Henry Rollins Bio: In His Own Words
Henry Rollins is an American musician who’s gone onto becoming a writer, journalist, publisher, actor, radio host, comedian, and activist. He is best known for being the frontman for the punk band Black Flag from 1981 until their breakup in 1986. Since then, he has established a record label and publishing company named 2.13.61, performed with bands such as his own Rollins Band, performed spoken word albums, hosted television and radio shows, and authored many books. Rollins also became an actor, taking on roles in Sons of Anarchy, The Legend of Korra and He Never Died. In addition to his work in many different mediums, Rollins is an activist. Rollins has taken up many causes, including human rights, especially in the LGBT community, hunger relief, and veterans’ support.
Henry Rollins Early Life
Henry Rollins was born Henry Lawrence Garfield on February 13, 1961 in Washington, D.C. He’s the only child of Iris and Paul Garfield. His parents divorced when Henry was 3. Rollins was raised by his mother in Glover Park and went on to attend The Bullis School, a Washington, D.C. preparatory school. His high school years were where Rollins began taking up writing and, as he says, built him into the type of person he is today. Rollins attended American University in Washington for a semester before dropping out.
Henry Rollins Music Career
After working some jobs to get by, Rollins got into the music industry after being introduced to punk rock by friend and future Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye. The two bought The Ramones’ debut album and it was on from there. Rollins became a roadie for Washington punk bands and ended up getting roles for many of them. “[Punk rock] is a very DIY ‘here, here’s a microphone it’s your turn to sing’ [idea]”, Rollins told uInterview in an exclusive interview at the 2015 SXSW festival. “Well, the singer didn’t show up to band practice, Henry can you cover? Yes, I did that. And it always felt natural.” Soon enough, word was spreading around the Washington punk scene about Rollins’ talent. One band that took notice was Bad Brains. “One time I was hanging out [with them] and H.R. (the band’s vocalist) came up to me and said ‘Henry! You’re a singer.’ I said no, you’re THE singer my friend,” Rollins recalls. “And he said ‘no, you’re a singer and tonight you’re gonna sing with the Bad Breaks’ He put the mic in my hand and threw me on stage and stood in front of me like ‘go ahead, impress me.’ We did two songs and I felt like fish in water. I was like man, I have no fear and man, that was really fun.” From there, Rollins began to become a major part of the punk scene.
In 1980, Rollins joined the remaining members of Washington punk band The Extorts to become State of Alert. The band put together its only EP, No Policy, in 1981 thanks to the help of MacKaye’s Dischord Records and the money Rollins had saved up as manager of an ice cream shop in Georgetown. The band split after just a year, but Rollins said he loved being a part of their group.
After listening to their Nervous Breakdown EP, Rollins became a huge fan of California hardcore punk band Black Flag. He exchanged letters with members of the band and attended many of their East Coast shows. One of which was a show at a New York City bar in 1981, when vocalist Dez Cadena allowed Rollins to sing a song for them. Little did Rollins know that Cadena was looking to switch to guitar and that the performance was an impromptu audition for the role of lead singer. The next day Rollins was asked to become their permanent vocalist, and after some back-and-forth with MacKaye, he accepted the offer.
Upon joining Black Flag, Rollins left Washington for Los Angeles. He chose a stage name of Rollins, after a surname he and MacKaye used as teenagers, and would be known as Henry Rollins from there on out. He also got the Black Flag logo tattooed on his left bicep as soon as he got settled. Rollins told us a little bit about his first concert as Black Flag’s permanent vocalist on August 21, 1981 in Costa Mesa, C.A. It was “in front of a seething sea of people going ‘you better good [expletives],'” he said. “I’m like ‘oh, okay.’ And I didn’t feel any fear. It felt like this is where I should be.” Rollins’ stage persona would make him well known through the punk community for his sheer emotion and energy. He intensely prepared for each show by squeezing a pool ball and grinding his teeth while coming out wearing just his black pair of shorts. As their shows kicked off, Rollins spent his time going all around the stage, lunging forward and back, and expressing a genuine output of his emotions. His stage antics won over the hearts of both punk critics and fans alike– unless those fans had the misfortune of trying to get into an altercation with him.
