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“Sometimes you hit these situations where all you can do is endure.”
—Henry Rollins, Black Coffee Blues, 1997


In need of a swift reality check? Spend an hour or two with rocker, poet, author, actor and activist Henry Rollins. Rollins leaves the bullshit at the door. He’s unafraid to talk openly and honestly about whatever displeases him. Or pleases him, for that matter. He has a way of making you feel empowered, that the truth does indeed exist, so long as you’re willing to get out of your own way to find it.


With a new live album out last month, a book coming later in the year, as well as a benefit album (due next year) to raise awareness for the West Memphis Three, 2002 has been a busy year for Rollins. I spoke to him about each of these endeavors.


[Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were arrested in 1993 and charged with the murders of two eight-year-old boys, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, in Robin Hood Hills, Arkansas. After a rushed examination of evidence, included a poorly handled crime scene, substandard coroners investigation, the wide reporting of crime scene facts which impeded the interviewing of suspects and a multitude other facts ruling out involvement by the three young men, as well as the singling out of Echols, due to the townspeople believing he was involved in the occult due to his wearing black and keeping to himself, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were charged and are currently serving time (Echols is on death row) in prison. For more information on case discrepancies and to find out how to become involved in spreading the word and helping to free the innocent men, visit www.wm3.org.]




PopMatters:



How did you come to know about the West Memphis Three and what drove you to become involved?




Henry Rollins:



I came upon it like a lot of people did, via those two documentaries [Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations]. I was very upset at what I saw, so I decided to do something.




PM:



The benefit album?




HR:



Yeah we did a benefit album and we just did a benefit here in L.A., with some bands including Wayne Kramer and Exene Cervenka from X. A few people gave us items to auction off. We got stuff from Pearl Jam and Tom Waits, Bad Religion and we were able to raise, I don’t know, $8000, which is nice until a lawyer gets hold of it and then it’s really nothing. So, I decided after that was over that to leave this thing alone would be kind of trite.


So, at about 3.30 in the morning, I came up with this idea to do this record, and [thought] “I’ll get my guys to learn Black Flag songs and we’ll get a bunch of cool singers to sing ‘em, that’ll wake ‘em up.” The easy part was the music because my guys can play anything. They lay waste to the songs, I mean they’re amazing sounding. The hard part was getting to the artists. Not that the artists were a drag, their managers were a big pain in the ass. All the singers were the nicest. Most of these people I’d never even met. They are just really fine people, just really cool, so into it and happy to be involved. It was great. But some of these managers, there’s no money in it for ‘em so they just didn’t want to know.




PM:



There has been a benefit album already, right?




HR:



Yeah, that thing’s boring, though. [And] those kinda records don’t usually sell, as well intentioned as they are, because there’s really no context to them. It’s just some people who get together meaning well, [but] who cares when no one on the record knows each other, if there’s no theme to the record, everyone just jumps in and does songs? It’s like those movie soundtracks: they get a bunch of kick ass bands to play songs that aren’t on their record and they always do okay, but they’re not cool.


I thought this thing, you know, you have a house band, you bring in all these people, all brought together for this thing, and it might be cooler. I’m singing on some of the songs, I’m singing with some of the people and I just thought maybe that might get it a little better.




PM:



Can you name anybody on it yet?




HR:



No. Well, me. When it’s close to release time, we can be very specific and you’ll have something to listen to. It’s now American Summer and this thing isn’t gonna happen till American Autumn. So as far as the people who are on it, we’re just trying to let that hang out for a while. But, I can tell you it’s real good.




PM:



Great. Was it beyond expectations?




HR:



Yeah, it’s way better than I thought it would be. I thought it was gonna be okay and a good gesture, but it ended up being this really ripping, insanely good record and the singers really delivered. Some of these people I had never met, there two generations ago or they’re behind me or something and I’m not always buying these records. These guys come in and I don’t even know who the singer is. Three guys walk in and I’m like “Hi, and you are?” And, they know, and they go “Oh, it’s me.” These guys are multi-platinum and they go in there and just demolish the songs. They do it better than anybody’s ever sung it.




