An incomplete oral history of Henry Rollins' D.C. years

    Henry Rollins turns 50 this Sunday{}— a fact that will make some of you feel very old — and he's celebrating with two spoken-word performances that day at National Geographic. Both shows are sold out, with the $35 tickets going for $95 on Craigslist, so there was little incentive for Rollins to honor TBD's interview request this week. And thus, he didn't. He's a busy man. As he wrote on his website yesterday, at a militarily precise "1325 hrs.": "I have been in NYC for a few days. I have been jammed with shows, press and other obligations...." Also busy? His lifelong friend Ian MacKaye, who was tied up in the studio this week{}and also unavailable for an interview.

    And that's why this oral history of Rollins' D.C. years, when he hadn't yet changed his surname from Garfield, must be considered woefully incomplete. Nonetheless, I spoke with several of his bandmates from the short-lived hardcore group State of Alert (October 1980 – July 1981). (But not bassist Wendel Blow, unfortunately. A Facebook user by that name, whose identity I couldn't confirm but who likes Minor Threat and Fugazi, replied to my message with, "AAAAHHHH,Henry Who?") These and a couple other D.C. punk vets helped to provide this semi-illuminating portrait of a driven young man who scooped ice cream in Georgetown and made his friends' parents swoon — and then, in an impossible dream come true, was asked to be the lead singer of his all-time favorite band, Black Flag.

    JEFF NELSON, drummer for the Slinkees, the Teen Idles, and Minor Threat: Ian and Henry had been friends for, I suppose, two years before I met Ian, and they had worked together at the skate shop in Bethesda, Md. So they had a history together before learning about punk, and they were both very into Ted Nugent and stuff like that, and then discovered punk.

    SIMON JACOBSEN, drummer for the Extorts and State of Alert: Michael Hampton and I were best friends and neighbors. Before we met Henry, we formed a band with Wendel Blow, Michael, myself, and Lyle Preslar, who later became the guitar player for Minor Threat. We had a band called the Extorts. When 16- and 17-year-olds get together and play punk rock{}— it's exactly what it sounded like. We weren't really a machine yet, like we later became. We knew for whatever reason that Lyle wasn't happy singing for that band. He was talking with Ian and Brian [Baker] and Jeff Nelson about a new band called Minor Threat, and we knew this crazy guy who served ice cream at Häagen-Dazs on Wisconsin Avenue. He was a friend of Ian's. He didn't go to school or anything. He had a homemade tattoo. The boy wasn't right in the head. And we thought he would just be a wonderful singer for our band.

    MICHAEL HAMPTON, guitarist for the Extorts, State of Alert, and the Faith: We weren't getting along very well with Lyle. He wanted to play guitar, he wanted to do something different, so we were trying to think who we could get to be a singer, and thought, "What about that Henry guy? He's cool." But we thought he was the singer for Black Market Baby, so we were reluctant to ask him. He was like the Teen Idles' roadie guy.

    NELSON: Ian's friend Henry Garfield had gotten into punk around the same time we had, hearing stuff here and there on the college radio station. He would certainly attend every show we played and essentially was a roadie, and helped us schlep equipment around{}— just in our parents' cars and things like that. And then the Teen Idles decided to play two shows in California, in the summer of 1980. There were six of us that went out. There were the four band members and Henry came along and Mark [Sullivan], the singer for our previous band [the Slinkees] came along, and we took the bus all the way out to California and played two shows. We made $15 in Los Angeles and $11 in San Francisco and then flew home, and each of us had spent $600 out of our own pocket. It was just fun having Henry and Mark along. Henry had a low mohawk at that point, and Nathan [Strejcek], our singer, had green hair, and we were not allowed entrance into Disneyland because we were too shocking-looking. That was pretty frustrating.

