The most searing image of Henry Rollins is on the cover of Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged, where he is punching out his own reflection in a mirror. That photo and record set the stage for a musical career defined by manic rage, from Black Flag’s era-defining hardcore in the ’80s through to his gritted-teeth, alternative anthems with Rollins Band in the ’90s. But 15 years ago, he decided to quit making music altogether, because the industry was making him miserable. Since then, he’s directed his enthusiasm toward a number of varied projects—reissuing obscure punk records, hosting a podcast, making funny Instagram videos—becoming a lot happier in the process. “As an older guy, I’m only interested in what I can do,” Rollins says over the phone from his office in L.A. “I can think, I can write, I can travel, I can go onstage and talk, I can act, I can have a radio show. These are my things now. And I’m OK with that.”
At 58, he maintains the rabid intensity that made him such a captivating presence as a frontman in his 20s and 30s. He’s still quite comfortable onstage, and is continuing his long-standing work as a spoken-word artist—now adding a twist of humor alongside his trademark rants and raves. His new stand-up special for Comedy Dynamics Network, “Keep Talking Pal,” is rife with stories of praise for the musicians he loves, like David Bowie and Ozzy Osbourne. He may have given up on creating songs and albums, but he never stopped being a fan of them. This much is clear during our conversation about the music that has shaped his life so far.
I really liked the Beatles because they had gentle voices. They seemed like they’d be friendly people. I swiped my mother’s copy of Yesterday and Today and spirited it away into my room, where I had this record player that folded up. I played that record all the time, and it became this electronic babysitter. I’d just listen to one 15-minute side for hours. It didn’t matter that it was the same songs, it just mattered that someone was in the room with me, keeping me company.
My room was where I would go to be lonely and not beaten up, not teased, not made terrified by my fellow classmates. In those days, the racial tension in Washington, D.C. was really, really intense. I was at a school where I was one of the only white kids. I was getting called “cracker” and “bama.” It was just scary. Music became the thing that wasn’t angry and yelling and waving a fist in front of my face.
My mom and I would go to the record store up to three nights a week. Even on her paltry salary, much to my mom’s credit, whenever I even looked at a record for longer than three seconds, she’d go, “Well, let’s check it out.” One night in 1971, I mentioned the song “Shaft” to her, and she found the double album. The instrumental tracks thrilled me the most. I had a wild imagination but no attention span. I’d be on Ritalin during the day, but in the evenings it’d wear off. So I’d go back to my wild mind alone in my room, just grooving on these records.
I was an extraordinarily weird little kid. Not in cool ways: hysterical, hyperactive, thrown out of school for being a disturbance. It was a mental condition. I wasn’t trying to be bad. I was completely out of control. Imagine you rip the tea bag open and just put the tea in the water and all the bits of ground-up tea leaves are floating around. You stir it up and it’s like this storm of tea leaf chunks, right? You can’t see through it. Then the water finally calms, and all the tea leaves are at the bottom, and the water is clear. Without the Ritalin, I was the stirred-up tea. I didn’t get along well with other kids. I’d eventually just attack them. You look at me, I run at you screaming. Or I’m in the corner crying. I was just a wreck. I feel so bad for my parents. I must have been just hell. You couldn’t take me anywhere. But when you put the music on, the hyperventilating stopped. The crying stopped. Aah. There was nothing my parents could do to calm me down like the records could.
I went to an all boys’ prep school. You know those kids who wear the uniforms—you just wanna punch their lights out. I had the striped tie and the gray pants and the blue blazer. I went to school with guys like Judge Kavanaugh. When I watched those hearings, I was like, “Man, I already know you.” There’s that all-boy hierarchy. We’re all being jerks to each other, but you don’t talk to the elite jocks because they walk on water.
But one day, I was walking by one of the big jock guys, and he’s got one of those Norelco single speaker mono tape decks. He’s playing this music that’s just rippin’ out of this speaker. I balled up all my courage and said, “What are you listening to?” He looked at me like I was such an idiot. “Ted Nugent.” So I went to the record store and bought the first Ted Nugent record I saw, which was Free-for-All. My Nugent records are kind of like my guilty pleasures. I can defend his guitar playing on any battlefield. Then you hear the stuff he says and you’re like, “Ahhh!” It just ruins my day. I can’t do it. But he’s as good of a guitar player as anyone who ever came out of Michigan. Every bit as good as Ron Asheton or Fred Smith. Truly.
