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Exclusive: The Only Way To Know For Sure... Is To Ask Henry Rollins

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Monday, July 15, 2002 @ 1:16 PM


Jeff Kerby's Exclusive Intervi

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People often want to label various actors, athletes, or musicians as being the authentic embodiment of what it means to be a living legend. Many times the accolade is unwarranted or just plain inaccurate, meaning the personís impact in their particular arena is not as timeless or innovative as the moniker would suggest. In the case of Henry Rollins though, one could definitely make this claim without it sounding contrived or wishful in its emanation. He is known by punk aficionados everywhere as the lead singer of Black Flag who went on to form the Rollins Band which continues to bludgeon live audiences throughout the states each year. As proof of his on-stage proficiency, Sanctuary Records has just released an album entitled, The Only Way To Know For Sure, which contains two discs full of Rollinís Band staples performed at the Metro in Chicago. The result is a live album that is free of many of the usual overdubs and studio manipulations that are often employed by bands whose skill is more doctored fiction created by engineers than reality produced by the groupís own hard work.

As if sustaining a career with the type of longevity and substance that Rollins has managed isnít enough, he also produces spoken word discs and is involved in the literary spectrum as well. Recently, in addition to his other endeavors, Henry has also decided to champion the cause of the West Memphis Three by coordinating a benefit record consisting of a plethora of Black Flag songs with vocals performed by a variety of individuals. The objective of the organization is to see that the sentences of three Arkansas teenagers who many believe were wrongfully convicted of homicide in 1994 are rescinded before they are too old and gray to enjoy a life on the outside. With the boys now in their twenties, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley have already spent nearly a decade behind bars after having been found guilty of murdering three young children largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence and a coerced confession given by Misskelley -- a person with extremely limited mental capacity. The website chronicling their plight, wm3.org, gives a detailed description of the entire case from arrest to appeal, as do the two Paradise Lost documentaries which do an exemplary job of raising questions about the guilt of these three, but in doing so, leaves no doubt as to the existence of small town fascism that still exists in parts of this country today.

Talking to this man, you realize that maybe names and titles arenít all that important because whether heís labeled in terms of being a living legend or not, the fact is that Henry Rollins is an inspired performer who possesses a work ethic sure to produce a legacy that will endure long after he is gone.

KNAC.COM: You obviously have many different endeavors currently taking up your time, so given that -- why did you chose to get involved in the case of the West Memphis Three?
ROLLINS: There are a lot of things about it that bug me. First off, I disagree with the verdict and the way the boys were thrown in jail. Even if they were guilty, you canít just throw someone in jail for capitol murder because of some semi-retarded boyís forced confession -- not in America anyway. Thatís the thing that really bugged me. Howís this happening in my country -- the land of the free and the home of the brave? I remember being sixteen to twenty-five, and those were some pretty good years. Now those boys have spent that entire period of their life in prison with no good reason other than having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. After viewing the two documentaries, I got extremely angry and said, ďOkay, Iím in.Ē Right after that I contacted the West Memphis support group and asked what I could do to help. They said they needed everything, so I decided to get involved even though I had never done anything even remotely like this before. Iíve learned a lot so far.

KNAC.COM: Did your involvement have anything to do with these three being perceived as outcasts within their community? After all, their appearance and the way they were dressed is believed by many to have been a huge factor as to why they were originally accused. Was there any part of you that said, ďthat could have been me?Ē
ROLLINS: Yeah, I can relate to that in a certain way. I mean, I think every sixteen-year old feels like an outcast for the most part, but having never been raised in anything other than big, glittering urban expanses where I never had to be guarded about being in rock music, causes me to have no concept of what that would be like. I mean, I canít relate to it in the sense that if you look that way, you risk being arrested. Thatís not going to happen in New York or Los Angeles or places like that. Metallica fans and Stephen King readers donít get arrested in Boston or places like that, but that doesnít seem to be the case in certain parts of Arkansas. Even at that, being an outcast is something every kid goes through -- thatís how you find yourself.

