VOX Magazine Interview - April '97...
Singer, actor, publisher, spoken-word artist, political activist-does
HENRY ROLLINS ever let up? 'Course not, not even in Tokyo, where VOX
catches up with him-between gym sessions-to talk about the new Rollins
Band album and the straight-edge lifestyle that has made him The Last
Mission: Possible (by Gavin Martin)
Henry Rollins does not have time for jetlag. Last night he
arrived in Tokyo from LA, but this morning he is up early, having found
just what he needs to start the day. A short distance from his hotel
lies The Men Only gym. It's the place where he will go every morning of
his week-long promotional trip to the Japanese capital.
Henry enters the gym, the smell of sweat and the atmosphere of
Man-power hangs heavy in the air. He's the only white guy in there, but
all the Japanese regulars turn around, momentarily set their weights
aside, and roar a warrior's welcome to hail this impressive specimen of
Occidental body sculpting.
Henry sees the homoerotic humor in the situation, but as a
student of the Japanese warrior lifestyle, having studied the ways of
Samurai logic filtered through books by Mishima and films by Kurosawa,
he's in no doubt that he has found a home from home. He quickly gets
down to the business at hand. Soon he has the weights on and is lying
down on the bench press. The blood pumps, the tattoos stretch, the
muscles ripple into action. By the time he reaches the point of maximum
exertion, the neck muscles have taken on the dimensions of a small oak tree.
Over ten years ago when he was treading the boards with legendary
hardcore outfit Black Flag, Rollins-the straight-edged, mad eyed
punishing taskmaster of Underground America-made a song called 'My War'
his anthem. Now, with countless records, books, stage and screen
appearances under his body-builder's belt, his vigorous and pitiless
attitude to life has become even more keenly focused. In a city where
people undertake a 25-hour working day before clocking off to go to their
other job, Rollins refuses to be outdone. Fronting Black Flag he was a
punk savage as a heat-seeking missile; now he has primed himself into a
fully fledged media machine. Head of his own publishing house
(2.13.61.), he has a dual-career as monologist and as frontman for his
own fury-fuelled band. During his downtime, he takes bitparts in movies
that rank with the best (Heat) and worst (The Chase) of their kind.
There's also affiliations with Gap clothing, Apple Mac computers, and
METR-x-the same hi-protein amino-acid filled chocolate bar utilised by
nearly every major American sports team.
"When you come to a place like Japan, it's difficult to actually
get enough food in your stomach to get the energy to push the sort of
weights I do in the morning. What am I supposed to do, fill myself with
eggs and take all that fat, cholesterol, mercury, and God knows what into
my system?" he says, biting off a mouthful of the shewy, chocolate-flavored
Henry's stint in Tokyo is the start of the international
promotional campaign for 'Come In And Burn'-the first album for his new
deal with the David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey 'Walt Disney'
Katzenberg-owned Dreamworks label. While Rollins describes the album as
"bomb proof, impervious to the slings and arrows of lofty critics
worldwide," he admits that , for him-a man who lives for the heat of the
moment-the drawn-out nature of the recording process is "like an endless
trip to the dentist."
"It's really hard to take when you're limited as I am vocally to
hear how bad you are, whereas live you can mix in with other decibels."
Finding it unhealthy and unnatural to talk about himself for
hours on end, Henry is never slow to move the Japanese interviewers'
agenda onto other topics. So he talks, fluently and endlessly, about
his many musical loves (from James Brown to Tool, from John Coltrane to
Alice In Chains, Led Zeppelin to Duke Ellington, and much, much more),
his enduring hatred of the many evils festering in his homeland, and the
ever-declining resolve, resilience and dedication among the girls and
boys guarding the frontiers of post-MTV American rock.
"It makes me mad. Take Layne (Staley) from Alice In Chains. I
think the guy can sing his ass off. I have all the records, I would fly
to another town to see them play. I would love to have one-tenth of his
talent. To see him squander it because he's too sick to tour
because...he's high? I mean, what is that?" Rollins trails off.
At such times, the inflection in his voice is uncannily like that
of a hard-assed American hero from another time and place, though John
Wayne would undoubtedly run a mile from Rollins' commendably leftist
angle on American politics.
Although a self-confessed loner who claims to approach his work
with the disciplined fervour of a Tibetan monk, Rollins is not the
unyielding ogre his reputation may suggest. He is not quite as tall as
might be expected and, though developed to a muscular peak, his physique
is in proportion to his height. Additionally, his hair has grown out of
a close crop and today is brushed in to a boyish sideparting. When he
smiles, his grin is sloppy and lopsided, and it's as if the mask has
ddropped and you can see where Henry Rollins came from: the repressive
isolation of an only childhood and broken home. Back when he was plain
old Henry Garfield growing up under his domineering military man father
in Washington DC.
