HG Magazine - May/June '97...
"What's the matter with Henry?"
by Mark Dapin
Thrash rock icon Henry Rollins works out alone, stays home alone, keeps
women at bay. White-hot rage is his shield against love and loss - but what
is it, exactly, he's so anry about?
Venice Beach, LA, December 1991: Punk rock giant Henry Rollins and his
best friend and flatmate, Joe Cole, are returning from the supermarket
groceries. As they approach the porch of their home, two gunmen step out of
"One was on Joe, one was on me," says Rollins. "the guy who was on me did
all the talking. He said, ĎThis a holdup.í We both barely could speak. You
see these guns and you think if you talk too loud, they could go off."
The gunmen search their bodies for weapons and take the money from their
pockets. Cole is told to get on the ground, face down. Rollins is thinking:
"This is bad. It should just be a mugging. This has gone on for 30 seconds
Rollins is forced onto his knees, then told to stand and walk into his house.
"I knew we were going to get executed," he says. "In this neighborhood,
youíre found with a few pillows over your head. They bury the gun in the
pillows and nobody hears it."
He opens the floor, his mind racing, puts down the groceries, puts up his
hands. He says, "OK fellas, look, letís unplug the phone. Iíve got $3000 in
cash from this speaking date I did. Let me get it for you. There it is.
Thereís my stereo. Iíll wrap it up for you. Go get your buddy to bring his
car. Weíll load it in the car. I have to live in this neighborhood. Iím
not going to call them cops."
The gunmen laugh at the terrified tough guy, make him hump their booty to
the low-rider, and drive off into the night. Rollins and Cole embrace, roar
hysterically, slap each other on the back, slam dance around their empty
living room - alive.
That is what Henry Rollins wishes had happened that night just over five
years ago. In real life, Rollins did not have time to offer anybody $3000
and a stereo. As the first gunman marched him inside, the second gunman
shot Joe Cole, point blank, in the head. The other fired once at Rollinsí
back, missed and fled.
Rollins ran from the scene to call the LAPD and was picked up as a suspect
himself. Handcuffed and thrown into a police car, he was driven back to his
own address. His home was surrounded by yellow tape.
He asked after Cole. A cop said "Your friendís dead," and went back to
writing on a clipboard.
Rollins spent the night in the cells. His girlfriend came to visit, and
the police asked her if Rollins and Cole were gay lovers. She said she and
Rollins were having a relationship. They asked if Rollins could be bisexual.
Then they decided Rollins was a drug addict and demanded to know the name
of his supplier.
Rollins is famously drug free. He does not drink or smoke cigarettes. He
asked, "Did you find any drugs in my place?" ("and they turned the place
upside down," he says now, "and stole all my good pens, too") The cops
admitted theyíd found nothing. Rollins said, "Does that kind of help you at
Finally, the police believed his story.
The case remains open. The gunmen were never caught. Rollins keeps a jar
of bloody dirt scraped from the spot where Joe Cole died.
Henry Rollins is college-boy handsome, marine handsome, comic-strip
handsome, almost caricature handsome. He is perfectly muscled, like a
Marvel superhero. His neck is as thick as my calves. We work out at
Bayswater Fitness in Kings Cross. Rollins has a stripped-down and ripped
economy of movement. He looks only where he has to. He walks towards the
weights as if he has no peripheral vision.
"I usually work out in the power cage," he says, "because it's
self-spotting." Self-spotting equipment allows him to lift weights alone.
Since Cole'ís death, Rollins does everything alone.
Rollins bends his knees and hurls barbells curls into the air, almost
bouncing the weight off the flat plates of muscle that armour his chest.
Still panting for breath after my warm-up, I gingerly press 40kg on the
triceps-pull down machine. Rollins raises the load to 100kg, the highest
the machine will go. I could not move 100kg with my triceps if the reward
was world peace and a six-movie contract. Rollins shrugs off a set of 100kg
reps then returns the peg to the 40kg mark for me. I quit lifting weights.
Rollins crashed the US punk scene in 1981, when he leaped onstage with
cult hardcore rockers Black flag., grabbed the mic from the singer and
loosed a burst of typically blazing anger over the groupís furious thrash.
The band soon asked him to replace the singer he had blown offstage. Joe
Cole was a Black Flag roadie.
Thirteen years ago, Rollins was very angry indeed. He was angry about the
abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepbrother, the abuse he bore from
his motherís boyfriends, the unbending discipline he was forced to comply
with by his estranged father. He was angry about everything that angers
Black Flag was an inspiration to many post-Pistols punk bands. They built
their own PA, developed their own circuit, slogged around the US on tours
that lasted five months at a time, establishing a national following
through sheer hard work. Since they disbanded in 1986, Rollins has fronted
the Rollins Band, which plays all year round, across five continents. When
they are not touring, Rollins takes a spoken- word show on the road. During
the down time, he makes movies. He was in The Chase with Charlie Sheen,
Johnny Mnemonic with Keanu Reeves, Heat with Al Pacino. He has a small part
in David Lynch'ís Lost Highway. He also has his own publishing company and
has published 11 books of his own, spanning poetry, journalism and stream -
of - consciousness diary stuff, as well as others by writers including Joe
"Basically, I donít have a life, " he says on the promo video for the new
Rollins Band album, Come In and Burn. "I donít have any drug addictions to
slow me down. I donít have any dependency on alcohol and I donít have a
girlfriend or wife. The only thing that interests me is work."
