Back in the spring of 1981, Henry Lawrence Garfield was an impulsive, unhappy 20-year-old managing a Häagen-Dazs in Arlington, Virginia. Hardcore punk was ascendant, and, as singer for the marginal S.O.A. (the initials stood for "State of Alert"), Garfield was a cog in the local D.C./Arlington scene. So was his good buddy, Ian MacKaye, who fronted the far more visible Minor Threat.
Garfield's favorite band was Black Flag, the Southern California institution headed by enigmatic guitarist Greg Ginn, who also had founded SST Records. Like Minor Threat, Black Flag defined early hardcore. Unlike Minor Threat, Black Flag had been around since 1977 (when they were called Panic) and was looking for its fourth singer by 1981. The band's most recent singer, the charismatic Dez Cadena, had switched to rhythm guitar, a fortuitous move that would make Black Flag a sonic monster. Garfield, who had previously corresponded with the band, jumped the ice-cream ship, went to New York during the band's East Coast tour, and ended up as a Black Flag roadie and vocal apprentice under Cadena. Legend has it that Garfield, who had rechristened himself "Henry Rollins," was so nervous when offered the job that it took an encouraging word from MacKaye to seal the deal.
To say that Black Flag's first full-length album, 1981's Damaged, benefited from the new five-piece lineup is a gross understatement. Not only is the album the key touchstone of the hardcore genre, it's arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all time — a point of departure that made the first-wave punk rock of the Clash, the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols sound like Dan Fogelberg by comparison. Rollins stayed with Black Flag until the band's demise in 1986.
Rollins had been giving spoken-word performances and self-publishing his writings since 1983, but it was the decade following Black Flag's break-up that Rollins' career exploited a wider range of formats. Whether fronting the Rollins Band, releasing and touring behind spoken-word albums, or writing books, Rollins took no vacation days.
"I started splitting my time between my band and talking shows. I got extremely active, doing 150-plus shows a year when the band would go off the road to spend time with their warm-blooded friends," Rollins explained in a recent phone interview in advance of his spoken-word performance this week at Beale Street's New Daisy Theatre.
The Rollins Band enjoyed a period of success during the early-'90s alternative-rock boom. They appeared at the first Lollapalooza festival in '91 and at Woodstock '94 and charted with two albums (1992's The End of Silence and 1994's Weight). Rollins' best-known book, Get in the Van, an engrossing and exhaustive account of his days in Black Flag, also was released in 1994. In terms of historical and anecdotal value, it stands as a fantastic piece of music-related nonfiction.
In the latter half of the '90s, Rollins found extra exposure hosting shows for MTV, VH-1, and Comedy Central and making big-screen appearances in The Chase, Heat, and Lost Highway. The Rollins Band disbanded and reformed a couple of times during this decade, with one particularly notable release being 2003's Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs To Benefit the West Memphis Three.
Spoken-word and television work have dominated Rollins' time in the past few years as he developed a relationship with the Independent Film Channel. He hosted Henry's Film Corner before settling into The Henry Rollins Show, a half-hour talk show that features a musical guest and one extended interview with a celebrity of Rollins' liking (William Shatner, Ben Stiller, Bill Maher, etc). This year, the show will give way to IFC filming and airing several spoken-word performances around the globe. These are long-form specials based on the success of 2006's Henry Rollins: Uncut from NYC and last year's Henry Rollins: Uncut from Israel.
"I just came back from South Africa doing the first of several live and uncut shows we're doing this year. The one from Israel went so well last year that they asked for more of those," Rollins said.
Rollins also has done a handful of U.S.O. tours in the past five years, adopting a pro-troop/anti-war stance.
"U.S.O. tours are great. The war I don't like. I don't think anyone does. But the troops I like very much," Rollins said. "It's a chance to make them laugh, show them that they have support back in America. A lot of them have questions; they just want to hear about what's going on. It's a distraction that's quite welcome over there. They see the same thing every day, then I pop up on the base. That's why I've done U.S.O. whenever possible since they contacted me about five years ago."
So, what can audiences expect when Rollins takes the stage at the New Daisy?
"There's no theme," Rollins said. "I'll be talking about the traveling I've been doing — South Africa, Pakistan, Syria, and Iran. All these trips were very informative. It's going to be a lot of stories from the road."