PM:



Have you spoken to anyone directly involved with the case?




HR:



I speak to the WM Support Group all the time. I’m in constant touch with the boys in jail. With Damien’s wife, Lori.




PM:



What about the other side, such as the police, the Arkansas Governor, that kind of thing?




HR:



It’s not really up to me to go to court and liberate or prosecute the guilty parties. My main concern and the thing that I can do in my little capacity is raise awareness and make a lot of noise and get people to talk about it. Say, “Hey, go to the website and check it out.” And hand out leaflets and make this record and do benefits and wear the shirt, I mean, that’s all I can do. I talk to lawyers and journalists who have been on the case and Mara Leveritt who wrote a book about it (Devil’s Knot, due in October).




PM:



Have you read the book?




HR:



Yes, it’s fascinating, really heartbreaking, because you see how hard these kids were railroaded. It’s really hard to take, makes you wanna go kick something.




PM:



Did she interview the kids?




HR:



No, she gets to the judges and the prosecutors and you find out what a bunch of bastards these people are. She’s for the kids, she believes in their innocence. The book is not happy. There’s no happy ending yet. Three boys and dead and three boys are in jail, so it’s all bad. But, you get to understand how hardcore they beat that Jessie kid into his fake confession. You kind of get that from seeing the documentaries, but then when you actually read the transcript, when they’re screaming at him, pounding the table to make him change his story, like when they asked when he killed the kids, he said “Well, in the morning,” and they go, “No, start again, in the evening, go.” Out of about 80 things he said, there’s only about four that are right, and so the defense would say, “So, what about these 76 things that are wrong?” and the prosecution would go, “Well, he got these four right, so we’re just gonna go with the positive.”




PM:



He was apparently changing his story all the time, right?




HR:



Because he didn’t do anything, and he has the mind of an eight-year-old. He’s semi-retarded, and like any eight-year-old, they just want to tell you what you want to hear, so you’ll either give them the cookie, let them go or smile. And, so, he just said whatever and then you find out from the book, that his lawyers come in and say, “Okay kiddo, what happened?” Because as soon as he said all this stuff, he immediately recanted it when he got home, or as soon as he saw his dad. The lawyers say, “What happened”, and he gives them this weird version of what he just told the cops. Then the dad comes in and the kid starts crying and goes “Dad, I didn’t do anything, I wanna go home.” The lawyers come back in and go “Okay, you just told your dad that you didn’t do it, why are you telling us that you watched these kids do it?” and he said, “That’s what you guys want me to say.” And, they said, “No, we’re your lawyers.” He said, “What’s a lawyer?” They said, “We’re on your side.” He didn’t even know what a lawyer was.


And as soon as [the lawyers] were able to convince him they were for him, he said, “Okay, well tell me who this satin-guy is.” And, they go, “Satin?” He goes, “Yeah these guys are telling me that I worship Satin.” They go, “No, Satan.” He said, “Okay, I thought you said Satin.” So, this kid is out of it, and that’s how you talk when you’re innocent, you know what I mean? When you really didn’t do it that’s the kind of stupid shit you say. And the whole book is full of that, where these kids are just three dumb-ass kids who got pulled into this thing and the more you read, the madder you get. As an American, I can’t let that shit happen in my country and then, say everyone’s free. That’s fucked up.




PM:



Do the boys themselves have any kind of positive attitude that they will get out, and soon?




HR:



Yeah. Well, Jessie doesn’t quite understand. I got a letter from Jessie here that doesn’t really say much in it, he’s just kinda hanging out in this place. Jason is like a straight-A student in all the classes in prison. And Damien’s letters to me are up and down. I talked to Lori and said, “What’s up with that?” She said that freedom is a real far away idea to this guy. I write to him and say, “We just got this guy’s vocals on the record, man, and these three people want to sing, and we’re doing this great record.” He writes back, and one week he’ll say, “Oh man, thank you so much.” These kids are blown away that we’re doing this. Then the next week, he’ll write me this intense letter saying, “These motherfuckers are weak”, and that you gotta be tough and all this stuff and I write him back and say, “Don’t start talking like a convict. Don’t do this shit, because you’re not a convict, don’t get into that, don’t start that tough guy thing with me. If you lose your sensitivity in that place, we’re never gonna get it back when you get out.”