Since Cole'ís death, Rollins has preached, "Donít attach." His attitude has
led to Those Gay Rumours, but Rollins talks about women all the time. He
says he'ís not good for women. If he has a girlfriend, he has to timetable
her into his few vacant slots, offer her the hours between nine and 12 two
weeks from their first date. He does not stay in one place for long.
Rollins says women tell him, "I like you, but you'íre never there. And even
when you are there, youíre not there."
He says he does not want somebody elseís life "glomped" onto his own. He
is not willing to take the midnight telephone call that begins, "Hi, I just
needed to talk." So talk to someone else, says Rollins. "Whatís the name
after Rollins in your phone book? Try them. Iím not the one you call when
youíve got a problem. I sure as hell wonít call you when Iíve got a
problem. When Iíve got a problem, I handle it."
He says that has been in two long relationships in the past three years.
"They didnít work out. Oh well. And then thereís all the two-month
relationships, the six-week relationships, the one-month relationships, the
one-hour relationshipsÖ. Iíve been out with all kinds of women -
kickboxers, paralegals, strippers, students, models, actresses, women in
Has he been out with anyone famous? "Yeah, Iíve been out with some famous
"I canít tell you."
I donít tell him about the famous people Iíve been out with, either.
Rollins was "a disciplinary problem" in school. "I was hyperactive,
starting fights. They put me on drugs. Iíd get thrown out of schools and
not even know why. Iíd find out later that Iíd attacked students. Some days
my voice would be really hoarse and I wouldnít know why. It was because Iíd
been yelling at the top of my voice in class. I would do things to other
kids - very violent things, like mutilating them. I blinded a kid in
kindergarten, stabbed one kid in the ass with a pencil because he beat me
to a touchdown. I remember watching the blood spread through his pants and
him giving me the strangest look. I was a piece of shit."
At 12 years old, he was send to a navel prep school, where the disruptive
rich kids were made to learn discipline. "These teachers will slap your
fucking teeth out of your head, " says Rollins.
The staff were all old soldiers. "I had a general for a chemistry teacher."
He discovered weightlifting at 15. "They sent me to this school jacked on
Ritalin, an anti-hyper drug,í he says. "You donít eat, you donít talk. For
the first year and a half, I did not even know where the cafeteria was."
When he picked up the weights, he threw away the pills. "I put on 10 pounds
of muscle in half a year.," he ways. "Iíd do the whole workout and then Iíd
do it again. When youíre 15 and lifting weights, you can lift weights all
night. Iíd eat 2 meals for lunch.
"My dad called me the locust. He would load up all this food for me and
sit and watch me eat 3 hamburgers."
He adds. "He gave me a lot of boxing lessons."
Was he a boxer? " I donít know. I donít know much about him."
Rollins has said he despised his father and mother, who divorced when he
was young. Now, he says, " Theyíre not bad people. I donít hate them.
"I see my mom every year and a half. We talk every 6 months or so. She
calls me. I like her OK. I donít know her that well. Weíre like friends who
were roommates a long time ago. She doesnít call me son and I call her by
her first name. We donít do that mother-son thing. I donít know what thatís
about. And I donít know what the father-son thingís about, either."
He has not seen his father for 8 years. "I hear about him." He says. "he
does a lot of expert witness testimony in rates cases - water, power,
electric. The court asks: ĎOK, if the water scale is down past a certain
level, will rates go up a certain amount?í And they bring him in to go,0
ĎHereís me sliding scale.í
"Heís a PhD in economics. He wrote a book called, I think, Water Utility
Rates. A block buster."
Does Rollins have any plans toblock busterh it?
Rock and roll is a young manís sport, says Rollins, aged 36, "especially
the way I play it - really physically." Onstage, he jumps around roaring
like an athlete in agony. He strikes rock stars poses, martial arts poses,
body building poses and he yells.
He burns and bleeds and invites the audience to attack him.
His lyrics are angry, adolescent, dark and adolescent. The rarely spoken
truth is that they are not much good.
The Rollins Band songs tend to be one-sided, obvious and curiously
adolescent. They lack the depth of understanding, the easy wit, of the man
himself. Rollins recognizes he is not writing poetry. He has said, "Writing
is therapy for me. Iím not an artist, not a creative person. Iím not a
talented writer. Iím not a good writer."