Black Flag produced eight albums with Rollins at the helm of frontman. In 1981 they released Damage. 1984 was a busy year for the band, releasing My War, Family Man, Slip It In, and Live ’84 after resolving a lengthy legal dispute with Unicorn Records. They would also release Loose Nut and In My Head in 1985 and Who’s Got the 10 1/2? in 1986. But the time Rollins had with Black Flag would be filled with moments of turmoil. In 1983, Cadena left the band while Chuck Dukowski and Greg Ginn, the band’s founder, had an ongoing dispute that eventually resulted in Dukowski’s departure. The band also underwent a change in style, going into a more heavy metal-influenced direction (which was one of the predecessors of the grunge movement of the early 1990s) that upset many in the hardcore punk scene. After being at odds with fans who were intent on injuring them at shows, as well as the tension that grew with one another as a result of lengthy tour after lengthy tour, Black Flag played their final show in 1986. After receiving a call from Ginn that he was leaving the band, Black Flag disbanded in August of 1986.
Rollins toured as a solo artist in 1986, mainly with his spoken word material. The next year he released three solo albums: Hot Animal Machine, which he collaborated with guitarist Chris Haskett, Drive By Shooting, and Big Ugly Mouth, a spoken word album. Later in 1987, Rollins approached Haskett as well as Andrew Weiss and Sim Cain to form Rollins Band. Rollins Band quickly came out with their first album, Life Time, and went on a lengthy tour in 1988. After releasing Hard Volume in 1989 and a live album and spoken word album in 1990, Rollins Band was on their way to higher publicity. The group signed a deal with Imago Records in 1991 and would go on to play at that year’s inaugural Lollapalooza festival.
But late in 1991, tragedy struck Henry Rollins. In December of that year, Rollins and best friend Joe Cole, the son of actor Dennis Cole, were assaulted by robbers outside of their home in Venice Beach, C.A. Although Rollins escaped, Cole was murdered after taking a gunshot to the face. Rollins has forever dealt with the murder he witnessed, referencing it in books he’s written and spoken word albums he’s performed. He also keeps momentos from that day along with him to keep Cole’s memory alive. The murder has still to this day been yet to be solved.
In 1992, Rollins would have his first album chart in the United States with Rollins Band’s release of The End of Silence. After replacing Weiss with funk and jazz bassist Melvin Gibbs, 1994 would be the band’s breakout year. They performed at Woodstock 94 and released the album Weight, which made its way up to #33 in the U.S. music charts. Their music video for “Liar” was also a hit, gaining heavy rotation on MTV. Rollins also released a spoken word album titled Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, which was a double-disc of him reading through his tour diary from his days with Black Flag. The album would give Rollins the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. With all this momentum, Rollins was able to break into the mainstream, hosting a variety of programs for MTV and VH1. He also became a contributing columnist for Details, a men’s magazine that also named him the 1994 “Man of the Year.”
After Imago Records declared bankruptcy, Rollins focused on his spoken word material. Two years later Rollins Band was back to producing music, signing a deal with Dreamworks Records and releasing Come in and Burn. Although “Starve” became a minor hit and the band performed on Saturday Night Live, Rollins felt the band was not living up to what it had done with Weight and was beginning to stagnate creatively. He disbanded the lineup of the group in 1997 and replaced them by absorbing Los Angeles hard rock band Mother Superior. The new Rollins Band released Get Some Go Again in 2000 and Nice in 2001. The band became inactive once again in 2003 as Rollins focused on his television and film work.
