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After a stint in a band called S.O.A., Rollins, the one-time manager of a Häagen-Dazs in Georgetown, Virginia, caught his break in 1981 when Black Flag's third singer, Dez Cadena, handed him the mic to sing "Clocked In" at a packed show in New York. Soon thereafter, Rollins replaced Cadena and, along with guitarist Greg Ginn, bassist Chuck Dukowski and one of several rotating drummers, put So-Cal on the map as ground zero for the American hardcore-punk scene.
Rollins's tour diary, Get in the Van, chronicles the era in blunt, graphic language ("I bit a skinhead on the mouth and he started to bleed real bad," reads a typical passage) and set the course for the cocksure singer's literary pursuits: writing brutal prose in the name of destroying the system, making sense of it or at least satirizing it somehow.
"I've always been fairly cynical in what I think the American impact on the American way really is," Rollins says. "You got a bunch of kids running around, throwing rocks at cops in D.C., protesting the World Trade Organization. Cops just beat the shit out of these kids: 'Done. Over with. Next. It coulda been Beijing, but we're showing restraint today, so go the fuck back home to Cape Cod, bitch.' This one guy wrote me the other day, 'I think there should be a revolution in America.' And I said, 'No, pal. You're never gonna get a revolution, 'cause if you think you're gonna stand up to the National Guard, local law enforcement -- now that every police agency in the country is paramilitarily trained since the Watts riots -- what are you gonna do? '
"I've hung out with cops," Rollins says, growing more animated. "I've hung out with the elite sniper guys. I've hung out with SWAT guys. It's unbelievable how lethal these people are. It's not like it is on TV. These are very bad people to mess with. They want to kill you. They want to kill somebody. That's why they signed up for the job.
"I can't believe anyone tries to perpetrate crime. If they knew what I know about these people, they might want to find a different job than, you know, carjacking or whatever. I've always thought that there's good cops and bad cops, and I'm on the side of the good ones. And the bad ones -- they do more harm than they might understand. It's so thoroughly destabilizing to have an authority figure break the rules.
"When the cop fucks you, who do you call?" Rollins continues. "And to live in this country and have that kind of fear -- fear of cops -- well, we always talk about how emancipated we are, and we always put down Stalin and his evil regime. How different is it when you fear the authority figures? When you're innocent? That's my problem with bad cops.
"We don't really have a voice," he says. "From what I have always been led to understand, your vote is nothing but something to be taken into consideration. There's, like, the electorate vote, and there's the popular vote. But it doesn't really matter. And I hate to have that kind of dissipated apathy in the face of all that, but I can't help but think it's true sometimes. I didn't lose much sleep over the whole thing in Florida," Rollins says. "I just had fun doing impersonations of Floridians trying to count."
Guarded playfulness in the age of hanging chad, terrorism and imminent war seems like welcome comic relief. For Rollins, it's just another day on the soapbox, raging until he's hoarse. With his "tumultuous teens, turbulent twenties and therapeutic thirties" out of the way (that's how Rollins sums up three decades of his life on his official Web site, www.henryrollins.com), what can Mr. Angry look forward to in his forties?
"Probably a receding hairline, increased bitterness and bile and a layer of ass fat I'll be unable to get rid of," Rollins says. "Yeah, that'll be me. Just kind of Volvo-drivin', lookin' like Alan Alda, wearing those kind of have-no-sexual-ambition kind of pants that you can buy at Banana Republic. I can get laid, but of course I'll have to go to the ATM."
Does Rollins ever think that he takes himself too seriously? "Not at all," he replies. "I take work seriously, but not me."
Does Rollins ever, in the dead of night, wonder whether he's sold out? "No," he says. "I don't think I've sold out."
And now the burning question: How much can he bench-press? "For the true measure of real strength," he says, "you never ask a guy what he benches. If you want to call him out, ask him what he deadlifts or what he squats -- that's the real strength exercise. That's where you shit your pants and scream.
"A few years ago, I deadlifted about 515 [pounds] off the floor," he adds. "I could've done more but backed off -- don't need to shit my intestines."
"I just do an occasional pushup now and then," I say with a chuckle.
"Well, I know -- you act like it," Rollins snaps. "But when you get in touch with strong mind, strong body, you might see things differently. Who knows? You might get laid."