Interview: Henry Rollins
Originally published in Verbicide issue #6
I’d been a fan of Henry’s work for many years, namely of his music and his hilariously ironic role as a cop in 1993’s The Chase with Charlie Sheen (who incidentally played the lead role of an escaped convict named Jackson). Yet it wasn’t until I was about 18 when I picked up a copy of Black Coffee Blues that I began to truly appreciate Henry. It is a book that Henry himself describes as, “Your friend that lives in your backpack when you’re on a long train ride…a travel partner…your ally.”
There is a brutal honesty and sincere candor to his words; a stream-of-consciousness that allows such a lucid glimpse into the author’s mind that one forgets whose intimate words they are reading, and it doesn’t matter, for they could be anybody’s. Beyond this, Henry is an excellent storyteller, a man who has experienced the world in a manner that few could ever replicate, and even fewer understand.
I have no time or desire for hero worship. However, there are a few people out there who I earnestly respect and admire, and Henry Rollins is one of them. He is quite obliging and very easy to converse with. What follows is a slightly condensed version of our dialogue on the afternoon of June 1, 2002.
Henry picks up on the first ring.
This is Henry.
Hey Henry, this is Jackson, from Verbicide.
Hey Jackson, how are you?
Not bad; are you cranking out the interviews today?
Just a few, not many. Today’s light, I only have three of ‘em. It’s good because I’ve been in the studio a lot and this is my first day of actual sunlight, so I’m looking forward to getting some other stuff done.
Well, I’m really glad to get the chance to talk to you! I’ve been a fan of yours for quite some time, from your music to your movies. However, it’s been your writing that has had the greatest impact on me. How long have you been writing, and what inspired you to start?
I wrote out of loneliness and frustration in high school; horribly written short stories about blowing up the prep school I went to. (laughter)
Sounds like me right through college!
Yeah, it was just a way for me to release frustration, and I would show the papers to this English teacher I had — at this school, if you were caught cursing, you would have to come in on Saturdays. It was a military prep school; it was very uptight. But this guy liked the writing, and he said, “Well, don’t show this to anyone else because you’ll get in trouble, but you can always show it to me,” because I’m saying “fuck” and all this other stuff…and I’m shooting teachers in the head and blowing up the school and he goes, “You’re really angry, but I’m glad you’re getting it out in the writing.” And I thought, yeah, it’s a good thing to do on a Saturday night.
Anyway, I was raised by my mom primarily, and that was in an apartment across town with walls of books. We didn’t watch much TV; we listened to records and we read books. I’ve been reading since before I was in school. By the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, I was reading Steinbeck, and getting it.
Travels With Charley is one of my favorite books.
Yeah, mine was The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in sixth grade. No one believed that I was actually reading it! I’d carry it around, this massive “tombstone” of a book. It was a totally gripping read; I’d read it through my lunch hour, and it was really good, so it was not me showing off. I really loved it. I hated when it ended because I couldn’t read it anymore.
My heroes have always been writers, ever since I was a little kid. I’d love to meet Jimi Hendrix, but I’d really love to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. Or Baudelaire, or Lautréamont, or Rimbaud…to meet them, that I’d chop an arm off for. A chance to meet Duke Ellington? Well, cool! But Nelson Algren? Yeah, I’d really love to meet the guy who wrote The Man with the Golden Arm.
In the ’80s, when I joined Black Flag, I was living a very alternative lifestyle to what I’d been used to, which was working 65 hours a week at a crap minimum-wage job. I’m living on Top Ramen noodles, you know, I’m 20! I’m doing the normal “thing,” no complaints.
(laughter) Well, you described my eating habits and work schedule.
I liked it, and I miss it sometimes. All of a sudden I’m in Black Flag, where my peers are really intense. Chuck Dukowski and Greg Ginn — these are two really intense people. And all the people I’m around are runaways, and drug addicts, and people I know are now dying. And I’m on the road.
And you wrote about it in Get In the Van; was that your first book that you published?
Oh no, that came many years later; about 10 years into books for me. Anyway, I’d started seeing many things out there that I’d never seen before: naked women, fistfights, knife-fights, people getting stabbed, people getting arrested, cops threatening us…it was a wake-up. It was America via punk rock — a pretty rough ride, as people who toured in those days would tell you. So, I started keeping a journal, because in those days, if you don’t have any money, and you’re playing these dingy clubs, and you pull up in your crap van at about 2 p.m., there is nothing to do. Even if you wanted to get high, you don’t have the money!
