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An Interview With Henry Rollins

The University of Washington Student Newspaper Wednesday, November 27, 1996

Arts & Entertainment

An Interview With Henry Rollins Jim Walkley Daily Staff

Don't call Henry Rollins "negative." He may write about the ugly side of the human experience - the time he witnessed his best friend being shot in the face, for instance, or the deep pain of being alone - but that doesn't mean that he never cracks a smile. In fact, at his performance last Friday, he subjected the audience at the HUB Ballroom not to horror, but to two and a half hours of comedy and reflections on life.Henry Rollins is a complex and intriguing person in the sometimes one-dimensional world of rock music. With his militant image, nihilistic writings, hilarious spoken word performances and the hard-edged Rollins Band, he's hard to pin down. Is he really as negative as he sometimes seems? If you've read any of his books, you might expect a spoken-word performance by the former Black Flag vocalist to be overwhelmingly negative. Now Watch Him Die, written after the murder of Rollins' close friend, Joe Cole, was an endless supply of negative thoughts: "You'll waste your life looking/You find holes in all your pockets/Nothing in your head/Except bitter memories and spent bullet casings." What to make of the other Henry Rollins, the one who came bounding out on Friday night to a packed hall of UW students? The one who smiled and joked and laughed as if he'd never known sadness? It's certainly easier to believe that Rollins is a positive individual after seeing his spoken-word performance, which is a lot like stand-up comedy. Rollins shared vignettes about his life (how he keeps a single "loser" futon in his apartment), his ideas (one of which was that foreign leaders should be required to jerk each other off), student apathy and whatever else came into his mind. It was honest. It was soul-purging. And most of all, it was funny as hell.I met with Rollins shortly before the show and discussed the many facets of his work - the negative, the positive and everything in between.He talked about "student apathy" both in the interview and in his spoken-word performance. Rollins thought that everyone should be excited about learning in a college environment with little or no responsibilities to the world. Rollins only attended one semester of college himself, at American University near Washington, D.C., where he had the unfortunate experience of having his ninth-grade math text assigned in his freshman math class. For Rollins, the pace of learning at American wasn't fast enough, and music seemed to be taking a greater and greater role in his life, so he dropped out to fully pursue being the singer for Black Flag, which he did until 1986.The fact that the spoken word work and his writing is so different is entirely intentional. Rollins offered an explanation of the dark and light sides of his work. "The reason I write those books - the reason I write - is when I'm discontented, when I'm lonely, or sad, or feeling depressed, which is something that no one escapes," he explained. "Everyone feels these things. Me too - that's why I write. But you get me in front of a microphone, chances are I'm gonna start crackin', making jokes, being funny, telling stories that eventually are pretty humorous. One of the reasons why I do spoken word is to offset the books - to give a different spin on the art."Rollins is well-known for being "Straight Edge," meaning that he doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs, and he also touched upon that theme in his performance. "I'd rather fuck than get fucked up," Rollins said at one point during the show. The audience applauded. Rollins also has something of a "tough guy" demeanor about him, which mostly comes from his intense hatred of weakness. I'd never been at ease with Rollins' meaty arms and thick neck, but after watching him speak, I could se that it was merely an extension of his Straight Edge lifestyle: a normal, healthy way of increasing his self-esteem and of building himself up against the world.Although I expected Rollins to view drug use as "weak," he usually doesn't; rather, he question's a user's intent. "What leads a person to do such a self-destructive thing? Some people have really shitty lives - they got raped by their uncle or something, and drugs are a way that they deal with it. Too bad that no one takes them aside and shows them a better way to deal with it," he said. "But people hurt themselves for all kinds of reasons." Rollins paused for a moment and then talked about what kind of drug use he viewed with contempt. "Sometimes people get high to avoid themselves - I think that's weak. Because you're living inside yourself! You've got to be able to deal with the territory. I can see avoiding the taxman, I can see avoiding the angry, pissed-off girlfriend, but avoiding yourself!? What the fuck? You live there! That, to me, is weak."Rollins hasn't been too shy in recent years about promoting himself through mainstream media. He's guest-hosted 120 Minutes on MTV, had minor roles in several big-budget movies (such as Johnny Mnemonic and Heat) and appeared in ads for the Macintosh Powerbook as well as for Gap. As Rollins told me, though, he pumps all that money directly back into his "projects." These projects include releasing books by himself and other authors, bringing his message to audiences across the country through spoken word or taking time to work with Rollins Band in the studio. Rollins Band is wrapping up a recording session for its new album, which should be out in March of next year; so far, the band has 22 songs, including a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Leaving Town." Although Rollins was incredibly nice and polite when I spoke to him, if you ever wanted him to beat you up, just get in his face and accuse him of "selling out." "That's a very convenient accusation to make," he said. "Oh, I've sold out? Why, because I'm on a major label (Rollins Band is on Imago)? Because I did a Gap ad? This is all very topical; this is a very surface-level judgment. Sure, I make a lot of money, but what do I do with it? That's what shows you what kind of person I am. How many CDs have you put out in the last two years? Me, I've put out about thirty. I've put out about fifteen books. I've given writers and musicians a chance to be heard and read - that's what I'm doing with my money. As far as selling out, I've never, ever compromised a single lyric or a word in my books."Although a punk purist might question Rollins' decision to sign with Imago, there is no question