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Guilty as charged 

Rollins looks back on a history of not looking back

click to enlarge Razing the Black Flag: "We kind of got what we asked for," says Rollins.
  • Razing the Black Flag: "We kind of got what we asked for," says Rollins.

Henry Rollins is currently on what you might call a musical hiatus, but it's one that may never end.

"I don't know that it is a hiatus," says the former Black Flag and Rollins Band frontman. "I've been around that track many, many times, and [touring as a musician] is cool, but it's not exciting. I don't want to go out and sing 'Liar' again."

These days, Rollins is bringing his spoken-word performances to many of the same venues he'd played earlier in his career. He's also doing USO shows for the troops, a Bob Hope for the punk generation.

And while some of his favorite bands Television, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four have recently reunited, he really doesn't see the point.

"I went out in '06 and sang a bunch of old songs with my band," says Rollins, "and it was like, 'Aren't we kind of like a museum self-curating ourselves on stage every night?' It's not something Ornette Coleman would have done; you never saw Miles Davis doing what could be viewed as a greatest hits tour.

"I just think that when you are a man in your 50s playing music you wrote in your 20s, are you really that knotted up about when the female leaves?" muses Rollins, who's actually 47. "When the chick leaves, it no longer gets 20 pages of crazy scrawl in my composition notebook about how I'm gutted and the sun will never rise again. You realize that they will be serving breakfast in the morning and everything will be OK."

Straight talk

Rollins remains something of an enigma in the rock world. With the physique of a California governor, he's also blessed with a novel admixture of common sense and uncommon eloquence, like Joe the Plumber with a brain.

A heterosexual advocate for gay rights who also works with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Rollins has donated time and money to the West Memphis Three, the United Nations and the local orphanage near his Los Angeles office. Within the last year, between making documentaries and touring, he's traveled to Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan.

Palling around with terrorists, Henry?

"Not unless I'm stuck on an airplane with a Republican."

Rollins says he wasn't sure what to expect on his first USO tour: "You and I can speculate from our safe environments about the Project for the New American Century, and this pre-existing agenda to go into Iraq, and on and on. But when you're out there with these guys, their goal is to leave the gate every day for 12 to 14 hours or whatever the mission requires, and don't get blown up, and then to get themselves and their buddies back to the dining facility at nighttime for a meal. You know, another day without death or dismemberment."

Happy-go-lucky lad

Born Henry Lawrence Garfield in Washington D.C., Rollins went on to attend a military prep school (no guns, he says, just "douche-bag uniforms, gray pants, white shirt, striped tie the guy you wanted to punch out at the bus stop") and remembers listening to his first Sex Pistols album with future Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye. Upon moving to California, he joined a band called Black Flag and helped create America's version of punk rock. In the process, Rollins and his bandmates found fertile terrain for their post-adolescent angst.

Plus, cops loved them.

"I think it was because we had so many young people at our shows," he says, "and they saw something that was perhaps going to challenge their idea of authority."

Lyrics like "This fucking city is run by pigs" and an album cover depicting a depraved nun only added to the charm.

"Admittedly, Black Flag begged for it," says Rollins. "We were spoiling for a fight, if you will. In those days, everything Ray [Pettibon] did made people stop, but we would go through a pile of his drawings and pick that one, you know, basically just being provocative. We were like, 'Yeah, we want to get into it with you, let's start something and get this ball rolling.'

"And believe me, they came in large number not the audience, the law. And so we kind of got what we asked for. It was hardly a happy-go-lucky-young-lad-in-his-20s kind of thing."

Today, Rollins is a kind of punk-rock renaissance man. He runs a publishing company that's put out works by Hubert Selby, Nick Cave, Alan Vega and Exene Cervenka. He's acted in films, had his own TV show and hosts a Saturday night radio program, Harmony in My Head, on L.A.'s Indie 103.1 FM.

Asked if, at this age, he's embarrassed by anything in his past, he responds like the Henry of old.

"How many of your friends had a microphone in their face from age 22 to right now?" he says. "If we mic'd you for that many years, do you think there's anything you might want redacted?

"No," Rollins concludes, "regret is a luxury. I can't really afford it. I just have to stand guilty as charged for anything I've done and take the punishment."

bill@csindy.com

  • Henry Rollins is on what you might call a musical hiatus, but it's one that may never end.

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