In the late ’70s Henry Rollins made his name known as front man of the memorable punk band Black Flag. From there what began to unfold was the development of an international persona recognized first and foremost for his genuine and unadulterated rage against society’s hypocrisies and downfalls. After Black Flag he founded The Rollins Band, began making appearances in films (“The Chase,” “Lost Highway” and “Jackass: The Movie”) and even began doing TV work on topics ranging from racism to celebrity bloopers.
More than anything else, however, Henry Rollins has simply become known far and wide as Henry Rollins, a persona larger than life and as tough as nails. Though I must be careful in using the word “simply,” as Rollins’ life has been anything but simple. From growing up on the racially torn streets of D.C. to attending a military school for delinquents, and then performing at least 100 shows a year for the past 19 years, Rollins has been making his presence known with an impact likened to that of a head-on collision.
Now, Rollins has pushed the envelope even further by bringing his trademark aggression to the spoken word stage. With topics ranging from the minutia of being stuck in traffic to the current political climate, his performances have led to increasingly large turnouts, packing venues across the country. One of these performances will bring Rollins back to D.C. when he visits Lisner Auditorium Jan. 29.
The Hatchet caught up with Rollins while he was touring in the Midwest, where a conversation ensued about his youth in the District, the dilemmas of racism and the status of music in today’s culture.
Hatchet: How do you think growing up in D.C. affected your work in music, writing, performing spoken word, etc.?
Henry Rollins: I think seeing what I saw growing up in Washington, living how I lived, has made me very outspoken in the second half of my life. There was a lot of racism where I grew up, and every young person was aware of it. I was aware of it by getting pushed around and mugged and punched at for such crimes as killing Martin Luther King … Being afraid of black kids when I was young was an ever-present occupation growing up on the streets. You know, you’re at the playground and you’ve got a ball, here come the black kids, you’re gonna lose the ball. This is not a racist take, this is what happened. Your bike gets taken, you go to the boys’ club and you don’t know what you’re in for, so by the time you’re 12 you just learn to run. A lot of us went through that, but as far as my friends were concerned, none of us went through a racist response. It would just never seem like a logical response: I’ll hate you for being white so I’ll hate you for being black. That equation just never worked with me, even at a young age. I just couldn’t hate someone for their skin color, it was just illogical. And I realized that the hatred coming at me wasn’t really at me, it was more frustration and fear that was driving all that. It was the ’60s, so it was a very interesting time, and as a little boy I remember very vividly watching cars get rolled, the hood of my mom’s VW being dented by a mace canister just because we got caught in one of the riots. We had the National Guard on every corner with sandbags and rifles. So I’ve always had a real problem with racism.
Also, I grew up with guys like Ian MacKaye (lead singer of Minor Threat) and a lot of those other Dischord Records people (an independent D.C. record label formed by childhood friends of Rollins), and we were on that “don’t drink, don’t do drugs” thing, and I think that was a huge influence on how I conduct myself, as I, to this day, don’t do either. But probably one of the main things that affected me was the schooling. I went to a prep school in Potomac, Md., named Bullis. When I went there it was an all-boy school for naval preparation, and there was a lot of “shut up, sit down, stand up, sit down!” stuff. My teachers were sergeants – one was a general – and it was really impersonal, everybody got called by their last names and it was altogether a very intense education. And I dragged myself through that school. It was hell, but from it I got a lot of discipline, and that has served me quite well.
H: Image is a huge thing nowadays in music, even on the punk scene. I remember going to shows at American Legions and VFWs and there being wars over who was more punk than who.
HR: Well, that’s always been there. Back when I was in Black Flag, I remember when we made an album and toured with it, some people told us that we sold out because punk rock bands only made singles. And we were like, “Well, what about the Clash and the Sex Pistols?” and they would just be like, “Shut up!” So, to piss off these punk rockers, in the summer of ’82 we just didn’t cut our hair or shave. And we were just these kind of scruffy, bearded homeless guys, and people got so mad because we didn’t look hardcore enough. So if all you care about is the look and you’re that artificial, then maybe this kind of music isn’t for you. We are looking for people with a more hardcore commitment to the music.
H: Do you ever remember a point when the music wasn’t so attached to the fashion and image?
HR: There was this really cool point in the D.C. music scene when there were still a lot of hippies at the shows because they just dug the music and the activism in the punk rock thing, and you’d look at the audience and there are guys with hair down to their waist, punk rockers wearing tin foil hats that they made in their mom’s kitchen, some guy trying on his mom’s eye make-up. And there was no fighting, no one was like, “Hey, you look like a fag!” It was just like, “All right, fellow weirdoes unite,” and I just loved that. But it was really only during the summers of ’79 and ’80, and after that the suburbs kind of came in and the scene kind of exploded. Then all of a sudden it became more of a look, as something to signify where you stood.
H: Going to or performing in shows, to me, has become a real cathartic experience. There is a lot of aggression, and it feels fantastic. Is this similar to your experiences of performing and attending shows?
HR: For me, the music always has a real heavy physicality that goes along with it. David Lee Roth used to say that music should look like it sounds … I always just kind of went along with that physicality, that the physicality was the logical and natural extension of the music itself.
Hatchet: You’ve come to be known as a large persona. Have you found any problems in separating the work from the persona, or are the two synonymous?
HR: I really don’t pay attention, in that I live within the work. I do one thing and then I do the next thing, and what the results of the reputation is or the perception is, is kind of out of my control.
H: The media obviously plays up the aggression you display. Do you feel that’s a fair presentation?
HR: I quite honestly do not care at all what the media does. Good review, bad review, what they say about me – they are, at this point, at age 43, unimportant to me as far as what views they engender about me. At this point, all I want to do is the thing, and that’s it.
H: Youth culture has always seemed to have its elements of disenfranchisement, but for some reason it seems that things have gotten bleaker for the youth in America. There just doesn’t seem to be a scene out there that’s sincere. Have you noticed anything like this?
HR: The way we are such an overtly consumerist society, and the way you just download the songs you want without necessarily getting into the band, and the fact that I’ve never seen youth so incredibly marketed to as I have in the last 10 years – where you are a buyers demographic, you are this thing to be sold to, you are a target – I think that this is a way to really depersonalize somebody, to turn them into this point of purchase operation. And I think that can really lead to some feelings of disenfranchisement. When I was young and doing the whole punk rock thing, I really felt like a part of something. It was the first time I had ever really felt a part of something, you know? Fellow weirdoes at the shows, and I could be a strange guy and no one would try and punch me out for it. And it was fun to be a part of it and this cool music, and nowadays you see guys just showing up for gigs and just being on their own. This is the way advertising has made it, a real kind of TV nation. With the Internet you can really just be on your own, interacting without ever really interacting. And I think that on young people, that definitely has an effect. When you’re at that young age you’re really trying to find your feet in running the maze of social interactions; if you’re doing that by pointing and clicking, I think you’re going to miss out on a few things.
Henry Rollins’ spoken word show, “Shock and Awe My Ass,” is Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. in Lisner Auditorium. Tickets are $22.50 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.