PM:



Are they overwhelmed by all the support for their case?




HR:



Yeah, but there’s really no way you can convey it in a letter. I’m sure Lori, when she visits him, can tell him. I wear the shirt. People beep their horn and wave. You see people driving around with the stickers on their cars. If you see someone with a shirt on or a sticker, you go over and talk to them, because they’re like this ally you’ve never met. I make it a point to go over and say thanks.




PM:



Do you see these people a lot?




HR:



Yeah, people are getting into it. Luckily for these boys, they have the West Memphis Support Group who are just unbelievably cool. It’s not for nothing. Unfortunately, it’s legal action that changes everything, but you have to get people stirred up just so a lot of people look at this judge and go, “No way, what do you think you’re doing?” I mean, it’s public opinion. If you stop thinking that means something, you’re screwed.




PM:



Tell me about the new live album, The Only Way To Know For Sure (released June 25). It was recorded with a full audience, yes?




HR:



Oh yeah. It was two nights at the Metro in Chicago, and the live album consists of the set and the encore of the first night and the encore of the second night. And, oh yeah, it was shows 38 and 39 on tour and the next day we were moving on to the next place. It was just a stop on the road.




PM:



Does the title refer to judging the quality of a band by their live performance?




HR:



Absolutely. If you can’t do it live then as far as I’m concerned, you can’t do it. If they can do it in the studio and they can’t do it live, they can’t do it either place.




PM:



Are you disappointed with many live bands?




HR:



I’m disappointed by bands left and right, every day. All you gotta do is go to one of those festivals and watch.




PM:



Do you think that your appreciation for your fans and passion in what you put out there for public consumption contributes to the longevity of the band?




HR:



I don’t know. I think there are a number of reasons why we still get to play after so many years. We keep showing up. There really is a thing to coming back and playing all the time. People really appreciate it.




PM:



You guys tour almost all the time, right?




HR:



Yeah, we do. It’s what I’d rather be doing than sitting in the office in L.A. and stewing away in traffic, you know, I’d rather be on the road. People like when you show up every year. They start getting the idea that you mean it. And, some people really appreciate that. It’s not a totally lost art, that whole sincerity thing. People appreciate that. They go, “Well, if these guys are gonna come and do it every year, I’m gonna come and do it with them.” That’s the sentiment I get from a lot of mail and people who say, “Hey you know, I’ve been coming to your gigs for 15 years now.” What an honor, what a wonderful thing to be told.




PM:



There’s no slowing down?




HR:



No, I’d like to do more. I wish I was doing more shows this year. I’ve averaged about 106 shows, 108 shows for the last 22 years. I’ve done more shows than KISS. We looked it up.




PM:



Is there anything new people can expect from the album?




HR:



No, there’s not much to say about it, except that it’s very well recorded and the performance is very good. There’s no fixes or overdubs. Past that, it’s already played music. We’ve already been there. It’s not a new thing, that’s why I don’t do much press for them just because there’s nothing really to say about it. It’s a 24 track, analogue tape and a band kinda going through it two nights. It’s not like any musical innovation. That’s what happens when you go into the studio again with new songs.




PM:



What you played that night is exactly what you recorded?




HR:



Yeah. What we played is what you hear. It is what it is. We did it on request of the record company [Sanctuary] who just really would not let off about it, they really, really wanted a live album. I really like this label and if they’re that enthusiastic about it I said okay. Because it wasn’t, “Do it, we wanna make money.” They said, “You guys are such a great live band, let’s do a live album.” I said, “Well, let’s not.” Because live albums these days are seen as knock-offs to gouge fans of their money and they always sound bad and no one buys them. They said, “Yeah, but you guys are different and you’ll make a good one, so lets do it.” And I went, “Well, gee enthusiasm from a record label? It’s been years since I got that, so well, okay.”




PM:



They’re just as passionate about it as you guys?




