Before stabilizing his musical career as the gut-wrenching vocalist of Rollins Band (not to mention, actor, lecturer, computer advertising spokesman, book publisher, etc.) and bringing his unmitigated personal unease to the masses through a major-label hookup, Henry Rollins kept riding the counter-cultural independent/underground path he had learned in Black Flag (chronicled in the book Get in the Van, also available in a Grammy-winning CD/cassette audio version read by the author). Between his rock records and his spoken-word releases, the former Henry Garfield personifies the hardcore punk as a sensitive, super-energetic, fucked-up adult.
His first two solo records are intense but indulgent, calibrated not to be acceptable in polite society as it stood in 1987. Times have, of course, changed; by concentrating his efforts and shaking off the self-defeating aspects of rock in rebellion, the self-disciplined Washington DC native has emerged as a potent figurehead to those who need loathing — for self, for enemies, for the world — in their stun-power music. That many see this angry rock god as a constipated muscle-bound knot of neuroses bellowing about his inner problems has only fed Rollins’ need to, well, bellow about his inner problems.
With cover art by Mark Mothersbaugh, Hot Animal Machine (recorded in the UK in late ’86) gets off to an explosive start with “Black and White” before sailing into a paranoia-tinged trio (“Followed Around,” “Lost and Found,” “There’s a Man Outside”) that keeps up the frenzied pace. The LP occasionally lapses into silliness (“A Man and a Woman,” the bluesy, cliché-riddled “Crazy Lover”), but provides some neat covers (Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” and the Velvet Underground’s “Move Right In”). The 1999 reissue incorporates the contents of Drive by Shooting.
Recorded during the Hot Animal Machine sessions and inexplicably credited to Henrietta Collins and the Wifebeating Childhaters (band members are rechristened with female monikers; Henry Rollins gets guest billing), Drive by Shooting kicks off with the title track, a novelty number about Los Angeles gang warfare replete with surf/car song appropriations (guitar line courtesy of “Wipeout”). The EP also boasts a solid rendition of Wire’s “Ex Lion Tamer” and a pretty funny (albeit tasteless) send-up of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” called “I Have Come to Kill You.” To prove his fallibility, Rollins includes two total throwaways: “Hey Henrietta” and “Men Are Pigs.” (One CD combines the EP with Hot Animal Machine, adding a previously unreleased live track.)
The spoken-word Big Ugly Mouth was culled from various 1987 speaking engagements around the country. In an uncharacteristic display of humility and sensitivity, Rollins discourses on a variety of subjects, including social and racial injustice, child abuse and sexual harassment. In a more humorous vein, he tackles masturbation, birthdays and advertising — just for starters. Sweat Box is more poetry from the mouth of Rollins — three albums’ worth. Boxed Life, Human Butt and Live at McCabe’s are all spoken-word discs recorded live on various tours; there’s also an obscure Swiss-only release and the intimate In Conversation; Everything is a reading with musical accompaniment by saxophonist Charles Gayle and drummer Rashied Ali.
Recorded at Toronto’s El Mocambo club in May ’87, Rollins shares the Live album with a side of performances by Dutch thrash-rock trio Gore. Testing out the newly formed Rollins Band — guitarist Chris Haskett of the previous lineup plus a rhythm section drawn from ex-Black Flag bandmate Greg Ginn’s Gone — Henry runs roughly through material from Hot Animal Machine and a preview of the as-yet-unrecorded “What Am I Doing Here?” While not the most effective setting, the tracks are strong and well-played.
Loaded with doubt but sure of his devils, Rollins — joined by the brilliant, strong ensemble of Haskett, bassist Andrew Weiss (as of Weight, Melvin Gibbs), drummer Sim Cain and soundman Theo Van Rock — finetunes the line between angst and anger, swinging his rage inward and outward like a weather vane. Playing music that bulks up the simplicity of raw power into a complex, jazz-oriented storm of driving sonic rain, the amazing Rollins Band has, at its best, come close to upstaging its namesake, even with his obsessions and principled pronouncements. Rollins doesn’t rap and the band doesn’t play punk (more a jazzy, thrashy, swing take on the many moods of Jimi Hendrix), but what they do together has the strengths of both. The group’s loud guitar rock with a strong, inventive rhythmic clock borrows only the better attributes of metal, ensuring that noise is never a substitute for purpose.
Alienation is the unifying theme on Life Time: “What Am I Doing Here?” and “There’s Nothing Like Finding Someone When You’re Lonely to Make You Want to Be All Alone” get to the meat of Hank’s solitude. Typically winsome lyric: “I hate the world that I think hates me…I feel dark and cold and alone…Wish someone would come and touch me…” (The CD adds four live tracks recorded in Belgium.)
