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Q&A: Henry Rollins Talks Black Flag, Punk in Los Angeles and Living in the Future
Black Flag was one of the most important bands to come out of the L.A. punk scene of the early-1980s. The band pioneered hardcore, and eventually post-hardcore, under the guiding hand of guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn, whose incendiary anti-authoritarian and nonconformist messages struck a chord with teens and twenty-somethings during the Reagan era. But it was Henry Rollins, the charismatic front man for the band during the heady days of the band’s greatest popularity, from 1981-1986, who became the poster child for their incendiary brand of hardcore punk.
As chronicled in the new book More Fun In The New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk, by X’s John Doe, Tom DeSavia and a who’s who of the Los Angeles punk scene, past and present — as well as in the first volume by Doe and company, 2016s Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk — Black Flag and Rollins were lightning rods amongst a group of bands and artists already on the front lines of the culture wars.
His chapter in Under the Big Black Sun is remarkable and personal, and the amazing Q&A between Rollins and Doe in More Fun In The New World is like listening in to two war buddies reminiscing, but also striving as best as they can to set the record straight.
Of course, Rollins left Black Flag in 1986, for the Rollins Band, a career on the spoken-word circuit and as a poet. Then, fifteen years ago, he gave up music completely. These days, Rollins, 58, can be heard on the radio (and on podcasts) promoting his favorite new bands, alongside some great, still-undiscovered punk and rock and roll, while still touring the world as a spoken-word artist.
Rollins is always reluctant to explore his history, or go the nostalgia route, but he happily sat down with Rock Cellar to talk about the L.A. punk scene so vividly portrayed in More Fun In The New World, and his early days with Black Flag.
Rock Cellar: I really enjoyed the Q&A you did both in the audio book — which was like two old friends chewing the fat — and in More Fun In The New World, with John. There was something you said that stuck out to me, about Iggy Pop and how, no matter how original you are, there’s always someone ahead of you clearing the way. But you are one of those guys who came first, too. There are a lot of people out there who still have misconceptions about L.A. punk, and certainly the hardcore scene, and especially Black Flag, and you.
Henry Rollins: Well, yeah, I agree with everything you’ve said, and to expand on it, I think it cuts a lot of ways because punk rock is so personal. Because you have so many people who, you know, dodged suicide or otherwise destructive behavior because of this music.
People who found the only way to be able to get up the next day and go to school was this music. To be gay and survive Utah was this music.
Rock Cellar: Well, punk rock is different because it was DIY in the truest sense.
Henry Rollins: No one wanted to help. So we became very innovative, just because no one else is going to do it. I remember when Black Flag made their first album, Damaged, and immediately, we got branded that we’d sold out. “Punk rock bands don’t make albums.”
Like, what’s that Sex Pistols album poster on your wall? Do you hear how stupid you are?
And so almost immediately after joining Black Flag, I started getting flack. I remember the first thing someone said to me: I’m standing on stage August 21st, 1981 — we’re playing at the Cuckoo’s Nest and I’m all practiced up, after six weeks and six days a week of practice — and this guy looked up at me, with his elbows right on the stage, and said, I quote, “You better be good, faggot.”
Like, wow. Welcome to our audience. And I did good. I made it.
But that was kind of my baptism into all of this. And so I’m very careful as an old man when people ask me about this stuff because the thing I try and reject completely is being at all proprietary. You can’t exactly sum it up, because punk rock is still happening, but you must allow everyone to throw their elbows around.
Rock Cellar: When you joined Black Flag, you had pretty broad taste, as you say in the book. You listened to the Clash and loved the U.K. punk scene, whereas the other guys had a narrower palette. Did that make for good collaboration, though?
Henry Rollins: Yeah. I mean, I imagine going from walking on the city streets and living your minimum wage life, as I was, Top Ramen noodles, a lot of 7-11 dinners, as you do, and then suddenly you join a band and you’re in a scene from Das Boot.
Do we get out? Yeah, nope. What are we doing today? Band practice. Is there anything after band practice? We’ll probably listen to the tapes of it. Well, what about food? Huh? Well there’s a Mayfair up the street. You can go shoplift at it.
It was so purist. And so we were very good band, especially live, because all we did was get ready for the show and then go out and play it. And that music was so much a sum of its parts. If you replaced one aspect of it, the whole thing would have to readjust radically. And that’s what I think is what made a lot of bands from that time so good.
You know, “The amp is broken.” We still had to get through the show where these people fought for every inch to get there.
I listen back to Black Flag now and go, “Oh yeah, that’s the sound of starvation, anger and ambition beyond ambition.” We weren’t trying to get rich. We were just trying to survive.
Trust me, once you get regular meals, and you taste business class, you’ll never make music like that again.
