The Angriest Man in Los Angeles : Rock Poet Henry Rollins Doesn’t Drink, Smoke or Do Drugs--He Just Burns
Henry Rollins walks briskly to the front of the small church, a blur of muscle and tattoos. It is a stormy Saturday night in Denver, the last stop on Rollins’ three-week, coast-to-coast “spoken word” tour before his return to Los Angeles. The crowd of about 200 is an unlikely combination of neatly dressed college students, bohemian hipsters, bearded biker types and a few mohawk-crested punks. One ardent fan calls out as Rollins passes by:
The former lead singer of the hard-core L.A. band Black Flag is a study in black: closely cropped black hair, dark X-ray eyes, baggy black clothes. Images of bats, skulls and snakes creep up his biceps; beneath the black T-shirt, a brilliant sun is tattooed across his back, under the words Search and destroy. There’s enough steel in the toes of his shoes to send airport metal detectors shrieking. He looks like a Marine from hell.
Rollins beckons the stragglers in the back to come sit on the floor in front, campfire-style. He hands a large bottle of Perrier to a young woman and urges her to pass it around the room.
“I’ve been trying to figure out why I go around and do this,” he says. “I really dig this writer Henry Miller, and in his book ‘The Air-Conditioned Nightmare’ there’s this line--I’m paraphrasing--'We don’t talk to one another these days. We bludgeon each other with facts and figures gleaned from cursory glances at magazines.’ Very rarely does someone try to communicate, and that’s what turned me on to this kind of thing.”
As the Perrier bottle bobs through the crowd, Rollins launches his assault on the communication problem. He begins with a coarse confession regarding the pleasures of masturbation, prompting a ripple of nervous laughter that swells to a guilty roar. He tells raunchy stories about life on the road with Black Flag and about crack dealers outwitting bumbling cops in his old neighborhood in Venice. He ridicules yuppies who wear Reeboks--"They’re not shoes, they’re little leather booties! Why be 27 when you can be 9 months old and sashay through life?"--and proposes that beer ads should depict intoxicated teen-agers throwing up in parking lots. He urges women to arm themselves against sexual harassment: “Ladies, how about a line of color-coordinated shoulder holsters? The next time some (expletive deleted) construction worker yells, ‘Hey, mama, (expletive) my (expletive)'-- BOOM! “
His performance is part pantomime, part stand-up comedy, part guerrilla theater, peppered with profanity and served with faultless timing. Many of his stories are painfully funny but they are also intensely personal, in a way mere entertainment cannot be.
“People say the truth hurts, the truth is so blunt,” Rollins tells the audience. “The truth isn’t blunt, man, lies are blunt. The truth is cool. Lies are knives that are very sharp, that cut without blood, without pain, but your guts fall out all the same.”
He dives into a surprisingly somber story about a kid who works in an ice cream parlor and hates the numbing sameness of his life. The kid cuts himself with a razor, “and the blood smells good, the pain feels good, at least it’s feeling something. . . .” His listeners nod in recognition; the youth in the story is the Henry Rollins of six years ago, but it could be anyone who has ever wrestled with the dark side of adolescence.
After the show Rollins is surrounded by young admirers. Some want to reminisce about Black Flag, which broke up last summer after becoming one of the most controversial bands to emerge from Southern California’s punk-rock scene. Others want to purchase copies of Rollins’ writings, soft-cover books with such titles as “Polio Flesh” and “Hallucinations of Grandeur,” or a cassette of previous spoken-word performances. Within minutes all his merchandise is sold, but he lingers, talking to fans.
In the past two years Rollins has self-published six volumes of his writings, which he sells at shows the way other performers hawk T-shirts. He is currently seeing three more books through the presses, including an anthology that will feature the work of other L.A. writer / rockers. An album of his latest spoken-word tour, “Big Ugly Mouth,” is due out this summer. By then he’ll be in the middle of a 13-country tour with the recently assembled Henry Rollins Band to promote its first album (“Hot Animal Machine”) and EP (“Drive By Shooting”).
Rollins’ band may never fill stadiums, and his books may never become best sellers. Rooted in the primal energy of punk and drawing inspiration from the likes of Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski and Lenny Bruce, his work is too raw and disturbing to have wide commercial appeal. Yet Rollins enjoys a degree of artistic and financial control over his projects that most mainstream writers and musicians will never have. Acting as his own publisher, producer, promoter, distributor and retailer, he’s managed to take his uncompromising message directly to a growing audience across the country and in Europe. And lately, film producers and agents are showing interest in Rollins as an actor; chances are that if he goes Hollywood, he’ll do that, too, on his own terms. It’s a long way from a dead-end job at an ice cream parlor to underground entrepreneur, but at the age of 26, Henry Rollins is rapidly becoming a one-man publishing / recording conglomerate.
