Henry Rollins’ words from the front

Henry Rollins once threatened to kick my ass.

It was a sticky Florida night in 1992. And I was 16 and dumb enough to go banging on his trailer at 2 in the morning.

“Those were the years when you didn’t come knocking,” Rollins recalled when I mentioned this bygone event to him recently by phone, while he was on a tour stop in Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada. “That was the year of being in a bad mood for an entire year.”

In fact, he’d been writing, not sleeping, that night when I came calling.

And today he’s busier than ever: Rollins can now list 21 records, nine spoken-word discs, 12 books and a Grammy on his resume, plus TV and movie credits. Not bad for a former skate-punk kid from D.C. who once had a fan throw a cup of piss on him during a show.

I myself have been a fan of Henry Rollins since I was 10; my stepfather had the Repo Man soundtrack, and I thought Black Flag’s “TV Party” was the funniest song I’d ever heard. At that age I didn’t yet grasp the subtle sarcasm that Rollins and Black Flag founder Greg Ginn were trying to convey. That would come later.

Rollins’ subsequent books and spoken-word work have been able to reach people his music might perhaps have scared off. The intensity and passion are still there, but without the loud, raunchy, punk-rock guitar chords for him to scream over.

And though his work has darkened through the years and grown even more cynical, Rollins’ music and words continue to focus on working from the inside out.

In other words, fix yourself before you try to go fixing the world.

Mountain Xpress: “You’ve been on the road for a while now.”

Henry Rollins: “Well, it’s what I do, so I guess it’s business as usual for me. Tonight is the 50th show of the year and, well, [with] about 100 to go; but you know, it’s what you do. That’s normal life for me, where if I’m home for two weeks, that’s the aberrant life pattern — where I wake up in the same bed, and actually, quite honestly, it feels really lame.”

MX: “So it drives you crazy to be at home?”

HR: “Yeah, you get used to moving, and your first days home you feel like a bullet slug lodged in wood, with all that momentum just blunted. … Your first night home [is] kind of cool; I mean, you’ve gotten some cool stuff in the mail, [and] you can open it up like it’s a present. Like some record you got or something, and that’s bitchin’, or something you bought on eBay or whatever, and it’s kind of like a Christmas present.

“So it’s kind of fun for a moment to rip through all the mail and, you know, go to that one place you like to eat, and eat that food that you haven’t had in 120 days, so that’s kind of cool. After that, meal digested, new record played, you kind of sit around — well, at least I do — and go, ‘OK, my life is really out there [on tour]. Shouldn’t I be on stage?'”

MX: “You’ve been doing a lot of acting work lately … “

HR: “Yeah, I show up for acting work now and again.”

MX: “How do you go about approaching acting, actors, movies, etc.?”

HR: “I just BS my way into it. I’m not an actor, but I’m crass enough to try and walk in there, so I just go for it. It’s hugely fun. I admire the art of acting — I admire those who can really do it. …

“I just finished filming a movie called Bad Boys 2, and there were a couple of actors, like really cool New York actors, like total street guys who act. It’s a different thing than an L.A. actor, who’s very stylish, and fluffy in the mind. These guys were coming from basement stages and kind of a more hardcore, working-acting thing. So there’s a couple of them I keep in touch with, you know, put them on the guest list for shows I’m doing in their area, [who] are actually really cool people.”

MX: “In your spoken-word performances, do you feel pressure to comment on the current political state — for example, the war in Iraq?”

HR: “Well, yeah, with my own take on it. I think if I tried to come off like some political analyst or some informed expert, that would be obnoxious [and] arrogant, and I don’t fit that job description. But, like you, I have an opinion, and I search for different ways to approach that topic that might not be the most conventional way to look at it, but [is rather done] in an effort to look at it in a different way, maybe give some insight to it.”

MX: “But do you think anyone should really care what a celebrity’s opinion is about government, politics and social issues? Is Tom Cruise’s opinion more valid than the average citizen’s?”

HR: “Well, [people should care] as much as they care what their neighbor thinks. Just because this person is a celebrity, let’s not rule out the fact that this person might have an opinion that might be worth listening to. Because anything that’s an opinion, you can listen to it and you’re smart enough to see if there’s any calories in there to be utilized or not. Just because the guy is a celebrity, I don’t think it should be a given that [his is] not a valid point, or that it’s more important than most.

“I thought [actress/comedian] Janeane Garofalo, who is being very outspoken on the matter, is very well informed, and she holds her own with all those MSNBC types rather well. I mean, she goes toe-to-toe with them and they try to shut her down, and she can’t be shut down all that easily. She’s got her information; she did her homework.

“Personally, I’ve always thought of myself as working class/working man/journey man. It’s like calling [Motorhead lead singer] Lemmy [Kilminster] a celebrity. I mean, would you really? You recognize the face, you know who he is, you hear the voice, you know who that is;, but if he were at a bar sitting there alone, would you be afraid to say, ‘Hey, Lemmy, pass me the matches’?

“Where, if it were Brad Pitt, you would wonder if someone was going to leap out of the shadows and put you in a choke hold for getting within 10 feet of him. I’m not trying to put the guy down, but that’s a celebrity; it has all the ramifications. Where there’s other people, like [Fugazi front man] Ian MacKaye or [Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist] Flea or whoever, you see them at the grocery store and you’d think, ‘Oh, well, he must buy his groceries here’ — and you don’t really think much of it.

“I’ve always been like that, in that I go to the grocery store, I stand in line at Starbucks to get my coffee at the airport, and more often than not someone will go, ‘Oh, my God, you’re that guy.’ I’m sort of, ‘Yeah, you know, whatever,’ and I’m not too cool, you know what I’m saying? That’s how I see myself. I’m not too sure how others see me, but I have people having very intense reactions to me, calling me ‘Mister’ and freaking out and trembling and stuff. I look around to see who they’re looking at, and I’m like, ‘Oh, OK.'”

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