It's hard to believe, but it's been 30 years since an angry, 20-year-old former ice-cream scooper named Henry Rollins burst onto the cultural radar, stomping around barefoot and shirtless as the fourth lead singer of the pioneering California hardcore band Black Flag.
On Feb. 13, Rollins will celebrate his 50th birthday with a special spoken-word performance in his hometown of Washington, D.C., and he'll also mark the half-century milestone with multi-night runs in New York City and Los Angeles.
Rollins took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Spinner about joining Black Flag, making the transition from fan to frontman, learning to live life as a public figure and his role in 'Punk: Attitude,' a recently rereleased documentary about the music that changed his life.
In 'Punk: Attitude,' some of the people interviewed define the genre as caring a lot about politics, like the hippies of the '60s, while other people celebrate its nihilistic side. Which is it?
You can run into difficult territory if you try to define punk rock, like, "This is what it is." It's something subjective. There's an element of [the old adage]: Someone says, "What's the blues?" And someone says, "If you have to ask, you're never going to know." It's different for different people. For me, it was an awakening. I was a very repressed young person. I wasn't good at school. I didn't fit in. This was every person in the world, I'm sure. I didn't dig my peers. My teachers were not friendly to me. I was getting it on all sides and not having a good time at all. When I heard the anger of Joe Strummer and Johnny Rottenand the kind of disaffected cool of the Ramones, it really came to my rescue. It really spoke to me in a way that a lot of the rock records I had [didn't]. I had Van Halen and Led Zeppelin and Ted Nugent. These bands were still playing in those days. I saw Led Zeppelin, and less than a year later, I saw the Clash. Musically, the baton was being handed off.
[With Aerosmith], we'd be eight miles from the band: "I think they're playing 'Toys in the Attic.'" You're never quite sure. I guess it was good. It was punk rock that allowed me to go up on the stage, to get sweated on by Dee Dee Ramone, to be landed on by HR ofBad Brains, to have Dave Vanian, the singer for the Damned, keep time with the songs by hitting me in the head with a microphone. It can't get any better than this! This was a major thing for me to feel music. Also, the subject matter was like, "Wow, someone's mad like me."
You try and find some anger, like a Ted Nugent record. Of course it's testosterone-drenched, but it's mainly cars and girls and why I'm such a badass, but not why I'm angry. All of a sudden 'White Riot' and 'Anarchy in the UK' or 'God Save the Queen,' it's this snarling contempt and rage. "Finally, my ship has come in." Punk gave me the courage to question authority, the courage to say, 'I'm not going that way. I'm going this way. I'm going my way."
You're viewed by a lot of people as a hardcore legend. Do you still identify with that genre?
No. To me -- and it's not all just rock 'n' roll to me, and I'm not trying to get out of the answer -- but to me, it's just music and you just play it. I never felt part of a scene. After I left D.C. to join Black Flag, I felt I was in a band. I left home and that which was familiar and my role changed. I was no longer a punter in the audience. I was the guy onstage. You don't really get your punter status back. You don't get your audience member card back once you're onstage that much. You can go to a show, but you're the guy from the stage at the show, and that's what happens now. I go to a show, and people are like, "Wow, I know that guy."
And then punk rock became very precious: "Oh, you can't be in this scene because your hair's too long, or you're not a skinhead, so we have to beat you up." Really? I feel like I'm the geek and you're the jock and I'm in 10th grade again, and this sucks. I just went for the music and gave up on the scene, because I was being judged. I stopped cutting my hair in '82. "You want to see a hippie? OK!" I cut it again in, like, 1986. It was down to my shoulders.
These are people who look in the mirror way too much. I use the mirror to shave, that's about it. To this day, my haircut is the number two clippers, which I apply to myself every month. Once a month I shear it off, right before I shave. It's utilitarian. That's it. I've got no time to be looking at myself. If something fits, I buy 20 of it, and I'm done clothes shopping for another 20 years.
You talk in the documentary about this phenomenon of fans and critics branding people "voices of a generation." Are you suspicious of that?
When someone gets that moniker, it's usually the media doing it. I listen to this music and I go, "I don't know." A lot of what gets that popular, that all these people get into, when I listen to it, it sounds like lay-down-and-die music, the music of defeat. U2 is a band a lot of people get very emotional about, but that's music for people that have lost the will to fight. I hear U2 music and I think, "Look at that guy at Red Rocks waving the white flag." That's it for me. Every record for me is that white flag.
When punk rock kind of started crying, I went, "Oh well." When the mainstream got punk rock, they turned it into an anemic pretty thing, where it kind of lost it's teeth and claws and spine and ability to bring truth to power, to turn on the lights and go, "It's you, motherf---er!. Lock him up!" Joe Strummer, if he was alive now, if he'd gone through eight years of George W. Bush, I don't think he would have suffered that guy lightly.
That has gone away in what has been called punk since 1991. It has the appearance of it, but I don't hear it. It just sounds kind of more like complaining than real outrage. But it's not for me to say. Let's pretend you like these [mainstream rock] bands. Right on! I'm not going to put you down for what you like. Go get the T-shirt. Go to the gig. Life is short. If you love Nickelback, go and see them. Get out there, man, because all of a sudden, you're 40, and you don't have time to go see gigs.
Your recent spoken-word tours have focused on your experiences traveling the world. With these special birthday shows, what will you talk about?
It's going to be some travel, just because I do so much of it and just came back from a whole bunch of it recently. The shows are going to be short. They're not going to be the normal grueling marathon I put people through. Ninety minutes. I'm going to talk about things I've learned in the last couple of decades -- things I didn't understand as a younger person -- and talk about what it's been like for the last 30 years. Being a recognizable quantity for the last 30 years, I've had strangers come up and tell me things -- everything from their opinion of me, for better or worse, to what they think about whatever else. Now I can be almost 100 percent guaranteed to have interaction with someone I don't know in any public place by nature of the fact they recognize me.
Do you ever regret joining Black Flag and setting yourself on this path toward celebrity?
There's no way I was saying no to that offer. My option was either to say, "Yeah, I'll give that a shot," or, "No thanks," and go back to my $3.75-an-hour job scooping ice cream, which was boring. It's not a bad job. I had a great boss who still comes to my shows. But I wasn't going anywhere. What would my future have been?
I just figured this was going to be my life: minimum-wage work. This is going to be a pretty rough tide. That's a rough way to live. So when Black Flag said, "Hey do you want to be in this band?" I said, "Yeah, what do I have to lose?"
You're famous for making time to talk to your fans and sign autographs. Is that ever a hassle?
People are very nice to me. There's no other way I can logically respond other than to be friendly back, because the truth is, I like these people. They show up to my gigs. After the show, I will stand out by the tour bus or whatever I'm traveling in and talk to everyone who's out there until they all leave. They leave, not me. I'm there until they split. I listen to every story. Sign everything. I'm happy to do it. They show up to see me. Why not? The last thing I'm going to do is make that person think their voice is not being heard.
When people hold you in high esteem, it's very delicate relationship. When they meet you they're putting all their chips up. It's make or break. You can't crush someone who stuck their chin out in all vulnerability, let their guard down, and said, "What you do means something to me." You cannot slight that person.