SHOW PEOPLE / No pain, no gain: Henry Rollins

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The Independent Culture
'NUMBER 50. Two girls and a man hold a baby in front of a mirror. They strangle it . . . Number 52. I'm in a room with Robert Duvall - he tells me everything I do is bullshit.' These are two of the 61 dreams which Henry Rollins relates in his book, Black Coffee Blues. The other 59 aren't a barrel of laughs either. This man has a lot of bad stuff in his head, and he is not afraid to share it with us. He has honed his life, in the same way that he has built up his body, into a finely tuned vehicle for self-expression.

Always a recognisable figure - Clark Kent as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, 'Search & Destroy' tattooed across his back above a rippling Sun God - Rollins appears in a number of different guises. Last year it was as an urbane gorilla, delivering a unique blend of personal exorcism and stand-up comedy in his three-hour spoken-word performances. Now he's here again, this time to tour with his fearsome jazz-inflected angst-metal band. Naked except for a pair of black shorts, held up not by elastic but by static electricity, he will tense his terrifying body in outrageous martial-arts poses and unleash screams of such primal anguish as to make any problems suffered by his audience seem hearteningly insignificant.

In the flesh, Henry Rollins is every bit as imposing a figure as legend suggests. In the course of his daily physical-torment-as- emotional-release exercise schedule, this man bench-presses 225 lbs. That is a lot of pots of jam. In person, his manner is courtly and almost alarmingly polite. Before taking his seat, Henry reaches down to pick up a vase of flowers on the hotel table and sniff the bouquet. A large gobbet of pollen lodges on his nose. I don't notice this in time to bring it to his attention without embarrassing him, so it remains there until halfway through the photo session.

Rollins is happy with his new album, Weight (Imago). He finds it a release to play with a band again after the rigours of solo spoken-word performance, and is particularly excited about sessions they recorded with the great New York free-jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle (out later in the year). 'It's real nightmarish stuff,' Rollins says happily: 'Me screaming and growling and Charles going 'Weeeee'.'

But wasn't it the very solitude and vulnerability of the spoken-word format that attracted him? 'It's a good challenge, a great challenge, because it's hard. The loneliness of it is unbelievable.' The language of 'no pain, no gain' recurs whenever Henry Rollins talks about his work. One of his favourite expressions is 'burning the lean tissue', and he has a soldier's fondness for statistics; for example, on the number of interviews he's done. In 1992, it was about 400; this year it's going to be 'in the high twos, low threes'.

There is - as he is perfectly well aware - an irony in Rollins's asceticism and his highly disciplined, almost martial demeanour. The punk-samurai lifestyle he embraced at the dawn of the Reagan era, in the Washington hardcore scene and then with the great punk band Black Flag, was an escape from military indoctrination. Henry Garfield, as he was then, not only went to naval school (' 'Shut up, sit down' - seven years of that stuff will do a number on you') but was also tormented by an abusive ex- army father who made him sing the national anthem and salute over and over again.

Does he find it amusing, the inappropriateness of his military bearing to his status as punk-rock icon and high priest of principled individualism? 'I think it's hilarious. I think I'm hilarious, and not just when I mean to be. If you listen to the way I speak and watch the way I conduct myself - there's nothing about me that's rock'n'roll. It's like, 'Hello, I'm in a rock'n'roll band'. 'No, you're a narc.' '

Rollins's ascetic lifestyle renders his limited stock of drug reminiscences a lot more entertaining than the rock-star average. 'A few years ago I asked a friend if I could share his joint - I honestly wanted to try it out, to see what all those dopeheads were on about. I got stoned, I guess. My friend asked me if I was high, and I said, 'Is this it? You pay hard-earned money to feel like this? How long does it last before it goes away and I can get back to real life?' He said, 'about 20 minutes'. It was like waiting for a bus for an hour compressed into 20 minutes. It was so boring.'

Rollins's black eyes are still shining from a triumphant appearance in front of millions on the Arsenio Hall Show, in which he called out gangsta-rap superstar Snoop Doggy Dogg as a moral coward and a bore, leaving the usually rowdy studio audience in jaw-dropped silence. A career in films is also taking shape, with Rollins appearing as, of all things, a cop in the fast-approaching Charlie Sheen / Kristy Swanson vehicle The Chase, and also co-starring in Johnny Mnemonic with Keanu Reeves and lesser beefcake Dolph Lundgren.

Doesn't he get the urge to take things easy - do a couple of shows a week, read the paper, kick back, as they say in America? 'No, I'm afraid of that. I'm afraid I'd lose my edge. What I want to do is go full on until I just stop; not taper off. I'll do another recording session, maybe two, probably go and do some more spoken-word dates . . . after that I don't know. I'd like to stop playing . . .'

Would he be happy in the background then, running his publishing company, 2.13.61 (it takes its name, in the topsy-turvy American style, from Rollins's date of birth), and his new record label, putting out books by Hubert Selby Jr and records by Alan Vega and Trouble Funk?

'Oh yes, definitely. I'm not addicted to the roar of the crowd - I'm there to do my music well and if I can't I'll just respectfully bow and walk - why go up there and look bad? Why disgrace your legacy? Like Eric Clapton . . . The guy (pause for reverent emphasis) was in Cream. Listen to him now.'

Rollins Band: Manchester Univ, 061-275 2930, tomorrow, then touring for two weeks.