Graham Reid | | 9 min read
It’s the handshake which takes you aback first – a real knuckle-crushing pressure grip which Henry Rollins delivers impressively as his eyebrows level and his gaze hardens. On a first meeting, Rollins is a confrontational kind of guy. And a very heavily tattooed man.
The tats snake across his taut forearms around his heavily muscled biceps and run down his legs. Across his back he has “Search and Destroy” emblazoned above a huge sun.
Rollins can be an intimidating figure and is one of the pure products of the Los Angeles hardcore music scene. With Black Flag and now the Rollins Band he redefined the notion of energetic performance. Rollins goes wild to a soundtrack of brutal thrashing guitars escaping from the firestorm. It isn’t easy listening but does have a cathartic quality.
And The Rollins Band signals their intentions clearly in their album titles. Got time for Hard Volume or Body Bag?
But the muscular thrash of the band is only one side of what the red-raw vocalist Rollins does. Back in Venice Beach, LA , he has his own small publishing company and performs his spoken-word show in clubs, theatres and on stadium stages.
In those performances Rollins is another man gain. His anecdotes range from stories about growing up in Washington DC (and particularly moving anecdotes about a Zen-drunk Wildman called Paul which Rollins tells with pointed pathos) through tales of on-the-road with Black Flag.
If his music places him on the fault line of punk/thrash and speed-metal jazz, his Spoken Word Insanity shows (which are more refined than that self-dubbed title might suggest) put him as part of a lineage which includes the Beat Poets, Charles Bukowski and a whole roster of talk-fest people captured alongside Rollins in the mid-80s on three double albums by Harvey Kubernick.
Rollins says he picks incidents from which he has learned a lesson “and showed how weak I was in a certain instance – and I don’t have a problem talking about it.” He dismisses the LA spoken word scene today and is equally unimpressed by most “poetry" and is equally unimpressed by most “poetry readings” – “that’s autopilot reading from paper. I like to go without a net.”
“In Europe I get people as old as my parents at the solo shows because they are into American writing. They think I’m an American poet in town and they’ve seen Allen Ginsberg or whoever and they come and really listen. They are very attentive people and that’s gratifying.
“I don’t like getting comments from the peanut gallery and I’m not there to try and bait people. It takes a lot of concentration and I want to provoke thought. I don’t want to get in some slanging match with some drunk – it’s always a drunk. They use the drink as an a excuse – it’s no excuse.”
If there is a subtext to Rollins’ free-ranging anecdotes it is “be responsible.” Despite a reputation for his violent performances with Black Flag and the Rollins Band, his stories emphasise the need to step back and re-evaluate. In short, don’t lash out as he told an Auckland audience which is almost all dressed in identik black leather with hair cropped to bristling stubble.
Yet the stigma of violence remains – and Rollins doesn’t deny it, but with qualification.
“I am violent. I don’t initiate it but I get provoked a lot, it’s in the nature of the business I’m in. But never would go to a bar and shove some stranger around. I mean who needs that, right? But if someone gets in my face I find it very difficult to walk away.
“In the spoken-word shows I emphasise stepping back and getting perspective - that’s one of the few things my father taught me.”
When Rollins describes his father (“a self-made man, very tough dude”) he could almost be describing himself. But he makes clear he broke away from the man he says he “doesn’t like very much.”
“I hadn’t seen him for about 11 years and he came to my show. We only spoke for about 90 seconds but in that time I saw how much alike we were in gestures, the way we talk and stand. I didn’t even remember the guy much and that blew me away. But I broke away from him mentally because he’s a racist and that nauseates me physically. I can understand greed, lust, jealousy, hatred or whatever – but racism? I can’t see it.”
Growing up in Washington DC, Rollins says he was picked on often enough by black kids but “that still couldn’t make me get into that ‘nigger nigger’ stuff.”
Now he lives in Los Angles in a tough part of town.
At his spoken-word shows, he often tells the hilarious story of how he wanted to deck Bono of U2, a band he despises with passionate intensity. His audience roars with laughter when he tells of U2’s video of the seamy side of LA “which shows a cop writing out a traffic ticket.”
“Yeah, U2 got out of the limo to check out the street life,” he says cynically. Me and a friend once went down to South Central and drove down Hoover St where the Crips gang reside. We were really scared. We stayed about 30 minutes. I’m 29, I’ve seen stuff go down but this was really bad. U2 shows you punk rockers with spiked hair. Oh wow, they’ve probably got sexually communicable diseases too. Gee.
“My welcome-to-LA video would be some 17-year old with his head blown away after some deal went wrong – that’s the unpleasant unreality."
Yet Rollins is also mindful of the glamour violence holds for some people.
“There’s two levels I think. There’s the appeal for the young boy who wants to be a Crip and sees the guns, women and money. You see the Crips in stores at night and you know what they are into. They are heavy dudes and they kill people. They groove on it. That’s scary.
