By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
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By Christian Schaeffer
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"Sellout Motherfucker of the Year: Henry Rollins." That was the judgment handed down by the editors of Thrasher magazine a few years back. The criticism is nothing new. Rollins has been getting shit for trying to make a living ever since Black Flag broke up. Of course, Thrasher still takes advertising money from Rollins' record label, so it's safe to assume that "selling out" some nebulous concept of punk-rock ideals can be mitigated by purchasing a full-color quarter-page ad three months of the year. Riding that money train is only a crime when the other guy does it. Please keep your hands and legs inside the train at all times, and remember to keep one hand on your integrity while you denounce everyone else. It will slip away from you, if you let it.
For every ex-Black Flag fan who sneers at and derides the modern Rollins, there are two or three people (four, in the case of the Conformists) who will argue that the only difference between Rollins then and now is that Rollins is working harder and more effectively than ever before. Most Rollins fans tell similar stories about their reasons for sticking with him: You're 12 years old, the new kid in school, lonely, friendless and afraid. Then you see this long-haired maniac on a public-access cable show, flailing and roaring his way through "My War," and you realize this is the music that will smolder in your heart while you're getting the shit kicked out of you in gym class. From that moment on, David Lee Roth is dead to you, because your life ain't a rock & roll party, it's a long, lonely death march into the future, and "Three Nights" is going to help you go further down the road than "Dance the Night Away." Now you're 19 years old, recognizing yourself in See a Grown Man Cry: "Alien Boy ... He has bad skin, is too smart and sensitive for his own good ... He told me about the writers that he likes/I could tell from the way he was describing them/That these books were saving his life ... Alien boys, rock steady."
You're pretty sure that's the truest thing ever written, until you stumble across this gem a few pages later: "That's my religion, power through pain." He's not advocating it, he's just telling you even though you're holed up in that dark little cell behind your eyes, there's a whole world of you and people like you. And someone out there is going to send all of you mail, and books and music, while you serve your sentence. That someone is Henry Rollins. Sometimes he even visits in person.
Such will be the case this week, when Rollins makes an appearance at the Pageant in support of his latest spoken-word CD, A Rollins in the Rye (1/4 Stick Records). This is not to say he will be reciting material from the album or reading from his latest book. Rollins approaches his spoken-word shows with a flexible plan of attack: "I basically make up a setlist, either in my head or on paper -- not writing down things I'm gonna say but more just a roadmap, basically letting me know points I want to get to and what I'm going to say about all that stuff. Ehhh, I have somewhat of an idea, but I usually try and let the night decide. By 10 shows into the tour, I've got some ideas down that I know I can jam on. I know I wanna talk about turning 40. What am I gonna say about it? We'll see when I get there."
That's a pretty bold approach when you take into account the fact that Rollins is delivering an essentially unscripted monologue for up to two hours a night, every night, for three months. Rollins shrugs off the idea of going blank or losing his way on stage. "This is year 18 or something for the talking shows. I've been doing these almost as long as I've been onstage with a band. If you wanna be there, if you're the performer type and you actually wanna be there, and you like the audience and you're having a good time, rarely will the thing let you down. I really enjoy the time I'm having, and I really enjoy the audience ... and I'm never at a loss for words," he says with a laugh.
This ability to consistently entertain others while entertaining himself is the root of Rollins' success as an artist (a term he's not too comfortable with, but it's more succinct than "monologist," "standup philosopher," "spoken-word assassin" or "word-talkin' guy." Although Rollins still deals with the isolation and rage and sense of loss that characterizes the Alien Boys, he also talks about stuff that appeals to folks who are not quite so introverted -- such as making movies with Noah Wyle and Jeff Bridges. "You see him [Bridges] in movies, and you think he'd be a down-to-earth guy, and he is. He's totally cool ... we have the same favorite Captain Beefheart album." Or getting to hang out with Black Sabbath during their reunion show and then recording a song for Tony Iommi's solo album. "Getting to shake Tony Iommi's hand was a thrill for me. I made him sign my lyric sheet," he laughs. "He gave me this very weird look and went, 'Uh, OK.' And now I have it in a plastic sheet protector." When Rollins tells a story, he's not "Henry Rollins, rock star/artist performing art." He's a charming, garrulous man with a self-deprecating sense of humor who makes the topic of girlfights funny but can still level you with the grim visions that litter his ongoing "Mechanic" file. He's a regular guy with an unusual job, and he appreciates that.
The result is an audience broader than glue-huffing punkers waiting for a dramatic reading of "Six Pack." Rollins says his current audience includes "everyone in there from, like mom-and-dad-age -- well, shit, I'm mom-and-dad-age!" He laughs and continues, "You know, people my age coming in on their walkers and stuff and young people all the way down to about high-school sophomore-, high-school-freshman age. Mostly white, about 50/50 male/female."
The bigger audiences Rollins enjoys these days have not led to an episode of Behind the Music (yet), but they have produced an unauthorized biography, which puzzles the subject somewhat: "I don't know why he [fan James Parker] chose me as a topic. Writing a book about me would be like writing a book about Randy Bachman. You know what I mean? He sings, he's in a band -- who cares? And I don't really have any deep, dark secrets. They're all in my books. Any dumbass thing I did, I already wrote about."
Ironically, the chain bookstore that had James Parker's unauthorized Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins did not have any copies of Rollins' work on its shelves. Because Rollins publishes his books through his own 2.13.61 imprint, they can be hard to find -- unless you go to Subterranean Books in the Loop, where Rollins' work is stocked in the counterculture section, right next to that of one of his literary idols, Henry Miller. Rollins laughs and whoops, "I like that!" when told about this fortuitous placement. For the one-time "Sellout Motherfucker of the Year," getting his work out there is something that hasn't gotten any easier despite 18 years of publishing and a heightened public profile: "At this point, I'm happy if I'm in the bookstore at all. It's easy not to be on the bookshelves these days. With your Barnes & Nobles and your Borders, they've effectively censored a lot of writers, little fish like me, because if they don't put you on their shelves, to Middle America, you don't write books. Thankfully, there's your cooler, hipper stores that would do something like put me next to Henry Miller, that cool way of thinking -- like, 'Hey! Two guys who cuss a lot!'"