    JACOBSEN: The way I remember it was that Ian was friends with Henry, and we said, "Hi, we're too scared to approach him. Can we ask you to ask him for us, if he'll sing in our band?" And Henry had never sung in a band. He was the roadie for the Teen Idles and I think somebody else, and they were all friends. He had a lot of sort of music experience. Henry had thousands and thousands of dollars worth of import records from the Damned to the Cockney Rejects. Every dime he ever made, he spent on vinyl, and any free time he ever had was spent watching bands. He wasn't singing. He was carrying stuff around and getting in fights. He was a foreboding person even when he was 18. We were younger and smaller and chubby. We all grew up in Georgetown. The only things we had in common were, we had a sense of humor and we liked punk rock — and that was it. So Ian introduced us. I remember shuffling in there. [Rollins] is behind the counter. It was really just like the scene from Seinfeld and the Soup Nazi. That meeting lasted all of five minutes. We ran out of there. We had a phone number for the guy. It wasn't even an audition. It was practice starting right there. We couldn't possibly tell the guy he wasn't in the band after that.

    HAMPTON: My recollection is that it was at the Teen Idles' practice space and Nathan Strejcek's{}— the lead singer of The Teen Idles'{}— mom's house, in their basement. We we went over there and I think we played some of our songs. I don't remember if [Rollins] sang or not. I remember him writing a lot of stuff down. He was into the idea, I think. He was writing on a lot of scraps of paper and stuff. And then I remember feeling like, "Ooo, I wonder if this is going to work," after we left.

    JACOBSEN: We didn't play very many live shows, but we practiced every other day. Like everybody who just started out, we had this terrible equipment, we were borrowing it. Sometimes we'd practice at Dischord House, other times it was in Kalorama mansions — that was, you know, Wendel's parents, or high-society rollers. Just very odd.

    HAMPTON: We used to rehearse in our parents' houses, in our parents' dining rooms. He always used to charm the moms. "Oh, you're going with Henry? Oh, that's fine then." He'd say, "Everything's fine, miss so-and-so. I got him, I got him." That kind of thing.

    NELSON: We only had $600 with which to put out the first record, the Teen Idles record, and it took a while to sell all of those copies — 1,000 copies of that 7-inch. So while we were waiting for the money to come back, Henry said he had enough money earned as manager of the Häagen-Dazs ice cream store in Georgetown, so he funded Dischord's second record, which was the S.O.A. 7-inch EP.

    IVOR HANSON, who replaced Jacobsen on drums around April 1981:{} My dad was in the Navy at the time and we had quarters at the U.S. Naval Observatory, so I was living there, and when Michael and Henry and Wendell — you know, S.O.A. — showed up at the gate, to say, "Hi, we're here to rehearse," and so the Secret Service, who guards the observatory, called me up and says, "Hey Ivor, these guys are here saying, uh, you're in a band with them?" And I go, "Well, yeah. I just joined. You can send them in"{}— because you had to get permission to let them in. And they're like, "Uh, could you come down and escort them to the house?"

    JACOBSEN: He was very paternal. One, we were five years younger than this guy. That's a big jump at the ages that we were at. We could play the instruments and that's what held us together, but we were nowhere near as sophisticated as Minor Threat or Bad Brains and we knew it. "Why can't we play like those guys?" And of course they all blamed me. He was very paternal in that he wanted to hold this thing together. Him singing for a band{}— and he knew it{}— was probably a big changer in his life. He always wanted to be that guy who had respect, and by God, this was a vehicle. The thing is, if you don't know him, you would never guess ... he was so polite to people's parents. But he wasn't like Eddie Haskell or anything like that. He could have an adult conversation with our parents about school pickup and stuff, it was ridiculous. And sometimes he'd pick us up at school — "Don't worry, I'll get him," you know? All of our mothers had crushes on this guy because he was just like this walking, throbbing centaur. It was just incredible to watch.

    HANSON: He totally took us under his wing, you could say. I remember him talking to my dad. You know, my dad was an admiral. And he's like, "Don't worry, Admiral Hanson, I'm going to look after Ivor. We're going to play some shows and it could get ugly, but it's OK. Don't worry about him. It's OK. He's with me." And my dad was kind of impressed because when Henry showed up for that first rehearsal, he had a belt. Not like a leather belt{}— a chain. My dad's like, "That's quite a belt you got on there." "Oh, yes, Admiral."

    JACOBSEN: He would do this pacing thing, he was all pumped up, and he would exercise like crazy before a show, doing chin-ups and pull ups. he was never interested in girls, nor was he interested in boys, for that matter. He was so focused on the Henry element. So he wasn't like a punk rock guy running around with a can of beer and being Sid Vicious — that was not the guy. It's the same guy we see today, except that he was 18. And just pissed off. But he's a funny, funny guy. That's a thing a lot of people don't know about him. He's really a clever, funny fellow.

