Provoked: Henry Rollins

Our intrepid correspondant tries really, really hard to not start anything with former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins

In 1984, Henry Rollins wanted to kick my ass. Black Flag was about to play its first Knoxville show at The Library on Cumberland Avenue. A few weeks earlier I'd conducted an interview with Rollins for a sleazy little local zine called The Addict. I asked him a series of stupid questions about David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, and other topics too disgusting to mention in this forum. My career as a "journalist" was flying high—I, along with Rus Harper and Steve Hampton, co-edited The Addict. And my "style," so to speak, was to drink as many beers as possible and ask the most inane, insulting questions I could think of.

Hey, I was punk.

At the time, Black Flag was a touring machine—an unstoppable force much like the Manson Family, except Black Flag's version of insanity was based on artistic integrity and a masochistic work ethic. As the saviors of the hardcore movement, Black Flag was at the locus of a musical genre focused on self-destruction. And as Black Flag's frontman, Rollins was on the receiving end of his fans' mindless aggression night after wearying night. Black Flag shows were never anything less than all-out wars. So the singer's patience was at a low ebb during the interview.

When he arrived in Knoxville and saw the text of the interview, Rollins was none too pleased. I was one of a few people who had arranged the show, and he confronted me at the club. For half an hour, Rollins demanded that I leave the building, actually physically threatening me at one point. This was really intimidating. And the worst part of it was, Rollins was my hero. I was heartbroken.

A lot has changed for both of us in the ensuing quarter-century. I've become a somewhat responsible and rather boring academic. Rollins, on the other hand, has evolved from a self-loathing underground star to a downright positive and ubiquitous mass-media presence.

"I've changed through the years, probably in the most generic ways one does as they get older and accrue more experience," says Rollins. "When you're young it's all about me, me, me. Or some girl will dump you and you think, ‘The sun will never rise again.' The more I travel the more I see, and I feel more a part of the world. I've also evolved because of a desire to change—by reading this, by going there, by listening. Now that I'm almost 50 [Rollins is 47], I see things differently. I don't know if I've improved, but I sho' 'nuf am different."

If Rollins had continued on the path he followed with Black Flag, he'd either be dead, nuts, or worse—a cliché. In that band, Rollins drove himself near the brink of insanity and pushed his body to its limit with each explosive performance. After Black Flag's demise in 1986, he continued in a similar—but slightly more commercial—musical direction with the Rollins Band. He's written approximately 20 books in the last two decades, all released on his own 2.13.61 imprint. (He was born on Feb. 13, 1961.) He's acted in a spate of movies, from Johnny Mnemonic to Bad Boys II, and made countless appearances as a talking head on outlets like MTV and VH1. Then there's Rollins the spoken-word performer. And who could forget his role as a talk-show host on IFC's Henry Rollins Show?

I spoke to Rollins just days before a scheduled trip to South Africa to film the first of a series of on-location specials for IFC.

"I just got through meeting with the people at IFC and they said they loved the show, but they were getting the most feedback from the live specials," he says. "They said they wanted to film some live shows and build up this kind of ‘Henry, our man on the road' kind of thing. And I said excitedly, ‘I'll take it!' So this year there's no TV show, just three or four documentaries. I have no idea what to expect. The IFC people said ‘Look, we get all the fan mail and what the people like is you being you. They like it when you're looking down the barrel of the camera, letting them know what you think. So with the live specials, they'll get more bang for your buck. And I said, ‘Damn, let's do it!'

"This is year four I've been with IFC, and that's unheard of for me. Usually I don't get asked back for the party. Like, if I have a record deal I do two albums and they can't wait to get rid of me 'cause the records didn't sell. They always say, ‘Thank you, but goodbye.' At the end of the day that's the test—what they do with their money. So the fact that IFC is still investing money in these shows must mean something good is happening. Otherwise, believe me, I'd be unceremoniously dropped."

For Rollins, financial success is a means to an end, a way to continue his relentless, autodidactic mission of self-discovery. "In Black Flag, we were always broke," he says. "Being broke is the story of most indie bands. I had a lot of years of not having any money, but I stuck it out. Once I got to the point where I was making a little money and not having to worry about the bottom line at the end of every month, I began to realize that there's something more to do. Instead of buying a fleet of Ferraris and losing the plot, I bought plane tickets and books and access."

Renaissance man or no, Rollins is certainly adept at getting his opinions across in no uncertain terms. And these days his essays, skits, and onstage rants have entered the realm of the political. As a performer for the USO, Rollins has visited U.S. troops in several foreign locales, acquiring a first-person view of military life that few American citizens are privy to. These trips, along with endless reading, have prompted Rollins to take some strong political stances, especially concerning the upcoming presidential election.

"Mike Huckabee is the candidate I'm most scared of," he says. "I don't like that guy's take on abortion. And any candidate that's not down with Darwinian theory, that's pretty incredible to me. There's so much information that he just doesn't know. Think of him in Africa or wherever: He'd be received like, ‘Wow, our little bumpkin president.' He'd make America seem kind of quaint and rinky-dink."

Predicting that John McCain is most likely to win the election, Rollins proclaims a political affiliation that some might find surprisingly centrist. "I'm a Democrat. But I think there's a good chance [McCain] could win. The person on the other side's gonna be a black dude or a woman. I think a lot of people are not ready to go there yet. Personally I'm not a Hilary fan, but if she's the candidate, I'm willing to vote for her. But I think a lot of Americans might not be ready. I think if you propose a black guy or a woman next to a P.O.W., a guy who is probably not the worst guy in the world—I think he could pick up a lot of independent voters."

In a recent visit to Pakistan, Rollins found himself at the heart of a storm the day that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. "I didn't go counting on this to happen," says Rollins. "I went there out of curiosity and I do things like that every Christmas break. I go for these kind of high-caloric trips where you come back a little bit more worn out than when you left, but you know a thing or two. It's more interesting than going to Hawaii.

"Three days in, she was assassinated down the road from where I was staying," Rollins continues. "The next morning when things got really interesting, I went down to the lobby and there were press people there. I hit the streets, and I walked towards the smoke, basically. So I watched people protest, and they weren't destroying things. They were more about grief than messing up the town. It was horrible to see grown men crying on the streets. And people spoke to me and said, you know, ‘Please tell Mr. Bush that Mr. Musharraf is a terrorist who killed Bhutto.' That was the word on the street. No one was hostile to me at all and the overall feeling, post-assassination, was just of grief. Never once did anyone express any aggression toward me."

Thus my interview with Rollins ended up focusing on politics and travel instead of the predictable punk rock and celebrity gossip. The topics that he seemed to find most interesting are indicative of where Rollins is at these days. And his pragmatic, worldwide perspective will surely find voice in his upcoming spoken-word appearance at the Bijou.

As to the fragment of Knoxville punk-rock history that Rollins and I share, well, I decided it was better to just leave that little tidbit of information in the past. The kinder, gentler Rollins of today would probably have been amused that I was the same jerk he hated in 1984—but then again, I didn't want to risk incurring his wrath yet again. Having been on Henry's shit list even once is too much. So I never told Henry that I was the asshole he wanted to kill in Knoxville. As Jimmy Dean once so aptly said of his delicious sausage, "Stayin' the same—that's different."