So I bought a notebook, and I would just write — again, out of loneliness — about what was going on around me: a story the bartender is telling about how he spent the weekend with two strippers doing Jack Daniels and coke. I’m just writing down his conversation. You know, just because I think it’s insane. I’m keeping these journals, and I really get interested in sentence structure; I’m approaching writing very differently than how I used to. I’m now concerned about how this is reading — not that I’m going to publish it, I’m just writing everyday now.
Then, around 1983, Lydia Lunch gave me Black Spring by Henry Miller. She said, “This is going to be your favorite book. Here, read it.” I read it over the weekend, and it changed my life. I read Miller and I didn’t want to sleep ever again.
Is that the book that inspired Black Coffee Blues?
It’s the book that inspired me to publish anything I’ve ever done. It’s the one single book I read where I went, “Okay, I want to write things and put them out.”
How did you go about starting 2.13.61?
The first thing I did was to run a 500 offset printed…well, it was a fanzine! It had 20 pages of my writing, called Twenty because it had that many pages. I called my little company “2.13.61” just because that’s my birthday, and that was the only book that was going to come out. So I said, “I’ll be funny, I’ll name it after my birthday, because it’s just me and it’s just this one little book.” Well, I sold 1,000 of those and got very pretentious and took that money I scraped together — with those kinds of things you mostly give them away and aspire to sell them–
Believe me, I know!
It takes you back to that time when you were trying to sell the lemonade, and you feel really corny going up to people, being a guy in a band soliciting your two-dollar fanzine, so you say, “Oh fuck it. Here. Have it.” Just out of embarrassment, because you don’t have the confidence to say, “Buy this,” you say, “Take it.”
So I managed to sell about three dozen out of a thousand, and I took the money and I had enough to make a small paperback. And so I found out how you do that; I found a publisher-lady who helped me lay it out and actually get a book cut out and printed. Then I had a thousand little paperbacks, and I threw them in the Black Flag van and sold them for three or four bucks on the road, and they all sold. People would come up to me or write me letters, as I had a PO box of my own, and I’d get mail at that box from people saying that they really liked my writing! And I’m like, “no shit!” (laughter) I had no idea, and, of course, fanzines and whatever were very mean-spirited about the writing. People’s friends would say, “Oh no, he’s really good,” and they’d shoot back with, “The only reason anyone buys his books is because he’s in a band.” It was always just a way to rip me one way or the other, and you know, whatever! Do what you’re going to do!
So when fans approach you or write to you about your writing, what piece gets mentioned the most? During my sophomore year of college — and I actually just graduated about a week and a half ago — I read your poem, “I Know You”–
Yeah, that’s the one.
That really moved me. Plus, there’re excerpts from Get in the Van, and Black Coffee Blues, such as “#42″ in Black Coffee Blues…I thought to myself, This is great stuff, and I read the whole book in one evening.
Yeah, the spirit of the construction of that book was that if you’re on a long trip, it’s like a great mix-tape — you get a little bit of this, a little bit of that…and so in that book you’ve got short stories, you’ve got tour stuff — the book is your friend that lives in your backpack when you’re on a long train ride. It’s your ally; you can keep opening it and pulling out a passage you like when you’re locked up in a dorm or in some shitty van. I really constructed it so it’s like your travel partner. And it worked, in that it communicated with people in a good way. I’m very proud of that book because it did what I wanted it to do.
It was the one that got me into your writing, actually. What book has been your most personally satisfying? Would it be Black Coffee Blues?
That would be a book called Solipsist. That’s my favorite book I’ve done; it was the hardest to do because it was basically a book I wrote by jamming off the definition of the word “solipsist.” I wrote a whole book basically just from something I read in the dictionary. And it took three years to write that book, and it’s only like 60,000 words, which is nothing for a real writer. I mean, that’s three weeks of work. But, for me, it was years…I started it in 1993, finished in 1996, read it and reread it in 1997, and I think I published it in 1998. It was this long march to the sea.
You never know; in some instances you can crank out thousands of words in one night, and other times you just can’t get what you want out of yourself. You really have to labor over it sometimes.
Writing sucks. Writing is really horrible, and that’s why good writers are usually really shitty people.
Or, at least, very unhappy people.
And it’s not their fault — yeah, it makes them mean, just because they harness themselves to this self-examining, bladed microscope. I’ve met a handful of writers who are published, and only a few have been “nice.” Hubert Selby, the great writer, is a truly wonderful, really sweet guy, and the books are ultimately devastating. I mean, they’re amazing reads. And it’s amazing that he can be so cool and still be such a good writer. Hemingway said it best: “A writer, if he’s any good, faces eternity or the lack of it every time he sits down to write.”
It’s not just the self-examination, which is excruciating enough, it’s also the fact that, when you are a writer or an artist, you are throwing yourself out on the line; you’re at the mercy of what other people think, and you have to hear about it if everyone hates what you create.
