Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins
Reviewed by Nathan Keene
Sunday, March 4 2001, 1:59 PM
I never could get into Henry Rollins all that much when I was younger. The fact that he stayed away from intoxicants of any kind was vaguely unsettling to me. Then there was the whole weight-lifting thing, and the fact that Black Flag's music sounded way too influenced by seventies heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath. I had but recently been liberated from the thudding, small town, redneck oppression of metal by the invigorating, big city blast of punk rock and I was in no mood to go back, combat boots and shaved heads or not.
Mostly, though, it was Black Flag's lack of irony that bugged me. Early hits like "TV Party" seemed weighed down with a snooty self-righteousness that other, equally enraged but somehow more incisive bands like the Dead Kennedys were still managing to avoid. To me, Rollins' whole attitude was summed up in his scream, "YOU CAN'T TAKE ME AWAY FROM MYSELF!" I remember his yelling that line as he stomped across a Portland stage during the mid-eighties, sweaty mane flying, sunburst tattoo rippling across a set of lats wider than Elvis's shoulder pads and thinking, "If only somebody could, Henry. If only somebody could." Rollins himself has amply documented this side of his character, and if it's led to his being stereotyped as a self-involved angst machine by people unwilling to look beyond first impressions, he has largely his own hard work to thank for that.
A few years down the line, however, I noted that he was refusing to subside into irrelevance with the rest of punkdom. I couldn't help but be impressed by the fact that while some artists of his generation had quickly subordinated their art to their ranting, and others had rolled over for airplay, Rollins was still managing to keep some semblance of integrity with spoken word performances that were visceral and gripping. Not to mention the fact that his music seemed to be improving as well. Early Rollins Band songs like "Drive By Shooting" (from 1989's hilarious Henrietta Collins and the Wifebeating Childhaters EP) were as harshly satirical as ever and at the same time musically fresh.
During the 1990s, I became more interested in the level of dedication which Henry Rollins seemingly approached every aspect of his life.݉t was fascinating to me that in a world of apathy and convenient blame, here was a public person who could remain violently angry at the contradictions and still uncompromisingly insist on taking responsibility for himself.ݠThe more I came to actually understand how important it was to be dedicated in life, the more interested I became in Rollins' particular realization of the DIY ethic: only you can make your life happen. With his steadfast insistence on self-empowerment -- and such quotes as "You can get away with a lot of shit if it looks like it's all you know how to do," and "I think if you are happy all the time you are not trying hard enough," Henry Rollins was subtly growing into someone I hated to love.
In his unauthorized biography, Turned On, James Parker documents this maniacal work ethic almost as thoroughly as Rollins himself has. More importantly, he cites the very real flak sent up against it, and documents the connection with that time-honored American ideology of self-help. His narrative of Rollins' youthful idolization of Washington, DC's Bad Brains, with their wedding of the "Positive Mental Attitude" doctrine of Napoleon Hill's 1937 breviary Think and Grow Rich to the blistering beat of punk, is brilliant. With this one passage alone, the savagery directed at Rollins from such quarters as The Baffler takes on factual weight.
Far from being a rebel, Henry Rollins is a classic American capitalist archetype, the self-made man who struggled through unbearable misery to reforge an invincible, triumphant identity as a celebrated entrepreneur, a mover and a shaker in the most au courant of bohemian clothing. The fact that Rollins has achieved this status through documenting the darkest regions of his tormented mind, all the while keeping almost everyone around him at a beefy arm's length, is no more than the particular expression that the market wears on its face at the dawn of the millenium. Through his very relentlessness, his very refusal to turn away from inner demons, the diatribe goes, Rollins has established a brand identity -- not to mention a brand loyalty -- that most products can only envy.
Doubtless, had he wanted to be at the helm of a Fortune 500 organization by now, Rollins' sheer productivity and marketing savvy could very well have propelled him down such a path. Yet, he hasn't gone that route, regardless of how often he's appeared to be straddling the so-called punk credibility line. To look at Rollins as though he were a Gap ad is important, but it doesn't tell us who he really is. Turned On transcends both Henry's own self-mythologizing and the vitriol of his often-embittered indie detractors in focusing as much as an unauthorized biographer can upon the man himself. Though Parker clearly harbors a fan's affection for Hank, he's not a fan who's willing to overlook the often comically-overblown character of his idol. Every musclebound sulk, every beetling brow and steely-eyed superhuman pronouncement is here, lovingly set in James Parker's razor-sharp, bone-dry British prose.
Conversely, if Rollins is someone you hate to love, you may wind up feeling more comfortable with your dark secret by the end. Parker's sparkling feats of diction and his deft interweaving of a wide range of key sources humanize the Man far more than any volume of his own bombastic, spiraling, self-aggrandizing (albeit darkly inspiring!) ruminations and fulminations ever will. There is in fact a comedic side to Rollins which is not at all part of the persona he presents to his audience. Amid all the grim determination, Parker still makes sure to depict the Henry Rollins who would dance around Lydia Lunch's house with a salad bowl on his head or who, confronted at the entrance to UCLA campus in the depths of his most tour-grizzled, sleep-deprived road funk by a woman wanting to know "What are you, the Grateful Dead?" turns and says "What, were you raised by WILD DOGS?"
Turned On is available from Cooper Square Press