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But when that attitude made him both an icon and a pitchman for the Gap, Nike, and Apple--right around the much-discussed time of punk's early-'90s commercial explosion--people started crying foul. The dogmatic punk-rockers, of course, found in Rollins the ultimate turncoat. Left-wing thinkers, meanwhile, also saw his rebel imagery as a corporate pose; in his 1995 essay "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," Baffler editor Thomas Frank called him a "maker of loutish, overbearing music and a composer of high-school-grade poetry" and opined that "Henry Rollins is no more a threat to established power in America than was Dale Carnegie." For both sides, acting in films (including the dreadful-and-buried Michael Keaton film Jack Frost and the low-budget Desperate But Not Serious), making commercials, or even recording for a mainstream record label equals one thing: sellout. Betrayal. Treason. Apostasy.
The outrage doesn't concern Rollins. He isn't interested in starving for his art. He hasn't reached the Top 40 and isn't likely to, but his career is secure with a sizable cadre of followers who dutifully, obsessively attend his concerts and spoken-word performances and buy his albums, books, and videos. It hardly seems necessary to live black-lunged and tubercular in a run-down apartment. A return to the Shed is not at all appealing. (He now owns a small house in Hollywood.) Meanwhile, his friend and hero Keith Morris--Black Flag's founding singer, leader of the Circle Jerks, and author of the early L.A. punk anthem "Wasted"--pays the rent by waiting tables.
"I've been in this business 17 years, and I've been told every single year, 'You changed, you sold out,' or that I've lost it and that I'm no good anymore," Rollins says with a shrug. "What to me is the compromise? The guy who wants to do music, but he blew out because he did all that coke, and now he works at Blockbuster? There are people who used to be on this label, Geffen, who now work at Blockbuster. One of the players in Quiet Riot delivers my friend's UPS route. There's nothing wrong with being a UPS guy. But I bet he would rather be rockin'."
To that end, Rollins spent most of last summer on movie sets and in recording studios, working up his first true solo album (which DreamWorks will release next year), and he still hungers for the road. In his music, Rollins still sings with a voice of utter rage and agony, dispensing a kind of brutal wisdom from his troubled youth. He remains virulently anti-drug, anti-alcohol, and anti-tobacco, and sings love songs with such inspirational verses as, "Love will not break your heart / It'll crush it."
Spoken-word is his current obsession, sending him on a tour that will find him standing on stages like a hardass goofball, telling stories and recalling slapstick from his life. Think Tank and the accompanying You Saw Me Up There video find Rollins doing exactly that. There are stories of his travails with stalkers, of finding an apartment in New York; there are lectures on racism, drugs, and other bad habits. His message is largely for the already initiated, those with some knowledge of Rollins' persona, life, and work, and believers seeking wisdom and laughs from this self-deprecating figure of human granite. Making a living.
He's also comfortable now. Former Flag mastermind Ginn once described the man as "Sgt. Rock," a humorless mass of flesh and ink, a thug who never got the joke. Ginn and Rollins haven't spoken in almost a decade; Rollins has heard from others that Ginn holds bitter, unexplained feelings toward him, even though Rollins still makes a point of buying copies of every one of the guitarist's recent musical projects. But Ginn's insult no longer seems to apply. In person, Rollins is not some hard-boiled cartoon character. Not anymore, anyway. He will shake your hand now. He'll smile for your camera.
"It's often hard to find a way to mature in the music world, because it's such a young person's thing," he says. "You'll see your friends who are outside the entertainment world, who have a real life and have to really go out there to pound away to bring home the bacon. You hang out with them, and you realize they have a lot more maturity than you do. That really bugged me. I really want to learn how to grow up. Also, I'm very dysfunctional and probably suffer from a lot of arrested development. Trying to break through that, with really no one to bounce off of, you go: 'I got some leather shoes. Am I coming along? I got some trousers. How am I doing?'"
With the Rollins Band now on indefinite hiatus, Rollins is recording his own solo rock record, which will include playing by former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and the band Mother Superior. He'll probably tour behind it when it's over. The faithful will show up. Others will criticize him. And Rollins will endure. "I can't play any instruments," he says. "But I sure love music. I feel it, and I think I have something to offer, but I'm not really good at it. I'm good at being me. I know that sounds kind of New Age-y, but there's something to that."
Henry Rollins performs January 19 at the Galaxy Club.