KNAC.COM: Your involvement is pretty extensive here in that youíre also producing a benefit album comprised of various Black Flag songs and a variety of vocalists.
ROLLINS: Yeah, we did twenty-four Black Flag songs with all kinds of cool lead singers. We have the typical, the not so typical and some surprises, and it will be coming out in the fall. Many people very graciously lent their time to this. The managers werenít always so cool though, but the artists were always flat out great.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, I read something about that where you said that you would ask an artistís manager about whether they wanted to participate only to find out that after hearing nothing for a long period, that the vocalist had never actually been approached.
ROLLINS: That happened. We sent videos, DVDs, print outs, cover letters and made a battery of calls over a three week period to the managers, only to have to eventually go through one of guyís buddies to get to the source. Then, after we did, the guy says, ďYeah, I want to do the record. What can I do? When can I do it? No one ever told me anything about it.Ē That just makes you want to go and kick some managersí asses. A friend of ours at Interscope told us at the beginning that we were going to have trouble with some of the managers because they arenít getting any money for this, and they might be resistant. More often than not, we found that to be true. The thing is, this isnít just some Black Flag tribute album where weíre all gonna get paid. The fact is, there are three kids in jail, and these are like, eighty-second songs, and the whole time youíve got some manager going, ďMy guy doesnít have time.Ē Itís like, ďMotherfucker, these guys have been in jail for a decade, and your boy doesnít have ninety minutes? Shut up, donít be such a pig.Ē The arrogance is just off the scale with some of these people.

KNAC.COM: On your new live album, The Only Way To Know For Sure, there is a statement about the Ramones and what they meant to you. Can you state specifically what you took from them? What you may have learned from that band regarding the way you approach music or the way you conduct yourself on stage?
ď[The Ramones] played endlessly, and the encore was at least a half an hour. You just walked out of there thoroughly destroyed. It was really visceral. I never got over that.Ē
ROLLINS: The Ramones, for me, were one of those pivotal bands. I remember when I first got my hands on the Ramones album, and I borrowed it from a friend because I couldnít find it myself in a record store. My friend Burt gave it to me on a street corner in Washington DC. I ran home and played it, and it was a revelation to me. In it, there was this whole mythology of loony bins and Thorazine, and the music was just a simple bludgeoning thing. If that wasnít enough, the lead singer almost had like this idiot savant thing going where he just kept pounding you over the head song after song. Then, that summer, I saw them play in this place that is now a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. It was called Louieís Rock CityÖ it was us and a few hundred other people who were just wedged in there. The group came out, and it ended up being everything youíd ever want in a Ramones show. They played endlessly, and the encore was at least a half an hour. You just walked out of there thoroughly destroyed. It was really visceral. I never got over that. I got into their records, and years later I got to play with them and meet them. Theyíre just one of those bands, that if you donít like the Ramones, go and get some help. Having done a couple of shows with them, I just saw kind of this duty they seemed to have of just being the Ramones. They were very dedicated to their band. It was very inspiring. At the time I was in Black Flag, I was dedicated to that band too, but it was a very difficult band to be in. There was no money, cramped living quarters, and it was hard not to punch each otherís lights out kind of situation. You know, it was a case where youíre young, youíre pissed off, youíve got no money and everyone is about four inches from you all the time, and to see how the Ramones would go out there like this unit. I learned that youíve got to be part soldier with this. Theyíve been an endless inspiration to me.

KNAC.COM: They were definitely determined to never let anything stop them, and whatever happened, they were going to finish the set regardless of the adversity that befell them.
ROLLINS: Yeah, can you imagine playing that stuff when they first came out? These days, you and I have seen a lot of music come and go. You know, but when they came out, people were listening toÖ Toto! All those early New York bands were getting pelted at the time. Thatís pretty ballsy to go out there with such a vision where you really have to fend for your own. They kind of came from a vacuum while I sort of came into this furnished room that had been a log cabin. They definitely pioneered things, so bands in their wake can walk where they struggled. Iím sure every remaining Ramone can tell you some really horrible stories of everything from police intervention to religious groups coming down to keep them from turning their children intoÖ I donít know, freethinking individuals? You have to respect people who have a vision and follow through with it.

KNAC.COM: The injustice is that they never achieved the type of wide spread acclaim that they deserved. Many bands pay them homage now because itís trendy, but their influence dictates that they just should have been bigger--
ROLLINS: I think time will bear that out. The first four records are timeless, and I think those are going to be records that people are going to continue to check out. I just wish Joe was around to see it. I think that whichever Ramones are left in twenty years are going to see that theyíre a band like Nirvana in that they will continue to be a part of the lexicon of bands that youíve got to check out. You know, when youíre young, somebody better hand you that CD. Thereís a lot to be said for that -- bands being ahead of their time -- people have to catch up with it. Everyone thinks Iggy Pop is cool now, but when he was with the Stooges, that was another band that people didnít get. It takes awhile sometimes.

KNAC.COM: Do you think itís even possible for a band to have any type of heightened ideal or punk type aesthetic and still be on heavy rotation on MTV?
ROLLINS: At this point, itís doubtful. No -- weíll put it this way, I have no evidence to support that. Just from hearing what Iím hearing, it sounds like well-adjusted music made by well-adjusted people. It just gets really boring.

