October 2011

Lee Randall


A Conversation with Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins has been famous for more than half of his fifty years. As the glowering, head-banging leader of Black Flag, he spoke -- or should I say shouted -- for a generation of angry young men (and not a few women). When Black Flag disbanded, he started the Henry Rollins band, and along the way, in 1983, Rollins began giving spoken word performances, telling stories about life on the road with his bands, and his extensive travels around the world -- one man, two backpacks, a collection of camera equipment, and a hell of a lot of energy bars. 

Rollins learned to read before he went to school, and has always read widely. Literature is his first love, but he told me that George W Bush ruined it for him, so he's mainly been reading nonfiction, to learn all he can about globalization and the regions of the world where America's involved in conflicts. 

He's always written as well, and in the 1980s, established his own publishing company, 2.13.61, named after his birthdate. He did it in order to publish his own books, but at first they also published original and licensed titles by others, including Hubert Selby, Jr., Michael Gira, Nick Cave, and Henry Miller. 

Today, 2.13.61 no longer publishes anyone else's work, but it's a thriving concern, selling directly to consumers. This month, however, Rollins is bringing out a beautiful collection of photographs and accompanying essays, called Occupants, with Chicago Review Press. It's only the second time Rollins has worked with an outside publisher; the first was when Random House put out The Portable Henry Rollins

Rollins inspires devotion and has legions of fans worldwide. But he gives as good as he gets, and once told me that if he enjoys a band and they're in town for a week, he'll happily book tickets for the entire run. By the same token, if he loves an author he not only pores over his work, but also learns as much as he can about him. Talking with him about these things he loves is like opening an encyclopedia.

He also -- and it's a trait that this fellow obsessive finds endearing -- makes pilgrimages to landmarks connected to his favorite authors. He visited the Los Angeles house where Fitzgerald died, to touch the mantelpiece the author grabbed hold of as he was dying. He's been to Asheville, North Carolina, specifically in the month of October, for reasons he describes here.

I have interviewed Rollins twice for The Scotsman. The first time was by telephone, and we met only briefly after one of his performances. In 2010, knowing of his pleasure in exploring new vistas, and hoping to show him a part of Edinburgh he might not be familiar with, I suggested conducting the interview on the hoof, strolling along the Water of Leith. He gamely agreed, and in the end was the one with reservations, initially because I discovered that Rollins has a pronounced limp, and later, when our photographer got a bit overzealous. When a wet dog shook off on Rollins, I thought, "That's it, the jig's up," but he shrugged and said, "I've got that kind of timing."

This summer Rollins was back in Edinburgh for a special fiftieth birthday show, and generously agreed to speak to me again, over two days. We picked up where we left off, continuing the dialogue begun on the banks of the waterway, when I discovered his abiding passion for the Lost Generation authors and other writers who I hold dear, such as Henry Miller. He told me then, "I worship at the altar of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He's my favorite architect of the English language." He used to be the guy who reread The Great Gatsby annually. He also advised me "a page of Proust is worth three of anyone else's."

If Rollins often seems like a man who's holding it together with tremendous self-control, he certainly lets loose when the subject is literature. He's infected me with an urge to revisit the works of Thomas Wolfe -- I gave up after Look Homeward, Angel -- and in turn, I hope I've convinced him to get a copy of Nicki Greenberg's superb graphic version of The Great Gatsby.

You have your own publishing company, but no longer publish other writers. Why's that?

It became our policy due to practicality. Without a lot of money to promote a book, it's impossible to sell it. We saw the big stores eating the little stores, so years ago we said, "Okay, you want my books, you go to henryrollins.com and we'll sell you a book direct." My books are gone from Amazon; maybe some old copies are there, but we are not giving them to the distributors to replenish. They are the Walmart of the book world. They undersell me. I have to make a profit. My book costs X to make. They will put it X plus a dollar. I can't do that, so I have to put it X plus twelve. I can't do X plus one. That's what Walmart does, that's that Amazon does, and they are killing record stores, they are killing bookstores.

We got out of working with other artists because I didn't want to do a bad job for them. And I got really tired of working with them. They won't do publicity or they whine that I'm trying to rip them off -- which I'm not. 

And at last count you've written how many books?

Twenty-seven. The new one is photographs and essays; it's called Occupants. Each photograph has a weird abstract essay opposite, very angry writing that addresses everything from globalization to famine.

The essays came after the images, didn't they?

Yeah, I look at the photo, and wrote whatever came at me. That's why at the end of the book everything is in thumbnail and I explain where I was and how I got the shot.

Do you have favorites among your own titles?

No. I like them all. And all of them could have been better. The readers have favorites. Sales-wise, and letters coming back, is how I gauge it. SolipsistBlack Coffee Blues, and Get in the Van are the three that people love, although the travel and journal books sell very well. People write in saying, "I carry this with me and this book changed my life." I get that a lot from guys in Iraq, and both those books seem to have hit notes with people. I think a lot of writers, just like a musician, they have that moment when they're in the same orbit with their listeners.

You've often said that certain books are right for a person at a certain age, and then they stop working, and one example you give is Charles Bukowski.

Lydia Lunch loaned me my first Bukowski, South of No North. I couldn't stop reading it. I eventually read a ton of Bukowski, up to Love is a Dog from Hell, the 1984 book that documents the dying of John Fante. Then I read John Fante, his favorite writer: Ask the Dusk, one of the most beautiful books ever written. A quick read, but wow, it's special.

