Henry Rollins

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Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins in 2005
Henry Rollins in 2005
Background information
Birth name Henry Lawrence Garfield
Born February 13, 1961 (1961-02-13)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Genre(s) Hardcore punk, Alternative rock, Spoken word
Occupation(s) Singer, Songwriter, Actor, Standup comedian, Author
Instrument(s) Vocals
Years active 1980 — present
Label(s) 2.13.61, Dischord, Quarterstick Records, SST
Associated acts State of Alert
Black Flag
Rollins Band
Website 21361.com

Henry Rollins (born February 13, 1961 as Henry Lawrence Garfield; often referred to simply as Rollins) is an American singer and songwriter, spoken word artist, author, actor, and publisher.

After joining the short-lived Washington, D.C. band State of Alert in 1980, Rollins fronted the Californian hardcore punk band Black Flag from 1981 until 1986. Following the band's breakup, Rollins soon established the record label and publishing company 2.13.61 to release his spoken word albums, as well as forming the Rollins Band, which toured with a number of lineups until 2003 and during 2006.

Since Black Flag, Rollins has embarked on projects covering a variety of media. He has hosted numerous radio shows, such as The Henry Rollins Show and Harmony In My Head, and television shows, such as MTV's 120 Minutes and Jackass, along with roles in several films. Rollins has also campaigned for human rights in the United States, promoting gay rights in particular, and tours overseas with the United Service Organizations to entertain American troops, despite his opposition to the Bush administration and the Iraq war.



Henry Garfield was born in Washington, D.C. on February 13, 1961, and grew up in the Glover Park neighbourhood of the city. An only child, Garfield's parents divorced when he was a toddler; he suffered from low self-esteem and a poor attention span as a child. He was raised primarily by his mother, Iris, who taught him to read before he entered public school; however, because of "bad grades, bad attitude, poor conduct", he was soon sent to The Bullis School, a military school in Potomac, Maryland. Garfield disliked the authoritarian atmosphere and the then boys-only campus, which hindered his dating attempts and made him uncomfortable around women for several years.

According to Garfield, military school helped him to develop a sense of discipline and a strong work ethic. It was at Bullis that he began writing; his early literary efforts were mainly short stories about "blowing up my school and murdering all the teachers." Despite the relative affluence of Glover Park, for Garfield "it was a very rough up-bringing in a lot of other ways. I accumulated a lot of rage by the time I was seventeen or eighteen." Much of the rage came from problems at home, but Rolling Stone printed an interview in April 1992, wherein Rollins said he'd been sexually molested as a child, and many of his later spoken word monologues refer to an abusive father. Some of his rage came from the racial tensions at that time; Garfield was often beaten up by black teenagers because of his race.

State of Alert

After high school, Garfield attempted college, but after being discouraged by the behaviour of his fellow students, who were into "beer and bongs," he left and began working in minimum-wage jobs, including a job as a taxi driver for liver samples at the National Institutes of Health. Garfield became involved in the punk rock scene after he and Ian MacKaye bought a Sex Pistols record; he later described it as a "revelation." By 1979, Garfield was working as a roadie for local bands, including MacKaye's Teen Idles. When the band's singer Nathan Strejcek failed to appear for practice sessions, Garfield convinced the Teen Idles to let him sing. Word of Garfield's ability spread around Washington's underground music scene; Bad Brains singer H.R. would sometimes coax Garfield on stage to sing with him.

In late 1980, the Washington punk band The Extorts lost their frontman Lyle Preslar to Minor Threat. Garfield joined the rest of the band to form State of Alert, and became its frontman and vocalist. He put words to the band's five songs and wrote several more. S.O.A. recorded their sole extended play, No Policy, and released it in 1981 on MacKaye's Dischord Records. S.O.A. disbanded after a total of nine concerts and one EP. Garfield had enjoyed being the band's frontman, and had earned a reputation for fighting in shows. He later said: "I was like nineteen and a young man all full of steam [...] Loved to get in the dust-ups." By this time, Garfield had become the manager of the Georgetown Häagen-Dazs ice cream store; his steady employment had helped to finance the S.O.A. EP.

Black Flag

In 1981, a friend gave Garfield and MacKaye a copy of Black Flag's Nervous Breakdown EP. Garfield soon became a fan of the band, exchanging letters with bassist Chuck Dukowski and later inviting the band to stay in his parents' home when Black Flag toured the East Coast in December 1980. When Black Flag returned to the East Coast in early 1981, Garfield attended as many of their concerts as he could. At an impromptu show in a New York bar, Black Flag's vocalist Dez Cadena allowed Garfield to sing "Clocked In," as Garfield had a five hour drive back to Washington DC to return to work after the performance.