about his artistic integrity - he has never sacrificed it for the sake of sales. In the next month, Rollins is planning on releasing a new book, Solipsist, which will be available by mail-order only. Rollins described the book as a sequel to Black Coffee Blues, the popular, semi-autobiographical book which many point to as his defining work. He has also finished another book which probably won't be released until 1998. If you've read any of his books, you might expect a spoken-word performance by the former Black Flag vocalist to be overwhelmingly negative. Now Watch Him Die, written after the murder of Rollins' close friend, Joe Cole, was an endless supply of negative thoughts: "You'll waste your life looking/You find holes in all your pockets/Nothing in your head/Except bitter memories and spent bullet casings." What to make of the other Henry Rollins, the one who came bounding out on Friday night to a packed hall of UW students? The one who smiled and joked and laughed as if he'd never known sadness? It's certainly easier to believe that Rollins is a positive individual after seeing his spoken-word performance, which is a lot like stand-up comedy. Rollins shared vignettes about his life (how he keeps a single "loser" futon in his apartment), his ideas (one of which was that foreign leaders should be required to jerk each other off), student apathy and whatever else came into his mind. It was honest. It was soul-purging. And most of all, it was funny as hell.I met with Rollins shortly before the show and discussed the many facets of his work - the negative, the positive and everything in between.He talked about "student apathy" both in the interview and in his spoken-word performance. Rollins thought that everyone should be excited about learning in a college environment with little or no responsibilities to the world. Rollins only attended one semester of college himself, at American University near Washington, D.C., where he had the unfortunate experience of having his ninth-grade math text assigned in his freshman math class. For Rollins, the pace of learning at American wasn't fast enough, and music seemed to be taking a greater and greater role in his life, so he dropped out to fully pursue being the singer for Black Flag, which he did until 1986.The fact that the spoken word work and his writing is so different is entirely intentional. Rollins offered an explanation of the dark and light sides of his work. "The reason I write those books - the reason I write - is when I'm discontented, when I'm lonely, or sad, or feeling depressed, which is something that no one escapes," he explained. "Everyone feels these things. Me too - that's why I write. But you get me in front of a microphone, chances are I'm gonna start crackin', making jokes, being funny, telling stories that eventually are pretty humorous. One of the reasons why I do spoken word is to offset the books - to give a different spin on the art."Rollins is well-known for being "Straight Edge," meaning that he doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs, and he also touched upon that theme in his performance. "I'd rather fuck than get fucked up," Rollins said at one point during the show. The audience applauded. Rollins also has something of a "tough guy" demeanor about him, which mostly comes from his intense hatred of weakness. I'd never been at ease with Rollins' meaty arms and thick neck, but after watching him speak, I could see that it was merely an extension of his Straight Edge lifestyle: a normal, healthy way of increasing his self-esteem and of building himself up against the world.Although I expected Rollins to view drug use as "weak," he usually doesn't; rather, he questions a user's intent. "What leads a person to do such a self-destructive thing? Some people have really shitty lives - they got raped by their uncle or something, and drugs are a way that they deal with it. Too bad that no one takes them aside and shows them a better way to deal with it," he said. "But people hurt themselves for all kinds of reasons." Rollins paused for a moment and then talked about what kind of drug use he viewed with contempt. "Sometimes people get high to avoid themselves - I think that's weak. Because you're living inside yourself! You've got to be able to deal with the territory. I can see avoiding the taxman, I can see avoiding the angry, pissed-off girlfriend, but avoiding yourself!? What the fuck? You live there! That, to me, is weak."Rollins hasn't been too shy in recent years about promoting himself through mainstream media. He's guest-hosted 120 Minutes on MTV, had minor roles in several big-budget movies (such as Johnny Mnemonic and Heat) and appeared in ads for the Macintosh Powerbook as well as for Gap. But as Rollins told me he pumps all that money directly back into his "projects." These projects include releasing books by himself and other authors, bringing his message to audiences across the country through spoken word or taking time to work with Rollins Band in the studio. Rollins Band is wrapping up a recording session for its new album, which should be out in March of next year; so far, the band has 22 songs, including a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Leaving Town." Although Rollins was incredibly nice and polite when I spoke to him, if you ever wanted him to beat you up, just get in his face and accuse him of "selling out." "That's a very convenient accusation to make," he said. "Oh, I've sold out? Why, because I'm on a major label? (Rollins Band is on Imago.) Because I did a Gap ad? This is all very topical; this is a very surface-level judgment. Sure, I make a lot of money, but what do I do with it? That's what shows you what kind of person I am. How many CDs have you put out in the last two years? Me, I've put out about thirty. I've put out about fifteen books. I've given writers and musicians a chance to be heard and read - that's what I'm doing with my money. As far as selling out, I've never, ever compromised a single lyric or a word in my books."Although a punk purist might question Rollins' decision to sign with Imago, there is no question about his artistic integrity - he has never sacrificed it for the sake of sales. In the next month, Rollins is planning on releasing a new book, Solipsist, which will be available by mail-order only. Rollins described the book as a sequel to Black Coffee Blues, the popular, semi-autobiographical book which many point to as his defining work. He has also finished another book which probably won't be released until 1998.

Copyright © 1996 The Daily of the University of Washington

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