Awesome Men Throughout History: Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins’ recent pro-gay rights statements alerted me to two things; the first is that Henry just gets cooler and more civic-minded as the years go by, and the second is that a surprising amount of people don’t really know who he is. That is just shameful, especially since he might be one of the best examples of an Awesome Man Throughout History.
Henry was born in Washington DC and was a weird, rowdy kid who got sent to the all-male Bullis School and battled depression, hyperactivity, and social isolation. He worked a number of minimum-wage jobs, including a stint at the National Institutes of Health, where he was a courier who once had to kill an entire lab’s worth of contaminated rats. After getting introduced to punk rock via the Ramones, Henry got involved in the scene around DC, acting as a roadie for his friends’ bands and singing for State of Alert, whose 7” EP he financed with his earnings from the Häagen-Dazs ice cream store he managed in Georgetown.
Henry was also a huge fan of Black Flag, whose intense, energetic style was perfect for him. He was a constant presence at their east coast shows, and was eventually hired as their singer (they’d already been through a couple at that point). A lot of things about Henry can be explained by the fact that he—an uptight suburban kid who’d never been on tour or felt appreciated by anyone—was suddenly thrown into life on the road with one of the most dysfunctional bands of all time and forced to adjust.
With Henry as their front man, Black Flag revolutionized rock touring. They would book gigs in small, random towns throughout America, as well as in larger cities on the coasts, and stay on the road for months at a time. They endured police harassment at many of their gigs, lived on $5 a day per band member, and got into constant scuffles with a lot of their more violent fans who didn’t like Henry’s long hair or bodybuilder’s physique (he’d gotten into weightlifting in high school and had such a big neck that his head looked like a thumb).
After Black Flag broke up in 1986, Henry stayed in Los Angeles and wrote a lot of terrible poetry, but also reinvented himself as a spoken-word artist whose performances revealed that he was funnier and more intellectual than his appearance let on. He also started another band, appropriately called Rollins Band, who were best known for their song “Liar,” which is also their only good song.
Henry also leveraged his punk rock infamy into a minor film career, appearing in The Chase, Johnny Mnemonic, Lost Highway, Jack Frost, at least one of the Jackass movies (he tattoos someone as they drive around sand dunes in a four-wheeler), and Bad Boys II, among others. He has also hosted a few radio shows and his own TV show on IFC, where he talked about current events and interviewed a lot of cool people, from Ozzy Ozbourne to Samuel L. Jackson to Werner Herzog.
As he’s gotten older, Henry has become something of a statesman, and his spoken-word/stand-up comedy performances sell out theaters all over the world. He has become an outspoken human rights activist, especially for gay rights and veteran’s rights, and claims that his activism and frequent traveling (a common topic in his performances and writing) channel his anger “into proactive, clean movement” instead of self-destructive behavior.
Here’s a clip of Henry Rollins telling Big Think what exactly made him quit his reliable job to go on tour with Black Flag.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.