Rollins' band may never fill stadiums, and his books may never become best sellers. Rooted in the primal energy of punk and drawing inspiration from the likes of Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski and Lenny Bruce, his work is too raw and disturbing to have wide commercial appeal. Yet Rollins enjoys a degree of artistic and financial control over his projects that most mainstream writers and musicians will never have. Acting as his own publisher, producer, promoter, distributor and retailer, he's managed to take his uncompromising message directly to a growing audience across the country and in Europe. And lately, film producers and agents are showing interest in Rollins as an actor; chances are that if he goes Hollywood, he'll do that, too, on his own terms. It's a long way from a dead-end job at an ice cream parlor to underground entrepreneur, but at the age of 26, Henry Rollins is rapidly becoming a one-man publishing / recording conglomerate.
"I know I'm not going to sell millions of records," he says. "I don't write for the Everyman. I write for one man--me. If other people dig it, that's cool. I'm just going to do my thing and be crass enough to sell it."
TWO WEEKS AFTER THE Denver show, the man in black is back in Los Angeles, searching for a cup of coffee. Rollins doesn't drink or smoke, and he says he has never even tried marijuana. He avoids red meat and works out with weights for an hour every morning. His only vice, it seems, is caffeine--the hottest, blackest, meanest coffee he can find.
Today the quest brings him to the Boulangerie in Santa Monica. Heads turn as he buys a pound of Italian-roast coffee and sizes up the upscale lunch patrons.
"You should see this gig when it's crowded," he tells a companion. "These people stare at you. They've got no manners at all. So I talk back: 'What the hell are you staring at, man?' Then they stare at the floor."
Over the years Rollins has acquired a reputation as one of rock's genuine bad boys. When rowdy fans spat on him or assaulted him at concerts, he often retaliated with his fists. Because he frequently travels alone, without roadies or bodyguards, he has been known to carry a billiard ball or other possible projectiles to discourage attackers. He is outspoken in his resentment of authority figures, from cops and club bouncers to his disciplinarian father, whom Rollins hasn't seen since he was 18. He proudly quotes scathing reviews of his book "Two Thirteen Sixty One" (the title refers to his birth date, Feb. 13, 1961) in subsequent editions, as if rejection by the right people were a badge of distinction. He seems entirely comfortable with his outcast status, probably because he's had plenty of practice.
Rollins' parents divorced shortly after he was born. Young Henry lived with his mother, Iris Garfield, in Washington, D.C., and visited his father on weekends. "I was very loud and obnoxious and hyperactive," Rollins recalls, behavior that led to his enrollment in the Bullis School, a private, quasi-military academy that stressed discipline.
At Bullis, Rollins was the typical class freak--the skinny guy who was too shy to talk to girls, kept snakes at home and burned off his excess energy in petty acts of rebellion. While other seniors prepared to enter the U.S. Naval Academy or seek a career in computers, Rollins was pictured in his yearbook next to the notation: "Symptoms: terminal gonzolitis; future plans: nationwide terrorization."
He enrolled at American University, but lost interest after one semester. By his 20th birthday he was living in a cramped apartment that reeked of insecticide and putting in 60 hours a week as a manager of a Washington Haagen-Dazs store. "I wanted to die every single day," he says.
Music kept him alive. Rollins grew up listening to the Motown Sound, the Doors and other staples of the '60s, but it was the punk-rock explosion of the late '70s--with its primitive, screeching assault on the senses--that seemed to capture his own feelings of frustration and despair. After work he could be found slam-dancing, with the other lost souls, to the music of Bad Brains, Teen Idles and other Washington punk bands.
"I lived for the shows," he says. "Violence was my girl. Getting into fistfights, smelling blood, breaking noses--that was my high, my woman. I got beat up, and I beat other people up."
He soon channeled his aggression into forming his own band, SOA (State of Alert). His favorite group, though, was Black Flag, a hard-driving California band that toured incessantly and recorded on its own label, SST Records. Rollins memorized all its songs and finally met the members of the band when they played Washington in the spring of 1981.
That summer he went to New York to catch one of Black Flag's shows and was invited to sing on stage with the band for a minute and 40 seconds. A few days later lead singer Dez Cadena called him. Cadena wanted to concentrate on playing guitar; did Rollins want to try out as his replacement?