Born Henry Garfield on February 13, 1961, in Washington, D.C. Education: Spent one semester at college, 1979. Addresses: Business--2.13.61, P.O. Box 1910, Los Angeles, CA 90078, e-mail: two1361@aol.com. Website--Henry Rollins Official Website: http://www.21361.com.

Formidable and fiercely independent, recording artist Henry Rollins has earned an array of titles from music reviewers; Chris Mundy, writing for Rolling Stone in 1992, called Rollins "punk's poet laureate" and a "primal scream personified." Hobey Echlin applied another label in Detroit's Metro Times, terming Rollins "the post-punk generation's prophet of rage." These epithets capture the dual nature of Rollins's reputation: brutal rebelliousness characterizes his work as vocalist for Black Flag and the Rollins Band, two of the hardest hard-core bands in punk history, while Rollins's discipline and thoughtful observations of humankind inform his creative output as an essayist, poet, and spoken-word performer. In both incarnations, Rollins is revered by leaders of the punk and alternative rock camps.

Rollins was born Henry Garfield on February 13, 1961, in Washington, D.C. His childhood was shaped by a barrage of painful experiences, among them his parent's divorce when he was still quite young, his father's abuse and emotional abandonment, unwanted sexual encounters, and the torment of classmates who singled Rollins out for being different. After his parents split up, he lived with his mother, moving from apartment to apartment. One of his few positive memories of that time, according to a self-penned 1992 Imago Recording Company press biography, was of the music that remained a constant in his ever-relocating home. "[My mother] played a lot of records and went to plays and musicals. There was music in the house all the time.... I used to take her records into my room and play them until they were all scratched up." He recalled enjoying a range of jazz and Motown before discovering hard rock. In high school, he found the underground world of punk, including the Los Angeles-based hard-core ensemble Black Flag.

The anger and isolation that Rollins experienced as a child intensified when he was enrolled in a military academy. In an essay titled "Iron and the Soul" that appeared in Details, Rollins characterized his life there, writing about "the humiliation of teachers calling me 'garbage can' and telling me I'd be mowing lawns for a living. And the very real terror of my fellow students.... I was skinny and clumsy, and when others would tease me I didn't run home crying, wondering why. I knew all too well. I was there to be antagonized." It was in the midst of this hell, however, that Rollins was introduced to something that would make made him feel strong and valuable; an advisor named Mr. Pepperman--"a powerfully built Vietnam veteran,"--put Rollins on a weight-training program, an intensive discipline that prohibited him from becoming preoccupied with the look of his body or the intimidation that it could inflict on others. "At no time was I to look at myself in the mirror or tell anyone at school what I was doing," he recalled.

The regimen had a powerful effect on Rollins, altering both his physique and his sense of self-esteem. "I saw a body, not just the shell that housed my stomach and my heart," he wrote. "My biceps bulged. My chest had definition. I felt strong. It was the first time I can remember having a sense of myself." Rollins understood that the strength he had acquired could be attributed more fully to his emotional convictions than to his body. He explained, "Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart."

Found Personal Drive

Once he had learned control and dedication from "the iron," Rollins was able to apply his new-found drive to everything else in his life. Describing his adolescence to Musician contributor Jon Pareles, Rollins said, "If we were into something, we were living it.... Skateboards, 24 hours a day. Bikes. Whatever we were doing. I worked at a pet shop, I ran the reptile department, inventoried, ordered, did everything. Anything I was into I would just land on and totally take over. I'd want to do 80 hours a day."

After graduating from high school in 1979, Rollins became involved in the local hard-core punk scene with the same energy. He tried college, but left after one semester. While working at a friend's ice cream store, where he quickly rose to manager, Rollins would spend his off hours watching the bands that he loved, like D.C.'s punk-reggae hybrid Bad Brains. One night, he drove to New York City to see Black Flag perform; leaving right after his shift at the store and planning to return in time to open up again the next morning. When he requested a song that night, the band let him come up on stage to sing with them, and--in an odd take on the Cinderella story--the members of Black Flag asked Rollins to return for an audition a few days later; they just happened to be looking for a new vocalist.