HR:



Yeah. They’re a really cool label. You rarely hear anybody on it complaining. It’s a small label but they don’t seem to sign anything their not really into. Everyone there, you meet them there and they’re like “Man, your record kicks ass” and you’re like, “Wow”. After spending five years on DreamWorks, where you’re paid a delirious amount of money to get nothing but apathy, it’s really weird. They pay you a lot of money for those records and they don’t even do anything with them, you figure wow, don’t you want more bang for your buck? You figure they would, but no.




PM:



So, these guys are music fans too?




HR:



That’s what I get. If they’re not, they’re fooling me. You really get that from these guys which is cool. It’s nice to be around people who are excited. These days in music, the industry are only looking a quarter of the year up the road, like a fiscal quarter, and they’re not really concentrating on the music, they’re concentrating on keeping their own jobs, and money, money, money. It’s hard to get people at a record company to talk about music. They don’t seem to want to talk about music, it’s all marketing, and that’s part of a record, you gotta get it out there, people have gotta hear it, but you could do it in a way that’s not repulsive. There really are ways to make it not so bleaahh. These guys just seem to wanna rock out, which is good for us because we’re basically a live band. We’re never gonna have a single, we’re not gonna have the big video that breaks us. We’re never gonna break, we’re never gonna cross over. We’re just gonna get to keep playing, that’s all we can look forward to and that’s fine.




PM:



You’re totally happy with that?




HR:



Oh yeah. You know, ask Axl Rose how it’s going. You know what I’m saying? I’m not trying to put the guy down, I think he’s a really good singer. I think he should sing more and do more gigs. But, here’s a guy who was on top of the world, and you know, where is his thing now? To be around as long as we’ve been around, one should be very thankful.




PM:



Are you excited about the new book coming out?




HR:



Yeah, excited in a way. With books, I release them and wince.




PM:



Why?




HR:



I just kind of hope they’ll do okay. They always do, but with a music record, you steel yourself to get ready for all the lame, mean little digs that journalists will say, like, oh, you know, “It’s this, it’s that”. And, you’re like, “Fuck you, it’s awesome.” With a book, there’s no volume to turn up. You’re very naked with a book. So, you just have to tough it out, and whenever I release a book, I hope they don’t slam me for it.




PM:



Tell me about the book.




HR:



It took a lot of work. I started that book in Australia in 1992. I just started writing down every song I ever did in Black Flag. This is before I had a laptop computer, so I’m just writing everything out longhand, realizing I’d forgotten words here and there and saying, “Okay, I gotta go back home.” I’m making all these notes, gotta dig these songs out and then I started writing out all the lyrics of all the songs I’d ever done with the Rollins Band, and sort of footnoting them and finding the piece of writing that inspired the song and all that and then when I finally got home to a computer, I started slowly collating all this material and it just turned into this snowballing thing where I would work on the book for a week and then I would leave it alone for a year because I’m on tour and there’s no new songs really and then I’d do a new record and type in all those songs.


Finally, the girl who runs the book company, she says “okay, you’ve been threatening this lyric book for a while, I think September of next year (we started work on it last year) would be a great time to release it.” In the book business you work really slowly, you get the idea for a book and you go, “Okay, we’ll put that out in about 15 months or 18 months”, that’s like the quickest you can turn a book around with the book industry where you have announce to the distributor. It’s not like a record; it’s a way slower industry. A little company like us, we can just throw a book out tomorrow but to put it through this system of distribution that we go through, you know the proper way of doing it with our little distributor, you gotta give them time, you gotta announce what the book is down to the page number. I mean they want real specific specs on the book. It’s intense and so we had to really lay it out and design it before we could say tell everyone what it was and then we just had to sit on the manuscript and tweak it for months and now finally thankfully, it’s at the printer. We’ll see it soon.