Unbeknownst to Garfield, Cadena wanted to switch to guitar, and the band was looking for a new vocalist. The band was impressed with Garfield's singing and stage demeanor, and the next day, after a semi-formal audition, they asked him to become their permanent vocalist. Despite some doubts, he accepted, in part because of MacKaye's encouragement. His high level of energy and intense personality suited the band's style, but Garfield's diverse tastes in music were a key factor in his being selected as singer; Black Flag's founder Greg Ginn was growing restless creatively and wanted a singer who was willing to move beyond simple, three-chord punk.

After joining Black Flag in 1981, Garfield quit his job at Häagen-Dazs, sold his car, and moved to Los Angeles, California. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Garfield got the Black Flag logo tattooed on his left bicep and changed his surname to Rollins, a surname he and MacKaye had used as teenagers. Rollins was in a different environment in Los Angeles; the police soon realized he was a member of Black Flag and he was hassled as a result. Rollins later said "That really scared me. It freaked me out that an adult would do that. [...] My little eyes were opened big time." Rollins also began to take "large quantities" of LSD during Black Flag tours, after bassist Chuck Dukowski urged him with the words "it will help you not be such an asshole."

Before concerts, as the rest of band tuned up, Rollins would stride about the stage dressed only in a pair of black shorts, grinding his teeth; to focus before the show he would squeeze a pool ball. His stage persona impressed several critics; after a 1982 show in Anacortes, Washington, Sub Pop critic Calvin Johnson wrote: "Henry was incredible. Pacing back and forth, lunging, lurching, growling; it was all real, the most intense emotional experiences I have ever seen."

By 1983, Rollins' stage persona was increasingly alienating him from the rest of Black Flag. During a show in England, Rollins assaulted a member of the audience; Ginn later scolded Rollins, calling him a "macho asshole." A legal dispute with Unicorn Records held up further Black Flag releases until 1984, and Ginn was slowing the band's tempo down so that they would remain innovative. In August 1983 guitarist Dez Cadena had left the group; a stalemate lingered between Dukowski and Ginn, who wanted Dukowski to leave, before Rollins fired Dukowski outright. 1984's heavy metal-influenced My War featured Rollins screaming and wailing throughout many of the songs; the band's members also grew their hair to confuse the band's hardcore punk audience.

Black Flag's change in musical style and appearance alienated many of their original fans, who focused their displeasure on Rollins by punching him in the mouth, stabbing him with pens or scratching him with their nails, among other methods. He often fought back, dragging audience members on stage and assaulting them. Rollins became increasingly alienated from the audience; in his tour diary, Rollins wrote "When they spit at me, when they grab at me, they aren't hurting me. When I push out and mangle the flesh of another, it's falling so short of what I really want to do to them." During the Unicorn legal dispute, Rollins had started a weight-lifting program, and by their 1984 tours, he had become visibly well-built; journalist Michael Azerrad later commented that "his powerful physique was a metaphor for the impregnable emotional shield he was developing around himself."

Rollins Band and solo releases

Before Black Flag broke up in early 1986, Rollins had already toured as a solo spoken word artist. He released two solo records in 1987, Hot Animal Machine, a collaboration with guitarist Chris Haskett, and Drive by Shooting, recorded as "Henrietta Collins and the Wifebeating Childhaters"; Rollins also released his second spoken word album, Big Ugly Mouth in the same year. Along with Haskett, Rollins soon added Andrew Weiss and Sim Cain, both former members of Ginn's side-project Gone, and called the new group the Rollins Band. The band toured relentlessly, and their 1987 debut album, Life Time, was quickly followed by the outtakes and live collection Do It. The band continued to tour throughout 1988; 1989 marked the release of another Rollins Band album, Hard Volume. Another live album, Turned On, and another spoken word release, Live at McCabe's, followed in 1990.

1991 saw the Rollins Band sign a distribution deal with Imago Records and appear at the Lollapalooza festival; both improved the band's presence. However, in December 1991, Rollins and his best friend Joe Cole were accosted by gunmen outside Rollins' home. Cole was murdered by a gunshot to the head, but Rollins escaped without injury. Although traumatized by Cole's death, Rollins continued to release new material; the spoken-word album Human Butt appeared in 1992 on his own record label, 2.13.61. The Rollins Band released The End of Silence, Rollins' first charting album.

The following year, Rollins released a spoken-word double album, The Boxed Life. The Rollins Band embarked upon the End of Silence tour; bassist Weiss was fired towards its end and replaced by funk and jazz bassist Melvin Gibbs. According to critic Steve Huey, 1994 was Rollins' "breakout year". The Rollins Band appeared at Woodstock 94 and released Weight, which ranked on the Billboard Top 40. Rollins released Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, a double-disc set of him reading from his Black Flag tour diary of the same name; he won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording as a result. Rollins was named 1994's "Man of the Year" by the American men's magazine Details and became a contributing columnist to the magazine. With the increased exposure, Rollins made several appearances on American music channels MTV and VH1 around this time, and made his Hollywood film debut in 1994 in The Chase playing a police officer.