KNAC.COM: Does it bug you then when a band like Green Day continues to cling to the belief that theyíre punk?
ROLLINS: No, because when I was in Black Flag, Ginn and Dukowski, those guys thought everyone was a poser except maybe for the Ramones, Ted Nugent and Black Sabbath, John Coltrane and the bands on SST. Greg Ginn categorically hated the Sex Pistols. He thought the Clash were posers. I love the Clash. He even hated the Damned, but he hated all this and just thought that punk rock was a bunch of guys with eyeliner. We all listened to the Stooges, MC5 and the Velvet Underground, so if a band like Green Day called themselves punk, weíd just go, ďOh, that means their drummer isnít very good.Ē Thatís what punk rock in a broad sense means to me -- just that the rhythm section is for shit.

KNAC.COM: Then what youíre saying is that people can go too far trying to define what punk is---
ROLLINS: No, what Iím saying is that I donít care. Green Day is a good pop band. They have good songs and good playing. Punk rock to me though is something that flies in the face of whatís going on. Green Day just kind of came in, and everyone liked them. Good for them, but it isnít the type of thing Iíd be keeping my daughter away from--actually I would. If I had a kid theyíd be listening to Led Zeppelin IV, then if she came home with a Green Day record, sheíd have to go back to her cage. There is no Green Day in Hankís house.

KNAC.COM: Well, is there a part of you that resents having to tour so extensively because you donít get the exposure of a band like Green Day or someone who gets a lot of attention from video or radio?
ROLLINS: No, I resent having to be home for the last thirteen weeks. Thatís what I resent. Iíve averaged 106+ shows per year for the last twenty-two years. Iíve done more shows than Kiss. We looked it up. Have to tour? No, I GET to tour. A band that doesnít like to tour, I am really loathe to see play because thereís somebody in that band whoíd rather be home. When I go to a gig, Iím hoping for $18.50 or $22.50 worth of quality. I would hope they would want to be on stage and not acting up there.

KNAC.COM: My guess is that from listening to you is that your reasons for touring are different from some of the other bands out there.
ROLLINS: Weíre not touring for record sales because if we tour or donít, our records donít sell anyway, so we just like to play. I wish I was playing tonight, and Iím sure everyone in my band wishes we were playing tonight.

KNAC.COM: Many musicians often look at the actual performance as being secondary to all the peripheral activities that are going on in the rest of the day or the night whether they be parties or chicks, whatever. Youíve never really dabbled in the typical rock clichť of touring, why do you think that is? I mean thatís the primary reason many join a band in the first place.
ROLLINS: I was never really interested in the drug thing or the alcohol thing. I just never liked it, and I was always in bands where the live show was the main thing. Whereas the studio records were a pain in the ass, the live show was what we wanted to get right. Studio records are a dinosaur bone, as soon as you get done with them, theyíre just fossils of what you were six months ago. Since there was never radio potential for a single or anything, we never even thought that way because we just wanted to make the best sounding record we could and get the hell out there so we could go where we belongedÖ on the road.

KNAC.COM: How much prompting did the record company have to do to convince you that this live album would enhance your legacy of consistently motivated performances?
ROLLINS: They really loved the band as a live unit. The thing was, these days so many bands have trashed the traditional live album by turning in super overdubbed, really tame-sounding live albums. I wouldnít want to have that perception that I was just trying to gouge our audience or fan base for money. Which a lot of the time, thatís what a live album is. They throw it out for Christmas, and itís like theyíre going for your pockets. I donít need it, and I donít want our people to think of us that way. The record company came and said that they didnít see us that way and that they thought of us as a really solid live unit. Their enthusiasm really had an effect on me. Itís rare to get enthusiasm from a record company these days. Being at DreamWorks was like five years of corporate apathy. I was wondering why they signed me if they were so disinterested upon receipt of masters.

