic in vampire country. If I have the music on, I stand a chance. Music and tasks — things that must be done — are very helpful. I don’t fare well with nothing to do. These things still work quite well. Music is a damn miracle.

You have been vocal about your appreciation of noise. What was your introduction to that sort of thing?

Many years ago, someone loaned me a few Wolf Eyes records and I became interested in hearing more. It reminded me of some of the Musique Concrète stuff I had heard before. I found there was a huge scene all over the world of innovative people, labels and shows. No interest in sales or popularity — there was a real purity to what a lot of these people were doing. It was what punk rock should have done instead of coming in from the storm. One guy referred to noise music as the new jazz. I am not surprised when I hear that there are these kind of groups anywhere; it’s pretty far and wide.

You've visited Denver since cannabis has become legal for recreational use. When you were here, did you discover anything not related to cannabis that you found interesting? What do you think are the benefits and the drawbacks of legal recreational cannabis for a community?

I was in Denver for last year’s Cannabis Cup. It was a great event. I think if alcohol and tobacco are legal, then cannabis should be as well. I didn’t find anything interesting, really. It’s just a thing that people have been using all over the world and in America, the man found a new way to discriminate and divide and made it a minorities' drug. It’s about time to evolve on the issue. When you’re in Holland, there are hashish bars all over. The only people in them are tourists. The locals are bored. Eventually that will happen in America. If you legalize/decriminalize it, America will survive. The benefits I think are in the medical aspect and not throwing someone in jail for possession. The drawback is the fact that it took so long. Past that, it’s weed. America survives the largest prison population, an aversion to science, healthcare for all, education and sustainability. We can’t start wars fast enough and we think peace is for weaklings. What’s some cannabis going to do?

You have spent a lot of time traveling the world. Is there anything that your various travels have made you appreciate about where you live?

Access to water, food, medical. Freedom, democracy, efficiency. “We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate.” That’s an excerpt of a Lincoln speech from January 1838. He was right.

A recent article in Wired magazine talked about the international shortage of sand, of all things, and the black market for sand that has emerged. What do you think about that development in international economics? Probably few people saw that coming.

I have never found myself low on sand. I have never seen anyone with a sign that said “Will work for sand,” so this is news to me. I will consult a man I know who goes by the name of Redwood, from whom I purchase crystal meth (purely for research purposes) and ask him if he deals sand. Those in need of sand should perhaps check out the Sahara. The times I have been there, it becomes hard to remember that there is soil.

You have said that you found smile lines on your face one day and it made you realize that you might be smiling a lot in your sleep. Have you discovered other unexpected things about yourself in recent years?

Nothing really interesting. I am more impatient when things don’t go quickly enough. I suffer that which I don’t like less gladly. I feel the need to do more. There is an urgency that is perhaps something that comes with age. When you start seeing that things do end, that over half your life, statistically, is over, there are no excuses and no time to waste. I am not sure how much my thinking has changed. Things like that are so gradual, you might think you’re the same, but the truth is that you might be changing all the time, due to all kinds of factors. I try not to look back all that much.

Henry Rollins will perform his latest spoken-word set at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 16, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street in Boulder; doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $26 for general admission and $30 for reserved seating; the show is all ages. For more information on Henry Rollins, visit; for information on the show, contact Boulder Theater at 303-786-7030 or

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.