Rollins brought back the lineup of Haskett, Gibbs, and Cain in 2006 for one last reunion. But after not doing much in the form of new material, Rollins felt that is time in music was starting to come to an end. In an interview with Communities Digital News in 2014, Rollins admitted he did not enjoy playing Rollins Band and Black Flag’s classic songs. “I don’t want to play old music,” he said. “To me, it is fighting battles that are already over and calling yourself a warrior. For me, I see no courage or adventure in doing the old thing over again. If others want to, that’s for them. For myself, I have to move on. Life is too short to live in the past. There is a lot to be done.” After making a few appearances, the Rollins Band disbanded once more without a new album or one final national tour.
Henry Rollins on Television
Henry Rollins quickly came into a second career through television work, even as he was touring with Rollins Band. He began his work on MTV by presenting Alternative Nation and MTV Sports in 1993 and 1994. In 1995, he appeared on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries that dealt with the murder of Joe Cole. He also presented State of the Union Undressed on Comedy Central and in 1996 became the narrator and presenter of VH1 Legends.
After stepping away from television to focus on Rollins Band, Rollins made a brief return by voicing the villain Mad Stan in the animated cartoon series Batman Beyond in 1999 and 2000. Soon enough Rollins was back on television as a guest star on The Drew Carey Show in 2002 and co-hosting the British game show Full Metal Challenge from 2002 to 2003. Rollins was a presenter on IFC’s film review program Henry’s Film Corner, which gave way to the network’s The Henry Rollins Show. On the show, which ran in 2006 and 2007, Rollins gave a monologue on a current event or political issue, interviewed celebrities, and hosted musical performances from some of the biggest names in indie and hard rock music. Additionally, Rollins has made appearances as himself on MTV’s Jackass and an episode of Showtime’s Californication.
In 2009, Rollins played a key role as an antagonist in the second season of FX’s drama Sons of Anarchy. Rollins was A.J. Weston, a white-supremacist street leader of the League of American Nationalists, a gang that threatens the Son of Anarchy Motorcycle Club’s control of the fictional Charming, Calif. Rollins appeared in 11 of the season’s 13 episodes.
Rollins has also lent his voice to animated programs. In 2009, Rollins had a guest voice appearance in Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad! as a trucker. Later in 2014, Rollins had a major voice role as Zaheer, the main antagonist in the third season of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra. Zaheer is a is the leader of the Order of the Red Lotus, who are a anarchists looking to get rid of world leaders, and quickly learns the powers of using the elements after receiving the ability to do so, putting him at odds with main characters such as Korra. The role was very well received by critics, who praised Rollins’ work towards a very imposing yet complex character in the story.
Rollins has also done plenty of work as a presenter in recent years. In 2012, he hosted National Geographic Wild’s Animal Underworld, which looked into the boundaries of human-animal relationships. He’s also hosted the series 10 Things You Don’t Know About on History Channel’s sister station H2 since 2013. The show looks into little known facts about historical events, movements, and figures that sometimes go in direct contrast to the common perception of them.
Henry Rollins Film Career
Henry Rollins began his film career back in his days with Black Flag, appearing in many independent short films and documentaries with the band. However, he’s become more of an actor in his post-musical days, appearing in many full-length motion pictures. After having a role as an officer in the 1994 film The Chase, which starred Charlie Sheen, Rollins has gone on to take on roles in over 20 films. Among those films was a role in the 1995 film Heat, which had big names such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, playing alongside Michael Keaton in 1998’s Jack Frost, and going up against Will Smith in Bad Boys II. Rollins has also appeared in the first two Jackass motion pictures, Morgan’s Ferry, The New Guy, The Alibi, and Wrong Turn 2: Dead End.
In 2015, Rollins starred in the comedic horror film He Never Died. Rollins plays Jack, an immortal cannibalistic loner who’s forced out of his isolation to save a woman who claims she’s his daughter. uInterview was able to snag an exclusive interview with Rollins about his role in He Never Died at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.