Nugent factored into me hitting puberty and the unbelievable effect of testosterone on a young man. It turned me into a maniac, because those records are testosterone-derived sex music. Played for a virgin—me—it was so exhilarating-slash-frustrating. I only had an idea of what he was talking about. I had the ache but not the information.
I’m 20 and I’m super aggressive. I’m getting into fights at shows. I’m getting hit in the face, I’m hitting men in the face. I’m also in the adult world. I’m working, I have an apartment, Top Ramen noodles, 7-Eleven, microwave burritos, punk rock.
In the summer of 1981, I leave Washington, D.C. to join Black Flag, and they’re a whole other animal. They’d ask me what bands I liked, and I would list them, and they thought almost every one sucked. “I like the Clash.” “‘Poseurs.’” “I like the Sex Pistols.” “‘Please.’” “The Damned.” “‘Eh.’” They just thought punk rock was utter crap.
At one point, one of the band members said, “Look, if you want to be in this band you’ve got to be down with Black Sabbath, the Stooges, and the MC5.” One day, in the van, I put on Fun House. Upon first listen, a few things hit me: OK, this is my favorite record, and it’s the purest record I’ve ever heard, and I’m never going to do anything that good. All of that remains true to this day. Fun House is just feral genius. They were not musicians, they were hyenas on the Serengeti that eat the antelope’s guts after the lions have had their fill. But what repulses you is the Stooges will have dinner and survive, and thrive on antelope intestines ’cause they’re that tough.
I was not an Iggy clone on stage, no one can do that. But through the Stooges, I got in my mind that it’s Black Flag versus the audience. If we played a song that the crowd didn’t like, they always took it out on the singer. And for me, that meant many trips to the hospital to get stitched up. But the Stooges kind of gave me my posture: We are the street-walking cheetahs with hearts full of napalm. The cops don’t like us, we have religious groups protesting us, people would throw ashtrays, cans, bottles, whatever at us. But you put on a Stooges record and you go, “We’re going to be OK, ’cause they made it.”
I met Michael Gira in ’84, and he gave me my copies of his band Swans’ “Raping a Slave” and Cop EPs. It was just the gnarliest stuff I’d heard up to that point. It’s really harsh: “No one burns your skin like a cop.” You’re like, “Well… OK.” There’s nothing like those records. I became fascinated with Michael Gira’s lyrics and his idea of power, where a victim, through passivity and assault, becomes the stronger one. Michael’s records and his energy just blew my mind, I had never been around thought like that. And as a young, kind of idiotic person, my mind was a sieve. Everything was a new idea to me. So I asked a lot of questions.
In ’91 I was living in Venice and I had this epiphany while listening to Coltrane’s Live at Birdland: John Coltrane is my favorite musician, and jazz is the best thing America ever came up with, and I need to know every single thing about jazz. This thing exploded in my mind. I was almost dizzy. With my meager savings, I just started buying all the records on cassettes. I would go to Rhino Records, where those guys behind the counter just know everything. I got into the ESP catalog. Now I’m checking out Don Cherry. And then I’m meeting up with Thurston Moore, and he’s like, “You need these.” I became this jazz-inhaling machine.
But of all those records, it was A Love Supreme, because Coltrane’s tone, the music, it’s just beautiful. It aspires to so much. I really think John Coltrane thought he could cure the world of war and hatred and everything bad with his horn. Not like, “Don’t worry, I’m the man, I’ve got this,” but, “Oh creator, I’m here to serve you.” Like he was so humble in the face of music and in the face of his god.
I connected with Coltrane because there’s just not one impure note he ever blew. Find the photo of Coltrane where he doesn’t look intense. Even when he’s smiling, look at the eyes. And quite often he wouldn’t really look at the camera. He’s looking at what could be. I know I’m getting a little highfalutin, but he’s intense. He meant it all the way to the end. So Coltrane made me aspire to just be musically pure, and it’s the jazz guys that informed my musical integrity: If you don’t like it, don’t play it. I got that a bit from Black Flag, but I really got it from jazz. The real punk rock in America is bebop.
Alan Vega was a hero to me growing up because of the first Suicide record. I became friends with him and his amazing wife, Liz, in the summer of ’91. I got his phone number through my agent and cold called him. I said, “Hey, can I meet you?” And he was like, “You’re the Black Flag guy, right?” I went to his apartment, and we became buddies for life within 20 minutes. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He’s a real big-hearted guy. And, at one point, he gave me Dujang Prang on cassette, and I listened to it and said, “I gotta put this record out.” No one in America wanted to touch it. So I put it out, and that was just one my big faves in 1996.