"I was raised as a typical middle-class American male," he says
at the end of a second day of talking with the Japanese press and media,
readying himself for a trawl through the bootleg emporiums of the city's
"My parents divorced when I was very young. I went to a school
that was heavy on discipline. A lot of sit down, shut up, teachers
screaming, spit flying everywhere, push-ups in the hallway."
Early on Rollins figured out that the teachers who had driven
tanks for Patton and served time in Vietnam would waste no time in
turning me into mince meat." he seems to have subsumed the regimented
approach to life at the same time as erecting the walls of solitude and
independence, seemingly resolved never to rely on anyone, least of all
the parents who split up and let him down so early in his life. Are his
mother and father still alive?
"As far as I know. I've seen my father a total of less than seven
minutes since I was a kid. I saw him in 1987 at one of our shows; I saw
him for a minute. In 1988, he came to a speaking date in LA and he put
his head into the dressing room said hello, I said hi, and when I looked
up again he had gone. That's the last I've ever seen or heard of him.
"My mum I see about every two yeras for about 20 minutes. I
never call her, she calls me every six to ten months. I don't hate her
or anything, I just don't keep in touch."
You don't think that's a bit sad?
"No, not at all, I don't really know what it's like to be close
to a parent. By sixth grade I fully had it into my head that I am on my
own and that these people are not my back-up.
One day when I was really getting fucked over by one teacher, I
told my dad about it. He told me to tell him that if he did it again
he'd come over there and...I said 'Yessir,' but in my mind I went:
'Yeah, right, what are you going to do about it?' That was a revelation
to me. I remember thinking I'd really grown when that thought occurred
Growing up in the capital of America at a time of great social
unrest, the young Henry Garfield was introduced to music and politics by
his mother who worked for radical democrat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968
election. James Brown and Mohammed Ali were the heroes of the hour.
"By the time I was ten, I had smelled mace spray on numerous
occasions. I remember our car had a dent in the roof from one rally
that turned into a riot. We never tried to knock it out, kept it to
remind us what was going on, I guess."
Though Henry went on these rallies with his mother, he quickly
developed a life away from home. By the time he was 16 he was digging
everything from "Aerosmith to Ted Nugent and The O'Jays, The Four Tops,
Isaac Hayes, KC and The Sunshine Band." His nickname was Henrietta, and
he was working for the gay proprietor of a downtown cinema.
He remembers the boss and his friends as great guys, laughing as
he recalls one of his tasks. "To knock on the window if any guys who
looked like Omar Sharif went past." But it was the horror stories told
by the police in the foyer that seems to have affected him most deeply,
the dark side of American life took a hold as he began to feel The Great
Society falling apart. This is a process that he sees accelerating
towards the millenium.
"In America there's going to be more skirmishes, more Gaza Strip
Experiences. Then the government will take off its mask and go: 'Right
fuck you, Seig Heil, this is how it is.' Because the American government
is a racist government, without the havenots...without racism the
American dream doesn't work."
The brutal disavowal of soft emotions evident in the young Henry
is well to the fore on 'Come In And Burn,' where Rollins excoriates his
own weaknesses and casts himself as a mad animal roaming the infernal
city of night "wasted on insomnia, paranoid to the hilt."
Since their formation in 1987, The Rollins Band have developed
into an unassailable lethal outfit; their leader allows them little
respite from servicing his punishing psychology.
"The song 'Spilling Over The Side' is about being very lonely and
meeting a stranger. It could be a guy meeting a girl in a bar-he starts
talking to her and telling her way more than she wants to know. Three
hours later, he realizes what a jerk he's been and goes home thinking how
pathetic is that. And I've done that. The song 'All I Want' is about
a girl that I wanted, but she didn't want me. And it hurt.
Do you fall in love often?
"Not often, but I have. When that happens and it doesn't work out
it makes one very cynical and you go: 'Oh man, I don't know if Im ready
to go through that again.'"
As someone with a very low opinion of his own musical ability,
Rollins focuses this band on a limited mode of attack. There's keen
intelligence, sharp humor and warm insights evident in his spoken word
and written material which doesn't always inform his music.
