At 52 years of age, Henry Rollins is not playing music anymore. Big deal. He doesn’t need to. He’s still listening to it and writing about it, and his spoken performances, cultural critiques, op-eds and travel stories are what I’ve always thought were the most interesting parts of his creative output. His short-lived IFC show wasn’t bad, and it’s fun to see or hear him in a film or cartoon once in a while, but Rollins shines brightest when he is alone on a stage, speaking about his personal, international experiences traveling and interacting with the world (or writing about them).
I have admired his work for more than 20 years and enjoyed a front-row seat at one of his relentless, three-hour-plus speaking shows last fall, a staccato performance that veered from funny to heavy to poignant to depressing and back to funny again several times, during which he took no breaks and not even a single sip of water, but I never caught a live performance of the seminal hardcore punk band that brought him to the world’s attention, the mighty Black Flag. Well, I was ten years old when they broke up.
At that point I was more interested in Star Wars and Top Gun. Punk rock was not yet on my radar, and neither was metal. I mostly listened to the radio at that time and had three tapes for my Walkman: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Michael Jackson. When the Rollins-fronted iteration of Black Flag was crush-kill-destroying its way through hundreds of dive bars and concert halls across the US and Europe (and sometimes even a short drive from my house) in the early and mid-80s, I didn’t have a clue.
When Black Flag picked Rollins (then a 20-year-old ice-cream shop manager known as Henry Garfield) from suburban Washington, DC obscurity, they had already been through a few singers. The band saw an undeniable intensity in the young man who jumped at the chance to sing one of his favorite songs, "Clocked In," with them at a New York show, just in time to drive back to DC and "clock in" at the ice cream shop the next morning. While I like some Black Flag songs and others from Rollins' post-Black Flag group (Rollins Band), I have always been more interested in bands featuring Henry’s old DC buddy and ice cream shop co-worker, Ian MacKaye (some Minor Threat, some Embrace and a lot of Fugazi). Ian even called me back once, on his own dime, via landline long distance, when I was interviewing him for a school paper in the late 90s, but I bet Henry would have done the same.
Black Flag’s legend remains fascinating, particularly their late-70s/early-80s era, which culminated in Rollins’ tenure as lead singer from 1981 until the band’s breakup in 1986. During these years, they rocked like hell, no matter what, often under the worst of circumstances, enduring member defections, departures and firings, crushing poverty, police profiling and brutality, unscrupulous promoters and show-runners, ridicule or indifference from the hyper-critical “punk” press, sickness, injuries, extreme temperatures and routine physical violence, often being attacked by their own audiences.
Even so, Rollins established his singular, defiant voice as a solo performer early on, initiating his spoken-word performances between Black Flag gigs, establishing himself as a skilled storyteller, social critic and speaker with memorable, inspiring jackhammer blasts of uncompromising originality and brutal honesty that have resonated with me far more than any of his bands ever did.
By 1991, I had discovered punk rock, and Fugazi was my new favorite. Though I had heard Black Flag before, I didn’t really become a Henry Rollins fan until 1995, when, in my freshman dorm, I first listened to cassettes of the audio version of Rollins’ tour diary from his five years as the voice of Black Flag, titled Get In The Van (1994). Rollins had started his own publishing company and released his book on his own. It won a Grammy award, which just sounds completely absurd and weird—the Grammies care about underground punk rock? Punk rock doesn’t give a shit about the Grammies; Metallica lost a heavy metal Grammy to Jethro Tull...remember that?—but it happened, due in no small part to Rollins’ appeal as a vocal artist performing his own intense written material…well...intensely.
I was already captivated by the creative and musical possibilities demonstrated by Mackaye (who had started his own record label, managed his own band with his band mates, booked his own tours and retained creative control of the entirety his artistic output), and Henry’s gripping self-published tour journal added to my admiration of Mackaye’s old buddy. Henry and Ian became role models for me, carving their own do-it-yourself (DIY) paths through the world, making art and music on their own terms, leaving a blueprint for creative people who wanted to make life whatever they wanted it to be, manage to be a force for good, reject corruption and authority, and yes, make a positive impact. Despite the chaos and the struggle, I wanted to be a part of their uncompromising, punk-rock world.
Eventually I had my own more mellow, less violent and nowhere near as widespread adventures on the road in the DIY punk rock touring van, with my nobody’s-ever-heard-of band, kill devil hills, though we did manage, over about three and a half years, to play about 180 shows in 37 states before calling it quits in 2002.
