Henry Rollins At The Smithsonian: ‘Rock Is Dead—For Gene Simmons’

By Ally Schweitzer

Henry Rollins talked D.C. punk, celebrities and Black Flag Tuesday night at the Baird Auditorium.
Henry Rollins talked D.C. punk, celebrities and Black Flag Tuesday night at the Baird Auditorium. WAMU/Ally Schweitzer

Tuesday, Smithsonian Associates hosted a lively conversation between Washington Post music writer Chris Richards and “punk poet” Henry Rollins. Considering Rollins’ insane output—his books, radio show, lectures, L.A. Weekly column and many recordings—you’d think the guy might have exhausted his supply of words. On the contrary: the beefy D.C. native, in his trademark black T-shirt, Dickies and combat boots, talked like it was the first time he’d been given the chance.

The two-hour conversation ostensibly focused on D.C. punk, but with smart, open-ended questions from Richards (my former colleague) and the audience, Rollins hopped all over the place. He dished on changing his name, seeing The Ramones at Louie’s Rock City in Fairfax, trashing his Steve Miller records (then buying them back), feuding with Greg Ginn, collaborating with Chuck D and watching football with William Shatner.

This is a partial transcript of Tuesday night’s conversation. It has been edited for clarity and brevity. For more on Dischord and D.C. punk, read the Ian MacKaye interview we recently published.

On “the changing of the guard” from arena rock to punk rock:

I was raised in a very conformist atmosphere at school, where you liked this, but you can’t like this. I was not very open-minded. I was very close-minded, actually. I was kind of trained to be that way. And had a father who said it’s this way, and it can’t be any other way but this way. And I’d go OK, all right.

So when punk rock started to creep into our lives—my life—I started going, well, if I like Led Zeppelin and I like Ted Nugent and I like Van Halen and Aerosmith and all that big guitar rock I was raised with, but I have a Clash record. Can I like both? No! These records must go.

I think we saw Led Zeppelin first, the first of five nights at the Capital Centre. And then eventually, Feb. 15 1979 with D.C.eats, Bo Diddley and The Clash at the Ontario [Theatre], and I’d never seen anything like that in my life. All of a sudden, you’re this far from the band, not across this rackety arena not built for acoustics, built for hockey and basketball, and almost suddenly you’re feeling this real music coming at you—not that these other bands weren’t real, Zeppelin was astounding live, it was great—but all of a sudden there’s something else. You felt a different way coming out of that gig. And that night I went home and I actually physically threw out… maybe about 25 percent of my records after I saw The Clash. Poor Steve Miller, who’s a great musician. He was the mellowest one of the gang! “Fly Like An Eagle,” you’re outta here!

And with a lump in my throat, I bought all those records back years later. I literally slunk into record stores, where I’m now recognized. Like “Wow, ‘Fly Like An Eagle!’ [And I’d say] “Just, just put it in the bag.” [Hides face] “Carole King Tapestry? Dude, you?” “Shut up, put it in the bag. It’s a great album!” Because I realized at one point, you can listen to all of it, you know? There’s this great word, it’s called “eclectic.” One can be eclectic. You can entertain country and Western.

On how Bad Brains blew his mind:

We first saw them in June, I believe, of 1979, The Damned came to town, which was a huge deal. And I hope I’m not talking out of class, Ian, but Ian [MacKaye] was underage. Which is no fault of his, but there’s no way we can have Ian miss this show. So that afternoon we have to make a fake driver’s license for Ian…

We had heard that there’s a black punk rock band in D.C. Like, “Wow, that we want to see. How cool.” We see these scary-looking young guys in torn-up suits outside the gig putting up the flyers. We’re like “That must be them!” And it was. Like, “Look at these guys!” Just scary looking… And The Damned apparently had requested them, like, “There’s a black punk rock band in D.C.? Put them on our bill.” And that’s how they got that gig.