True, but the best writers, to me, are the ones who are throwing themselves at the mercy of their own wicked ego and talent. What the critics think and what the audience thinks is one thing, but what they think of what they do…these guys lash themselves.
You should read anything you can about F. Scott Fitzgerald; read all the stories, read the novels. That’s a guy who would rewrite a book for like a year. Now there are some college editions of The Great Gatsby where you can read the early draft, the middle draft, and the finished draft, and it’s fascinating how he “mothered” over every word. Redrafts; he just whipped himself. And then you read the final novel or short story and it’s such a beautiful thing; there are sentences where they just shut you down. One good sentence of his is better than what you’re going to write this month. (laughter) It’s really intimidating, and of all the writers, he might not be my favorite, but in my opinion — and we all have one — I think he’s one of the greatest, if not one of the greatest, American man of letters of the last century.
I’ve read a lot about writers of the Lost Generation or the Beat Generation — or even going as far back as Balzac — and how these people were so intense about their writing, and so intense about not only getting out what they wanted to say, but conveying it perfectly in exact diction.
Think about this, because I’ve always wondered, why is Dostoevsky so good? What made these guys do so much beautiful work? No one can really write like that anymore. I have some theories. One is that they had less distraction. Think of the distractions you have; if I told you they were distractions, you could potentially disagree with me.
Such as the Internet; within only a few years it has gone from being a novelty to a way of life.
The Internet…a traffic jam…all your friends who call you…Dostoevsky did not have to worry about the phone ringing! He didn’t have to worry about traffic or automobiles. He didn’t have to worry about the Internet or telemarketers. If you see how guys like Kafka were living, they were just left with a lot of down-time! I mean, there’s not a whole lot going on after the sun goes down; hopefully you have enough light to see by in your hovel. And hopefully there’s enough wood for the fireplace to keep you warm in the winter. You know when a band is really broke, and they’re really good, then they get a lot of money and they get really soft?
A lot of these writers never got to the “make a lot of money” part. And so they were lean and mean for their entire life.
Yeah, there are canonized writers who didn’t even make it until long after their death and never got to deal with or experience fame.
When you’re lean and mean having started that way when you were 11, running from some war, leaving your country, and you’re still lean and mean at age 60…you don’t want to live like that to be that good.
Despite the fact that no one writes like Dostoevsky, do you think that, someday in the future, there will be a canonized group of writers from today that will be looked upon in the same manner that we view the Beat Generation of the ’50s, or the Romantics of the early 19th century? Who would you include in that canon?
I don’t know enough about contemporary writers, because I’ve been reading and rereading a certain group of authors for the last few years. I’ve been trying to get through all the writing of Thomas Wolfe, which is just insane. Even his books of letters to his mother are 150,000 words. It’s unbelievable. I’ve asked “Wolfeian” experts, “How many hours a day do you have to write to do what he did and die at 37?” and they say, “He was writing about 12 to 14 hours a day.” Literally, over one million-word manuscripts. I mean, they’re still putting out Wolfe books –they just keep finding stuff, and they make books of them.
He’s like the Tupac of literature.
Well, without the sleaze factor. (laughter) It is incredible. I don’t read or know anything any of these guys who are popular now, so I wouldn’t know if there’s anybody out there who future generations would look back on and say, “that was the guy.” All my favorites are dead or damn near it.
How about the writers you’re publishing through 2.13.61?
I think the best writer on the label is a guy named Don Bajema. I think he is, by far, the best writer on the label, and his book reach is the best book we’ve ever put out. If I had 10 percent of that guy’s talent, you would never see me. All I would do is write. I mean, he’s that good; it’s ridiculous how much I love what he does, and how effortlessly it falls out of him. I’ve sat in a room with him, and he’ll say, “Oh, take a look at this, I just wrote this,” and it will be this 4,000 word short story, first draft, unbelievable. I’ll ask him, “You just sat here and wrote that while we’ve been sitting here?” and he just says, “Yeah.” (laughter) I’m like, “Fuck you!”
Some people are just like that and it makes you really envious of their talent!
Yeah, and he’s got it! I mean, he was born to do this. Me, I struggle. He just lopes. He’s like a gazelle. He’s our best writer, in my opinion.
How about your writing process? You mentioned before, that when you were younger, writing was a way to get out your anger. Now that you’re older, is it something that is cathartic and spontaneous, or is it very heavily planned and labored over? Or is it a combination?