But a book of this nature with all the photographs and innovative layout design, it took quite a while. I’m bringing in Xeroxed lyrics I couldn’t find the originals for. I’m bringing in notebook paper of the first lyrics I ever wrote from high school to be scanned in. Receipts for the first single I ever did, selling them on consignment at record stores. We’re talking to photographers, finding photos from the sessions. I’m writing a “making of” every record, so it was a lot of work, which is, you know, what you do, but it turned into a bigger deal to complete than I thought it was going to be, even having worked on it for such a long time. Thankfully, it’s a neat book that looks cool, the photos are neat, a lot of the I had never seen before, and maybe fans of the band, or me, will get off on it. It’s all the songs I wrote plus all these ones I write and never release.




PM:



Was it a trip down memory lane for you?




HR:



Oh, absolutely, sure, especially seeing these photos I had never seen before. Our old guitar player, Chris always kept a camera around and was always taking photos and none of us ever bothered to look at them, and I called him, I said, “Chris, I’m doing this book, can I get photos?” Promptly, this huge box of photos comes from New York and I never even knew he was taking photos of some of this stuff. So all of a sudden we have photos of the making of the End of Silence record, the Lifetime record. Really neat stuff, and all these photos from around the time Chris was taking them, like me talking to the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce, me talking with Joe Strummer, like really neat fan-boy stuff and we just threw it all in the book, and it should do pretty good. I’m just happy it’s done because it was a lot of time sitting in front of the computer.




PM:



Any plans to revisit Australia [from where I was conducting this interview]?




HR:



Yeah, my agent over there wants me to come back very soon and I don’t want to, not because I don’t love Australia, it’s because I don’t have enough new material for a talking tour, and I just don’t have enough new material to feel good about going up on stage and flexing it and demanding a ticket price. A lot of the stuff I’ve been talking about, like talking shows at universities lately have been the West Memphis Three thing and September 11th which are two totally American topics, neither one of them are all that fun. The last few talking shows which have only been university dates have been very serious and kind of a drag and kind of lecture-y where I’ve been kind of shaking my finger at them and I just don’t want to do that to a general admission audience especially outside America because they all have heard what happened in America on September 11th, no one finds to fun to listen to, to listen to reflections upon that. And, the West Memphis Three, the West Memphis who? You know? Not that anybody over there is ignorant, it’s just a very American thing and how interesting is it really to talk about? I had to tell management to just give me a couple of months, and believe me, I hate saying no to gigs and an excuse to go to Australia, I love it there. I’ve been there 19 times.


I was walking around the Surrey Hills area of Sydney and I was like, “That’s it, I’m gonna come here as often as possible.” I really like the place, and this is before we’d done any shows. We saw how great the audience is and, I’m just, “Fuck man, I’ll move here.” Wherever I’m there, I just imagine okay, you have an apartment here in town, you live here. I entertain that notion. I could totally do it.




PM:



Our audiences are just as enthusiastic as American audiences?




HR:



Yeah, and there’s thing about Australians. You may have heard this said before, they’re very similar to Americans, their spirit is the same and that kind of, not exactly the word crass, but that in-your-face thing, where Australians don’t really care if you’re a celebrity, if you’re like Eric Clapton or something or Cher. Australians don’t care. Like if Britney Spears comes into a room; people freak out, where there’d be young Australians hitting on her. They’re like [in a pretty good Australian accent] “yeah, she’s hot, yeah” They don’t even care that she’s like the eight billion-dollar baby. They just think, they like blondes. I love that unpretentious thing that seems to be a real common thing among Australians.




PM:



A lot of celebrities seem to feel relaxed over here, which definitely comes through in promotional television appearances and whatnot.




HR:



Well, yeah there’s a kind of a, “If we like you it’s because we like you, it’s not because of the label we’re on”. I get along with Australians really well. Everyone’s usually really cool, and it’s always a drag to leave.




PM:



You were just here last year, right?




HR:



Yeah, which is another reason I kinda want to leave you guys alone for a minute. I’ve been there very often the last few years.


I just don’t want anyone getting tired of me.

Nikki Tranter has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology/Criminology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and George Mason University in the U.S., and an M.A. in Professional Communication from Deakin University in Melbourne. She likes her puppy (Fulci the Fox Terrier), reading, painting, Take That, country music, and watching TV. Her favorite movie is Teen Wolf.


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