While the live side (recorded later in ’87 in Holland) of Do It is pretty similar in content and delivery (not sound: this is much clearer) to Rollins Band’s side of Live, the album’s three studio tracks (produced by Rollins’ DC homeboy, Ian MacKaye) are killer. Starting with a powerful version of the Pink Fairies’ classic urge to action “Do It,” there are two other covers: “Move Right In” (incorporating “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”) and Richard Berry’s R&B-styled “Next Time,” both benefiting from Rollins’ dramatic vocals and Haskett’s overdrive guitar.
Rollins sinks into an existential funk on the seven-song Hard Volume, announcing (in “What Have I Got”) that “I’ve got a wantless need…I am a clenched fist/ Looking for a wall to kiss” and discovering (in “Down and Away”) that “I am the last place that I want to be.” Oddly, the rest of the band seems unaffected by his moods, and the music — a well-organized rock juggernaut — thunders along happily.
Documenting the group’s 1989 European tour, Turned On catches a November show in Vienna, a lengthy set that includes material from Hot Animal Machine up through Hard Volume, including another version of “Do It.” Rollins is his usual balls-to-the-wall self, and Haskett is in rare form, spewing out sizzling solos that carom around various ’70s hard-rock styles.
A pivotal event in Rollins’ life occurred in December 1991, when he witnessed the murder of his best friend, Joe Cole. No specific mention of that traumatic event emerges from the despair and animosity on The End of Silence, although the primal rage therapy of the titanic “Just Like You” could be a response of one sort, and phrases here and there allude to abiding pain, sorrow and guilt. The band’s electric cudgel is armed with unprecedented sonic clarity on its first big-time album, separating the instruments into cleanly articulated weapons divebombing the singer’s burly musings. Cain’s precision, Weiss’ busy aggression and Haskett’s non-stop metallisms coalesce as a gargantuan attack, hampered only by Rollins’ careless melodic grip and unwavering lyrical concerns. “Low Self Opinion” is posed as an observation of someone else, yet it’s hard not to read Rollins’ anti-ego in thoughts like “You sleep alone at night/You never wonder why/All this bitterness wells up inside you/You always victimize/So you can criticize yourself/And all those around you.” The music doesn’t have much melodic shape — at worst, the sludgy twelve-minute “Blues Jam” (not hardly) comes close to being filler and the nine-minute “Obscene” has the guitars trailing Cain’s battering beat — but “Tearing,” a dysfunctional (what else?) relationship song, hits a mighty groove that gives the refrain a potent kick. The End of Silence finds Rollins Band fully armed but not quite loaded.
Weight supplies much of what was missing in stronger, better-written songs (“Step Back,” “Fool” and “Liar”) and the growing artfulness of Rollins’ vituperation. “Icon” scorns the weight of stardom from both ends: “It doesn’t matter what you say/Because they’ll always find some meaning in it anyway” counterpoises “All eyes turned up to the hero/Strung out self-abusive circus freak.” “Wrong Man” and “Divine Object of Hatred” both tear at the same illusory elevation (the latter’s description of fan frenzy is unmistakable: “So much hatred, so much violence / They love me/Oh they’d kill to have me / They’d have to kill me”) but generalize the victimization and misunderstanding to more personal relationships. “I’m not all men / I’m just one man / I’m not that man / I’m not all men,” Rollins sings in the chorus of “Wrong Man,” equating the difficulty of forming an honest bond with thousands in a stadium with the challenge of getting square in private with a single person; “Liar” comes at the same problem from a different angle. “Civilized” issues a stern message to a gun-toting murderer, although it’s not clear whether he’s addressing a gangsta rapper or the person who killed Cole. The most striking song, however, is the noir Taxi Driver spareness of “Tired,” in which Rollins can barely whisper out his emotional exhaustion: “I’m so tired of looking inside myself.” Now that’s tired.
Wartime is a vaguely political side project by Rollins and Rollins Band bassist Andrew Weiss. The latter produced and played the music (an overpowering grungeheap of percussion, distorto guitar, samples and blustery fuzz bass) over which Henry delivers his demands for freedom, peace and truth. Fast Food for Thought includes four originals and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower.”
While working at an ice cream parlor in Washington DC, the teenaged Henry Garfield got out his aggressions by singing for local hardcore pioneers S.O.A. (State Of Alert), which existed from October 1980 until July 1981, when he joined Black Flag. The group’s posthumous 7-inch EP (later reissued on a compilation with three other early Dischord 45s) offers ten very brief blasts of abrasive hardcore, primed by talented guitarist Michael Hampton’s wall of riffing and Henry’s fierce bark. No Policy is a most effective nervous system stimulant, and the songs are over before they have a chance to get tiresome. Years away from developing into his trademark tortured psychological introspections, Rollins’ lyrics call for just violence (“Gonna Have to Fight”) and explore familiar punk complaints: anti-drugs (“Lost in Space”), anti-romance (“Girl Problems”) and anti-police (“Public Defender”). Interestingly, Hampton and post-EP drummer Ivor Hanson wound up working (together) in Alec MacKaye’s Faith and Ian MacKaye’s Embrace.