It’s a combination. There’s a danger to being published, because it’s very hard. It took me a lot of years to not write for an audience. When I was first writing, I thought, this is never going to come out, no one is ever going to see this…so I wrote very unguarded, “heart-on-sleeve,” just really letting it rip. They you get published, even if it’s on your own. You get more calculated, because you know it’s going to end up being read.
Now, the good writer now has the battle of trying to balance that with still being good…knowing it’s going to be read, and still not trying to write for an audience, or cater to them, or wimp out knowing someone’s going to read it. To stay brave knowing someone’s going to be looking up your skirt. So, it took me years of writing for an audience to get past that, to get to where I know it’s going to be published, but I’m still writing it as if I don’t think it is. See what I’m saying? It took a lot of words and a lot of crumbled up pieces of paper — literally thousands of words that will never be published — to work through that, and to get back to where I first started, which was an unguarded fury. And that’s where I’m back to now.
Are you working on a book now?
I’m always working on a book. I always have two or three going all at once. Yeah, there’s a book that’s very much like, Smile, You’re Traveling, that I’m working on every day; there’s a lyric book that comes out in September that is all finished; there’s a “part two” of the lyric book, which is set for a couple years from now and I’m kind of “organizing;” and there’s a short story book that I’m pulling together as well. So there’s always something going on. I love the “outer cosmetic” of the literary life. I think I like the outer cosmetic better than I’d ever like the shitty work that it takes. I am still very enamored with looking at photos of Hemingway at a Parisian café; I just think that’s the coolest shit. I don’t care about the nightclubs or whatever; I think it would be amazing to sit with three caffeinated, overly-talented maniacs as they try to verbally joust each other to show literary supremacy.
To go back to the European Romantic age when it was about coffee-house gatherings and sharing ideas.
That interests me. I’m very enamored with that whole thing, because it just looked cool. Ian MacKaye’s mother suggested a book to me that I’ve bought but have not read yet; it’s called They Were All So Young, or We Were All So Young. It’s about that café society when Gertrude Stein had her salon. She [Ian MacKaye’s mother] loved that book, and anything Ginger likes, I always go out and buy, because she has great taste in books. I have not yet read it but I bought it a year ago, because she likes all these writers, too. Whenever I see her we usually talk about books — the MacKaye household, you go to Ian’s mom’s place and it’s literally walls of books. The downstairs is all books; the guestroom is all books…that whole family reads. A very literary family.
I know people like that who can get me interested in an author simply by suggesting them. I’m working on Human, All Too Human, by Nietzsche right now based on a suggestion.
I’ve read that. I don’t know if it’s in that book, or if it’s in The Gay Science, but there’s an aphorism in one of those books that I like very much. He says, “The victor does not believe in chance.” I kind of live my life by that.
What is the best advice you can give to someone aspiring to start their own independent publishing company?
Hmmm… Don’t. (laughter)
I’ve heard that one before!
It’s just really hard to get people to buy books. We’ve put out some really great books at this company, like Exene [Cervenka], Ellen Maybe, Bill Shields, and Don Bajema — I give his books away to people sometimes, and I say, “Here, wanna read a good book?” They get back to me proclaiming, “This is the best shit I’ve read in years!” and I say, “I know, shouldn’t he be huge?” Nothing I’ve been able to do has gotten me to get that guy to be big. And I’ve tried everything.
It can be tough just trying to sell a magazine.
Right. When you get into publishing a run of a thousand books that just cost you seven grand, and the seven grand stays out for three years and does not get back to you…that’s how companies go under. They get over-extended. That’s Business 101, the first thing you don’t do.
I’m just saying, with the way book distribution is set up, and the way Borders and Barnes & Noble have shut down the whole network of “mom and pop” bookstores — which is my bread and butter — it all sort of started drying up in the ‘90s. When Barnes & Noble and Borders started erupting out of the ground overnight, they effectively exorcised censorship in this company by not including your book in their roster. Luckily, they like me; I’m in.
Books and magazines are made to be read, you’ve got to get them out to anybody. That’s why they made printing presses, the printing press freed the modern world. Use it. I’m just saying, be careful. Test the waters, eke out books slowly. I’ve spent my life working with independent companies. I used to work at SST. I grew up around Dischord. I’ve watched all these people, and I have my own companies — I do books, I do records, I do videos, I breed animals, I got all kinds of stuff going on.
Would you like to mention anything about the new project you’ve been working on?
Well, it’s not a Rollins Band records; it’s actually a benefit record for the West Memphis Three.
How about the live Rollins Band album, The Only Way to Know for Sure?
Oh, the live album, it’s a good record of us in Chicago. There’s nothing really to say about it; it’s us playing 28 songs and we’re kicking the shit out of ‘em. We’re a great band, and that’s all there is to it.