Road Rage: The Writings of Henry Rollins
By Alan Bisbort

During the week that followed the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., writer/rocker Henry Rollins told an audience at a Rollins Band concert in Minneapolis, "Did you think America was under attack this week? Free minds are always under attack!"

The Rollins fan who posted a firsthand account of the show—and there are legions of such fans, cranking out paeans to their man on numerous unofficial Henry Rollins websites—continued: "Then he went on to lecture that America was already under attack, by ourselves, by our unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking and standing in long lines to eat at McDonald’s."

At nearly every stop on the seemingly long, relentless world tour that comprises his life, Henry Rollins drives home a message that he encapsulates in curt, just-this-side-of-too-cute slogans: "Hack or Pack;" "Live or Get Lived;" "Knowledge Without Mileage Means Nothing;" "Take a Vacation from Poison." The choice, he repeatedly tells his audience, is yours. "The world is your oyster," he has said. "You get 65 good laps around the track, and after that, somebody has to help you shit."

Call it a lecture; call it a rant; call it an obsession. But at every Rollins Band concert, his group breaks into a set piece called "Thinking Cap." It is during this number that Rollins unleashes his latest observations about a world that he finds alternately menacing, moronic and mediocre. Each night, it’s a different audience, a different set of bees in his bonnet. But the message remains the same: your life is filled with choices; make the wrong ones and you have only yourself to blame.

This is not an unimportant message to impart to a youthful audience in 2001. Indeed, few older folks would disagree with Henry Rollins. But then, few older folks have ever set eyes on Henry Rollins. If they had, they might be forced to re-examine their strongly held views, which is also not an altogether unimportant role that Rollins performs. But woe to anyone, of any age, who disagrees with Henry Rollins. His rage is legendary, and his eagerness to mete out corporal punishment can be found in everything he sings, writes or says on stage.

In other words, disagree with him at the risk of getting your ass kicked.

Thus, it is tempting to satirize Henry Rollins, to reduce or dismiss him as a testosterone-fueled Johnny-One-Note. The term "larger than life" seems to have been coined with Rollins in mind. His Grim Reaper’s persona, Sistine Chapel’s worth of tattoos, muscle freak body, jar-head haircut and menacing glare provide almost too easy whips with which to flog him. It’s hard to take him seriously, and yet it’s hard not to.

But to dismiss him outright would be missing a very important point about Henry Rollins. That is, say what you will about his methods or manners; he is a cultural force. His books are printed by a small press (his own) in sturdy, affordable trade paperback, and every title sells steadily. Like heat-seeking missiles, they find their readers beneath the radar of the corporate marketing system. Check out the verso title pages the next time you’re browsing at one of the mega-malls: 5th printing, 8th printing, 3rd printing. Then check out the Internet secondhand book sites. Rollins’ early trade paperbacks are fetching astronomical prices (e.g., random listings on Abebooks.com are for $75, $150, $62.25, $81, $37.25, $45, etc.), a sure sign of Rollins’ staying power and an even more remarkable achievement in that his readers are not what one would describe as traditional book collectors. Though they may not have expendable income, they’ll pay these prices to get their hands on an early Rollins tome.

Rollins’ books will never make the bestseller list, and he will never be accepted by the mainstream press. Nor will he be invited to a literary lunch by Laura Bush. It is also worth noting that his books are barely written; they are dictated or scribbled as unedited diary entries, usually at night after a show, a day-in, day-out chronicle of what it means to live inside the tattooed skin of Henry Rollins.

Think of him as America’s Yukio Mishima. One imagines him disemboweling himself live onstage, as a statement of disgust with his country’s softness. Indeed, one cannot imagine Henry Rollins going out any other way.


Henry Rollins is everywhere at once in 2002. He is front man and "throat" for the Rollins Band, which has released four albums in the past year, A Clockwork Orange Stage (live), Yellow Blues (Get Some outtakes) a new studio platter, Nice and A Nicer Shade of Red (Nice outtakes). He is also the front man for an entirely different dramatic act featuring himself at a microphone, speaking. The two latest resultant "spoken word" recordings are A Rollins in the Wry and Live at the Westbeth Theater.

He is the visual center of everything he does, and a new DVD of talking shows from 1992 and 1993 has been released to give you the full frontal assault. He is increasingly in demand for various film projects and TV shows—making regular appearances on Politically Incorrect and the Jon Stewart Show—and he is the director of his own record label/book publishing house and all-around media blitz called 2.13.61, based in Los Angeles. For all this, Rollins warrants a sympathetic ear and some measure of respect.

And yet his music—to these sympathetic ears—is irredeemable, a horrid blast of tuneless hard rock clichés and web-fingered guitar solos, over the top of which Rollins shouts depressing or aggressive lyrics. I am a man who grew up listening to hard rock music and have made the lion’s share of my freelance income, in the past, writing about it. But I still find myself wondering how anyone can listen to the Rollins Band for longer than 20 seconds, which I found was my time allotment for every single one of the 12 cuts on the latest album, Nice. His music is the aural equivalent of a mugging. Or, as a friend of mine who does make his living writing about rock ‘n’ roll, put it, "It is like listening to a monkey wrench being shoved down a garbage disposal."


