Henry Rollins gives great interview. Seriously. He's congenial, talkative, a fascinating study in survival, a guy who has seen the world and one who has left a unique and indelible mark across virtually all media -- music, literature, film and television. His career statistics reveal a classic overachiever: at least 20 albums (as leader of both the seminal Black Flag and his current project, the Rollins Band), about 10 spoken-word discs, more than a dozen books and numerous movie roles and TV appearances. Rollins is everywhere. But that's the way he wants it. And the thing is, he pulls everything off with the same uncompromising intensity that made him one of the most important and influential figures in American independent rock.
Get up close and personal with Henry Rollins at his spoken-word show this Friday at the Met, the first of two spoken-word performances this week. (The other features political activist Jello Biafra -- see this week's music section for more.)
"I've always done different stuff to kind of get away from boredom," says Rollins. "Also, I noticed in the '80s a lot of extremely talented musicians were starving and working at Blockbuster, people that were way more talented than I'll ever be. I went, 'Okay, I better learn to do a few other things.' I liked writing so I got better at it. I liked doing the talking shows, and I got better at them. I did a voice-over once, so I thought I'd try to sign on for more of that. I'm crass enough to try and get into movies, so I got an agent."
He also began taking more control of his music and writing by retaining ownership of his own master recordings and starting his own publishing company.
"The artist who does not gauge the cruelty and inhumanity of the entertainment business is going to end up being gutted," he says. "These people are not your friends, and you live and die by the numbers. If you want to have integrity and artistic control, you're going to sell fewer units. If you're going to sell fewer units, you might as well own the means of production."
Rollins is a man driven to succeed. From the very beginning, he's charted a singular path to a successful career whose parameters he himself defined. It's been DIY all the way. He was originally invited to join Black Flag after getting up on stage (as a fan) and singing better than the group's vocalist. He publishes his own books (and those of others) on his own 2.13.61 imprint. He lands movie roles by -- get this -- auditioning for them.
"I get up at 6 in the morning. I stand in line. I go into a place you might not have the stomach for and hit that mark in an office with a bunch of disinterested casting people. Nothing is handed to me."
Though Rollins has his usual multiple irons in the fire (including near-future plans for the Rollins Band), he is focused exclusively on his spoken-word thing -- a mixture of slightly bent observational humor and anecdotes from his life on the road.
"It's about six shows a week," he explains. "I wake up every day with the show on my mind, which is how I like to operate. It's a mixture of fear and anticipation and nerves and about four or five shows in, I hit that state where I'm just all about the gig, which is good if you're a ticket buyer. You want that guy to be sweating bullets on your behalf. And I wouldn't have it any other way."
What keeps Rollins consistently edgy and unpredictable is his self-awareness and ability to evolve -- in his case, from an overly serious angry young man into an angry, articulate, slightly older dude with a sense of humor and a willingness to take potshots at anyone including himself. His intensity, quick wit and ever-active bullshit detector, coupled with his chiseled, heavily tattooed physique constitute an imposing presence. (Take away the humor aspect and you can see why, during the Black Flag years, he used to scare the crap out of people, including me.) He also possesses an acute awareness of the tenuous nature of fame and nagging uncertainty about his own future. He gets himself out there as much as possible and produces books and records like there's no tomorrow, because he recognizes that one day -- maybe tomorrow -- it could all end.
"You know, in the entertainment business, this shit's over really fast and very irrevocably. When you're done, you're done. Ask Axl Rose. I'm furiously at it, trying to have some fun and do my thing and show up in places where people go, 'Whoa' because I went in there and said, 'Yeah, I'm an actor' lying through my teeth."
He may have graduated from brooding poet to godfather of hardcore, champion of indie culture and pop icon. But boil away the mythology that surrounds him and what you have is a hard-working guy with no-nonsense insights into the human condition, no patience for hypocrisy or sloth and a way of expressing himself that is extremely entertaining. So don't even accuse him of losing edge or of getting a little too chummy with the man -- unless you want to be strenuously challenged.
"I wanna work," he says. "If I was just going to be like Elitist Indie Boy, I'd be working only 20 nights a year. But I come from the middle class working world -- you know, working at places where I parked cars and took out trash. I like to apply myself. And I can't be doing the music all the time. So I keep going for it, and some people might have the illusory idea that I sold out. But if they understood how completely on my own terms I do this stuff -- I don't say 'yes' to anything I don't want to do. Down to this interview. If I didn't want to talk to you today, I wouldn't. I pass up lots of money because I don't like where the offer's coming from."
It's worth noting that Rollins uses a lot of the money he does receive for his various side projects to publish works by artists subsisting on the outer fringe of the mainstream -- musicians and writers he personally respects.
"And a lot of those projects lose money -- I have my own National Endowment for the Arts. But you know, a lot of people who say 'sell out' live with their moms and don't pay taxes. I am not into going through this life quietly. Have you noticed? I want to whup that ass. You want to call me a name? Match me. Jog with me for a month, I guarantee you, you will be out of breath, and I will be slapping you on the back of your head going, 'What's the matter, son? You're twentysomething and you can't keep up with me? I'm 42, bitch, let's go.' "
What keeps Rollins on the road is a respect for his audience, an audience that makes it possible for Rollins the mouth, Rollins the sage, Rollins the entertainer to continue.
"The single most satisfying thing about this is I get to keep doing it," he says. "After 22 years, I can still put people in a room for whatever I'm doing. That's the biggest compliment you could ever get. I employ a lot of trust with the audience and with myself. You can't lie to an audience because all performance is transparent. People will know if you're faking it. I really like the audience. I really want to be there. I can't wait to see them."