“I know I’m not going to sell millions of records,” he says. “I don’t write for the Everyman. I write for one man--me. If other people dig it, that’s cool. I’m just going to do my thing and be crass enough to sell it.”
TWO WEEKS AFTER THE Denver show, the man in black is back in Los Angeles, searching for a cup of coffee. Rollins doesn’t drink or smoke, and he says he has never even tried marijuana. He avoids red meat and works out with weights for an hour every morning. His only vice, it seems, is caffeine--the hottest, blackest, meanest coffee he can find.
Today the quest brings him to the Boulangerie in Santa Monica. Heads turn as he buys a pound of Italian-roast coffee and sizes up the upscale lunch patrons.
“You should see this gig when it’s crowded,” he tells a companion. “These people stare at you. They’ve got no manners at all. So I talk back: ‘What the hell are you staring at, man?’ Then they stare at the floor.”
Over the years Rollins has acquired a reputation as one of rock’s genuine bad boys. When rowdy fans spat on him or assaulted him at concerts, he often retaliated with his fists. Because he frequently travels alone, without roadies or bodyguards, he has been known to carry a billiard ball or other possible projectiles to discourage attackers. He is outspoken in his resentment of authority figures, from cops and club bouncers to his disciplinarian father, whom Rollins hasn’t seen since he was 18. He proudly quotes scathing reviews of his book “Two Thirteen Sixty One” (the title refers to his birth date, Feb. 13, 1961) in subsequent editions, as if rejection by the right people were a badge of distinction. He seems entirely comfortable with his outcast status, probably because he’s had plenty of practice.
Rollins’ parents divorced shortly after he was born. Young Henry lived with his mother, Iris Garfield, in Washington, D.C., and visited his father on weekends. “I was very loud and obnoxious and hyperactive,” Rollins recalls, behavior that led to his enrollment in the Bullis School, a private, quasi-military academy that stressed discipline.
At Bullis, Rollins was the typical class freak--the skinny guy who was too shy to talk to girls, kept snakes at home and burned off his excess energy in petty acts of rebellion. While other seniors prepared to enter the U.S. Naval Academy or seek a career in computers, Rollins was pictured in his yearbook next to the notation: “Symptoms: terminal gonzolitis; future plans: nationwide terrorization.”
He enrolled at American University, but lost interest after one semester. By his 20th birthday he was living in a cramped apartment that reeked of insecticide and putting in 60 hours a week as a manager of a Washington Haagen-Dazs store. “I wanted to die every single day,” he says.
Music kept him alive. Rollins grew up listening to the Motown Sound, the Doors and other staples of the ‘60s, but it was the punk-rock explosion of the late ‘70s--with its primitive, screeching assault on the senses--that seemed to capture his own feelings of frustration and despair. After work he could be found slam-dancing, with the other lost souls, to the music of Bad Brains, Teen Idles and other Washington punk bands.
“I lived for the shows,” he says. “Violence was my girl. Getting into fistfights, smelling blood, breaking noses--that was my high, my woman. I got beat up, and I beat other people up.”
He soon channeled his aggression into forming his own band, SOA (State of Alert). His favorite group, though, was Black Flag, a hard-driving California band that toured incessantly and recorded on its own label, SST Records. Rollins memorized all its songs and finally met the members of the band when they played Washington in the spring of 1981.
That summer he went to New York to catch one of Black Flag’s shows and was invited to sing on stage with the band for a minute and 40 seconds. A few days later lead singer Dez Cadena called him. Cadena wanted to concentrate on playing guitar; did Rollins want to try out as his replacement?
“I couldn’t believe it,” Rollins says. “They asked me if I wanted to look at the lyric sheets. I told them, ‘I know the songs, and anything I don’t know, I’ll scream.’ ”
Rollins passed the audition and traded in his Haagen-Dazs cap for full-time Flagdom. The job had its drawbacks. Black Flag led a vagabond existence, traveling across the country in a beat-up van, playing as many as 93 shows in 104 days. Band members survived on a daily pittance and slept in the van or on the floor of some obliging fan’s apartment. In lean times a hungry Rollins would wander into restaurants in Redondo Beach, the band’s home base, and eat off other people’s plates.