It made me stop reading Bukowski. I'd moved on. I started a major Ferdinand Celine obsession around that time and Rimbaud, and tried to struggle through Artaud, who I never got. I tried to read the Susan Sontag edited version and I just don't get him; it's eight leagues over my intellectual level, and life's too short. I left Bukowski behind and would see people my age or older [reading him], and think, "Like, really?" You've got to get better stuff. It's good for a while. It's like sniffing glue to get high: it's cool when you're thirteen but then you should get on to better stuff, otherwise you're going to stagnate.

I'm not trying to put Bukowski down. Some of his poetry, to this day, you're like damn, he definitely had a way with words, but, "I'm drunk and I'm high and I'm groping this chick." You know, I get it, you're drunk, you have an attitude. I really want to move on. It's eight feet of books that stays in one summer of debauchery. That's fine when you're twenty-something. I'm just saying that at least for me, there are times in life when some books are relevant for some reason. Some authors I can go back and read, like I have [Henry Miller's] Black Spring in my bedroom. I will open it up now and then and just hang out with Black Spring for twenty minutes. Any chunk will do. It still works.

I discovered Miller through Anaïs Nin, whose work I loved as a dreamy teenage girl, and on whose behalf I hated him, until I discovered she was a raving fantasist and he was the one worth my time and admiration.   

He sold my mom a book at one of his art openings. Iris's taste in literature is just astonishing. Any book that I'd struggle through, like Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, which is a bear to read, so hard, with eighty facts per sentence -- I was trying to have a conversation with her so I said, "I just finished reading this book," and she said, "Oh, wow, that book blew my mind." She goes into her bag and pulls out a copy. I open it up: "To Henry, big fan, Steve Coll." I'm like, "You know this guy?" My mom's one of the chairs of the Democratic Women's League. She said, "Oh, we had him to come and speak, and he's a fan of yours." That's my mom, she's already been there and done that. Miles, Coltrane, she used to go see them all the time.

And she was your first literary influence?

Absolutely. She'd say, "It's Sunday, you and I are going to read Great Expectations out loud to each other." My mom taught me to read before I went to school.

So anyway, one day I'm going through her bookshelves and there's this odd copy of The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. It's a pasteboard edition. She said, "Oh, I bought that from him. He was selling his watercolors and going through the audience saying, 'You wanna buy this?'"

I said, "You met Henry Miller!?" She let me have the book. Henry Miller changed my life. Lydia Lunch loaned Black Spring to me and said read this. November 1983. I was twenty-two years and seven months old. I read that book and I've never recovered. That was like the first Clash album for me. You're allowed to write like that? It never occurred to me. And he made me think writing was easy. I thought he was just a dude saying stuff. But then you try to write like that yourself and you realize he's a black belt ninja motherfucker. It's anything but easy. He only makes it look easy because he's so good.

Why start your own publishing house, though?  

I try to take as little shit as possible from the powers that be. I never wasted time sending my manuscripts to publishers because I knew I wouldn't get published.

But you were a rock star. Didn't you think, "I'm famous. They'll be gagging to sign me"?

No. I was on SST. SST had its own label. We were SST. SST was Black Flag, it was all one thing. So I'm like, send a manuscript? I'm making my own, like we make our own records, like we make our own fliers. DIY. And it's served me.

I was twenty-two. I was a young guy calling it as I saw it, a very rough rider, rough punctuation, no punctuation. Anyway, that's how the book company came to be, and for a while we had lots of writers and did as best as we could by them. No one was ripped off, but I don't think we could have done as well for them as a bigger label, and by the same token, I don't think anyone else would have signed any of these books. The people we put out were very left of center. I don't think they would have gotten the dignity and the treatment on any other label. I put a lot of money into that company. Made some, lost some. Now it's all in the black, but there were some red years.

I like things better now. I don't like working with artists. I don't like collaborating. I don't like being on the same bill as other artists. I don't like publishing them. I just would rather not. And I have the choice now. I walk into my office every day, and it's all about Henry. And that's not because I'm some egomaniac. It's more efficient. I've got a lot of plates spinning at once. I'm full time on the road. Since I last saw you, I've done five documentaries for National Geographic [channel], all over the world.

I'm always envious that you dip in and out of books, without feeling compelled to read the whole thing.

Every October I pull down [Thomas Wolfe's] Of Time and the River and read that one part where he comes back home because his father is dying. He writes about October -- how it's about returning, always returning. Sometimes I take the book to Washington and I read it in DC. I've actually taken my much underlined copy and read it to myself in October in Asheville, for poetic poignancy, just so that book has actually sat in the October air, in Asheville.

Wolfe continues to be someone who's relevant to me. The entirety of his literary art is contained in his twenties. As we move on and become older and a little bit more tired, sometimes, you can read this guy who is the equivalent of the puppy who eats your coat while you're eating dinner. "Oh, he's just a puppy, what are you going to do?" He writes breathlessly. One of his critics said he's a guy who drinks the entire ocean and only gets thirstier. The more words he uses, the more words he needs.

He once said that you buy books because you're hoping to find that one passage that you've been waiting to read your whole life. Or you buy records hoping to find the song where all the doors open. He writes about being in his father's study -- and I've been to that study -- where he'd read book after book looking for the one thing where everything would lock in. He was obsessed with the idea of a door. I read that, and went, "That's it!" Of Time and the River became the book that I'd been waiting for.

Are you still not reading fiction these days?

Yeah, mainly staying with the nonfiction. Janeane Garofalo begged me to read some fiction. She said, "Don't stop reading fiction, you'll die," and gave me Turn, Magic Wheel. She said, "I'm giving you this because [Dawn Powell] was Hemingway's favorite female writer."

DAWN POWELL!!! I spend chunks of my life telling people to read her books!

I loved it, too. Janeane was right. Now I want to read it all.