So we get into the show, we’re there early to see the opening band, Bad Brains, and the place is barely full. Bad Brains appeared on stage, and they’re really intimidating. They’re young, they’re handsome, and they’re just coming up with it, playing this music that’s reinventing the wheel as each songs goes by—there’s nothing like it. The crowd’s kind of shrinking back. They’re like, “This is a lot!” Because H.R. is like “Aaaarggh!” And he’s a lot! I remember very clearly, Ian, myself and I think Mark Sullivan—later of Kingface—we walked towards the stage. It was like, “No. This is it.” We just kinda went, “That, this is, they’re local? We can see these guys again?”

Then by the time The Damned went on, you couldn’t fit another person in there. And they were great. Great! But it was kinda almost rock ‘n’ roll compared to The Bad Brains, that were like science.

“Later on, The Ramones played Maryland University. It was a bigger thing. It was you and 1,500 other people, with some drunk like, ‘What are you lookin’ at?’ And you’re like, ‘Aw, well, that’s over. That cool time’s over. Now there’s some jock guy who wants to fight me because I look punk rock, but he’s at a punk-rock gig.'”

On seeing The Ramones in suburban Virginia vs. seeing them later at the University of Maryland:

I got to see them with Ian in the summer of ’79, I believe, Road to Ruin tour, at a place called Louie’s Rock City, which is now a Chinese buffet restaurant… We got to see The Ramones so close, I remember the drops of sweat coming off Dee Dee’s nose almost like a faucet because I was standing right in front of him. And you couldn’t have fit more people in that show if you had WD-40… And all of a sudden The Ramones come out and they look just like they do on the record, and they’re this far from you, and you’re like, “Whoa.” And it was more incredible than seeing Led Zeppelin, because they’re right there. …

But these were shows that, a year later, The Ramones played Maryland University. It was a bigger thing. It was like you and 1,500 other people, some drunk like, “What are you lookin’ at?” And you’re like “Aw, well, that’s over. That cool time’s over. Now there’s some jock guy who wants to fight me because I look punk rock but he’s at a punk-rock gig. Oh well.”

On how Ian MacKaye got Black Flag to crash at his parents’ house:

[Ian is] a true visionary, and the first person in my age group I ever met who had his own opinion. I wanted people to like me, so I’d go where anyone else went, just as long as someone would say, “Yay! Henry’s here.” Ian didn’t give a damn what you thought about him. …

At one point, Ian wanted to find out more about SST Records and Black Flag. So what does he do? He just calls them. He gets their number and he says, “Yeah, I talked to Black Flag today.” I said, “You did what?” He says, “Yeah I was talking to Chuck Dukowski, I called SST.” I’m like, “Are you kidding?” He’s like, “Yeah!” But that’s classic Ian MacKaye. “So they’re coming to town”—which we all knew—“and they’re gonna stay at my parents’ place.” I’m like, “Black Flag is coming to your house?” And they did! All of them.

On leaving D.C. to join Black Flag:

Immediate and total was the feeling of disconnect that has obsessed me ever since the day I left in July of ’81. As soon as I left, I was like, “Ugggh!” Where I start thinking about D.C., dreaming about D.C., I come back, I collect leaves, put them in notebooks. I eat in a restaurant, I save the napkin. I’ve [written] journal entries. To this day, when I’m here and I get a chance, I walk for hours. …

I keep putting the teabag back in the water. I just remember where I come from. … I like to come back to a place that’s completely analog… and Ian is here. And he’s like the rock on the table. The guy who never sold out, he never turned into this unapproachable, awful, like, “Ugh, well, what happened to him?” He never did that. I probably did. But he never did.

On the importance of preserving punk ephemera:

At first I started pulling flyers down off walls or wherever because I love the artwork. Everything’s cut out and crazy and just free and you’re like, “Wow, I’ve been to that show, man. This is me.” And Ian’s band, The Teen Idles, Jeff Nelson, the drummer—great graphic design. He would make these amazing flyers. He spent days on them. They’re just beautiful works of art. And I’d grab two or three of ’em. Because you’d read a review of The Teen Idles in some local paper, and you could tell that the rock critic, he realizes his world’s gonna change. And he’s a little bitter on the way out. “This band is a bunch of [grumble grumble].” And I realized they don’t want these bands to exist. They want this history to be erased. I’m going to keep any memorable trace of this music. …

Johnny Ramone passed away, right? I was with Johnny right before he died, and afterwards, I went to Linda—his wife—I said, “Linda, you know this house is history. Everything in it.” All his ticket stubs from all the gigs he used to see, Stooges on St. Marks, MC5 playing the Fillmore East, Mott the Hoople—he kept everything. Ramones board tapes. I said, “OK, I’m taking these. I’m gonna database it all. And I’ll bring it back at the end of the semester.” She said, “OK!” And I said, “This is all important.”