Despite such hardships, the band continued to evolve musically. Founder Greg Ginn led the group into increasingly sophisticated instrumental jams and guitar solos. Rollins’ lyrics and passionate vocals attacked themes ranging from sexual hypocrisy to suburban materialism. One blast against drunk driving, “Drinking and Driving,” became a surprisingly popular video on MTV.
Occasionally the band encountered hostility from die-hard punks who wanted every show to sound like the Sex Pistols. Their wrath was usually focused on Rollins, who had sprouted tattoos and grown his hair so long that one critic likened him to “a psychopathic hippie, part Jim Morrison, part Charles Manson.”
“Black Flag was never a punk band,” Rollins says now. “Black Flag was never part of a movement. See, punk bands can’t do this or that kind of music; there’s punk ethics, punk rules, punk dress codes--and there’s always some punk-rock cop in the crowd to enforce them. Who makes the rules?”
By making its own rules, Black Flag reportedly sold more than 250,000 records. Revenues were plowed back into the operations of SST Records, which has become one of the most important independent labels in the country, launching new bands such as the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth and Husker Du.
Rollins says he wasn’t in Black Flag to get rich and insists that he has “no hard feelings” about Greg Ginn’s decision last summer to disband Black Flag. In any case, he appears to have made a clean break with his past; his new band has signed not with SST but with a much smaller Santa Monica label, Texas Hotel.
Yet his experiences with Black Flag have clearly left their mark on Rollins, like so many tattoos. Life on the road has toughened him, given him the confidence to sacrifice comfort and profit for his work.
“It’s nice to be in a situation that kicks your butt and survive it,” he says. “I’m grateful for a meal, a place to sleep--I never want to lose that feeling.”
THROUGHOUT HIS YEARS WITH Black Flag, Rollins scribbled notes to himself. Much of the writing took place in a small, mildew-infested storage shed in Redondo Beach, where Rollins slept whenever the band was in town. Late into the night, surrounded by shelves of decaying paperbacks, he filled stacks of student composition books with daily journal entries, closely observed scenes of street squalor and musings on his own loneliness, anger and confusion. The more intimate and painful the writing, the better, just as long as he got it out of his system.
Rollins’ scribbles have been described as poetry, a word he avoids. “Writing is my way of dealing with most anything,” he says. “I don’t write just to elicit a response. I’m not an entertainer. There’s no method to the madness; I don’t even know if there’s madness. It’s just expression--random and real. That’s the way I want to keep it. I never want to get slick or professional. I just want to get to it better, to get more concise, to pinpoint things in my head.”
In late 1984, Rollins had 500 copies of a pamphlet of his writings privately printed and offered them for sale at Black Flag shows. “I thought, ‘God, I’m going to be sitting on these the rest of my life.’ They were all gone in two weeks.”
He borrowed money from his mother to print 1,000 copies of a second, larger collection. It, too, sold out quickly, as did a second printing. In the course of dealing with the printers, Rollins made the acquaintance of Laura Cloud, then an editorial associate at the highbrow Illuminati Press. Together they formed the Illiterati Press (motto: “Builders of Fine Books Since May”) and went into business for themselves.
Rollins, Cloud and the Illiterati Press now inhabit a modest black house in Silver Lake. The two partners build their books in a living room crowded with albums, tapes, stereo equipment and an eclectic library, where Friedrich Nietzsche fights for shelf space with Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompson.
The door to Rollins’ room is guarded by a poster of Robert De Niro as the unbalanced loner / avenger in the movie “Taxi Driver.” Inside is another poster, from “Apocalypse Now,” a movie that has become an obsession for Rollins. He has seen the Vietnam search-and-destroy epic dozens of times, and references to its principal characters and key scenes are scattered throughout his work, as if the conscientious assassin Capt. Willard and the Nietzschean demon Col. Kurtz were doing battle for his soul.
The Illiterati Press is actually a desk-top publishing operation. With the aid of a personal computer, a laser printer and a part-time typist, Cloud turns manuscripts into page proofs that are then printed and bound “out of house.” In addition to five Rollins titles, Illiterati has published a book of poetry by guitarist Dave Alvin, formerly of the Blasters. Eventually Cloud hopes to make the company a showcase for the work of “people who are primarily known in the music world.” An upcoming anthology, “No Room Left to Breathe,” will feature pieces by Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X, punk pioneer Lydia Lunch, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and other musicians, as well as unsolicited material that struggling writers have sent Rollins over the years.
