Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, Henry Rollins explains the difference between getting on stage in front of a roaring rock group and standing in front of a crowd with just a microphone.
“The band is relatively easy in comparison,” he says. “If you screw up, it’s obliterated by so many decibels. It’s like a grainy photo. You can’t see the warts.”
Rollins, former frontman of the legendary hardcore punk band Black Flag, describes performing spoken word material as far more terrifying.
“The talking shows, there’s no net there,” Rollins says. “It’s you and your intellect engaging the audience. If you have nothing to say or give them dead air, you have screwed it up.”
It seems like Rollins rarely suffers from a dearth of things to say. He says he gathers material partly through extensive travels to places like Siberia and Africa.
“There is no way you can live seven days on a train going through sub-zero Siberia and not come out of it with something for the stage,” he says. “Of course, you can learn something in Delaware today. Or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There’s lessons a plenty. But I go for these left-field experiences.”
How Rollins came to be a member of Black Flag was itself one of those left-field experiences, and remains one of the great stories in rock music. In 1981, Black Flag was the West Coast’s pre-eminent punk band, and Henry Rollins was a young Washington, DC resident scooping up ice cream for kids at a local ice cream store. After becoming a fan of Black Flag and meeting the band at a DC gig, Rollins drove up to New York to catch a show at a hardcore venue called 7A.
Rollins had to leave the city late at night so that he could get back to DC to open the shop in the morning. Before departing, he jumped onto the stage and sang the Black Flag song “Clocked In” with the band. A few days later, while operating the ice cream store, Rollins was called by Black Flag guitarist Dez Cadena and invited to become a permanent member of the band.
With Rollins on vocals, Black Flag cut a handful of legendary albums—including 1981’s Damaged and 1984’s My War—before disbanding in 1986. After the demise of the legendary outfit, Rollins got involved in numerous projects.
On the music front, Rollins put together his own group titled the Rollins Band in 1988. The band played slower, thicker, more cathartic music than Black Flag on popular releases like 1992’s The End of Silence and 1994’s Weight. On stage with the band, the muscular performer was known for stalking like a panther and flexing his muscles like a weightlifter.
Despite also becoming a writer of books, including Roomanitarian, and an actor in films like David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Rollins has become most popular lately as a spoken word act. He embarked on that aspect of his career in 1987 with the release of Big Ugly Mouth. Since then, Rollins has taken home a Grammy for his spoken word work with Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, a double-disc set based on a memoir he wrote.
Rollins will bring his spoken word act to Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library this weekend in a special show to benefit the institution, but he says he has not nailed down what he will talk about yet. “Maybe, I’ll make the show Milleresque in that I am kind of Milleresque,” he says. “I say what I want, and I do what I want for the most part. I wouldn’t want to sit there and read tracts from Miller books, though. I think that would put everyone solidly to sleep.”
Rollins, a big Miller fan who has published the author’s works through his 2.13.62 publishing company, got hooked by the writer’s 1936 novel Black Spring.
“That stuff is just like a young man at his virile peak, full of outrage, wonder and curiosity,” Rollins says. “Those early writings are revelatory.”
For Rollins, Miller is still relevant today because his work is not confined to the time in which he wrote. “He talks to your deepest human core,” Rollins says. “When you read Black Spring, there’s nothing old about it. It’s wine, women and song. It’s the essence of life.”
Rollins has his own program on the Independent Film Channel titled The Henry Rollins Show, which features interviews with filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Werner Herzog and performances by music acts including Sleater-Kinney and Jurassic 5.
He says he is also practicing with the Rollins Band for a tour in August. “I don’t think we will get out of this without a record,” he says.
Henry Rollins performs a special spoken word show at the Henry Miller Library, a quarter mile south of Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur, Saturday at 8pm. $40/ticket; $100/library supporter ticket. 667-2574.