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Photograph by Michael Childers

Fire Man: Rising above the bullshit is standard MO for Henry Rollins.

Pressed for Time

Henry Rollins makes time for a benefit record, a Black Flag reunion show and a spoken-word tour--and that's just one month

By Michael Alan Goldberg

THERE ARE total maniac workaholics, and then there's Henry Rollins. The man never stops moving. He might be in the studio with the Rollins Band, doing a spoken-word tour, writing a book, acting in a movie, hosting a TV show or hiking through some remote part of the world. But somehow, the 41-year-old found time to assemble Rise Above, an album of 24 Black Flag covers, to benefit the West Memphis Three--a trio of Arkansas men who many believe were wrongly convicted of murdering three boys nearly 10 years ago. A year in the making, the album features a startling array of guests, including Chuck D., Iggy Pop, Mike Patton, Ice-T and members of Motorhead, Rancid and Ween.

In early December, the Rollins Band teamed up with Black Flag vets Chuck Dukowski and Keith Morris for an intensely charged set of BF classics at the packed Amoeba record store in downtown L.A. I caught up with Rollins a few weeks after the show, as he was preparing to embark on his latest spoken-word tour, which comes to the Bay Area on Jan. 8.

MG: Tell me about the Black Flag reunion gig at Amoeba--was it like a time warp for you?

HR: It was awesome. I was very nervous. I mean, band practice is one thing but going out and doing it--it was 1,500 people in that place. That's bigger than any gig I do, so it was like, "Aaaggghhh!!" absolutely full-on. Keith started the event, and then I came out, and all of a sudden I'm singing "Rise Above" in front of all of these people. It wasn't exactly a time warp as much of a very strange feeling of being in a dream or something.

What could you see when you looked at all those people from the stage?

Huge shit-eating grins, like big, stupid, if-they-had-a-photo-of-themselves-they'd-be-embarrassed looks on their faces. You could see the people there from back in the day, 'cause they looked like me--gray, with lines in their faces. And they were right up front singing every word. That just shows you the holding power of Greg [Ginn]'s music.

What are your thoughts on the album and the process of getting it together?

It's an absolute bulletproof, watertight record. You can't rip the playing; you can't rip the singing; you can't rip the songwriting; and look at the cause. If you download it, fuck you. Sure, this is music I had nothing to do with--it's all Greg and Chuck--but I figured, here's some good music, and this might be some music that some singers of note will [take a pause in] their busy schedules to drop in and do a vocal. And then you tell them the cause, and they're all over it.

Do you think punk rock still has the power to influence people toward social activism?

Sure, but I know people who don't have any punk rock in 'em who do tons of volunteer work and strive to effect change. I learned as I've grown older that part of being here in America is to be civically responsible and do something--and not necessarily always through music. I mean, I can make a record that people are gonna buy; I can call Iggy Pop, and he will call me back and jump on my record because he knows who I am. Fugazi does as many benefit shows as regular shows, and they generate a ton of money. But not a lot of people have that platform, so it's inspiring to see people without that convenience doing all kinds of great things. There's the guy who finds out you can volunteer to teach a kid how to read during the summer, and he does it. Why? Because people should fucking read in this country. And if more people did that, you wouldn't recognize this country in six months--it'd be that different. And it's so doable. It's totally within our grasp, and that's what gets me so excited.

Do you ever suspect the motives of people like Bono, who always seem to have a camera crew around when they're doing charity or benefit work?

I think if the guy is doing something, it's better than nothing, but I just wonder if he's following through. Like he's "Mr. Africa Third World Debt Guy," which is a huge issue. You're talking about the continent of Africa--a huge piece of real estate with imminent fucking danger to human life. Now, I hate this guy's music, but I like the idea of absolving Third World debt, because otherwise these people are gonna die. So if he's using all that rock-star power, well, fucking right on. But now he's "Mr. AIDS Guy"--well, wait a minute. How did you go from Third World debt to AIDS? It starts to sound like he leaves a lot undone. So when I see Bono doing this, I think, Gee, is this a crusade or really good promo for U2's new greatest-hits album? How can you go on tour and be "Cause Guy" to the level that he's purported to be? Seems to me you'd have to quit the band to do that. I dunno. I have to think his heart's in the right place. I think he's a boring singer, but I don't think he's a bad man.

Are you planning to talk about the West Memphis Three case in your spoken-word performances?

Yeah, but carefully. It can get very weighty very quickly, and it's hard to get in and out of it to where it doesn't turn into the whole night, and trust me, no one wants to know about it that much. I just say: WM3.org, go check it out and here's why. And five minutes later, I'm moving on. I go onstage assuming you're smart, and you can investigate it on your own.

Are you still amped to get out on the road? Do the demands of touring get harder the older you get?

I can't wait to go, but every time I go out on 'em, it's like, Can I pull it off? It's mentally a lot of gear, and it's very difficult to make it fresh enough to me to where I can make it fresh enough to you. It's like keeping a marriage alive--not that I know that much about marriage. You have to keep looking for things to talk about, so it's work. But no matter what--sick, bad mood, underfed, underslept--I'm gonna be just fine, because at the end of the day I'm just blown away that you showed up. And that enthusiasm will show through.


Henry Rollins appears Wednesday (Jan. 8) at the Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22.50 and available through Ticketmaster.


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From the January 1-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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