#tbt An Interview with Henry Rollins

Found in the Margins is a defunct web magazine that Chris DePaul founded in 2006. Chris and his co-writers would interview musicians, writers and activists on one question: What books inspire the work you do? The Brothers DePaul will be reposting these archived interviews every Thursday. #tbt

This week's interview: Henry Rollins


You may know Henry Rollins from his time with Black Flag in the early 80’s hardcore punk scene, stalking up and down the stage with teeth gnashing, barking lyrics to a frenzied crowd. This wouldn’t be a surprise, Black Flag has been dubbed one of the most important bands in the hardcore punk movement, and Rollins has also made extensive tours with his own group, the Rollins Band. You may know Henry Rollins from one of his radio shows where he spun tracks from nearly every denomination of rock music. You may have seen him on TV as host of The Henry Rollins Show discussing music, politics, and whatever else is pissing him off at the time. The show has gained notoriety for big name interviews, the frank opinions of the man himself, and blistering live performances by the most innovative rock bands around. So you may have heard him spouting off on the radio, on TV, in a magazine or standing on a bus at a busy intersection yelling through a megaphone. All this you may already have heard and seen, but what have you read?

It may not be the first thing that comes to your mind, but Henry Rollins is a prolific reader and a persistent writer. A well read man, Rollins has been writing and recording spoken word albums since 1985, admittedly a true passion of his, with the short list rounding out at 21 in total. He has even won a Grammy for his autobiographical audio book Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag. Along with a list of audio books, Rollins has authored several of the old fashioned reading kind, including, Black Coffee Blues, Do I Come Here Often?, The First Five and Smile, You’re Travelling. The man has never been shy about voicing an opinion, of which he has many, and makes a point of being well informed when he points the finger, and its not always the index. His intolerance for incompetence and ignorance leads him to speak out on numerable human rights, social and political issues of today and to travel into countries of conflict for the first hand facts. To say he has become involved with trying to understanding US foreign policy may be an understatement, obsession might be getting closer, as he continues to put his money where his mouth is and develop an informed, scathing, and honest opinion. There is no doubt Rollins brings a certain intensity and intelligence to everything he undertakes and his reading and writing is no different. Found in the Margins was able to get some questions out to Rollins about his past experiences with literature, current favourites and seminal inspirations in his writing, giving an inside look at his love for the written word.

FITM: What importance did reading have in your life as you grew up?

Rollins: My mother taught me how to read very early on and at school I was ahead of everyone in class, which wasn't hard seeing how the DC public school system was at the time, but reading was always something that I liked because I could do it alone and I was alone a lot of the time with my mother working the hours she did. Books became my friends very early on.

FITM: What do you get out of reading? Is it the characters, situations, writing styles that you fall in love with?

Rollins: All of the above. I get very deeply involved with the characters, especially when they have a great deal of depth like the characters in Thomas Wolfe's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing. Style is key, of course, when you try and stay with Kafka or Camus or Abe, it's the style that really carries the weight of the movement in the work. I think I am the most impressed with writing styles that defy category, like Kharms or Selby, Breton or Jarry, where you become as interested in the writer as much as the writing itself. It's all these things that make reading so appealing to me.

FITM: Do you try to delve into literature from different time-periods? Do you enjoy reading a classic book vs. a modern book?

Rollins: I do see that I lay off a lot modern fiction and only rely on living writers for non-fiction work. I really do like Michel Houellebecq very much, Ellroy is always great to read but fiction wise, I really like older writers, perhaps because they take me out of my element. I don't have a great deal of interest in reading a fictionalized present as it's pretty insane as it is.

FITM: Have there been authors or books that have pushed you to become a better writer yourself?

Rollins: All good writers inspire me as I have never thought I was any good. As far as a writer who made me think I could do it, it was Henry Miller. Not because I thought he was so simple that I reckoned I could pull it off as well, but it was his freedom and guts that really moved me to want to write all the time. It was Miller that really made writing come alive for me. His book Black Spring was more than a book to me. It was a different approach to writing and to rendering emotion and narrative. It really spoke to me when I read the book in 1983. I got a lot out of his Paris era writing. Most of the writers I like just intimidate and humble me but in that there's a good deal of inspiration to be had as well. Also, Miller was banned in America for decades, I really like that he was seen as a for real literary outlaw. That was very inspiring. Also that he stared so late showed me a lot of all of this is want- which I have a lot more of than talent.

FITM: Do you read plays / letters / essays?

Rollins: I have read a lot of letters and essays. I like the correspondence between Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Flannery O'Connor's letters are brilliant and I like Rimbaud's letters as much as his poems. Letters allow the reader to see more into the actual writer and get a look behind the curtain. I like the essays of Gore Vidal because he packs a punch and I learn a lot from him.

FITM: What types of non-fiction do you read? What is it about these books that you enjoy? Do they help you determine what you write about?

Rollins: Non-fiction is what I read mostly. Naomi Klein, Chalmers Johnson, Gore Vidal, Frank Rich, Mark Crispin Miller, Robert Baer, Morris Berman, Jeremy Scahill, James Scurlock, Steve Coll, Stephen Kinzer, Kapuscinski, people like that. I am trying to understand America's policy and practice as it not so slowly closes down. They are basically journalists and they rely on economy and impact and that has definitely helped me as I am doing a lot of location writing these days. I am writing to you from Laos at the moment.

FITM: Has there been a recent book that you feel effectively captures the state of our current political landscape?

Rollins: Klein's book The Shock Doctrine has taught me a lot about the countries I have been in over the last several months.

Written by Eric Stein