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.
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.
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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.