KNAC.COM: Like no feedback on new material--
ďIf I had a kid theyíd be listening to Led Zeppelin IV, then if she came home with a Green Day record, sheíd have to go back to her cage. There is no Green Day in Hankís house.Ē
ROLLINS: Like you couldnít even get past reception. Iím like, ďWhoa, you just gave me a million dollars, donít you wanna talk to me about it?Ē Nothing. So, when a record company actually calls you and knows that youíre on their label, I tend to respond favorably. The wrong place to be today is on a major label. The major labels are going down. They are going to hell in a handbasket. Those who arenít churning out multimillion selling albums are going to pay the price. These companies are going to cave in on themselves, and you can look for more layoffs in the future. The roof will just cave in under the weight of their own greed because everyone is getting paid so much. A couple of summers ago, I was asked to address a big corporate gathering in Germany. All the corporate heads got together, and they wanted me to be the keynote speaker and tell them what they should do to help their industry. I got up there and said, ďThe first thing we need to do is get rid of most of you.Ē There was some nervous laughter, but then I went on and said, ďall of you should be getting less. In fact, the thing that will save the music industry is less of everything -- less bands signed to majors, less money given to them, less money charged for CDs, less money given to you executives.Ē Therefore the bands have to sell less records to recoop. People will be way more interested in checking out new music if it doesnít cost $18.99. No wonder everyone downloads music. Go into Tower Records and that shitís nineteen bucks. Fuck you. I can afford it and I wonít even pay it. Then thereís these bands getting these multimillion-dollar signings, they just screw themselves. Itís the short-term money, and it just screws your career. All you end up with is that youíre twenty-five, youíve got no band, and you may have eight hundred thousand dollars in the bank, but the rest of your life youíll be that guy where people come up and say, ďDude, I had your record like fifty years ago.Ē

KNAC.COM: And you canít rebound from that -- once the stigmaís there.
ROLLINS: You canít get it back. You become a pariah. You were goods that were tried, and you failed. Youíre a leper now. Maybe that guy they drop is two albums away from his potential. I love that story of Shaggy getting dropped off Virgin, he signs to the next label, and itís five million sold. Itís like, ďThanks, thanks for the faith, Virgin.Ē If they would have just hung out for another eighteen months, all would have been laughing.

KNAC.COM: Thatís not uncommon though. Most labels wonít stick with an artist.
ROLLINS: No, it isnít. Iíd never want to go to back to a major. I was there from Ď92 to about Ď97 or something, and man, Iím glad itís over.

KNAC.COM: Iíve talked to musicians who have said to beware of someone who says that selling records isnít important, yet talking to you, thatís the impression Iím getting.
ROLLINS: Iím a player. I love to go out and play. I would hope people would go out and buy our records. When they do, they usually go, ďThat was a damn good record.Ē

KNAC.COM: Do you think that having less fans as long as they were completely devoted would be better than having three million or so half-assed ones?
ROLLINS: Letís play Nostradamus for a minute. Next year will there be another Rollins Band record and a tour? Oh yeah. Will there be another Smashmouth record and tour? I donít know. How many more Korn records? How many more Limp Bizkit records? Five more years for the Stone Temple Pilots? Longevity tells the tale.

KNAC.COM: When you have those long-term goals, the short term seems to be pretty steady and it doesnít vacillate as much.
ROLLINS: Thereís two ways to think about it. If youíre a money dude, then youíre up and down. If youíre Neil Young, itís ebb and flow. You have a record that does okay and then you have another where no one hears it, like that one he just did, that seemed to slip away. Well, I get the idea that Neil probably doesnít care because heís already looking toward the next album because heís a player. People get that about him. He isnít selling out the forum, but heís been around for the last twenty-five to thirty-five years. Iíll bet heíll be around for another ten just doing his thing, and you can take it or leave it. Thatís the thing I admire about these people is that they stay inspired and they go long. The long distance to me is more important than the brightly shining star that burns out in three years. All that type of career tells me is that youíre a corporate toy and you never really had the guts to go long and play until you were ugly and back in the clubs. You get to see who still loves it when their fame has gone away. No one stays big forever unless youíre Ozzy or Frank Sinatra. Those are very rare cases where youíre that lucky and everyone digs you until youíre eight hundred years old.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of bands who just continue to play, Cheap Trick had done a live album at the Metro just a couple of years ago, and they seem to be another case of a band who just loves to play even after the public accolades are gone.
ROLLINS: They still sound good. We played with them last summer, and they were smokiní.

KNAC.COM: Thatís a band that doesnít need to do that anymore unless itís something they just really want to do.
ROLLINS: They just love playing. These types of bands used to be a lot more common years ago. Bands like the Doobie Brothers, Chicago and Foghat, laugh if you will, but these guys used to tour and play and they were just like these ugly guys who played really well. They werenít these kind of video stars who are always getting sued or suing or quitting. These were long term guys and gals who wanted to keep playing because itís what they did. These days you donít see that as much. Talk to Axl Rose about the flame out. Cheap Trick just keeps playing, and the set is really good. Zander still hits the notes, and it is really amazing that he doesnít cheat and go under the notes. When we played with them last summer, we all just stood on the side of the stage and went, ďDamn, Iím gonna pull out my Cheap Trick records tomorrow.Ē I did too, and they still sound great.