Last year I picked up a copy of the expanded 2004 re-release of Get In The Van, which includes more tour diary entries, photos of the band and shows and an extensive collection of Ray Pettibon’s iconic Black Flag artwork, which was used for posters, album covers and t-shirts, but I didn’t start reading it until a few weeks ago. A few months before revisiting Get In The Van on paper, I finally got around to reading Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (2001), something I’d been meaning to read for years, which has a great chapter on Black Flag, as well as chapters on several other influential independent and punk bands.
Then I re-read the new expanded edition of former Punk Planet publisher Dan Sinker’s fantastic collection of interviews, We Owe You Nothing, Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews (2007), which features an unprecedented interview with several key members of Black Flag, and Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkin's great book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital (2001), a chronicle of the early DC punk scene. Rereading these chapters and the entirety of Get In The Van over the last few weeks has been fun, as has catching up with some of Henry’s recent LA Weekly columns on topics like gay marriage, stop and frisk, or German metalheads.
It’s been interesting to note how Rollins has tempered his isolation, masochism and general misanthropy with optimism about his belief in the inherent good of most of humanity. The 22-year-old Rollins would not understand this sentiment, but the 52-year-old Rollins has a much wider world view. He travels extensively and writes about it, as he did with Black Flag, but now he goes alone with a backpack and a camera, walking the streets of the world, talking to people and taking pictures and then reflecting on his travels through writing.
He’s still angry as hell, but that's a good thing. As a gift from my lovely wife, last month I received Rollins' vivid 2010 photo-essay book, Occupants, wherein he rages, from differing perspectives, against invaders, exploiters and opportunists of many flags, reflecting on history and warfare, poverty and suffering. There aren’t many laughs, but as he mentioned a week ago on his website, offering his opinion on the potential for US involvement in the Syrian conflict, “I do hope that you fully understand that while I take these issues with a great deal of seriousness, I do not take myself with much seriousness. I am like anyone else, entitled to an opinion. Thank you.”
Black Flag has reunited a few times over the years, in various iterations, but never with Henry Rollins; however, in 2002, Rollins revisited his old stomping ground, organizing the album Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three, which involved performances of Black Flag songs by the Rollins Band, with guest vocalists from all over the map, including Cedric Bixler, Hank III, Ice T, Lemmy, Mike Patton, Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenka and Ryan Adams (Ryan Adams?), along with members of Slayer, Rancid and Clutch, a few previous Black Flag members and Rollins himself. Founding guitarist Greg Ginn was not involved and, based on the few interviews I have read, does not appear to be a fan of Mr. Rollins. Of Get In The Van, he has said, "I don't have to read it to know that it's inaccurate."
There are two bands using the Flag name and logo today; though only one is going by Black Flag, another goes by FLAG. Each version of the band is touring, playing very old music and laying claim to the name and the fame, the legacy of perhaps the most important harbingers of the first wave of hardcore punk rock music. Each band is fighting the other in court right now for the right to fly the flag, perform the songs and essentially be the one and only Black Flag.
You’d think that after 30+ years, figuring out who deserved the name would be simple, but you might not know that as many as sixteen members have come and gone in the intervening years of relentless touring or complete inactivity. Many recognize the years Rollins spent as the voice of the band as the definitive era of Black Flag momentum and vitality, but even those years included consistent turnover among every member other than Greg Ginn and his then young recruit, Rollins, whom he is now suing, along with Keith Morris (a pre-Rollins singer), who is fronting one version of the band. What a mess.
Speaking of once-admired bands dissolving into multi-member rancor and branding disputes, Queensryche, stalwart purveyor of Maiden-esque American metal (at least initially) since 1982, the original Seattle hair band, has pulled a similar dividing act. After a backstage scuffle and subsequent mutiny last year by the remaining original guitarist, bassist and drummer, founding singer Geoff Tate was booted from his own band.
The three remaining original members, along with a guitarist who had been in the band for about three years, hired a new lead singer, fired Tate, promptly recorded a new record and hit the road, still calling themselves Queensryche. Then Tate replaced the whole band and did the same, also touring and recording with his new band, also calling it Queensryche. While I have not purchased a Queensryche record since Empire (1990), I still enjoy a rare spin of that record or of Operation Mindcrime (1988). There are a few early gems on albums before Mindcrime, too. Queensryche's first video, for Queen of the Ryche, is so bad that...well, just watch it because it rules.
Apparently the courts will decide later this year or early next year about all four bands, crowning the true versions of both Black Flag and Queensryche. There can be only one. Of each.