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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."