Ode to Joy
photo by Ralph StrathmannROCKER. WRITER. PUBLISHER. ACTOR. SPOKEN-word artist. Record producer. Media icon. In the two decades since he first came to punk-rock prominence as the lead singer for Black Flag, Henry Rollins has given new meaning to the term "work ethic." And yet, despite his many accomplishments, he's probably most famous for simply being Rollins. Even if they're utterly incapable of naming any of Rollins' records or books, most people can invariably offer some sort of commentary on his tattoos, his imposing physical demeanor, his relentlessly intense glare, his uncompromising personal philosophy or his ads for Macintosh computers.
But ask Rollins about Thin Lizzy, and an ardent fan emerges, a side of his personality rarely glimpsed on the stages, pages or screens that he typically calls home. A sizable portion of the CD shelves in Rollins' spartan Hollywood Boulevard office are taken up by Thin Lizzy bootlegs; it's safe to say that the band occupies a major chunk of his heart as well.
"They really mean a lot to me," Rollins says of the hard-rocking Irish quartet, best known (in America, at least) for such mid-'70s anthems as "The Boys Are Back in Town" and "Jailbreak." "I think Phil Lynott was a great balladeer. His lyrics, his imagery, the way he can pull off all that irony in the boy-girl love songs. And the way the double guitars do all those cool riffs and harmonies? Every two-guitar band has gotta take off their hats to Thin Lizzy."
The Thin Lizzy connection is an important one, as just a single spin of the Rollins Band's new Get Some Go Again will tell you. Not only does the album contain a rip-snorting cover of Thin Lizzy's "Are You Ready?" (featuring some tasty guest string-bending from Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham), but it's also easily the most straight-ahead rock record of Rollins' career. From the ominous opening bass rumble of "Illumination" to the funky fadeout of "L.A. Money Train" (the hilarious 14-minute "hidden track" that closes the album), Get Some Go Again is lean and mean, completely devoid of wasted riffs or gratuitously difficult musical interludes. As with the best Thin Lizzy rockers, there's an element of celebration to such slamming cuts as "Hotter and Hotter" (co-written by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who also appears on the track), "I Go Day Glo" and the title track. There's a sense of rocking for the sheer joy of it, a vibe that was largely missing from the Rollins Band's 1997 Come In and Burn. It's punk rock without the self-conscious stylistic limitations, classic rock without the lowest-common-denominator pandering, and it makes contemporary hard-rockers like Korn and Buckcherry sound pretty damn flimsy by comparison.
If both Rollins and his band seem significantly rejuvenated, you can chalk it up to the recent infusion of new blood. Gone is the Come In and Burn lineup of drummer Sim Cain, bassist Melvin Gibbs, guitarist Chris Haskett and soundman Theo Van Rock, all of whom (with the exception of Gibbs) spent the bulk of the last decade with the Rollins Band. Taking their place are guitarist Jim Wilson, bassist Marcus Blake and drummer Jason Mackenroth, who have paid considerable dues together as Mother Superior, one of L.A.'s finest hard-rock combos. Rollins first met Wilson several years ago when the latter was working as a clerk at Aron's Records.
"I go to Aron's all the time," says Rollins. "One day he came over and was like, 'Excuse me, Henry, I'm Jim' -- real polite -- 'This is my band, and we'd really like you to hear our record.' It was their Right in a Row record, really rare now." Rollins took the disc home, popped it on and promptly freaked out. "Three songs in, I called the number on the CD and left a message: 'Jim, it's Henry Rollins. You guys rock! Let me know when you're playing. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you. I wanna help!'"
Rollins remained true to his word, writing the liner notes for 1996's The Heavy Soul Experience of Mother Superior CD and producing 1998's Deep, both of which were released on Top Beat, the band's own label. By the conclusion of the Deep sessions, Rollins had begun to think about working with Mother Superior on a new project of his own.
"I didn't think there was any more music to be done with the previous Rollins Band lineup," Rollins says. "All that stuff was cool, it's just that we came to the end of the equation. It's not like we were like, 'I hate you!' but there was just no more music to be made. It's like, 'Grasshopper, it's time for you to leave.'"
Saying goodbye to the old Rollins Band, Rollins felt free to experiment with some new riffs he was hearing in his head -- riffs that were meatier and more direct than the angular, jazz-inflected jams of his previous colleagues. "I asked the MS guys, 'Would you be my notebook?'" Rollins recalls. "I said, 'If I hum you a tune, would you play it, help me write a bridge, whatever?' They were like, 'Yeah, man, let's go!' First night in the practice space, we wrote 'Get Some Go Again' and 'Monster.' By the end of the week, we had 'Thinking Cap,' 'L.A. Money Train,' just all this stuff!"
With "81 'talking shows,' three movies, a TV show and a trip to Africa" creeping up on his itinerary, Rollins rushed his new collaborators into the studio to lay down 10 tracks. When he returned to L.A. in early '99, a two-week practice session resulted in 13 more songs, all of which were recorded and mixed without the awareness or involvement of Rollins' record label.
"I hadn't even told DreamWorks," he says. "I did it all with my own money, because I didn't want anybody telling me anything. It wasn't going to be the Rollins Band. It was just this thing I was doing that was sounding really good." None of the previous Rollins Band members had even owned a Thin Lizzy record, so when Rollins suggested to Wilson that they work up a version of "Are You Ready?," Wilson's response was extremely gratifying. "We already know it," he said.
By the time he finally got around to playing the tracks for DreamWorks (who responded enthusiastically), Rollins had considered and rejected several names for his new project. His manager suggested that he simply call it the Rollins Band, but Rollins himself wasn't so sure. "I really didn't want to disrespect the old lineup," he says. "After all that hard work, I didn't want it to seem like all of a sudden they'd been replaced. But my manager said, 'You're not dissing them -- you're Rollins, it's a band. It is the Rollins Band!'"
For the most part, Rollins says, his old compadres were not offended. "I think one of the guys was like, 'What the fuck?' But everyone's moved on by now. I also wrote a letter to the fans, saying, 'Here's how it is, here's why, don't be mad, and if you are mad, I'm sorry.' And I got tons of letters back saying, 'Dude, just do your thing! We'll be there!'"
WITH A SUCCESSFUL U.S. TOUR AND SEVERAL EUropean festival dates already under their belts, the Rollins Band plans to be on the road from March through September. "These guys were born to do this," says Rollins, beaming like a proud older brother. "They've gone from playing the Whisky to opening up for Metallica in Portugal, with James Hetfield running up to them, going, 'Dude! You guys fucking rock!' The only drag for them is that we don't do two sets a night. They wear me out, man." (During the U.S. tour, Rollins rewarded their enthusiasm with a surprise recording date at Memphis' legendary Sun Studios.)
Come October, the two factions will head off in separate directions -- Mother Superior to support a forthcoming album of their own, Rollins to honor several weeks of spoken-word engagements -- but there's every indication that Get Some Go Again is merely the beginning of a very productive relationship.
"Jim and Marcus can really sing their asses off," says Rollins. "So now we're writing stuff with two extra voices. And we'll just keep jamming, because I reckon there's enough years to just sit on your ass. That's what your 60s are supposed to be about, right?"
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