In the '90s, Henry Rollins emerged as a post-punk renaissance man, without the self-conscious trappings that plagued such '80s artists as David Byrne. Following Black Flag's breakup in 1986, Rollins was been relentlessly busy, recording albums with the Rollins Band, writing books and poetry, performing spoken word tours, writing a magazine column in Details, acting in several movies, and appearing on radio programs and, less frequently, as an MTV VJ. The Rollins Band's records are uncompromising, intense, cathartic fusions of hard rock, funk, post-punk noise, and jazz experimentalism, with Rollins shouting angry, biting self-examinations and accusations over the grind. On his spoken word albums, he is remarkably more relaxed, showcasing a hilariously self-deprecating sense of humor that is often absent in his music. All the while, he has kept his artistic integrity, becoming a kind of father figure for many alternative bands of the '90s.
Rollins was born Henry Garfield in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 1961. He performed in local hardcore bands as a teenager, and one night when his heroes Black Flag came to town, he leaped up on-stage and began singing with them. Shortly thereafter, when Flag vocalist Dez Cadena decided to switch to guitar, the band invited Rollins to audition, and he became their new lead singer. By the time Black Flag broke up in 1986, Rollins had not only garnered a reputation as one of the fiercest performers in hardcore punk, but had already begun touring as a spoken word performer. Rollins made his recording debut as a solo artist in 1987 with Hot Animal Machine and also issued his first spoken word album, Big Ugly Mouth, that year (as well as the Drive by Shooting EP, recorded as Henrietta Collins & the Wifebeating Childhaters).
Following Hot Animal Machine, Rollins assembled a backing unit, the Rollins Band, which featured soundman Theo Van Ronk, guitarist Chris Haskett, and the former rhythm section of Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's side project Gone: bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Simeon "Sim" Cain. Not counting several live recordings made in Holland in 1987, the Rollins Band made their studio debut with 1988's Life Time, followed quickly by the outtakes/live collection Do It. 1989 saw the release of a new Rollins Band album, Hard Volume, and the spoken word set Sweatbox; they were followed in 1990 by the live set Turned On and yet another lengthy spoken word release, Live at McCabe's.
1991 was a pivotal year for Rollins, for better and worse. The Rollins Band inked a deal with Imago that promised much-improved distribution, and they also appeared on the Lollapalooza tour. But in December of that year, Rollins and his best friend, Joe Cole, were held up by gunmen waiting outside of Rollins' L.A. home. Cole was fatally shot in the head; the devastating trauma of the incident never quite left Rollins and occasionally (though indirectly) informed his subsequent work. In 1992, with Human Butt, Rollins began releasing his spoken word albums through 2.13.61, the publishing imprint he'd founded in 1984. In addition to Rollins' own work, both recorded and written, 2.13.61 grew during the '90s to include literary works by rock artists like Exene Cervenka and Nick Cave, plus material by acclaimed authors like Henry Miller and Hubert Selby, Jr., among others. 1992 also saw the Rollins Band debut for Imago with The End of Silence, which some found to be his most focused music yet and gave Rollins his first charting album. The spoken word double disc The Boxed Life appeared in 1993, and toward the end of the year, Rollins Band bassist Weiss was replaced by Melvin Gibbs.
1994 became Rollins' breakout year thanks to the one-two punch of Weight — the best-reviewed and most popular Rollins Band album to date, which cracked Billboard's Top 40 — and Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, a double-disc set of readings from Rollins' memoir of the same name that won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. Additionally, the Rollins Band performed a well-received set at Woodstock '94. With all the increased visibility, Rollins became a genuine phenomenon; Details magazine chose him as their Man of the Year in 1994 and wound up making him a contributing columnist. Primed by appearances on MTV and VH1, Rollins also made his film debut that year in The Chase and went on to appear in movies like Johnny Mnemonic, Heat, and Lost Highway over the next few years.
Unfortunately, Imago was out of business by 1995, leaving the Rollins Band in temporary limbo until they secured a deal with DreamWorks in 1997. In the meantime, Rollins undertook a jazz/poetry experiment with Everything, which featured musical backing by avant-garde luminaries Charles Gayle (saxophone) and Rashied Ali (drums). The Rollins Band debuted for DreamWorks in 1997 with Come in and Burn, which failed to earn the acclaim of the group's previous few albums. Black Coffee Blues appeared the same year, and like Get in the Van, it featured a series of readings from a Rollins book of the same name. In 1998, Rollins released Think Tank, his first true set of non-book-related spoken word material in five years.
By this point, Rollins felt that his partnership with the Rollins Band had run its course, as their music grew more experimental and less unremittingly intense. He had been producing a Los Angeles hard rock trio called Mother Superior and wound up inviting the band — guitarist Jim Wilson, bassist Marcus Blake, and drummer Jason Mackenroth — to back him as a brand-new incarnation of the Rollins Band. The first fruits of this new collaboration were released in 2000 as the album Get Some Go Again. It was followed in 2004 by Weighting. A new spoken word release, Rollins in the Wry, followed in 2001, culling performances from Rollins' residency at the L.A. club Luna Park during the summer of 1999. Another live album, The Only Way to Know for Sure, appeared in the summer of 2002. Three volumes of Talk Is Cheap, taken from a two-night stand in Sydney, Australia, were released in 2003 and 2006. A fourth volume followed in 2007, this time recorded at San Jose State University in California. ~ Steve Huey