And I find this notebook in one drawer. I said, “Let’s just open up every drawer in the house.” And I find this notebook, we open the book, and I go, “What is this?” She says, “That’s Joey’s handwriting on that page”—his crazy scrawl, and this much neater scrawl here, I go “What’s that?” She goes, “Oh that’s Lester Bangs. They used to write songs together.” I said, “OK. OK. We’re gonna scan this. And I’m gonna put on gloves to pick this up. Linda, this is important!” … My main concern was preservation, because I felt there was a predatory lean upon the music that we were doing.

“In a way D.C.’s scene is very PC, a very brainy music scene. A lot of readers in the audience. And I would be in a touring band seeing all kinds of scenes with a bunch of alcohol and speed freaks. Not a whole lot of intellectual movement. And those early D.C. shows, you’d go to someone’s house and someone would start lecturing you about Nicaragua.”

On how Ian MacKaye helped build an all-ages community in D.C.’s bar-rock scene:

Ian was the guy who figured out we’re all underage, we don’t wanna drink, and that’s what’s keeping us out of clubs. We have to sneak one of our guys into see The Cramps play the Psychedeli because it’s a drinking place, and none of us want to drink, but you’re not of age. So how are we gonna fix this? And we put big X’s on our hands voluntarily. You see a kid with big X’s on his hands, don’t sell him booze. You feel safe? And these venues are like, “Sorry! It’s the law, we can’t let you in.” So Ian says, “We’ve gotta find a venue where we can do music.”

And I remember driving around with Ian. And [to Richards] you’re an old man now, so you might not remember how irresponsible you were as a teenager—well you were probably responsible. I wasn’t. Ian is a teenager and he’s like, “We’re getting in my car and we’re gonna start looking for possible venues.” We’re just driving around D.C. looking at—“That’s a vacant building. We should maybe talk to the guy and see if we can put a venue in there.” Like, “Who are you?” He’s way past the curve. [MacKaye thought,] “We need our spot to do our thing, otherwise this music is gonna suffocate.” Because it’s a beer thing. It’s a booze thing that’s keeping us out. And I went, “Wow, he’s really figuring it out!” And here come the X’s, and here comes the all-age show idea as ethic. Like, “Let’s not make this music exclusive. It needs to be inclusive.” …

So things in D.C. had to change. Radically. Because it was bar culture. It was pub rock, like England had before punk rock hit there. It was the pubs. And in D.C., you had the bars… But [MacKaye] said, “This music would be fine if everyone who wants to go to the show can go to the show.” And that’s a big part of the whole Dischord ethic.

On D.C.’s intellectual punk community:

In a way it’s very PC, a very brainy music scene. A lot of readers in the audience. It’s a sharp crowd. And it gave rise to a lot of great records. And I would be in a touring band I’d see all kinds of scenes. And a lot of ’em, the scenes [were made up of] a bunch of alcohol and speed freaks, just going to shows and throwing up, passing out, beating each other up, being very untoward towards one another. And not a whole lot of intellectual movement. Where D.C. shows it’s kinda like lightning bolts going, “What are you reading? What are you reading?” And those early shows, you’d go to someone’s house and someone would start lecturing you about Nicaragua. A very switched-on kind of scene. And I think this town still retains a lot of that to this day. It’s very PC.

Another thing about the D.C. scene that I remember, it was very cool as far as the misogyny level was barely noticeable and… perhaps absent. In other scenes, being in Black Flag I saw a lot of stuff go down. You go to some place, you’re like, “Did you just say that? And no one around you clapped you upside the head? Wow. That’s not how we do it where I come from.”

