SAN DIEGO — Henry Rollins reaches into his bedroom closet and pulls out a plastic container full of soil soaked with the blood of his best friend.
"At first I was a little scared of unpacking everything 'cause I thought a lot of weird ghosts were gonna fly out," says Rollins, who relocated to this Hollywood apartment in December after he and his roommate, Joe Cole, were assaulted by robbers outside their Venice home. Cole was shot to death; Rollins escaped.
"But now this room is actually cool, 'cause in a way he's kind of here," Rollins says. "I dug up all the earth where his head fell--he was shot in the face--and I've got all the dirt here, and so Joe Cole's in the house. I say good morning to him every day. I got his phone, too, so I got a direct line to him. So that feels good."
Rollins' moment of lightness passes quickly.
"I realized the other day you only get one break in all of this, and that is you do get to go on. And that's it. The rest is horrible. There's nothing you learn from it. You learn that if you can keep out of the way of the bullets and the cars, you can get to Wednesday out of Tuesday night. That's all you get. The rest is the purest pain that I've ever dealt with."
Add another big log to the fire of rage that has fueled Rollins through a volatile career that began in 1981 when he joined Black Flag, L.A.'s preeminent hard-core punk band.
His post-Flag activities have settled into a three-tiered operation: performing rock music with the Rollins Band, writing and reading his poetry, and running a small, thriving publishing company.
The Rollins Band--guitarist Chris Haskett, bassist Andrew Weiss, drummer Sim Cain and sound engineer Theo Van Rock--struggled to find an audience when it started in 1986, immediately after Black Flag's break-up, but after five years of hard touring, things are moving. They play the Back Door at San Diego State at 8 p.m. today and Friday.
The group's fifth album, "The End of Silence," is on the new Imago label, which is distributed by the major BMG. Shortly after its release, it's already Rollins' biggest seller. Somehow, it's not surprising that the numbers don't mean a lot to the intense performer.
"People get on stage for different reasons," says Rollins, who was raised in Washington by his divorced mother. "Some people are into the chicks, some people are into the money, some people are into the fame, and those are all valid.
"I get on stage for one reason, I write for one reason, I play music for one reason. One reason. Because I'm (messed) up, and I'm trying to get over it. That's all. . . . I write just to get what's inside out. And a lot of the pain and rage that I come from is the way I was raised, and what I was raised to be, and how I survived it by reinventing myself.
"I was humiliated constantly as a child. I was in fear of everything. No guts. I was afraid of my father, afraid of my mother, afraid of her boyfriends, afraid of my stepmother, afraid of my stepbrother, afraid of students I went to school with. I was just freaked out all the time."
But when a teacher and counselor took an interest in Rollins and put him on a weight-lifting program, the transformation was under way.
"It was the first time that I had ever done anything that was significant," says Rollins, 31. "I got some meat on my bones. I had presence, I could feel myself on the planet. I felt like I was here. I felt like a ghost before."
Powered by a fierce work ethic learned first from his parents and then kicked into overdrive by Black Flag, Rollins is in a constant cycle of recording music and poetry (he will release eight CDs of his spoken performances this year, including a six-disc box set), touring with the band and on the spoken-word circuit, writing poetry and articles, and running his publishing company, 2.13.61 (his birth date).
Though his highest profile is in the rock world, the writing and publishing figure to be more lasting pursuits.
"Once I get through all this (stuff), I'm probably gonna stop playing. I'm not an entertainer. This isn't my career. There's one thing about what I do. I can't sing on key, I can't play an instrument, we don't sell a ton of records, we'll never be a big band, but one thing: You might not like me, but you see it live, that (guy) means it, and it's full-on. You gotta respect it."