Henry Rollins on prep school, 'The Grapes of Wrath,' and regret
"I was one of those guys you want to beat up for his own good."
Henry Rollins is many things to many people.
The musician, writer, actor, and activist was the frontman of the hugely influential hardcore punk band Black Flag from 1981 to 1986. He went on to found his own record label and form Rollins Band, which toured from 1987 to 2003. Since then he's appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, did a seven-year stint as a columnist at LA Weekly, and currently hosts a weekly radio show on Santa Monica's NPR affiliate KCRW.
His new film Dreamland, a surreal, supernatural crime thriller that riffs on The Deaths of Chet Baker, is available now on digital and on-demand. In it, Rollins steps into the role of Hercules, a gangster and child trafficker "who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever." He told Inverse, "The only good thing that happens to him is he's killed eventually. Not soon enough. He thinks he has everyone's respect and gratitude. He has none of it. He's just he's a completely horrible person."
What kind of kid were you?
Hyperactive and unsocial, or poorly social. I was the boy at the birthday party that gets sent home because he’s unable to get along with others. On Ritalin, screaming, crying, unable to sit still, a horrible student, and sadly really unable to socialize with other kids.
What was your favorite band when you were 15?
Probably would have been Led Zeppelin. IV is the perfect record. You put it on now, even though I’m leaning on 60, it still is amazing. The most amazing drummer ever.
What piece of clothing did you wear too often in high school?
I wore a prep school uniform from sixth grade to graduation, at least five days a week. Too often. Black shoes, gray or black socks, gray pants, black belt, white shirt, blue and gold striped tie, blue blazer with the insignia on the left breast. I was one of those guys you want to beat up for his own good.
I lived in Washington, DC, and my school was in Potomac, Maryland — you can't afford a blade of grass out there now. It was a world nothing like my own, this sheet-rock mansion nightmare la-la land. A lot of my classmates — all boys — were sons of bankers, doctors, realtors... money, money money.
My family was solidly in the middle class. So I take this long bus ride out to this weird world that I had no real place in, and come back to my world of like, stepping over the homeless guy and running from the kid who wants to steal my shoes. We lived in two different worlds. It was an interesting time: being on Ritalin, being a horrible student, not getting along with these people, and trying not to get too much detention for being a wiseass.
Guys I could groove with were more soft-spoken, nerdy. The jock guys weren't interesting to me. By the end of school, I had a handful of people to hang out with that made it endurable. But by and large, I just went there, took the classes and went home. I'd leave most of the uniform in the locker. I’d get out of it as soon as I could.
What's your first memory of the internet?
Learning that email was a thing. That you could send a fax somehow through the internet on a Mac SE. So you'd send it five times because you really didn't believe it worked. That would have been in 1990 or '91. I'm sure the internet was going long before that, but I'm kind of slow to arrive at things.
What's a truth you believed about love when you were 15?
That was like it was in movies, or on TV. You meet the girl and everything's great. There's no problems, and it's not a really intense human relationship fraught with a lot of different dynamics. I wanted to meet girls really bad, but I was so shy. I had no competence in that arena. Then, finally, I did meet some girls and found out it was nothing like that. It was a whole other thing that was amazing. To this day it still mystifies me as much as it ever has.
What high-school teacher did you like the most, and why?
My English teacher was almost a central-casting alcoholic gay guy, Mr. Klinger. He said, “you're going to read these books for the summer.” I’d already read those books. “Then you're going to read these.” I already read those. Then he said, “so you're the reader in the class. I'm going to put you in advanced English.” And I’d already read those books too.
He saw something in me, would keep me after class and say, “I want you to take on this book by Steinbeck.” I read Grapes of Wrath, it's about five inches thick, and I loved it. Every other class was hopeless but English. I had a 115 point average because I aced every test.
He'd call me drunk at night. “Oh, Henry, why do you plague me!” I’d say, "Sir, I really shouldn't be on the phone with you." I just think he was lonely. He would call me completely in the bag.
I found out years after his death that he used my stupid little self-published books in English class. Which was, I think, one of the biggest shots in the arm I've ever received. I wish I could have been able to thank him for that.
What do you consider your first professional big break, and why?
Without question, it was the opportunity to audition for Black Flag in the summer of 1981. I left the minimum wage working world and joined a full time touring/recording band that had already made a name for itself. That single instance was probably the most determinant one in my life. All the things I do and get to do are from that single occurrence. There is no way I would be doing what I’m doing, including this interview, had that not happened.
What was a failure or a setback that taught you a lot?
Talking when I should have listened. Judging people and things. I should have just shut my mouth and let things be what they were. I have a lot of regret in my life, I've come to find, and it was for judging people and thinking I knew the play when I knew nothing. Bridges I burned that I can't unburn.
Things and people I've insulted, where I'll never be able to un-ring that bell. And I'll never be able to apologize enough, just human relationships I've screwed up that will never be unscrewed up. I didn't kill anyone, but I grossly insulted people when I had no business doing that to anyone. I can't tell you how much regret that fills me with, and how instructive it has been going forward. But it’s made me a better person.
What’s your can’t-miss prediction for 2030?
Hopefully by 2030, we will have found a [coronavirus] vaccine and a way for homo sapiens to get through to the end of the century and beyond that. We will figure it out — the pandemic, global climate change, alternative energy sources, so homo sapiens can somehow muddle through the rest of the damn century.
What would your 15-year-old self say about your latest project?
He’d think it was really cool. However, his classmates and parents would think it was stupid and immature.
Awkward Phase is an Inverse series with interesting people talking about the most relatable period in their life. The interview above has been edited for clarity and brevity.