Cloud figures that more than 15,000 copies of the Rollins books have been sold to date. Random House has nothing to worry about, but the figure is a healthy one for a fledgling alternative press that depends on the author to market his own books. “We do well on mail order, and we work with some bookstores, too,” Cloud notes. “But at one show Henry can sell 200 books.”
Rollins’ spoken-word performances are a logical extension of the spontaneity of his writing. They began when Harvey Kubernick, owner of Freeway Records, invited him to participate in a poetry reading at the Lhasa Club in Hollywood two years ago. Rollins was soon a regular on the local poetry circuit, drawing surprisingly large crowds. His success undoubtedly owes something to the notoriety of Black Flag, but many of his listeners aren’t typical Black Flag fans.
In recent months his readings have become more improvisational, relying less on dramatic recitation of his writings and more on his ability to tell stories and react to the crowd reacting to him. “Formal readings don’t challenge me anymore,” he says. “Lenny Bruce is one of my heroes. I aspire to that genius--to go out there and blow free jazz, to just burn. You allow everything to be part of it: the crowd, the way your voice sounds, the things that happened that day. I get so high on embracing the moment.”
Performing is a large part of Rollins’ life. At home in Los Angeles he tends to be reclusive, seeing only a few friends and respected colleagues, such as Lydia Lunch and Hubert Selby Jr., author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” whom Rollins calls “my all-time hero.” His relationships with women are usually short-term, if for no other reason than his grueling travel schedule. After a few days he grows restless and talks about getting back on the road, “back into the jungle,” a phrase borrowed from the opening monologue of “Apocalypse Now” (“All I could think about was getting back into the jungle. . . . Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger”).
“I’d be very happy to spend the rest of my life living like this,” Rollins says. “People ask, ‘How was your tour?’ You can’t tell them what it’s like. It gets frustrating with girls. You try to tell her about the intense feelings when you’re performing, and she’s looking at you and you know you’re not connecting. It just makes you want to get back on the train and go.”
FORTIFIED WITH Amug of Costa Rican Tarrazu, Rollins swings by an eye-wear shop on Sunset to pick up a pair of glasses. He makes jokes about “Old Man Rollins” and hints that he’s over the hill. The optician stares at him.
“You look like that actor, I don’t remember his name,” the man says.
“Steve Railsback?” Rollins asks, clenching his fists. People are always telling him he looks like Charles Manson, or else like Railsback playing Manson in the television movie “Helter Skelter.”
“No, that guy in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ ”
“No, that other guy. One of the mental patients.”
Lately a lot of people have been noticing Henry Rollins. It seems to be a truism of the culture’s short attention span: Yesterday’s underground is today’s sensation and tomorrow’s has-been. But popularity could be particularly damaging to Rollins, who derives much of his artistic ferocity from being an alien, an outsider, “a man shot out of a gun.” A burning skepticism, if not outright rejection, of mainstream values is the running theme of his new album and his latest book, “Hallucinations of Grandeur,” a selection of his journals from 1983 to 1985.
Rollins swears he isn’t interested in “being a big star,” and events appear to confirm that. Last year he agreed to try out for a small part in a Nick Nolte movie but then flared up at one of the producers, botching the audition. An ode to 7-Eleven convenience stores that he wrote for Spin magazine caught the attention of the Southland Corp., but talk of a television commercial ended after the company apparently decided that a tattooed rock ‘n’ roller wasn’t an appropriate spokesman. A screenwriter once approached Rollins about the possibility of playing rock legend Jim Morrison in a docudrama about the Doors. Rollins wasn’t interested.
“I’d be the guy who played Jim Morrison--forever,” Rollins says. “Life’s too short to be someone else.”
Being Henry Rollins is strange enough. Two weeks before hitting the road again, Rollins surfaces as a performer in a benefit for Rattler magazine at the Park Plaza Hotel near downtown Los Angeles. He goes on shortly before midnight. The audience has been drinking for hours and is not a typical Rollins crowd. Moments after he’s introduced, hecklers are shouting obscenities. Rollins tolerates their insults for all of two seconds.
“OK, dig this, there’s this-- shut up when I’m talking! “
Miraculously, the hecklers back down. After 20 minutes of spinning stories, Rollins produces a sackful of his books and tapes of previous performances and offers to give them away. Dozens of eager takers surge forward.
“Hen-reeee! Over here!”
Rollins exits quickly. Within minutes he is speeding away in a reporter’s car, gloating over his clean getaway. He can’t wait to go back on the road, he says, back into the jungle again.
“That’s the nice thing about the road,” he adds. “It never ends.”