“You can’t dance to a book”
Neddal Ayad interviews Henry Rollins
The Modern Word
Henry Rollins is a hard man to pin down. He first came to prominence in the early eighties as front man for the legendary Los Angeles punk band Black Flag. In the early to mid-nineties he broke through to a much larger audience with The Rollins Band and through his spoken word performances. Many people probably have some sense that Rollins writes. In 1994 he won a Grammy award for the audio book version of Get In The Van, his account of life on the road with Black Flag. However, many people are probably unaware of the extent of his bibliography; he’s written over a dozen books and published work by Hubert Selby Jr., Nick Cave, Michael Gira (formerly of NYC art-punks Swans, now in The Angels of Light), Henry Miller, Roky Erickson, and many others through his 2.13.61 Publications imprint. Rollins can be a notoriously difficult interview. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and I was more than a little intimidated when I called him up at the 2.13.61 offices last spring. I was relieved to discover that Rollins is a very friendly, self-effacing, and gracious guy and that he was more than willing to talk about his writing and the writers he’s worked with over the years.
Many thanks to Heidi May and Tresa Redburn for facilitating this interview and to Carol Anne for her mad transcription skills.
Neddal Ayad: I’m talking to you for a Web site called The Modern Word. They cover writers like Kathy Acker, J.G. Ballard, Ezra Pound, Faulkner...
Henry Rollins: Yeah, just so you know, that kind of writing never really did much for me. I knew Kathy more that I read Kathy.
They’re also big fans of Nick Cave over there.
Yeah, and we’ve published Nick here.
And William S. Burroughs, and Hubert Selby Jr.
Cubby [Hubert Selby Jr.’s middle name/nickname] is a long time friend of mine. But a guy like Burroughs, I tried to get through a few Burroughs books and was never able actually to complete Cities of Red Night, Exterminator, all that stuff, I could never punch through them.
Was it the style, or...
It never held me. That whole Re/Search magazine gang, you know, my life experience was so street level, on the ground touring. I remember reading On the Road by Kerouac in ’82 and the only thing that occurred to me was, “Kerouac, what a pussy,” because it was so nothing like what I was enduring on the road. I was watching people get stabbed and I was seeing some pretty rough stuff.
That’s interesting; I was going to ask you about the Beats, because...
Kerouac, I can’t stand, I don’t see what the fascination is. I’ve tried Visions of Gerard, Desolation Angels... I got through part of the Cody book. Desolation Angels I tried to read as a favour to a friend of mine. I couldn’t get through it. On the Road I got through because it was the only book at SST to read. But the rest of it... I just can’t identify with it.
You’re tossed in with the Beat writers.
That’s too bad. Allan Ginsberg’s poetry I’ve enjoyed. I was raised with Kaddish and Howl. I think Howl is one of the strongest pieces of American literature, I mean, at that point. That’s one of those things you really wish you had written, you know, it’s a beautiful piece of work.
Um, okay well, what do you want to know?
How long have you been reading and writing?
Well I was raised primarily by my mom, and my mom’s place was always shelves, many shelves, groaning under the weight of many many books. And so she taught me to read before I was in school. And we would read aloud to one another. And that’s how she helped me with reading and as a kid I would read a lot from Dickens’ Great Expectations. In school I really didn’t dig math or science but I liked literature. I was one of those introspective skinny boys who read because I would get my ass kicked on any level playing field with athletics, so I read my mom’s Dylan Thomas and E.E. Cummings and I really enjoyed John Steinbeck – I read Grapes of Wrath when I was in 6th grade and completely dug it. So as a kid, I read voraciously as kids do. You know, you just tear through stuff. And I was very fond of Truman Capote, who I still really like. American literature, I read a lot of it, like Hemingway, so I’ve been a fan of books since I was a little kid.
Were you writing at the same time?
Not really. I would write for school projects and then around puberty I’d get so frustrated at my school I would write short stories, and they’re probably horribly written, about blowing up my school and murdering all the teachers. Which I would show to this English teacher who I was friends with, my one ally at this school. And he would go, “Okay, don’t show this to your real English teacher. You know, because you can’t say ‘fuck’ and hand it in as an essay at this school.” I went to a pretty uptight all boys school. But he said, “Show me this stuff.” And, “I like that you’re writing creatively. Keep this up. Just don’t show it to your ‘teacher-teacher’ because you’ll get in trouble.”
You’d be arrested for that now.
Well, yeah. Yeah exactly. But this is like the 1870s, it’s a long time ago. The real turn on, for writing, for me, happened after high school when I started reading... Well, as a teenager I was reading Stephen King and stuff like that, ’cause things like Salem’s Lot or The Stand are great when you’re 16 years old. You know, it’s fun, you can’t put it down. But the real major turn-ons for me occurred in my early 20s. Henry Miller, Camus, John Fante, Lautreamont, Baudelaire, Artaud, Rimbaud.
I read Lautreamont’s Les chants de Maldoror in 1984 and it just really turned me on. Camus still does it to me. The French kind of really lit me up. Reading Henry Miller was really very... Reading Miller gave me a lot of courage. You know, just to see how completely flat out he was, you know, with his thing, he was so brave. And as a young man reading Black Spring and the Tropics and the Paris writing, of Miller, that gave me a lot of strength too. Bukowski was fun. You know, for a couple of summers when you’re in your early 20s, I think it’s really great reading. I think that to worship him in your 30s is to kind of lose the plot.
Hubert Selby’s books were huge to me. And years after that I really kind of gravitated towards the Lost Generation writers. Thomas Wolfe is a huge inspiration to me, as is F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner.
And Hemingway to a certain extent. But there’s so much inherent misogyny and the more you learn about him... I’ve read a few critical biographies about Ernest Hemingway and there’s not a lot to like about the guy past the short stories and the actual work itself. The man was, you know, kind of a motherfucker. Mean to his friends, tough on the kids, hard on his women.
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