Back in those days, money was sloshing around the music industry, and someone said to us, “Hey, we love the Rollins Band. Do you have any extra tracks for The Crow soundtrack?” And my manager said, “Well, they have this Suicide cover.” The soundtrack ended up being this multi-platinum record with our wacky cover of “Ghost Rider” on there. Years later, I was walking in downtown Manhattan and I saw the one and only Martin Rev of Suicide. I went rigid, like, “Holy—it’s Martin Rev.” And I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Rev.” And he went, “Oh, hey, Henry Rollins.” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Thank you, kid.” Because he and Alan had been getting checks from the publishing of “Ghost Rider,” since it was on that soundtrack. He told me the amount of the check he got, and it could very well be more money than they ever saw from that record.
As I grew older, I became angrier. Ask all your friends, I’m a jerk. I mean, there’s so many people I was rude to out of anger, insecurity, or feeling so depressed, I was just not making sense. And so, I needed music to get me to slow down and go, “OK, stop breaking stuff.” In those days, I was very angry at the music industry and where I was at with the music I was making. I was just a very distinctly unhappy person. I’ve always medicated with music, but in those days, I was using music as a narcotic.
There’s a guy named Mark Robinson, who owns the label Teen Beat and was in the bands Unrest and Flin Flon. I love all his records, but the one that came out in 2001 was a solo record called Canada’s Green Highways. His records are super low tech and they’re not agro. They’re almost like a bedroom band, like, listen-to-it-alone, introspective pop music. Because of my unbelievable amount of anger, depression, and sadness, Mark’s music was a balm. Still is.
Around 2004, I woke up one morning and went, “Wow, I’m done with music.” I called my manager, who flipped out because he was getting 15 percent and, at that point, the Rollins Band was a money maker. He’s like, “Oh, no.” And I’m like, “Oh yes.”
Little by little, I went back to being a music fan. I want to go to the gig, I’m a fan of your record, I want to follow you around and see 25 of your shows. And I got happy about music again, because I was no longer making it. I’m way, way better off. Still not the happiest guy on the team, but not prone to bouts of anger like that. I get depressed because that’s just how I’m wired. But it’s not the sturm und drang and it’s not the rollercoaster. Maybe the testosterone level is starting to fade, as my hair can’t get any whiter. I still hate men and want to fight them but, knowing that any 16-year-old could kick my ass, I have to remain peaceful.
I am corporate now, and Heidi [May] is the woman that runs all my different corporations. She’s been working with me for 21 years, and when it comes to music she’s only into the realest of the real. She came to the office one day and said, “Play this record right now.” I put it on. After it was over, I picked my jaw up and went, “That’s one of the best records I ever heard.” It was a band called Deadboy and the Elephantmen, and the album was called We Are Night Sky. [Frontman] Dax Riggs is just one of the most naturally talented people I ever encountered in my life. He just walks up to a microphone and starts singing and you’re like, “Man, wow.” Like, Jeff Buckley. Just wow. That was the best record I heard that year, and I’m not aware of anything coming close.
I was at a Stooges show, and the opening band was Le Butcherettes. I went, “Wow, new favorite band.” They’re led by Teresa Suárez, otherwise known as Teri Gender Bender, who’s so captivating. Charisma for a hundred million years. She’s one of my favorite people out there making music. She’s the real thing. I’ve had her on my radio show, where she hijacked the show and played two hours of killer music from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, France that I had never heard before.
If I like a band, I want to help that band. I slept on a lot of people’s floors in my life as a starving musician, and I’ve kind of paid that forward. I’ve put up bands on my floor and couches, and checked on their laundry at four in the morning. Because people did that for me. So one of the main reasons I’ve had a radio show for 14 years is to get your band over the wall. The best emails I get are the ones that are like, “Hey Henry, we’re a band, and every night of this tour people are coming up saying, ‘I came to your show ’cause I heard your record on Henry’s radio show.’ Thank you.”
I was on tour in Newcastle, UK, when I got the news of Mr. Bowie’s passing. I just sat there, unable to move. My legs filled with lead. I don’t know the guy, but damn man, talk about take-me-to-my-happy-place records. I need those records like I need food. I know everyone dies, but man. I played Blackstar three times that day. I was in dog-shot-in-the-leg misery in my freezing dressing room. I didn’t want to go on stage, I wanted to go back to my bus and curl up in a ball. So I kept playing the record, ’cause he kept not exactly being dead.