Rollins Redux

Ex-Black Flag frontman looks at 50


The owners pleaded with the local punks not to show up early.

Yet it was now up to the Tampa, Fla., club to steer this collision course of a schedule, one that paired a theatrical production with a hardcore show on the same stage on the same night. Eight o'clock: The Diary of Anne Frank. Eleven o'clock: West Coast punk band Black Flag. The tension finally shatters halfway through the group's third song, when a fan strikes the band's roadie with a hammer.

The 25-year-old singer, eager to quell the excitement, dives into the mob of rioters and returns the gesture with a fist.

"Doesn't that concrete feel good on your head," Henry Rollins heckles as he returns to the stage. The meeting of mohawks and mosh pits that unseasonably cold Florida night in 1986 would set in motion the end of the reign of underground punk kings Black Flag. That tour would be the band's last.

Today when Rollins reaches out to touch someone, it's with a helping hand in a foreign land. The 49-year-old feels closest to home when he's traveling abroad. He's photographed corpses on the streets of New Delhi, camped in the Sahara and watched New Year's fireworks explode over Senegal--and that was just January.

"What I'm after is perspective," he says. For Rollins, perspective is the hunt for a bottle of clean water in Africa; it's the walk through unfamiliar cities that lack traffic lights. "In Bangladesh, anywhere you go, everything seems to be destroyed," says Rollins from his Hollywood home. "I stood at this intersection and--'Whoa!'--way too close for comfort ... I'm really glad I wasn't in that taxi.' The walking is whatever the oncoming vehicle will afford you. After a few days, just give me a sidewalk, man," he laughs.

Rollins recently added a second leg to his Frequent Flyer tour, which includes a stop in Boise at Knitting Factory on Sunday, June 20. He takes few breaks because he hates days off. He hates holidays because he knows nobody will come see him perform. And he really hates the term "spoken word." Expect to hear all about it during Rollins' three-hour breakneck set. His funny, energetic delivery hooks audiences with personal tales, including a recent interaction with a Chinese hooker and Thanksgiving dinner plans with William Shatner.

"He was mind-blowing," remembers Black Flag founding member Chuck Dukowski. "I will also attest to his being sidesplittingly funny on a day-to-day basis." Operation Ivy's Jesse Michaels adds, "What Henry does is present a natural emotional response to the demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in."

In 1981, Rollins mirrored a feral Johnny Rotten, a thrashing tiger who often emerged from Black Flag's Damaged sessions bloodied and bruised. This behavior was Rollins' high--no booze, no needles, just the self-inflicted overdose of self-confrontation. Says Devo's Gerald Casale, "Henry looked like he could murder you, but he was in fact a visionary gentle giant." Rollins went on to front several lineups under the Rollins Band moniker until 2006. While Rollins admits he can't quit the stage, he guarantees he left his music career behind in the last millennium.

"I don't wanna. I don't wanna do the thing all over again," Rollins says. "It's something I've done so many times. I don't know what else I can do with peanuts. Artistically, it's a checked swing. You're not risking too much."

Rollins made an exception last year when he slipped into a studio and lent his throaty voiceover to a friend's project: the Flaming Lips' recreation of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. Rollins' spoken vocals supplement the Lips' take on songs like "Time" and "Speak to Me." Lips leader Wayne Coyne remembers how an early-80s Black Flag show in Oklahoma City impacted the Grammy-winning psychedelic rock group.

"We saw him in the flesh confront that idea of, 'I'm going to do my trip, and I'm going to force you to accept it,'" says Coyne. "When Henry showed up and he sang in just his pair of shorts, it was like watching fucking Tarzan. This is what we thought punk rock really meant. And seeing him do it, it changed us. I will always owe that to Henry Rollins."

Still the physical performer he always was, Rollins keeps his audience at ease by keeping his feet on the stage at all times. He crams in plenty of material, barely pauses to take a breath and exudes a giddy passion when he gets his crowd roaring. "I've learned my knees don't have the same get-up-and-go," he says as he considers his 50th birthday.

"Hey, it's what happens after you turn 49. I live in Hollywood. I'm surrounded by men my age who don't want to believe that."

Following a recent three-hour show, Rollins took his first sip of water at the end of the set, then bowed and departed stage left. More perspective awaits.

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