Rollins shared with us his favorite scene from the movie. “There is a scene where I rip a man’s throat out, which was built by our amazing special effects guy Randy, over a series of days,” Rollins said. “He said, “Henry it’s going to sound like cartilage crushing. It’s going to look like a larynx…but we only have one, so if you get through part of the shot and it’s not feeling right stop, we’ll reset, because you know I’m off the side of the stage with a blood pump. Everything has to be right, it’s freezing cold out, so you’re going like grab it, find the little tear away spot and pull forcefully. If you can’t get it, stop.” We do the scene, I’ve got the throat, it’s not coming. I’m like, “Oh no! I either go for it and semi break it or I mangle it and don’t get the shot.” I just triple-downed. And the blood came at the right time, but we got the shot and it looks magnificent. We didn’t have the budget to do that thing again. And so it’s like don’t screw this up and I had this quasi panic like, “Oh no oh no oh oh oh good. Yay his throat came off!” And the other actor sold it very well. But it’s one of those moments when you’re like, ‘Man we are in a small budget film.'”
Rollins also told us of one of his favorite moments in preparing for the role. “I’m on the treadmill at the hotel, I have the script where the numbers that the TV read out,” he said. “I have the script I’m rehearsing. At one point, I’m doing that scene and I feel a hand on my shoulder. I fall off the treadmill. Some wonderful person in the gym saw me and thought I was having some kind of meltdown and I fell off and I pick myself up and I’m like, “Yeah!” She goes, completely startled, she goes, “Oh I’m sorry are you okay?” I said, “I was.” I said, “I’m in a film.” She’s like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I just thought you were having a bad time.” I’m like, “Thank you so much for caring.” And I had to go back to, in a sweat suit, doing lines and so that was one of those moments.”
Henry Rollins Writing and Radio
In addition to his music and acting, Henry Rollins has done writing as both an author and a journalist, as well as hosting radio shows. In 2004, Rollins began hosting Harmony in My Head on Los Angeles’ Indie 103.1 radio. Even with a busy schedule of touring or filming, Rollins still hosted the show every Monday night until Indie 103.1 went off the air in 2009. That same year, Rollins began hosting a weekly show on KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., which he still hosts on Sunday nights.
Rollins has written and published a wide range of books. They include Black Coffee Blues, The First Five, See A Grown Man Cry, Now Watch Him Smile, Get in the Van, and Eye Scream. Rollins has also provided his voice for audiobooks, including the voice for T. Sean Collins in the audiobook for World War Z, 3:10 To Yuma, and his own Get in the Van.
Rollins has also done plenty of newswriting. In 2008, Rollins was tapped by Vanity Fair magazine to contribute to their “Politics and Power” blog on their website. In 2010, Rollins shifted his writing from politics to music for a weekly music review column for LA Weekly. Rollins has also provided articles for The Huffington Post and has conducted YouTube news series regarding politics, most notably the 2012 presidential election.
Henry Rollins Activism
Henry Rollins has also been a big face in many activist movements, most notably human rights issues such as LGBT rights and environmental disasters. Rollins often uses his spoken word tours and media platforms to speak out for social justice and human equality. He hosted “WedRock,” a benefit concert for pro-gay marriage groups, and has been a very vocal proponent for LGBT rights.
Although Rollins has been very clear in his anti-war stance, he’s also done lots of work on behalf of American troops. He has done 8 tours with the USO to entertain U.S. soldiers overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also teamed up with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) in many initiatives, including promoting websites that give support to troops adjusting to coming back home and those that give tips to families and friends of veterans on how to support them through their struggles.
Rollins has also done work both through his music and his writing for causes he holds close to him. He teamed up with Public Enemy front man Chuck D to benefit the West Memphis Three, three young men who were seen to be wrongfully convicted of murder, in a 2002 album that saw Rollins perform Black Flag songs for the first time in over a decade. He’s also written op-eds for issues such as the Bhopal Disaster for Vanity Fair and other publications.
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