If Rollinsí body of work is not exactly art, his body is. Beautifully
sculpted, a masterpiece of perfect symmetry, Rollins is compelling to look
at. He is also compelling to listen to, when he is not playing with the
band. Not even Rollinsí greatest admirer would claim the man can sing.
Rollinsí records sell because his anger strikes a chord, but what - apart
from the death of Joe Cole - is he supposed to be angry about there days?
Itís hard to say.
Between the work out at Bayswater Fitnessand a photo session with the
Sydney press, Rollins has lost his centre.His body language is all pulled
punches. His eyes are on fire. He tosses his T-shirt onto a chair, turns
his back on his road manager with a furious finality. He looks like he
could kill. His publicity people rush to sort everything out: "Was he OK
when he was with you? When did he get into this mood?"
The road manager leans over and whispers the terrible truth. "Henry cut
If Rollins is reluctant to give other people emotional support, he will
cross the world to help them out with their work. He produced the album Ill
at Ease for Adelaide band The Mark of Cain. His remuneration was the cost
of his flight, his accommodation, gym fees and $30 a day for food. Mark of
Cain singer John Scott says, "He seemed very relaxed. Onstage, thatís a
performance. Offstage, I would doubt that now he could be like he was at
18. You can only be that angry all the time [when youíre ] younger. As you
get older, you mellow. You become a little bit more easy-going. You canít
be this totally fucking intense guy who everybody doesnít want to talk to -
although Iím sure he can be like that.
"Rollins was a reinvention of himself, anyway. He didnít like what he was
when he was younger - he was a skinny bugger - so he pumped iron and became
this thing that was threatening. At the same time, heís still a guy with a
very sharp sense of humor and a sharp eye for detail. Youíd like to be his
friend and yet you find there is a certain point where he wonít go. We did
ask him out a couple of times and he kept saying, Ďno, Iíve got lots of
shit to do,í and we got the impression he was really, really busy.
"Weíd lent him a ghetto blaster to listen to all our mixes on. When I went
to his hotel room, I pressed the botton to take out the cassette and the
little door broke off. I was trying to put it back on and couldnít. He
grabbed it, went clunk-clunk-clunk, and it was on. I said, ĎFuck, you know
how to do that.í (in italics) he said, ĎWell, you know, Iíve had a lot of
time to get to know thisí - and he stopped himself. What he was saying was,
"Iíve been bored shitless in this hotel room with nothing to do so of
course I know everything about this ghetto blaster.í" Scott says he struck
them as being like Arthur Fonzarelli in the Christmas episode of Happy Days
where the Fonz says he doesnít want to be around for the Cunninghamsí
Christmas because he goes to relatives who have a big tree and lots of
food. "then they find out that on Christmas Eve Fonzieís sitting in his
little mechanicís shop eating cold tinned food."
In the Black Flag years, Rollins had his body tattooed, everything from
the famous "search and destroy" motif across his back to the Black Flag on
his biceps. "Tattooing is defining yourself," he says. "Itís trying to
figure out how your feet fill your shoes." On one forearm, snakes coil
around a sword beneath the words "death trip". " Life to me is a death
trip." Explains Rollins. He thinks about his mortality a lot. "Youíre doing
a life sentence with death waiting for you. [The tattoo] is a reminder."
Above that tattoo is a deathís head. "I guess itís something thatís on my
mind a lot, " he says. "Itís so heavy to me that someone dies. They get
almost legendary to me. Itís a very inspiring thing itís also very
humbling." On the opposite arm is a skull in a hood. "Same thing again," he
says. I quit counting tattoos.
Rollins does not feel the need to fight. "I feel the need to be able to
get home. If youíre going to talk shit to me, wind me up - man, save it. If
you say, ĎIím gonna kill you, only one of us is getting out of this door,í
Iím gonna do my best to be the one who gets home." He calls his credo
That night in December 1991, Rollins did get home, but perhaps he did not
"Iíve got no close friends," he says "the guys in the band Ö I like them,
but I donít really know them." He says he likes and respects his manager
but, "We never have those conversations like, ĎWhen I was six years oldÖí"
Ninety per cent of the telephone numbers stored in his computer are
business related, he says. Not even any of the contacts he calls "non -
combatants" call him up to ask him out on a Saturday night - they know he
will not make that journey. "People just give up on me, " he says.
Rollinsí journey is a journey inside himself, and the landscape there is
as bleak and threatening as any he could hope for. Rollins wants to be
tested, to prove himself man enough. He strives for self - containment,
overpowering strength, total independence, freedom.
His freedom is a freedom is a freedom from emotional attachment, from
love. He has to fight off his friends, his colleagues, his women, all the
people who value Henry Rollins as a person, not simply a working machine.
But, for him, the fight against attachment is a fight worth winning,
because Henry Rollins knows what every anxious lover suspects. That if you
trust somebody, if you value somebody, if you care about somebody enough to
need them, then - always and inevitably - they will die first. (in italics)