Rock Cellar: But it’s that relentlessness, too, that causes it to implode. I mean, that Das Boot thing, you had to find an escape hatch. You found that in spoken word and the Rollins Band and other outlets.
Henry Rollins: I did. And it actually helped me bring more to the band, initially. I could bring more colors to the palette. That Das Boot thing gets you so far. That was the ‘84 tour, that whole idea came to its end. Half the band left: New bass player, new drummer. So the whole thing changed.
And Greg Ginn was continually evolving as a songwriter, and it was basically his band. We just showed up. We called it the KEN tour. “Kill Everyone Now.” And it was such a feral, focused time. You see our ribs sticking out of our shirts in photos from those days.
And we rode that until the wheels came off. And then the model changed as the band got bigger, which was ironic. And I was starting to do talking shows. And I’m showing up in magazines on my own, because of something I said alone on stage, and because I’m not the guy from the band all the time.
And that caused some rumbling in the band. The management thought it was a good thing, because it brought more eyeballs to us. But some people in the band had a thing: “It should be we, why is it about you?” I’m like, “My shows are at 8pm on a Tuesday night, and I read my dumb writing for 15 minutes with 15 poets. What’s the problem?”
And so my world began changing around ’85, listening to KCRW. I’m getting into avant- garde classical music. And all of a sudden, I’m morphing. I’m listening to John Cale solo records — which are kind of a tough climb for a young bonehead — but I’m trying. And I’m listening to George Crumb, and other classical music, and really trying to get my head around the craft. And I started going to KCRW with my friend Deirdre O’Donoghue, a DJ there. Everyone thought we were dating, but we were just pals.
I kind of couch surfed at her place between Black Flag tours, mostly because she had every record in the known universe. And I’d go to KCRW with her, and she trained me how to do a radio show. Ironically, I started working there years later. But I learned in the basement of KCRW from her in the eighties. And I started reading Rimbaud and Artaud, and the world kind of exploded in front of me. I realized how much was out there. You can hear it in the music, and you can see it in my writing, from those days, just see how valuable culture and all that stuff is.
A lot of people put Los Angeles down. They seem to think it’s a bunch of, you know, Big Lebowski types. Like, no, it’s actually what America’s going to look like in 25 years. And so what Fox News viewers fear, they shouldn’t. It’s going to be great. Because I live in the future in Los Angeles. I live in the future of this country, and it’s fantastic.
And you see why all the movies get made here and why every band plays here. And so the early punk rock scene that John and Exene and all those great bands came from, was a product of that. But the only way you’re going to get that is in a hip city like L.A. And so the time that is captured in John and Tom’s two books, when you look back on it decades later, has made me realize, “Wow, that was way bigger than I understood at the time.”
Rock cellar: Before we started you were saying how the MAGA crowd better get ready, because California and Los Angeles are really the future. So, as someone living in the future, what can the rest of us expect, and what’s the music scene like out there?
Henry Rollins: Well, the cool part of the future is that I get to be in it. And I don’t have to be 27 and know how to use a cell phone. I can just be alive and be part of that future, which is really racially mixed and the food is great.
I’ve been going to shows in Los Angeles since I got here. Nowadays, I’m usually the oldest person at a gig and I’m at the back trying not to get run into so my hip doesn’t break. But when I would go to shows as a young person, it would be, “Oh, a dude got stabbed!” Or, “The security just beat the living daylights out of nine kids!”
The Circle Jerks at the Whisky? Every third kid would just get beaten up by the flat-topped, Izod shirt-wearing, ex-cop, security guys who hated punk rock. Nowadays you go to gigs and there’s no hitting and people are visibly gay. Tons of young, gay people, not looking over their shoulders. Security’s a bunch of old tattooed guys that used to do what they’re now doing when they were young, so they understand why that guy’s acting out. And they go, “Hey man, your elbow nearly hit that guy with his designer beer. Be cool.” And shows are still aggro, but it’s, like, “Yeah, we’re angry, but not at you!”
Where we used to eat our own at our shows. And I see that a lot less now. So I think the vast majority of people are at a different place.
Rock Cellar: We talked about England, and how your love of the U.K. punk scene created tension within Black Flag, earlier. But what do you make of what’s going on over there now?
Henry Rollins: England is one of the coolest places. Fantastic. How did it end up with Boris Johnson? They say, “He’s dumb.” He’s not, actually. He’s the smartest guy in any room he walks into, pretty much. He puts on an act, but he went to Exeter. I mean, he’s crazy smart. And he’s going to do a lot of damage on behalf of a very, very small minority.
And a bunch of young people are going to have to live with a very bad agreement because some pensioners voted to throw their future away. “See? Mother England!”
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