KNAC.COM: You never get the feeling they are going through the motions either. I mean, theyíve done it all a million times, but they remain enthusiastic about their show.
ROLLINS: No, theyíre having fun. We have fun pretty much every night weíre out on tour, too. I mean, youíre living on the road, so some nights youíre tired if youíve got a cold or something, but after the third song youíve got some smiling faces there, and thereís no place youíd rather be. On nights off, you miss it, and when you come home from tour, you really miss it.

KNAC.COM: Is there a difference though sometimes between trying to have a career that lasts and has some longevity versus one that just overstays its welcome? There are many Ď80s bands who garnered a great deal of their success through videos and the looks of the band members and who are now going on tour this summer. Can you categorically state that they are on stage because they want to be, or are they performing due to other considerations?
ROLLINS: I think they got used to a lifestyle that takes a lot of money to support because if you really loved it, you wouldnít have gone away from it for ten years. You only reconvene after a divorce because youíre running the risk of having to sell your big house. Thatís why Rush does a new album every couple of years -- they never break up because itís a real band. That new Rush album is pretty damn good, too. You know, when Poison or Ratt gets back together -- Iím not putting these bands down -- but I really got to wonder what the motivation is. Itís like, ďYeah, we really want to play, and I really think that weíre all cleaned up from rehab and our solo projects really did suck. Now, our collective managers and ex-wives really want us to go back on the road.Ē

KNAC.COM: The fans are the ones who pay the price when thatís the case, too.
Ē[Spoken word is] extremely challenging. Words are very difficult to put together, like when you read a good book; that is an amazing thing. Iím still more in awe of a good book than a good record because itís just a lot more involved.Ē
ROLLINS: Yeah, unless itís really good, whereas some of these bands had some talent. Maybe they can go out into the sheds this summer and put together a good sixty-minute set and make a cool triple bill like Poison, Skid Row or whatever. These bands can play, and their music wasnít all that bad. Theyíve got fans out there, and I think if they can go out there and hit it, then no harm done, but if it were me, I donít think I would come back. If I walked away, I donít think I would come back out of financial need -- I would just go out and get a job and have a little grace.

KNAC.COM: Really?
ROLLINS: Yeah, I wouldnít come back and go, ďIím broke. Itís the Rollins Band again,Ē or ďItís Black Flag time.Ē It would just be too gross. Our fans are a pretty cynical lot, and I think if I tried that, they would land on me with their talons out and sink it into my flesh if I dared try to perpetrate such a fraud.

KNAC.COM: What do the spoken word albums fulfill that the making of your music doesnít? What are you able to do that youíre not able to within the context of a song?
ROLLINS: Well, a lyric is a pretty compressed statement, and I enjoy working within that because it takes some skill, but there are a lot of things that donít work for me as a song lyric that I still want to write about. You can use a lot more words and paint a bigger picture often with a different type of writing style. Itís extremely challenging. Words are very difficult to put together, like when you read a good book; that is an amazing thing. Iím still more in awe of a good book than a good record because itís just a lot more involved. Youíre on your own.

KNAC.COM: Would you say that because writing is a process where there isnít instant gratification, that it makes it more personal?
ROLLINS: Writing is horrible.

KNAC.COM: It can be very alienating.
ROLLINS: It is excruciating. The better you get at it, the worse it is for you. If you ever meet someone who writes novels, they usually turn out to be really shitty people because their job sucks. They just sit in a room and beat themselves up all day silently. I donít think Iíve ever met a good writer who is very friendly because their job is just fucked.

KNAC.COM: Yet they seem to get addicted to it to a certain extent.
ROLLINS: If I were really good at it, itís probably all I would do. I would really love to be able to write like some of my heroes like F. Scott Fitzgerald or whatever. Thatís why writerís biographies are so interesting to me because their lives are usually such a shambles. The prose it beautiful, but theyíre drinking themselves into oblivion. Their home life is in flames.

KNAC.COM: Thatís true pretty much from Poe and Twain on down the line.
ROLLINS: Yeah, I think that real music and real writing is hard on the person and the people around them. To me, the writing has always been good for me because Iím sort of a solo guy. Iím not a very social person, so the writing is something you can do on your own.

KNAC.COM: I think it is because you can do that alone that it gets to the point where the author thinks, ďGee, you know I shouldnít be watering the grass or going grocery shopping because I should be writing.Ē
ROLLINS: You shouldnít be going to parties, you should be writing.

KNAC.COM: Exactly, itís like any other activity they could engage in becomes secondary to the writing process, and they end up not wanting to do it.
ROLLINS: Well, thatís a purity that few people would understand, and I agree with everything you just said. It is a difficult thing.


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