In 1995, the Rollins Band's record label, Imago Records, declared itself bankrupt. Rollins began focusing on his spoken word career. He released Everything, a recording of a chapter of his book Eye Scream with free jazz backing, in 1996. He continued to appear in various films, including Heat, Johnny Mnemonic and Lost Highway. The Rollins Band signed to Dreamworks Records in 1997 and soon released Come in and Burn, but it did not receive as much critical acclaim as their previous material. Rollins continued to release spoken-word book readings, releasing Black Coffee Blues in the same year. 1998 saw Rollins released Think Tank, his first set of non-book-related spoken material in five years.

By 1998, Rollins felt that the relationship with his backing band had run its course, and the line-up disbanded. He had produced a Los Angeles hard rock band called Mother Superior, and invited them to form a new incarnation of the Rollins Band. Their first album Get Some Go Again, was released two years later. The Rollins Band released several more albums, including 2001's Nice and 2003's Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three. After 2003, the band became inactive as Rollins focused on radio and television work.

Musical style


As a vocalist, Rollins has adopted a number of styles through the years. Rollins was initially noted in the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene for what journalist Michael Azerrad described as a "compelling, raspy howl". With State of Alert, Rollins "spat out the lyrics like a bellicose auctioneer". He adopted a similar style after joining Black Flag in 1981. By their album Damaged however, Black Flag began to incorporate a swing beat into their style; Rollins then abandoned his S.O.A. "bark" and adopted the band's swing. Rollins later explained: "What I was doing kind of matched the vibe of the music. The music was intense and, well, I was as intense as you needed."

In both incarnations of the Rollins Band, Rollins combined spoken word with his traditional vocal style in songs such as "Liar" (the song begins with a one minute spoken diatribe by Rollins), as well as barking his way through songs (such as "Tearing" and "Starve") and employing the loud-quiet dynamic. Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis names Rollins a "screeching hate machine" and his "hallmark" as "the sheets-of-sound assault".

Rollins also appeared in the 1993 Tool album, Undertow. He and Tool front man, Maynard James Keenan, performed the vocals in the song "Bottom".


Rollins wrote several songs with Black Flag, but was not the group's main songwriter. With the Rollins Band, his lyrics focused "almost exclusively on issues relating to personal integrity," according to critic Geoffrey Welchman.

Campaigning and activism

Rollins signing an autograph while on a United Service Organizations tour in Iraq in 2006.
Rollins signing an autograph while on a United Service Organizations tour in Iraq in 2006.

Rollins has become an outspoken human rights activist, most vocally for gay rights, while deriding any suggestion that he himself was gay. In 1998, he declared: "If I was gay, there would be no closet. You would never see the closet I came out of. Why? Because I'd have burned it for kindling by the time I was twelve ... If I was gay, at this stage of the game — age 37, aging alternative icon — I'd be taking out ads." Rollins frequently speaks out on social justice on his spoken word tours and promotes equality, regardless of sexuality. He was the host of the WedRock benefit concert, which raised money for a pro-gay-marriage organization.

During the 2003 Iraq War, he started touring with the United Service Organizations to entertain troops overseas, despite his personal opposition to the war and the Bush administration. He has also been active in the campaign to free the " West Memphis Three" — three young men that many believe were wrongly convicted of murder. Rollins appears with Public Enemy frontman Chuck D on the Black Flag song "Rise Above" on the benefit album Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three; the first time Rollins had performed Black Flag's material since 1986.


Studio albums

  • Hot Animal Machine (1987)
  • Drive by Shooting (1987)

Spoken word

  • Short Walk on a Long Pier (1985)
  • Big Ugly Mouth (1987)
  • Sweatbox (1989)
  • Live at McCabe's (1990)
  • Human Butt (1992)
  • Deep Throat (1992)
  • The Boxed Life (1993)
  • Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag (1994)
  • Everything (1996)
  • Black Coffee Blues (1997)
  • Think Tank (1998)
  • Eric the Pilot (1999)
  • A Rollins in the Wry (2001)
  • Live at the Westbeth Theatre (2001)
  • Talk Is Cheap Vol I (2003)
  • Talk Is Cheap Vol II (2003)
  • Nights Behind the Tree Line (2004)
  • Talk Is Cheap Vol III (2004)
  • Talk Is Cheap Vol IV (2004)

Spoken word DVDs

  • You Saw Me Up There (1998)
  • Talking from the Box/Live in London (2001)
  • Up for It (2001)
  • Live @ Luna Park (2003)
  • Shock & Awe (2006)
  • Live in the Conversation Pit (2006)
  • Henry Rollins: Uncut from NYC (2007)
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