On music and madness

Henry Rollins turns his anger into fuel

Heidi May

It’s safe to say Henry Rollins is still angry. In fact, he’ll be the first to admit he might even be extremely angry. The author/activist/artist doesn’t like LA Weekly renaming his weekly column, he seemingly hates interviews and clearly doesn’t like talking to people, plus you only get one shot to ask him any questions. It’s not surprising. One of his latest columns is titled “I Like Records More Than People.” He admittedly uses anger as fuel and it’s evident in everything he does. From his work with iconic punk group Black Flag and The Henry Rollins Band to his spoken word performances and countless published works, rage persists as an underlying theme.

Rollins was born Henry Lawrence Garfield in Washington, D.C., the only child to Iris and Paul Garfield. His parents divorced when he was just 3 years old and he was mostly raised by his mother. Rollins suffered from depression and low selfesteem during most of his formative years, which led to an early interest in physical fitness. While most kids were doing drugs and getting drunk, Rollins was swimming upstream; he’s only been drunk a few times, all of them in high school, and tried pot once — and hated it. For him, his highs are of the organic variety and usually brought on by an impassioned performance or a good day at the gym. Hardly the expected rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

In 1983, Rollins had his first spoken word performance and, much like a drug, was instantly hooked. It was the one thing that felt the most natural, he says. But Black Flag’s first album had been released in 1981 and at this point his music career was already in full swing, so he had to learn to multitask.

“I went onwards,” Rollins says. “It was either that or stop.”

His involvement in the group lasted until 1986.

Music has been a constant in his life and even at the age of 54, he’s still very much that teenage kid who used to geek out with Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye in his mother’s attic over new music they’d discovered.

“I liked records because they didn’t tease, didn’t try to hit you, didn’t scold,” he says. “It was a perfect relationship. My mother listened to a lot of records, so I would just listen to what she played. I had Beatles records as a child and liked them a lot. I thought they were children’s records. I had no idea they had adult appeal. To this day, records and music is a great place to go. I listen to a lot of music still, probably more than ever. I have no idea how my life would be possible without it.”

Rollins’s LA Weekly column is immensely popular, but Rollins mostly sees his frustrations with it. For this reason, he has released his latest book, Before the Chop II, the second volume of his original pieces for LA Weekly.

“Readers will get to read exactly what I sent the LA Weekly before it is chopped for space and renamed,” he says. Referencing a recent work, he adds, “‘Musical Elitism is for Lightweights,’ is never a title I would put on anything and it’s embarrassing to have to see that, but that’s how it is. It is for reasons like this that we do the Chop books. Hopefully, someone digs the book.”

In addition to his books, he’s also juggling a radio show with KCRW in Los Angeles, another avenue Rollins uses to purge his inner demons.

“I don’t like inactivity,” he says. “I like to do things and stay active. The radio show is the funnest of all the jobs I have. I am an angry person. It keeps me motivated and on the move.”

Over the years, he’s used multiple platforms to address his agendas, most famously the case involving the West Memphis Three — three men who were tried and convicted in 1994 for the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark. After countless appeals and the support of several high profile celebrities, the three men were released August 19, 2012. Rollins’ contributions included a benefit album and endorsement of the film, West of Memphis.

“It would take a long time to explain why I got involved,” he says. “If anyone is so inclined, they can do their own research. I would advise anyone interested to see the very good documentary West of Memphis. I am not actively involved with anything on that scale at this time. That was a decade-long, very heavy lift. It wasn’t easy, but of course worth it. In the case of the West Memphis Three, I thought the justice system failed. If citizens didn’t stand up for them, Jessie, Damien and Jason could very well still be in prison. For me, it’s an anger thing. I was in it to help these guys for sure, but I was also in it to kick Arkansas’ ass, which I did.”