Sunday Times March 16/97 Interview...
Middle-class misfit Henry Rollins may be a coiled spring of angst, but
his music-making sets him apart from the rest of the therapy brigade,
says Andrew Smith
There's something I want to share with you. Therapy rock: I hate it.
When Alanis Morissette beings the very first song on her mega-selling
Jagged Little Pill album with the words "Do I stress you out?", my
personal impulse is to scream back: "Yes, you do!" By the time we've
reached Head Over Feet and she's observing that "You're so much braver
than I gave you credit for/That's not lip service," she's crowding my
space, big time. You may ask "Ah, but aren't you merely projecting your
own insecurities on to poor Alanis?" The fact that she makes such an
unforgivably horrible noise has more to do with it. All that bombastic
caterwauling. Anyone who falls for it needs (in italics, Hans) therapy.
This, presumably, is how her audience finds her.
The biggest problem with Morissette's success is that, having watched her
ship zillions of albums and win dozens of awards, record companies spent
the better part of 1995 signing every vaguely troubled young flower they
could find. Last year's release schedules were littered with them,
though, with a few exceptions such as Skunk Anansie, Holly Palmer and
Fiona Apple, most of their names have already been forgotten. The
problem was that, like Morissette, they mistook exhibitionism for
catharsis. Therapy sessions are traditionally conducted in a closed room
with a therapist, not on MTV with 12m record buyers. There is something
about the latter process that doesn't ring true and is hard to believe
in, much less listen to.
Then there is Henry Rollins. Here we have America's oldest unlikely rock
star, a 36 year old one time member of the US punk group Black Flag,
turned renaissance man-musician, (sort of) novelist, poet, actor (Johnny
Mnemonic, Heat etc), journalist, riotously funny spoken word performer
and father figure to the American alternative rock nation. Why is he
okay? Because he is so obviously and helplessly messed up that he is both
fascinating and credible.
Rollins has been making the same kind of records for 17 years and only
in the 1990s has he become famous. This is because he needs to: he is
his work. the fact that he is backed by what may be the best hard rock
band in the world doesn't hurt his cause, either. Rollins Band's new
ablum, Come In And Burn, their first for the Dreamworks label, is as
fiery and invigorating as ever, pitting the singer's primal roar against
a afleet rythym section that swings and grooves and funks, and Chris
Haskett's sinuous guitar.
To tell the truth, great though Rollins is, he is the last person you
want to be confronted with on a Sunday morning, when you're feeling a bit
rough from the night before. Muscular, tattooed, bizzarely fit, his
speech is clipped and marine precise. He sounds like Oliver NOrth
reading Hemingway. In response to a question about the disillusionment
that often seems to accompany pop fame, he is saying: "Luckily, I never
went for that. I went for the pain and the glory and the adventure. I
think one of the things that keeps me going, if that's what you're
asking, isa ll the stuff I don't (in italics, Hans) do. I don't drink, I
don't smoke, I don't do drugs. I don't have a lot of friends; I don't
get into a lot of meaningless conversation. I don't go to clubs or
raves. I don't watch TV. I'm not putting those things down. I'm saying
that I have priorities. I make sacrifices and make commitments."
Phew. As you sit there gazing at Rollins, you don't need a shrink to
remind you that anyone so conspicuously in control of themselves must be
mighty frightened of what could happen if they let go. When he talks, he
always sounds agitated, going on angry. When he performs, he is furious,
sometimes really and truly frightening. It doesn't take much to engage
his fury. In the course of an hour-long conversation, you will be
treated to many tirades. My own favorite is on the English music scene.
He doesn't like it.
"Like, here in England, you've got a music scene with no music," he
says. "I saw a picture of Liam (Gallagher) with Mick Jagger. I was
writing this inmy journal the other night. I mean, what's that (in
italics, Hans) conversation like? 'You're brilliant, mate.' 'Naw, mate,
you're brilliant, mate.' 'Naw, mate, you're brilliant.' 'Naw, you're
brilliant...' Please (in italics, Hans). Just shit up and get the work
done. So much time is spent by so many people involving themselves
entirely in the peripheral: 'Got the hair down. Got the right guitar.
Got the cool shoes. Got the bitchin' looking girlfriend...' You got any
music (in italics, Hans)? Got anything to say?! 'Ah, yeah, here's a
song about my cat (in italics, Hans). It's brilliant man, man.' This
stuff just makes me fume."
The question you want to ask is where all this anger, which often spills
into self loathing, comes from-not just in him, but in the work of
American songwriteers such as Nirvana's late Kurt Cobain and the therapy
rockers that have followed. Rollins isn't keen on talking about his won
background, for fear of sounding like Alanis Morissette, one imagines,
but coaxed a little, he will
Voluntarily estranged from his highly educated, middle class parents, who
split up before he could talk, Rollins claims to have been thrown out of
three different schools for being violent: "Not mean violent, just
hyperactive. Remember the one kid who nobody would mess with because he
was so unpredictable, even the scary mean guys would leave him alone.
the weenie-armed, white-knuckled, moist-palmed mouth-breather. Not
physically threatening-just the 'oh, I will go freak out in the lunchroom
if you tease me too much' guy. That was me."
They put him on a then fashionable drug called Ritalin, which made a
child's system rev so hard that he was more or less incapacitated.
Eventually, a Vietnam veteran teacher introduced him to weightlifting,
This, Rollins suggests, has something to do with the self loathing
impulse in American rock, and this therapy rock itself. With the
breakdown of the family, with mothers and fathers typically working so
hard or otherwise so wrapped up in themselves, there was no time for
children to be children, to misbehave. When they did, middle class kids
were given drugs, sent to therapists, thrown in juvenile detention
centres. Interestingly, Rollins' contention does chime with this
correspondent's experience of growing up in California during that time.
Therapy rock isn't new. "It's just that now that stuff gets major label
contracts," he says with a smile.