Punk godfather Henry Rollins talks loud, but he's not saying much

In 1998, Henry Rollins went to a Los Angeles club to catch a gig by the long-forgotten '80s hair-metal band Ratt.

Rollins - former singer for hardcore-punk trailblazers Black Flag, and presently an ultra-prolific singer/writer/actor/spoken-word performer - went to check out the crowd, to see who would bother with a band who had one disposal MTV hit in 1983. As he recounts in his 2000 diary collection, Smile, You're Traveling, the reunited Ratt didn't sound all that bad. But when singer Stephen Pearcy and his bandmates enthusiastically hyped their forthcoming new album, Rollins found it sad and pathetic. After all, why would anybody care about a new Ratt album? Their music was inessential in the first place.

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The implication, of course, behind Rollins' rant is that he doesn't belong in the same category, that his music is important and enduring. Rollins has built a career out of touting himself as the ultimate bad-ass, a truth-telling juggernaut with no time for the niceties of the terminally mediocre.

That's why in 1997, after the Rollins Band album Come in and Burn flopped in the shops and Rollins' subsequent tour drew mass indifference, Rollins decided that the fault was not with his own work, but with the sorry state of the nation. "America's youth," Rollins wrote the following year, "have turned into a bunch of pussies."

During a break from his current 50-stop, spoken-word tour, the 42-year-old Rollins explains what made him so disillusioned on that tour.

"It was the same thing I see now, just really nice, well-adjusted boys and girls playing music," Rollins says. "They were bands I was seeing at festivals. It was really lightweight music played by shiny, happy people - which to me is really boring, and doesn't clash, and doesn't make a statement and doesn't move me.

"I just remember when I was that age wanting to whip a whole bunch more ass than I see these audiences into. I would not have put up with so much pop in my rock 'n' roll at the tender age of 17 to 22. I wanted way more blood - and I got it, pally!"

That's the way Rollins talks: In bold print and exclamation points, as if every statement, every half-baked notion out of his head, is the definitive word on that subject.

The funny thing about Rollins is that in his own way, he's nearly as cartoonish and dated as the mousse-and-spandex brigade he pities so much. With his square-jawed, drill-instructor visage and need to tunelessly bellow at the top of his lungs at all times, he's a relic from the early Lollapalooza era, a heroic figure to an audience who considered the Jim Rose Circus the apex of radical art.

In truth, the most impressive thing about Rollins' 20-plus-year career is that he's managed to last this long with so little talent. He can't play an instrument, can't carry a tune with more than a two-note range, and has always relied on his cohorts to generate songs ideas for him.

When the band was Black Flag, and the musical catalyst was Greg Ginn, the results were often inspired. Subsequently, when backed by the Rollins Band - an accomplished but generic hard-rock ensemble - Rollins stands exposed - shirtless, tattooed, and muscle-bound - as a wearisome one-trick pony. On individual tracks (like "What's the Matter Man," from his last studio album, 2001's Nice) the results can be powerful. But over the long haul, it's like a painter who only uses one color, or a poet who only uses one-syllable words.

Rollins is the Jake LaMotta of rock, an artist who measures his manhood by his ability to absorb and inflict body shots. It's no accident that the highest compliment Rollins can give to his own music is "punishing," or "it whips a cheetah's ass with a belt."

All this might be heresy to true believers who drive hundreds of miles to catch his spoken-word shows or exchange web-site chat about how Rollins' books changed their lives. Hell, for all I know, these people


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probably consider Rollins' acting turn in the Charlie Sheen cops-and-cars flick The Chase to be a monumental piece of cinema.

But for all his bluster, Rollins has a self-deprecating side, and even he seems to realize that his self-published books don't measure up to the work of his idols.

"You read `F.` Scott Fitzgerald," he says. "That's real writing, not what I do. It's not the same caliber. I'm just more like a dog let loose with a pen."

Much as Rollins' complains about alternative rock incorporating too much pop in recent years, he was actually supplanted not by soft young popsters, but by macho blowhards like himself. What is Fred Durst, after all, but a younger, less articulate Rollins? Like Rollins, Durst is vein-popping, steroid rage, a walking advertisement for the old James Brown axiom about talking loud and saying nothing. Also, like Rollins, he creates the illusion of depth by dabbling in other media - in his case, directing videos.

Rollins' hardcore history in Black Flag gave him the underground cache to make it as a spoken-word artist, but ultimately it's the spoken-word stuff that's sustained him. It's made him look like more than just another hard-rock screamer who can't think of anything new to express.

"I just go out there and let it rip and people show up and seem to like it," he says of the spoken-word shows. "I don't know exactly what I would call it. I just call it a talking show, 'cause I get up there and I talk. I don't really worry about what food group it belongs to or where it ends up in the record store."

These days, Rollins is just a guy who turns up on VH1 countdown shows to offer up gushing testimonials about everyone from Madonna to Van Halen. And his sociological insights hardly qualify as profound: His response to September 11? "America does a lot of good, and a lot of not-so-good." His response to junk-food culture? "This country has always embraced the mediocre and below average."

Rollins should know. •



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