Henry Rollins has forged a career out of speaking his mind.
Raised around Washington, D.C., the pumped-up, graying punk icon was once a skinny, longhaired kid strung out on Ritalin. His troubled youth landed him in military school, where he learned the value of lifting weights and beating older students to a pulp.
Always an outcast, Rollins quickly fell in love with punk music, singing for the band S.O.A. and becoming a fan of early hardcore favorites Black Flag, from California. As luck would have it, Rollins sang onstage with his heroes and soon replaced their lead singer, kick-starting his own lengthy career.
Since then, he has become a full-fledged celebrity through an impressive variety of pursuits: from playing music to writing nonfiction books and running his own publishing company, performing spoken word/comedy around the world, bit-acting in major films (including David Lynch's "Lost Highway") and doing voice-over work. All this while hosting his own radio show in L.A. and a respected celebrity talk show, "The Rollins Show," on the Independent Film Channel.
He also founded his own music label, Infinite Zero, with megaproducer Rick Rubin, which reissued music by the likes of Gang of Four, Devo and Flipper. "Sure was cool while it lasted," he says. "But it went down when Rubin lost his deal with Warner Brothers."
Now an elder spokesman for the early '80s hardcore scene, Rollins was featured in the recent documentary "American Hardcore," which includes a brutal scene of him pummeling a surly fan ("He started it," Rollins notes). Back then, violence was an everyday aspect of punk touring, and it had a lasting effect on him. "It's made me very cagey and always looking for that aspect of someone to come out."
On his TV show, Rollins comes across as an angry, in-your-face leftie. He takes cheap shots whenever he can, such as this zinger from a letter he writes addressing right-wing pundit Ann Coulter: "I can offer you a life of obedient servitude on my compound you will whip up vegan delights for Hanoi Jane and loofa Barbra Streisand's stretch marks. But most of all, you will just shut the fuck up."
I ask him if he ever heard from her after that.
"Nope, she's never called me up. I think she's shy and afraid of my seductive ways. That has to be it," he says.
Despite his vocal opposition to Bush and the war, Rollins has volunteered his time in Iraq by touring with the United Service Organizations. Still, he doesn't sound hopeful when asked about the next election.
"What will bring down America is already in place, and there's really no stopping that train now," he says. "To a great degree, it doesn't matter who is the next president. There have been too many decades of that thing we do to other countries to turn it around. 'I'm sorry' won't cut it at this point."
Rollins is holding out hope for a third party and doesn't come across as totally cynical. "I definitely think that there will be a third party that will carry some weight. I believe things can get better, but you will have to somehow convince those who make a lot of money selling weapons and getting defense contracts that they have to stop picking fights with countries to keep their business going. That the industrial-military complex, if you will, could very well be the biggest roadblock. Every president has given them what they wanted," he says.
When it comes to celebrities in politics, Rollins isn't quick to jump on the bandwagon. "Al Franken has a long history of being very political, decades long. When he wins in Minnesota, I think some people will take him seriously," he says. "He's never really done it for me. I think this administration has politicized a lot of celebs and a lot of real people too."
"The Rollins Show" also features some of the best underground musical acts of any show on television, from Frank Black and Daniel Johnston to The Pogues -- but the program is only a half-hour long. "An hour-long version wouldn't be good really," he says, adding that he is hoping for a third season. "I don't know if that will happen though."
Concerning his upcoming spoken-word show in Richmond, Rollins says he likes performing here and that he "never hated" local punk legends Honor Role, whom he mentions in one of his books. You can expect him to come prepared with engaging stories from his life, some hilarious, some moving but all of them with that intense Rollins vibe. "I never wing it. I will be telling stories from what I've been doing lately, as I usually do. A good night is when I am concise; that's not always easy." S
"Henry Rollins: Provoked: An evening of quintessentially American opinionated editorializing and storytelling" at the Canal Club Saturday, Sept. 29. Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets are $18.50-$20. 643-2582.