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09.17.08

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Phaedra

MR. NICE GUY?: Um, no.

He's a Rainbow

The many faces of Black Flag's Henry Rollins

By John Gentile


HENRY ROLLINS does not like to be painted in two dimensions. With his huge personality, Henry the voice on a CD or Henry the flashing light on the TV screen has the ability to cover up Henry Rollins the person. Although he was in Black Flag, one of the fiercest punk bands of all time, and has lately been trekking across a humid Thailand to film a documentary about sweat shops, right now he's wielding one of his most finely honed weapons—the spoken-word performance.

In his talks, Henry often covers politics, music and events from his life, usually tinged with plenty of humor. But, while it's nice to hear about Rollins' global adventures, it's even more interesting to see the man that at one time might be a raging animal on CD, while at others a bearded philosopher on the page. As for why people should care about what he has to say, Henry offers the understatement of the decade.

"Perhaps," he says, "I can provide a unique perspective."

One would be hard pressed to find anyone else that could offer a similar perspective. In beginning of the 1980s Henry fronted the short-lived hardcore punk band State of Alert, only to soon find himself fronting one of his favorite bands, punk legends Black Flag, after he jumped onstage at one of their frantic live shows and grabbed the microphone. As Black Flag progressed away from punk's cliches, Henry began to do spoken-word performances, reading his diary and poetry that could make your eyes drip from your skull. After the end of Black Flag, Henry continued both his music (with the Rollins Band) and his spoken-word performances. Lately he's been doing documentaries and TV shows on the IFC, but he's decided to do one round of spoken word before the president leaves office.

Since the current president's approval rating is at an all-time low, it might seem like Henry is flogging a dead horse. But Henry argues that there's more than statistics to a presidency.

"The president's not down," says Rollins, "he'll never be down. He is a war criminal and should be sent to prison for the rest of his life for the death of thousands of people."

Rollins is taking aim at the entire administration on the Recountdown tour, suggesting that the president might be more of a brand than a person.

"I won't be spending much time on him," says Rollins. "He's the smallest part of the Bush administration. He was the face of the corporation, nothing more."

Although Rollins is on the attack for this spoken-word tour, it would be shortsighted to see him only as being on the offensive. He hosts a weekly radio show on Indie 103.1 where he spins the most eclectic selection of tunes since your iPod was left on shuffle. Any one of his broadcasts might start out with big band legend Cab Calloway and jump to thrash titans Slayer only to finish off with an obscure band from Senegal.

"A lot of radio is just playing the playlist that you're told to," says Rollins. "That's nothing that interests me." He sees the radio as both a tool and the unlit light bulb above the listener's head. "I play what I want to communicate and inspire," he says.

Between the various forms of media that Rollins has mastered, it seems there are at least a dozen Rollinses instead of one. There's the one who pushes the boundary of DIY music. There's the thoughtful one who dissects presidential statements. There's the one surrounded by stacks and stacks of listeners, or the one who invites you to check out his collection of rare acetates, or makes documentaries or rereleases out of print Be-bop records on his own record label.

"I don't want to be the guy onstage singing 20-year-old songs," Henry says about his perpetual expansion. "I want to keep challenging myself."


HENRY ROLLINS performs Friday (Sept. 19)at 8pm at UC-Berkeley Zellerbach Hall. Tickets are $25. (408.998.TIXS)


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