Henry Rollins began writing his L.A. Weekly column in early 2011, and it quickly grew to be one of the paper's biggest draws. The column succeeds for many reasons — readers' innate fascination with his time with hardcore punk heroes Black Flag, the fervency of Rollins' unflinching advocacy for his moral and political views, and the humor in his fish-out-of-water experiences, from snake hunting with Pentecostals in Kentucky to seeking out underground music in Vietnam to being laid out on the colonoscopy table. But perhaps its greatest appeal is that it feels real. Henry's not kissing anybody's ass. In fact, he sometimes seems to go out of his way to piss off his enemies. But with honesty comes trust, and his readers believe each word.
See Also: Henry Rollins: Why I Write
I've edited Henry for two years, and for the publication of his new book, Before the Chop: L.A. Weekly Articles 2011-2012, just released on his 2.13.61 imprint, I interviewed him at his bunkerlike North Hollywood house, which is decorated with framed punk-rock posters and other rare music ephemera. Just back from the D.C. area, where he was shooting a documentary series concerning the history of American government (one of many subjects about which he is an unlikely enthusiast), Rollins spoke from his living room area, above a massive, carefully archived music repository, and below his personal gym.
Although he says anger drives everything he does, he has a knack for putting people at ease, and clearly loves to field questions. We spoke on everything from his relationship with his father to how he got into weight lifting, as well as his thoughts on a recent Black Flag reunion tour, to which he was invited but chose not to participate.
When you arrived to L.A from Washington, D.C., in 1981, could you have predicted you'd stay this long?
No. I arrived here in L.A. when I was 20.5 years old and I quit a shitty minimum-wage job — which was about $3.75 an hour — to get into Black Flag. The band wasn't big, but they were a bitchin' band, and I liked their music. So I packed my life into a duffle bag: four pairs of underwear that I still had from the ninth grade, a couple of shirts, and whatever else I could carry. I gave away most of my stuff and took a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C., to Detroit to meet the band. I ended up joining them and came out to L.A. and became completely broke. Black Flag was one of those bands that had trouble making ends meet and paying rent.
I've been to California a few times before, but nothing prepares you for a life in L.A., especially Hollywood. There was a lot of violence with police around that time. Daryl Gates, the police chief, was especially heavy-handed, and had a personal dislike of Black Flag. On Rodney [Bingenheimer]'s show on KROQ, we literally called out Daryl Gates by name. We were picking a fight with the police and we got it. We got really vilified because of that, and the police ended up winning.
Had you tried drugs and alcohol back then? You've long had a reputation as straight-edge.
I drank a few times during high school [and a few other times] and didn't like it. I did have three shots [of corn whiskey] at a distillery a few weeks ago, but it was for a show I'm doing on Prohibition. They asked me if I wanted to take some shots, which were 150 proof, and I said, “Yeah, let's do it.” I literally went weak in the knees, because I have no tolerance, and was a little buzzed for about 40 minutes.
I did try marijuana once in May 1987, but it was awful! Mainly because I got really stoned, just off two hits. The whole time I felt like everyone was looking at me. I also tried LSD several times, at least three to six times in 1983 and '84. It was fascinating and terrifying. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I also tried mushrooms a few times, and really enjoyed it because you just laugh your ass off and then it just goes away after a while. There really are no aftereffects that I can discern.
I've never really been interested in drugs, but I'm not straight-edge. I just don't have those rules of “not doing it.” Anyways, I always wanted to get somewhere, and knowing I was low on talent, I knew I had to rely on my strongest characteristics, which are tenacity and discipline.
In your book's intro, you say you're driven by anger. Considering that fans give you overwhelmingly positive feedback, this is somewhat surprising.
I'm just angry. I'm angry right now, but not at you. I just happen to be an angry person, but my anger doesn't make me kick dogs or kick holes in the wall; my anger makes me get visas and my passport and go to places where my country doesn't want me to go. If I hear, “Be afraid of Tehran,” I'm, like, “I'd better go to Tehran.” The people I met ended up being amazing and wonderful. … Every country I go to, I'm asked, “My friend, where are you from?” And I always say, “I'm from America, my name is Henry, what's happening?” It's my anger that fuels my curiosity.
Where does your anger come from?
