By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The BMW is parked downstairs, and Henry Rollins makes no apologies about it. He survived punk rock to become a taxpayer, a landowner, a commercial pitchman, a published writer, and a publisher himself. When all of that caused the media to anoint him as an icon--a brawny, tattooed thinker, the Renaissance behemoth--he survived a vituperative backlash from both punk-rock Luddites and the left-wing intelligentsia. Today, the tattoos still cover his body. He's still releasing CDs. He's still doing voice-over work for the likes of GM Truck. He even enjoys the contradiction. Look at him: The man is even smiling. Punk rock has been very good to Henry Rollins. This afternoon, he'll be going to an audition for a Microsoft commercial.
"I hope I get it," he says with a rude grin. "And that Pentium audition I did? I hope I get that one too. I hope I get them all. Me going out and getting work? If that concerns you, then you're also concerned about Monica Lewinsky and the DNA left on her dress. Boring."
Rollins, now 37, keeps busy, though he hates the word career, which seems to connote a certain premeditation, a certain predetermined trajectory. He spent most of the summer going from one movie set to another. He recently wrote a fervent book-length monologue titled The Solipsist, published by his own 2.13.61 Publications. And at the moment he's eating a chicken-salad sandwich in the offices of Geffen Records, whose sister label DreamWorks released the most recent Rollins Band album (Come in and Burn) and also Think Tank, his spoken-word solo album that came out in August. The Rollins machine never stops. He's still an imposing figure, but it's been a while since he was a threat.
"I'm not really a writer," says Rollins, dressed this afternoon in a white HBO T-shirt and black shorts, his military-cut hair showing gray. "I'm not really anything. I'm not a singer; I'm not an actor. I just find these things really interesting. And I can bring enough of myself into it, and enough people find it interesting to where they let me show up again, I guess."
In many ways, not much has changed from his days singing for the pioneering punk act Black Flag, shouting across the snarling noise of guitarist Greg Ginn, hunched over on the stage in nothing but sweaty black military shorts. It was a sound more violent, more dangerous, and somehow more true to the example of early Black Sabbath metal than that of any '80s L.A. hair band. In those days, Rollins spent his nights either on the road or in the Shed, his elevator-sized dwelling south of L.A. crammed with cassette tapes and a menacing poster of Charlie Manson. But he also diversified early in his career. The first step was being invited by spoken-work impresario Harvey Kubernik in the early 1980s to join members of the Minutemen, the Surf Punks, the Flesh Eaters, the Circle Jerks, X, and other such acts in a nonmusical performance of poetry.
"I went up and told a couple of stories about band practice," he remembers, "and after the show, all these people came up and said, 'When's your next show of this?'" The singer was already keeping a daily journal and had some literary inclination, inspired by his discovery of writer Henry Miller's work. But his spoken-word performances soon evolved away from strict readings into a more improvisational style. "I would sit there and read, like some sitting target. And that got boring for me. People would say, 'When you read, it's great. But the stuff you say while you're shuffling the paper, that's really happening.'"
By 1988 he was into the hardcore storytelling-opinion mode on stage with a mixture of humor and pathos culled from his own experiences, plus lectures on the evils of racism and other social ills. His writing found a venue with 2.13.61, a company which he named after his birthdate, and which Rollins launched simply because he wanted to put out a single stapled volume of his writing. (He's since published a long list of novels, stories, photography books, and poetry by authors ranging from Ellyn Maybe to Iggy Pop to Roky Erickson.) His largely unpolished delivery falls short of both comedy and literature and can vary wildly from profound to self-indulgent. But its sheer bluntness and apparent sincerity is a rare enough commodity to be worthwhile. He at least speaks with absolute conviction that his moral code is the right one.
The same can be said of much of the music he's made since Black Flag disbanded in 1987. If the sound of his Rollins Band still owes much to the example of Greg Ginn's thrashing jazzbo, the lyrical content is unmistakably his own. Even as Rollins was building a reputation as a writer and spoken-word performer in the mid-'80s, the music and lyrics of Black Flag remained largely the product of Ginn, whose words leaned toward the grimly comical: "I wanna live / I wish I was dead." Rollins writes and sings in blunt, righteous alarm. His enraged "Liar" (which he once performed for the Grammy Awards barefoot and in a tuxedo) is so earnest and extreme as to be almost laughable, yet it makes sense in context of who Rollins is, a post-punk Travis Bickle enraged with all that isn't right, out to wash all the scum off the streets.