On when he quit writing music 10 years ago:

The greatest thing for me to listen to and enjoy music was stop making it. And I stopped making music only because… the day I stopped writing lyrics, I stopped making music. What I will not do is go onstage and play old material and do a whole tour of old material without something new to bring you. [I prefer] to pass or fail on the merit on the new stuff… So as soon as I stopped writing new songs, I said, “I’m out.” If I’m not gonna make something new, I’m not gonna be the old jukebox guy onstage. So I quit, which was like pulling out half my guts. It was like, “Wow, am I really doing this?”

“To take Black Flag songs out now is like patting the dog. Everyone sings along. That didn’t happen when we were doing those songs. We got $10 and a punch in the mouth. I liken it to going to a park full of caged animals, shooting them and calling yourself a hunter. You’re fake! And you’re kind of huffing and puffing through these songs. And why? Because you weren’t brave. You have to play these songs because you don’t have any money.”

On Black Flag reunions and his legal battle with Greg Ginn:

Inititally, these wonderful people from my past all got together to form this band Flag. And they came to my office to get my blessing… They said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think you’re living in the past. And you’re about to be 60. And you’re gonna go play Six Pack. OK.” And they said, “You wanna come along?” I said, “No!” They said, “Why not?” I said, “Because it’s 2012! Let’s go do something else.” And they said, “Nope,” and they went out and did their thing, and Greg Ginn got angry at them and sued them all. Sued me, too, for good measure, I guess. I got served in my driveway. …

So all of a sudden I’m in this legal rigamarole, and Greg Ginn goes out with some group of people and plays these songs. Both bands going out at once!… It was pathetic, in my opinion. They’re men, they’re grown-up men, they’re just doing their thing. But to me, those songs were battle hymns. They were not tours. They were wars that we fought. Because not everyone liked us. They’d pay six bucks to come and beat up the singer. And it didn’t always go down well. Greg would change ideas and all of a sudden we have 11-minute songs. People didn’t dig that at first! They really didn’t dig it. They always took it out on me, the cute one.

And now all those records, [people say] “Man, I love that record.” Boy, where were you in 1983?

So to take those songs out now is like patting the dog… They know all the words, so everyone sings along. And that didn’t happen when we were doing those songs. We got like $10 and a punch in the mouth… And I’m not saying that they can’t, I’m just saying it’s not the same thing. I liken it to going to a park full of caged animals, shooting them and calling yourself a hunter… You’re fake!… You’re taking out a product that’s way past its due date. And you’re kind of huffing and puffing through these songs. And why? Because you weren’t brave. You have to play these songs because you don’t have any money. You didn’t go boldly into the darkest, deepest coldest part of the pool and jump in. That’s what I did. …

So when I see my ex-bandmates not be brave when I was, every time—never doing Black Flag songs, never [saying], “Hey I’m the Black Flag guy!”—you have to remind me, I’ll never walk up and use that card. It doesn’t work for me. I never did any of that. And I did OK for myself, where I never had to go back and become a parody of myself, and in my opinion, some of my bandmates fell into that. And in my opinion, they screwed up the mission. The mission is now somewhat FUBAR, because—you know when you eat something, and it doesn’t finish well? You’re like, “Wow, that’s not tasting good.” Where it doesn’t finish well to the palate? I think the legacy of Black Flag now is it’s a band that didn’t finish well because of the activities in the last 25 months. And it’s sad. …

I got sutured up a lot from that band. I’d go into the hospital a lot of times. I got stitches all over my head. Concussions. Knocked out cold. Broke out the cartilage in my leg; I still walk funny. I got stitches in my lips, kicked in the skull, I got stitches in my eye—I mean I got beat up a lot being in this band. We all took a beating, but I took a beating beating. And so when I see someone kind of cheapen that experience, I’m like, “Damn man! You? Of all people? You guys?” So it hurt. But that’s the world.