I don't know. I've been mad for as long as I can remember. It's kind of like a bow with an arrow being drawn and released. The first several years of my life were used to upload incredible amounts of fear, and I just became afraid of everything. I was afraid of my parents, afraid of my classmates, afraid of the streets of Washington, D.C. I would flinch at every gesture. But then there was a moment and I just changed and it was just like a roar. To this day I'm still at the roar. [Laughs.]
You haven't had much nice to say about your dad. Does he play a role in your anger?
I saw him once, like, in 1987, for I think, like, two minutes. I have a dislike for him only because he's a racist, a homophobe and a misogynist. I don't agree with his worldview, and the things he said to me as a kid, I don't think should be said to an 8- or 10-year-old boy. He would say things like, “Never trust a chink,” and stuff like that. You don't tell a kid that. Thankfully my mom would tell me [these] things weren't right. I don't want the guy dead, I wouldn't lift a finger to hurt him, it's just that I don't know his phone number.
You've mentioned that you were almost killed twice. Once was when your friend Joe Cole was murdered in Venice. What was the other time?
I was nearly stabbed to death at the Vex by a biker on angel dust. He was a security guard, and I asked through a fellow bouncer friend of his if he could get off our stage. The stage was as big as this couch, and we could barely fit the band on it. This guy had a huge bowie knife on his leg. … He hit me on the back of the head and sucker-punched me; I fell facedown, and as I'm regaining consciousness he kicks me in the nuts hard, and then goes on top of me with his knife and begins to stab me. The biker guy is high at this point, so his friends had to jump on him and pull him off. That was the first of two nights, and we still had to go back there to play the next night. [Laughs.]
You wrote recently about Rush Limbaugh taking note of your Hawaii Five-O character. In general, how do acting parts come your way?
If I'm in L.A. for longer than 20 days, I'm looking for work, because I don't do vacations. Since acting is the big industry in this town, I'll take that action. So Hawaii Five-O called me up and said, “Hey, want to do this?” And I said, “Yeah.” Can I act? No, but don't tell them that. I'm just going for it. I go out on auditions for voice-over and acting, and I do the whole Hollywood shuffle. I've been to every studio like every other person in this town, just winging it. Luckily I get a fair amount of work for someone who hasn't really studied to be an actor. I like to think I held my own pretty well in shows like Sons of Anarchy.
There are dueling Black Flag reunion groups touring this summer. What are your feelings about the band performing again?
They can spend their summer vacation doing what they want, but to be pushing 60 and playing music that is 30 years old is something I wouldn't want to do this summer. That being said, I went out 10 years ago and took those songs on a brief lap around the world, but that was mission-specific. I took all that money and gave it to the West Memphis Three's attorneys, and that is how the DNA evidence got tested to help free them. We went from L.A. to Tokyo, everyone showed up, and we made a whole bunch of money and I didn't even take a dime.
What these guys [Keith Morris' reunion group, called Flag] are going to do, with that music … I hope it's good, and I hope people enjoy it, I wish them all the best, but when I was invited to do this and come along, I told them I can't. I can't judge them because it goes against my beliefs and my code. For me to do it, it would not be brave, it would be resting on past laurels. Unless they took all that money to benefit Planned Parenthood or something. Then we can talk, but if it is just to pocket that money, they can go right ahead. I wouldn't want to spend one dime of that money for myself.
A random question: What initially got you into weight lifting and working out heavily?
I've been working out since I was 15 or 16, because in school I was the very skinny, flinching boy on Ritalin. If people threw a ball to me, I thought they were throwing it at me. Around 10th grade, my fresh-out-of-Vietnam-vet history teacher Mr. Pepperman said, and I quote, “Henry, you are a skinny little faggot, you need to lift weights, and I'm going to teach you how,” which was more input in life than my father ever gave me. (That's just how people talked to you in those days.)
He took me to the school gym and showed me basic compound lifts. He made me do a workout regimen and told me not to look in the mirror until he said so. I worked out from, like, October until Christmas vacation, and during the last day of exams he let me take my shirt off and look at myself. After that I threw out the Ritalin because I didn't need it, my body is telling me to work out. You're young and lifting weights, hungry, horny and you want to meet women. All of a sudden I'm eating more. My lunch tray has a line of milk, hamburgers, and I'm asking for seconds. I just got hooked and I kept doing the workout over and over again and I began to feel different because I began to get bigger.
To me, getting muscular was the first thing I ever achieved by working at it, and it was a game changer for me, because it was the first time I ever had confidence.