    HANSON: I played one show with S.O.A. and it was my first and last and only show because, by coincidence, that show was S.O.A. opening for Black Flag. It had been planned a long time earlier. And so, here it is, Henry's last show with S.O.A. was his first show with Black Flag, because he ... had performed a few songs with Blag Flag that night. That show was in Philadelphia and its claim to fame, you could say, was that not only was it S.O.A.'s last show and Henry's first couple of songs with Black Flag, but that there was a riot at the show because the neighborhood where the show was, the local people in the neighborhood in Philly were not really appreciative of these out-of-town punks coming in. So someone paid for a ticket and came in and slashed someone up, and then everyone ran out into a waiting crowd of bottles and bricks. It was just really ugly....

    SETH HURWITZ, then a promoter for the 9:30 Club, which he now runs: He would always come to our shows. He was a local ... I don't want to say celebrity, but he was a local character. And then we all heard he got offered a slot in Black Flag, so it was like, "Wow, one of us is going to be famous."

    HANSON: If your favorite band in the whole wide world asks you to be in their band, what are you going to say? You can't say no, and he didn't.

    HAMPTON: We were surprised and and bummed out. Even at that time, being that young, I definitely understood that we were in high school and he wanted to be in a real band. And S.O.A. was anything but professional.... We played about five shows. You know, [we] had some nice enthusiasm and wrote a couple good punk songs, I think, but it wasn't like Minor Threat, who became a real sort of band.

    HANSON:{} I know he's said for forever, "I was born angry and I've been angry since that first day I was on this planet," but along with that I would say, sure he's angry and he's got lots of things on his mind, and he goes about exploring them and talking about them, thinking about them. But he's also one of the most driven people I've ever met. What was always impressive about him — and Ian, for that matter — was that they were like 18, 19 years old, and they not only knew what they wanted to do, which was be in bands ... but they knew how they were going to do it. Ian had Dischord and was going to go underground, and Henry was going be on any label he wanted to be on and go overground. They just knew. There was a certainty about it. I don't mean they knew they were going to be a big deal or rock stars or anything like that. They just knew they were going to do what they were going to do — to make a difference and be influential their own way. It was really impressive.

    NELSON: None of us could have predicted that punk itself would still be around 30 years later, or that the record label we started would still be around in 30 years time, or exactly what any of us would have gone on to do, but even 30 years ago, when we were 18, 19, 20, it was still pretty clear that both Ian MacKaye and Henry had just gigantic, larger-than-life personalities, and were very, very driven. They were both different, had different styles. It's just been amazing over the years to watch Henry's fame increase and the different things he's gotten involved in, but it's not terriblysurprising because he's a very commanding presence.

    JACOBSEN: We've all met people that are just different than other people. Iwasn't sure he was going to stay on the planet. All of these guys. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Ian was a different guy. Jeff Nelson was a different guy. And Henry. These three people, they weren't reactionaries like little punk rock kids; these guys were visionaries, and they really formed something and made something. Although Henry was little bit on his own path doing something else.

    HANSON: Actually, a couple of years later ... Black Flag played in New York, and I was living in New York at that time, and I was actually working in a law firm for the summer, and went down to see them play, and went straight from work. So I had this suit and tie on, and all these punks are hanging out by the stage door. I'm knocking on the door, and I'm in this suit, and I'm like, "Hey I'm here to see Henry." They're kind of laughing me out of the door and then Henry's like, "Hey, wait, Ivor! Come in, come in. Cool, cool. How's your mom?"

    JACOBSEN: I think I just completely annoyed him when I saw him in Chicago, where I was in architecture school, and I think I was wearing a tie, and he didn't talk to me ever again.

    HANSON: I just have amazing respect for Henry. My wife works for the U.N., and for the past three years I was living in the South Pacific because we were based there. We were listening to the BBC a lot because that's what you could get, and you know, you hear Henry on the BBC, being taken seriously, people wanting to know what's on his mind and what he's doing, what's his latest project and all the rest — you know, worldwide audience. Or he plays in New Zealand and Australia, or does his spoken word stuff. It's just so amazing what he's accomplished, and I can't believe he's only 50 in that regard.

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