On why he changed his name from Garfield to Rollins:

“Garfield” has no link to the late president… When I joined Black Flag, they said to me, “You’d better get a different name. Because within 24 hours, the LAPD is gonna open a file on you.” Which they did. And you’re gonna want a little slippery distance and room to wiggle. And Rollins was the name of the college Ian’s sister was going to. [Audience member asks, “Which sister?”] Uh, one of the older ones. [Amanda MacKaye yells from the front row: “Susannah!”] Yeah, OK, Susannah. It just kinda came. Like, we’ll just kinda do that, and it’ll be an in joke, and Ian will go like [snort] “Right!” And it was basically an in joke for the benefit of Ian.

“When Gene Simmons says rock ‘n’ roll is dead, that’s for Gene Simmons. And you know what? Here’s the great news. He’s wrong. But guess what, you don’t have to ever wake up and be Gene Simmons.”

On what aspects of the D.C. scene prepared—or failed to prepare—him for touring through different cities:

Nothing at all from what I learned in the D.C. scene prepared me for what I was going to encounter joining Black Flag. Like, “You’re 15? Why aren’t you in school? You’re a runaway? My goodness. What’s that? That’s heroin? That’s real heroin?” This is the stuff I saw almost immediately. “It’s a needle! Oh my God!” This is what I saw. And I realized what a boy scout I was because the scene I came from was, [upstanding-citizen voice] “Hey man, do you need a ride home? Have some orange juice!” We were an incredibly decent bunch of young people. “Good morning officer!” …

By 1982, a year in, I had seen so much. I was almost a little battle-weary. And what helped me was, “I’m never gonna be that. The D.C. scene told me I don’t wanna fall on my face in a puddle of puke.”

On working with Chuck D on Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three:

We were mixing the last song, it was the first song on the record, the song “Rise Above.” And we were doing the final mix, and I said, “It needs something. It needs Chuck D to say, ‘Arkansas, let’s get it on.’ Like, ‘Here we go.'” So I contact Chuck. I go, “Chuck, I really need you to do this. We are mixing. I need you to give me, you know, here’s the line, I need it 10 different ways, now.”

Hours later, FedEx, boom. Here’s a CD-R of Chuck doing it every possible way. We put a little echo on it, we fly it into the mix, goosebumps—like, “Whoa, that’s the mix!” So the first thing they hear on that record, I said, “Chuck, you’re lighting the fuse on this record. I can’t think of any other voice to let Arkansas know that we are coming to put our foot up their collective ass than you.” And Chuck came through like a champion, man… I almost start crying when I hear the beginning of that. [Rollins appears to tear up.]

On Gene Simmons saying “Rock is dead”:

Well, rock is dead for Gene Simmons.

[Ed. note: This part of the talk happened later, when Rollins circled back to the subject, but it makes more sense to include it here.]

Gene is a very funny man. And he says stuff for effect. He’ll just say stuff to kind of bum you out. And I’ve actually hung out with him at a gig, where, you know he’s really tall, and I’m really short, so we stand like a double act in the back. And he’ll just look and be like, “Look at that guy. Look at that hair.” He’ll just burn people as they go by. And I’m like, “Well at least I’m hanging out with Simmons doing his thing.” And he just says stuff. So when he says rock ‘n’ roll is dead, that’s for Gene Simmons. And you know what? Here’s the great news. He’s wrong. But guess what, you don’t have to ever wake up and be Gene Simmons.

On his former musical collaborator, William Shatner (whom he impersonates through this entire anecdote):

[“I Can’t Get Behind That”] started a friendship with me and William Shatner that exists to this day. A choice group of people get called to his home for Monday Night Football. I don’t know anything about football, I don’t know what a half-pack does… But free food, his dogs are friendly, his wife is lovely and his friends are very cool. And since 2003, I’ve been going to Monday Night Football. And I’ve collaborated with him. I’ve been in his documentaries. I’m just part of his world now.

Years ago, [Shatner asked me,] “Henry, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I said, “I’m gonna throw a frozen bag of Trader Joe’s pasta into a Pyrex bowl and microwave it, eat it and curse the darkness. You know my M.O.” ‘Cause I don’t do holidays, really, I just work through everything. [Shatner said], “Henry, you’ll come to my home for Thanksgiving. That’s what you’re going to do.” Aye aye, cap’n.