Family Man with your life all planned/ Your sand castle built/ Smiling through your guilt/ Here I come . . . I come to infect
Family Man/ Saint Dad/ Father on fire/ I've come to incinerate you
I've come home. -- Henry Rollins
Don't bother asking Henry Rollins what it all means. He doesn't think about it. He just does it.
Rollins, 23, Washington-born lead singer for the infamous, inflammatory Los Angeles punk group Black Flag, has found an unlikely outlet for his generous energies -- poetry.
Just don't use "that word" in front of him.
"Henry hates the word 'poet,' " says friend and manager Harvey Kubernick, who has helped Rollins with his dual career. "I use the word 'social reporter/observationalist.' "
"Cultural anarchist," pronounces Los Angeles poet Michael C. Ford, who's been around since the days of the Beats.
"Impact" is the word Rollins himself might choose for his definition. He uses it often in conversation, in his songs and writings, and his fierce and feral performances, both sung and spoken, embody the word. This Friday Rollins, on a 12-day, 12-city 'spoken word' tour, comes home. He will read from his work in two shows at d.c. space.
A Black Flag concert is a dangerous place for the uninitiated, and at the eye of the storm is wild-child Rollins, raging and blazing in a pair of black shorts, the antithesis of calm. His rock output consists of idealistic lyrics sung-shouted over the band's assault -- harsh, grinding, exhilarating songs that don't stop until they run out of gas or hit the guardrail. The group, which began its own record label, SST -- home to such other nationally known bands as Overkill, Minutemen and Husker Du -- has toured Europe three times and is constantly on the road in this country, establishing itself as perhaps the country's best-known punk band.
In his readings, however, Rollins refuses to fall back on his lyrics, which, though often repetitive, are bitter, funny and telling. "My readings are like Black Flag without the music," he says in the graffiti-encrusted basement that serves as a dressing room at downtown's 9:30 club, where he is warming up before a Black Flag show. "After I finish a reading, I'm pretty soaked," he says of his ultraphysical performances. "I like to use words as symbols and impact tools. If it rhymes, that's incidental."
Spoken sets are prepared from entries in Rollins' daily journals, which he's been keeping since before he joined Black Flag in 1981. Much of his current writing sounds just like what it is -- earnest postadolescent anguishing and naive observations, laden with willfully offensive doses of shock and violence. Death, murder, lust and suburban angst are his staples. But Rollins' belief in his work is overwhelming, and his readings are imbued with a passion, or "star quality," that's hard to deny.
Rollins, who has just released his first spoken/instrumental album, "Family Man" (SST 030), has often collaborated with other rockers-who-would-be-poets, among them Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch and Exene Cervenka. His appearances on Kubernick's spoken word anthologies, which assemble the spoken, sung and screamed musings of hundreds of L.A. denizens, have been a lightning rod for attention -- MTV asked him to read from "Family Man" -- and now he is invited to perform in places where Black Flag would probably never be welcome.
Extreme in looks, in life style, in his work, Rollins seems to be every mother's nightmare (his own mother, Iris, still lives in Virginia, and attends Rollins' performances and houses band members). Yet this hometown boy who used to manage the Ha agen-Dazs on Wisconsin Avenue is direct and quite friendly once you get past his startling appearance.
He's uncommonly handsome, a fact he undercuts with a wild mane of anachronistically long hair and an unsettling Manson-like gaze. His upper torso is covered with garish, ghoulish tattoos: death's heads, snakes, the four black bars of the Black Flag logo. It all smacks of self-destruction and menace, but Rollins is devout in caring for the machine -- he runs five miles daily, pumps iron, shuns drugs and alcohol. And works constantly. Won't he regret the tattoos in time? "That smacks of having a goal ahead," Rollins says. "And I don't believe in goals."
Expect his current readings to be heavily laced with Washington memories, many of them unhappy: hyperactive child, ostracized during much of his childhood and high school years. "I was like the school freak," he says. "So I always had the feeling that other people were dead inside." Rollins' explosive, firebreathing presence fronting his first band, Washington's hard-core SOA, attracted the attention of the Black Flag corps, and he was soon inducted.
Independent and alone, he now lives in The Shed, actually a large tool shed behind the house of bandmate Greg Ginn's parents in the South Bay area, ironically near where the Beach Boys grew up.
Despite all the attention, Rollins denies an interest in money and fame. "We're not after success, we're after impact," he says.
"When there's a chunk of money, you won't see Henry in limos," Kubernick says. "He just wants to work." Rollins, in fact, is spending nearly all the money he earns on the spoken word tour to print 1,000 copies of his first volume of poetry.
"I think our music, and my writing, is a triumph over conformity and boredom," he says, when pressed for a sum-up. "I feel like a fish in water for the first time with this band. I'm doing what I want, what matters to me. And maybe it matters to some other people."