Rollins began singing with Black Flag in 1981 and stayed with the group until guitarist and nominal leader Greg Ginn dissolved it in 1986. During that time, he became both an integral part of Black Flag's image--though the band had been around since 1976--and developed a solid reputation of his own. Larry Birnbaum captured Rollins's typical stage presence in a 1984 concert review for Down Beat, reporting, "The muscular, heavily tattooed Rollins ... made his entrance, clad only in gym shorts. A charismatic figure a la Iggy Pop, he posed and strutted along the lip of the stage, barking and screeching the lyrics with professional aplomb as he fended off attempts by his adoring fans to pull his pants down."

But touring and recording with the band, though it brought a certain fame, by no means made Rollins's life glamorous. Steve Appleford, a writer for Cream, noted that Black Flag spent a lot of time "sleeping in parking lots, in train stations, sometimes even shoplifting food, eating off other people's plates in restaurants and hiding from the police, white power groups, religious zealots and a constant media assault."

Rollins Band Took Shape

After the band's dissolution, Rollins turned immediately to his next project. He contacted guitarist Chris Haskett and, within four months, had produced the record Hot Animal Machine. By April of 1987, when Rollins recruited drummer Sim Cain and bassist Andrew Weiss, the Rollins Band was starting to solidify; the group soon added a permanent sound man or "stylist" from Holland, Theo Van Rock. That lineup would remain until 1993, when Weiss departed.

The Rollins Band began touring and recording in the Rollins style--obsessively--and quickly produced a series of records on independent labels. They blossomed into an underground sensation, followed by Rollins's old fans from the Black Flag era and new admirers from the marginal hard-core audience. Rollins described the band as a "well-kept secret" to Spin's Jim Greer, explaining, "In the past, we'd do all these tours and all these records and, you know, the records aren't even in print, the tours never get promoted. We're kind of like this band that doesn't really exist." But that began to change in the summer of 1991, when the Rollins Band went on tour with the Lollapalooza Festival. Their popularity with festival audiences led to a deal with a major recording label, Imago, and an album that generated a great deal of press attention.

Following the release of The End of Silence in 1992, superlative reviews from the most august rock magazines began to roll in. Rolling Stone's Mundy couldn't decide whether it was "the heaviest jazz record in history or the most intricate hardcore document to date." Mike Gitter called the Rollins aggregate "one of the hardest, most musically deft rock bands under the sun" in his Pulse! review. The band members, and Rollins in particular, suddenly found themselves in demand on television talk shows. The ever-articulate Rollins has appeared on Up All Night, Alive From Off Center, The Dennis Miller Show, and The Arsenio Hall Show. Following the success of The End of Silence, Imago also produced the first major recording of Rollins's spoken-word performances, The Boxed Life. Consequently, Rollins's exploding reputation as a rocker was powerfully supplemented by recognition for his talents as a poet, improvisational speaker, and stand-up comedian (fans had long appreciated his wry sense of humor).

Published Written Work

Rollins had begun the spoken-word performances--a kind of anti-high-culture version of poetry reading--in 1983. A year later, he was publishing volumes of his own written work. He has described himself as being as consumed with his writing as he is with his music, revealing in Melody Maker, "I first started writing in high school, but it was no big deal. I started taking it seriously when I was with Black Flag, partly to pass the time on the tour bus and partly to document the intense swirl of events we were caught up in. I've tried to write constantly since then." Early in 1993 he was juggling five writing projects at once, including a history of Black Flag based on his journals. Aside from the occasional essay printed in Spin or Details, Rollins has released his written work exclusively through his own publishing company, 2.13.61 (his birth date), which he founded in 1984. "I try to take as little sh** as possible from the powers that be," he illuminated in his Imago press biography. "I know that we all have to eat some in life's rich pageant. I figured that I could minimize the intake if I could control the release of my work as much as possible." Rollins won a Grammy Award for the spoken-word recording Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag in 1995.

Rollins's life almost spun out of control in 1991, when his friend Joe Cole was gunned down outside of Rollins's Los Angeles apartment building in a robbery attempt. He poured his rage and grief into Now Watch Him Die, a volume that was published in the summer of 1993. In a Rolling Stone interview that year, Rollins told David Fricke: "When your best friend gets murdered five feet away from you, it changes you. I always have that experience now permanently riding on my shoulder. I'm more aware of time, more aware of mortality, and I'm not so precious about life anymore. You're eventually going to die. Use the time wisely because it is running out, but don't freak out about it."

