Henry Rollins is one of those American icons whose multitudes are impossible to contain in 750 words. He was one of four vocalists for genre-defining hardcore punks Black Flag, but his reign of sonic and sociopolitical terror, from 1981 to 1986, is universally regarded as the band’s heyday. He fronted the Rollins Band for another 15 years, but since then, the now-56-year-old has hosted radio shows, movie review roundtables on IFC, documentaries for National Geographic, and the educational history series 10 Things You Don’t Know About. He’s written more than 10 books, contributed hundreds of regular columns to LA Weekly, Vanity Fair and The Huffington Post, and even won a Grammy for the audiobook reading of his self-flagellating tour diary Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag.
Rollins’ acting career has also flourished, an inevitability that anyone who saw Henry incinerate stages in the ’80s and ’90s with his all-consuming magnetism could’ve predicted. He had bit roles in popular movies like Johnny Mnemonic, Heat and Lost Highway, before things really took off thanks to a recurring role on TV biker/drama hit Sons of Anarchy. His biggest moment is one of his most recent, though — a starring role in 2015 indie horror flick He Never Died. Director Jason Krawczyk purportedly wrote the character — blunt introvert condemned to eternal life while struggling to control his taste for human flesh — specifically with Rollins in mind.
And surprise, surprise — the script spoke directly to Rollins’ solitary, obsessive personality. “I don’t go to bars,” he told The Daily Beast last December. “I go to a party and I’m nervous. I can’t wait to leave. I’m not good around people. I’m the guy who’ll just sit all weekend and write or listen to music, alone … cursing the darkness. I’m not looking to go on dates. I’ve never been that guy. I’m quite the solitary type.”
See Rollins live at one of the spoken word appearances in which he now specializes, however, and you’ll encounter a voluble yet lovable crank. (If you can’t make it, listen to any of his 400 podcasts for a similarly impassioned effect). Fascinated by human psychology, passionate about political activism, and obsessed with maintaining a constant state of deliberate action, Rollins covers all the bases: politics, art, humor, humanism, cynicism and violence — including his own propensity for it. His first appearance on National Geographic Explorer, in fact, was in a documentary called “Born to Rage” about the so-called warrior gene.
“I’ve seen human violence,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve been in violent episodes. I’ve seen humans human out … At times, it’s made me very world-weary and somewhat cynical, as is our lot as Homo sapiens on the planet. I fight cynicism with everything in me, [though]. But sometimes, you know, when I’m on the 101 and I can’t move I’m like, ‘You all should die.’”
That push-pull between violence and peaceful protest may represent the biggest paradox of Rollins’ life. He was notorious for fighting anyone who dared cross him at Black Flag concerts. In 1991, his best friend Joe Cole was shot in the face while he and Rollins walked up to their Venice Beach home. And Henry has spoken at length about how the violence he was surrounded by as he grew up in Washington, D.C., in the late ’60s and ’70s, when forced integration via busing, urban unrest and rising crime set the tone for the rest of his life. “I grew up in an environment of really hardcore racism,” he told The Daily Beast. “[My mother] was a Democrat and a leftie, and I took after her. [But] my father was racist … I watched D.C. catch on fire. I remember riots. You could look out of your window and see smoke, smell mace in the air … ” Rollins even says he learned the definition of “assassination” the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed — when young Henry was all of seven years old.
Rollins’ early experience may have extinguished the progressive flame in any weaker human being. But 50 years on, the man still maintains a laser focus on making the biggest difference possible in this fractured, fucked-up world. Though he declined an interview request with Folio Weekly this time around (totally cool, by the way — we know how busy he is), we’ve talked to him before. And hearing Rollins speak might just be the most motivating way to spend 15 minutes (in the case of our interview) or three hours (in the case of many of his spoken-word performances). In which case, we’ll leave you with this from his most recent column for LA Weekly:
“Since an upgrade will not occur on a national level via presidential pen stroke or SCOTUS decision, you have to take it upon yourself to be an infinitely fantastic person every single day. There will be times when it will be a bitch to be so awesome, but you’ll handle it. This century will be about incredible individuals. Bold acts of kindness and a genuine desire to at least try to see things from someone else’s perspective are but two of the mandatory requirements for betterment moving forward … Equality, tolerance and decency are not inherently American or human traits. They are values you choose to adopt and use or not. So, be amazing all the time.”