“Then there are people who say, 'There’s danger in my neighbourhood.’ That doesn’t impress me. It’s frightening. I don’t want to get capped. I certainly don’t think it’s great to come from LA just because it’s a dangerous place.
“I wouldn’t honestly recommend California to anyone as a place to live. There’s only one city in the world I don’t feel safe and that’s LA. Underneath the surface everyone has a fear. There are people who’ll drive by and shoot someone for fun – not even gang-related.
“I have to live there because my business and publishing is there – and the weather’s good. But I’d rather live in the south or the mid-west. Cities compress the human mind and humans can only take so much pressure.
“But in the mid-west or south you have space and people go about things differently.
That’s why I like Europe. Innsbruk in Austria for example – you walk three blocks from your hotel and bump your head on the Alps. And the people there are great. When Lydia Lunch and I were over there recently doing our spoken work thing they’d say, 'You really think like that?’ It’s great, they listen.”
Yet the Rollins Band shows are something else again – a blitzkrieg of aural assault as Rollins taps into an intense knot of maniacal energy. His talk of the subliminal level of violence in Los Angeles acts as a By Way of Explanation for the band’s performances.
“People need a release – a cathartic thing – and that’s why I first started going to shows and why I still play. People who came to the shows know it’s going to get heavy because we make it heavy. I’m not interested in making lightweight music, although I can listen to it sometimes. We purposefully make heavy aggro music and we don’t have to try hard. It comes out.”
Before a concert, Rollins stretches, meditates and concentrates his energy for at least an hour. He says he gets every stray thought out of this head and goes on “pure, with my body relaxed and finely tuned.”
“I go at it in a very warrior method, very samurai and singular. I’m not there to entertain or even interact with an audience that detracts from the music. I’m there to rip myself open, explore and go off like John Coltrane, one of my heroes,” he says referring to the legendary jazz saxophonist, some of whose tapes his is carrying with him.
It perhaps comes as a surprise to Rollins’ hardcore following to hear him refer to the spiritually inclined jazz tenor saxophonist Coltrane – but Rollins is not only a devotee, he is very knowledgeable about the pure energy rush of jazz and singles out the much neglected tenor player Albert Ayler (who died mysteriously in the Hudson River in 1970) as a particular favourite.
“Thurston (Moore) from Sonic Youth was in Japan recently and found a copy of My Name is Albert Ayler, which is just amazing,” he says and tells of scouring record shops as far apart as Austria and Auckland for particular free-blowing jazz albums. He is currently reading the biography of Coltrane, Chasin’ The Trane.
“I’m not trying to compare myself with Coltrane, but with the idea of the purity of music. He wasn’t doing it for you. If you can get into it, it’s yours. But in the first instance it was his own. He wasn’t An Entertainer.
“An Entertainer never lets go or gives it up. Bono always gives you just a little but holds on to it. Hendrix gave it up, James Brown gave it up – they let themselves go to the music. That’s what I try to do – cut loose, let go and free the music up in the process. Like Lou Reed – he gave it up and I can have it. Michael Stipe of REM gives it up because it comes from so deep inside him.”
But most of Rollins’ collection of jazz albums went out the window a decade ago and it was the hardcore black rock band Bad Brains – with whom he has recently recorded two tracks – which turned his musical taste and life around.
“I grew up with Bad Brains and they were the first band I saw up close. I mean right in their faces. I saw them open for The Damned in ’79 and a week later at a party it changed my life. I went home and couldn’t sleep. I walked around my room, hit stuff and then threw out half my records. I’d seen the real thing.
“HR, the singer in Bad Brains, always used to say to me, ‘You’re a singer, man’ and drag me on-stage with them. So now it’s come full circle with me recording with them.
“I wish they’d got their due. I can’t get into Living Colour, although I like Vernon Reid’s other projects like when he plays guitar with Ronald Shannon Jackson – but I don’t like this so-called ‘rock’ project of Living Colour.
“I don’t like their singer either. The one time I got my name in Rolling Stone was when they described him as cross between Henry Rollins and Robert Plant. My one moment in the Stone.
“HR is – bar none – the best singer I’ve ever seen, the greatest America ever produced. Even on a bad night he is awesome and on a good night ... well, it changed my life I just had to get into music after experiencing that.”
In the awesome stakes, Henry Rollins is no slouch himself. Under the heading “Names for 1990,” Sounds magazine suggested in January that Rollins’ “non-stop self destruct volume'n’vehemence trip” could make him “the new Jim Morrison.”
Not everyone is entirely taken with Rollins Band shows though, which cut right through the tissue and down to the bone.
“I hang around after the spoken word shows and talk to people a lot,” he says.
“People often say ‘I can’t stand your music but I like your books.’ I get that all the time – girls always say that,” he says laughing, “Always.”