In addition to his work with the Rollins band, his spoken-word performances, and his involvement in 2.13.61, Rollins has managed to devote his considerable energy to other projects as well; he has acted as vocalist for Andrew Weiss's band Wartime, and he established a record label with Rick Rubin, president of American Recordings. The imprint--One Records--will focus on uncovering and re-releasing recordings from the 1970s and 1980s that are out of print.

In 1993, bassist Melvin Gibbs joined the Rollins Band; a follow-up release to The End of Silence--Weight--appeared in 1994. Weight, reaching the Billboard top 40 and becoming Rollins's biggest commercial success, received a Grammy Award nomination. It was followed by a tour that included Woosdtock '94 and a Details "Man of the Year" recognition. Rollins once explained his workaholic drive to Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press as the only way he knows to confront a painful life with defiance and commitment: "I don't want to blow my head off.... I don't want to take pharmaceuticals, either. So I lift weights, scream into microphones, hit keys on the typewriter."

Career as Actor and TV Host

Sent into overdrive by the success of Weight, Rollins appeared on MTV and VH-1, and ventured into film with an appearance in The Chase. Details also made Rollins a regularly contributing columnist. The Rollins Band label, Imago, shut down, and after their jazz and poetry experiment project Everything, the band made a new deal with DreamWorks. The first albums on DreamWorks were the poorly reviewed Come In and Burn, and Black Coffee Blues, both in 1997. Black Coffee Blues was another spoken-word recording, and featured readings from previous Rollins books. Think Tank--released in 1998--was not linked to any books.

At this time, Rollins decided to split up the old Rollins Band, dissatisfied with their latest attempts, and invited Mother Superior to join him to make up the new Rollins Band. In 2000, they released Get Some, Go Again. He describes on his website, www.21361.com, how it came together: "At the beginning of 1998, my friends and favorite LA band, Mother Superior, asked if I would produce some tracks for their next record. I was honored and got on board. The outcome was their fine record Deep." After the collaboration, Rollins asked Mother Superior to return the favor and write some songs with him. They booked some rehearsal time, and oddly enough, ended up in the same studio where Rollins had first practiced with Black Flag. Rollins and Mother Superior wrote three songs that night that Rollins says, "were exactly the kind of music that I had always wanted to make. I'm very happy with Get Some, Go Again. I like the sounds, the playing, the takes, the soul and the passion, and feel that I have given it everything I've got. I'm very proud of the record."

In 2001, Rollins released another spoken-word recording, Rollins in the Wry, about his time living in Los Angeles in 1999. He appeared in films including Johnny Mnemonic, Heat, and Lost Highway in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He describes himself as a "post-punk renaissance man," one who is equally at home recording albums with the Rollins Band, writing books and poetry, performing spoken-word tours, writing a magazine column, acting in movies, and appearing on MTV as a VJ. He also began hosting the Fox television network's Night Visions, a Twilight Zone-like drama, in 2001.

by Ondine E. Le Blanc

Henry Rollins's Career

Managed reptile department of pet shop, late 1970s, and ice cream shop, 1979-81; became singer with band Black Flag, 1981; became spoken-word performer, 1983; formed book publishing (and later mail-order and video) company 2.13.61, 1984; Black Flag disbanded, 1986; formed Rollins Band, 1987; band recorded with independent labels Texas Hotel and QuarterStick, late 1980s; signed with Imago Recording Company, 1991; band released The End of Silence, 1992; released spoken-word album The Boxed Life, 1993; contributor to Elle magazine and commentator for MTV Sports, beginning in 1994; appeared in film The Chase, 1994; established labels Zero Zero and Now Hear This, 1994; released Grammy Award-winning spoken-word recording Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, 1995; with Rollins Band, released Come In and Burn, 1997, and Get Some, Go Again, 2000; has appeared in films including Johnny Mnemonic, Heat, and Lost Highway, late 1990s-early 2000s; host of Night Visions on Fox television network, 2001-.

Henry Rollins's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Spoken Word Recording for Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, 1994; Man of the Year, Details magazine, 1994.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

PeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

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