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!"
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."
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
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.
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.
other words, disagree with him at the risk of getting
your ass kicked.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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,
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.
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?
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…"
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."
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
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
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."
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."
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.
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