Perhaps, then, it would surprise you to learn—as it did me—that Rollins, in person on his talking tours or holding down the sofa on one of the hip chatfests on TV, is a remarkably engaging presence. And on the printed page, he is compulsively readable. The most raucous and entertaining of his writings are his road chronicles, like Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag (1994), which had the bonus of excellent design and photography and reprised some of the best text from a mid-1980s diary, Hallucinations of Grandeur. These were followed by Solipsist, Black Coffee Blues and, most recently, Smile, You’re Traveling.

All of his road chronicles are straight-ahead, bare bones prose. Like his image, there is no dicking around with Rollins. Even his meditative digressions have a balled fist at their center, and any doubts end with his mantra "Hack or pack, hack or pack" or "Rollins out," as if he is radioing them from a trench on the front lines of an unholy war.

So, how does one even begin to get a handle on this guy? More to the point, as Freud once famously quipped about women, what does Rollins want? To amuse or "entertain"? To amaze or delight? To uplift or bring down? No, none of these things. He is talking to himself. Indeed, has there ever been a human being as fond of the sound of his own voice as Henry Rollins?

Just listen to him go:

* "A lot of people spend their lives never getting to know their potential. They show up for work, despise their boss and the way they have to live but lack the guts to walk out the door and never come back. In the end, they get what’s coming to them."

* "I have a few friends, I think. I think that a lot of people don’t realize how few friends they have. Get ripped off and lied to by a few of these friend types and it clears the steam off the lens in a hurry."

* "I have always associated happiness with being idle…. When I’m depressed, I don’t wish for happiness. I just try to slug it out against the bastard and prevail. I don’t know if I want to get there, either. Doesn’t really matter, does it? Do what you’re gonna do. Try to aim so the brains from the exit wound are easily cleaned up…"

These observations can all be found in his latest book, Smile, You’re Traveling, published on his own imprint, 2.13.61, named for his birth date. They are essentially the same observations you can find in his previous books, Black Coffee Blues, Parts 1 and 2. They are essentially the same observations you can find in his books dating as far back as the early 1980s. I quote at random from Hallucinations Of Grandeur, a chronicle of the years 1983-85, published by Illiterati Press in 1986:

* "Anyone who tried and did not fail is a sellout, lightweight piece of shit."

* "Pain is better than love, less depleting, more satisfying. Anyone who does not agree isn’t wrong, they just don’t understand where I’m coming from."

* "I never had much luck with girls. I guess I have a crummy personality."

* "The most famous and influential faces showed up for the recording of ‘We Are The World’ record. Millions of dollars were represented in a single room. It would take just one person with a hand grenade and the course of music might really be altered. Think of that."

More than ten books of this minimalist musing later, Rollins is unstoppable, it seems. He is also a man committed to his principles, so committed that he repeats them over and over again to remind you of this. Or, perhaps, to remind himself.

To repeat myself, though, if I hadn’t seen Henry Rollins do his thing in person, my conclusion about his writings would, in all likelihood, be harsher than they are. It was in person that I began to understand this guy, began to see the scars that glower from behind his tattoos and Schwarzenegger torso.

As he puts it in Hallucinations of Grandeur, "I like getting tattoos. They seal off my pores from the world. It’s like a coat to put on. You are showing less of yourself. Giving less of yourself to them. Less for them, more for you. This is good…. I am no longer a Caucasian. No. My skin is white, black, green, red, purple, yellow, etc. I am a minority."

The bonus, as you race through one of Rollins’ books, is the occasional passage that is so brilliantly written and conceived that it seems like pure accident: "You want the real America? It is here that you will find it. Ohio, Michigan, these are the places where the American slow death plays itself out over seasons. Football and raking leaves. All that heritage…. Small towns are the suppliers to the American Machine. Soldier boys, food, patriotic air, good sturdy racism and separatist spirit…. The American, always lost, always homeless. Momentary relief when living abroad. Away from the cold mother America who does not embrace or welcome its own when they come back, never waves goodbye when they leave. Come, go, America never notices. Business class, body bag, it doesn’t matter."

One final nitpick on the travels and travails of Henry Rollins. For a guy so brutally honest in all other aspects of his life, he’s pretty tightlipped about his own relationships with women. Big tattooed stud like him would have to work HARD not to fall into some sexual encounters. Hell, for a good chunk of Smile, You’re Traveling, he’s on a Hollywood film set. Lots of free, willing and able booty on a film shoot, no? But about the most we ever get is his complaining about his inability to connect with another person, his need to be alone, his relentless voice speaking to the blackened ceiling of whatever shelter he has taken for the night.

Are we really supposed to feel bad for Henry Rollins’ inability to find the right woman? Hack or pack, Hank. Shit or get off the pot. America wants to know: How often do you get laid?