"I use music as a tool. I use it as a screwdriver. I don't
hammer nails with it, I don't peel paint off the walls with it. I use it
to screw screws in. There are very specific reasons why I'm in a band,
why I write lyrics. I don't write lyrics when I'm happy. I only write
when I'm sad, frustrated, or really depressed. For me, music is for a
specific purpose, it's the place where I go when it's like volcano time."
Ten years ago, Rollins told the NME (New Music Express)
that if someone showed him the heart of darkness, he would jump right in.
Since then, he's "been there"-when his friend Joe Cole was murdered in
front of him and he came inches away from his own death. What that put
him through was "pretty dark, you hit some pretty unbelievable lows when
As a publisher he has been drawn to similarly haunted and
traumatised individuals. After a hearty meal of mashed potato, meat
loaf and gravy, finished off with some of his Japanese record press
officer's gumbo, he races about Bill Shields, a Vietnam veteran who has
written two books for 2.13.61. Bill was a Navy Seal who undertook
missions of darkest horror, decapitating entire villages, putting their
heads on sticks as a horrible warning to the Viet Cong.
"He's had a gun in his mouth, going to end it countless times.
The books are very powerful and they they show what it's really like. No
matter what angle they take in every movie made about Vietnam, there's 15
minutes where you wish you were there. You don't get that feeling for
one minute reading Bill's work."
Rollins sees his own musical and writing career as finite.
In recent years, he's become involved with the Southern Poverty
Association and The Freedom Conference, organizations concerned with
tackling American racism head on. His will not be, and never has been, a
life for watching the grass grow, or hearing the birdies sing. His
abiding concern is to put his strength and eloquence into use where it's
best suited and can have most effect. Does he ever relax, kick back and
There is the longest pause, for once words seem to fail him.
"Ahh...does that mean when you get together in a room full of
people at a function or something?"
You tell me.
"Ok, how do I party? I brew up a pot of coffee and listen to some
loud music or play some soft music and listen to it."
You don't go out and have a dance?
"To some place full of tobacco smoke with a bunch of people
drinking? I don't want to talk to some drunk woman, and women that smoke
turn me off. 'Oh I see-so you hate your body. Oh well, bye bye."
"I don't have a lot of friends. If you looked at my phone book
the numbers that I use are mostly business. I'm not the person who calls
you on Saturday night and says: 'Hey man, let's go do something'-ever,
ever. I'm not trying to come on like The Shadow, it's just the way it is.
"I get invited to parties, everything from high-profile movie
premieres to celebrity birthday parties, and I'm like 'No thanks.'
"The only thing that I said yes to was a few weeks ago for James
Brown who is an all-time superhero and that was incredible. Otherwise, I
Even when it's time to clock off from the interview schedule,
Rollins approaches his bootleg buying with something like military
precision, scanning the racks and filling up his duffle bag (the same
one he's had for 12 years) as he goes from shop to shop acquiring Thin
Lizzy, Hendrix, Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Boston rarities.
He also comes away with several CD's and videos by his own band.
He arrives at the counter of one store brandishing a copy of a video with
his face on the cover. He asks for a reduction and the cowering shop
owner reduces the time by half. Rollins stands his ground, stretches out
the oak tree neck and puts his head a little closer to the guy's face.
The shop goes quite. The only sound is the knocking of the shop owner's
knees. A few minutes later, Rollins leaves the shop with a free video
added to his bag of purchases.
It is the sort of presence that has made him into an icon for
young and not so young men all over the globe. In a culture and
generation where figureheads haven't exactly been able to last the
course, he stands out as an inspirational force. It was a Black Flag
visit to Seattle that many credit with kick-starting grunge. Certainly
Kurt Cobain was a huge fan, though always too wasted and scared to ever
meet him. It seems that, in his area, Rollins is a triumph of self-belief
and reinvention, one of the last examples of The Artist as American
"Could be. I do get that. They come up to you and it's like:
'No way, I can't believe, it's the man' Leonardo DiCaprio did that to me
last year in New York. It's funny! When it happens I'm usually able to
sneak away as they're trying to explain to their grilfriends who I am."
At the end of the interview schedule, two kids from a Japanese
magazine want to hear Rollins' philosophy on life. He's happy to oblige.
"Don't do anything by half, if you love someone, love them all
the way. If you hate them, hate them till it hurts. Give it all you've
got; smoke all the resin out of your bowl."
Outside the sunset is glowing over the skyline. Tomorrow looks
set to be a good day to visit the temples, see the sights. Henry would
love to go, but he hasn't got the time. There's books to edit, weights
to lift, people to talk to, battles to fight. And a war to win.