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On the Road With Black Flag: Henry Rollins’ 1986 Essay

Atlanta - CIRCA 1991: Singer/Songwriter Henry Rollins performs during Lollapalooza at Lakewood Amphitheater in Atlanta Georgia April 05, 1987 (Photo By Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in the April 1986 issue of SPIN.

Black Flag was my favorite band. I constantly played what few records they had out. I met them in the spring of 1981 and hung out with them for most of their brief stay when they visited Washington, D.C., to play two sets at the 9:30 Club.

Chuck Dukowski gave me a demo tape of their unreleased music. Every morning before I went to work, I would play that tape: “Damage,” “Police Story,” “No More,” and their version of “Louie, Louie.” I loved and hated the tape. The tunes were great and the words said what I was feeling. But I hated it because I wanted to be the singer! I mean, Dez was great, but still…

Summer 1981

Black Flag played in New York. They didn’t have any shows in the D.C. area, so I went to New York to see them. I got there early and me, Greg, and Chuck hung out and talked most of the afternoon. That night, they played. They were great. After the show, the band went across town to play for free at a small after-hours club. Of course, I went along. I had to be at work in six hours, and I had a five-hour drive. I went to the stage and asked them to play “Clocked In” to send me on my way. Dez said, “This is called ‘Clocked In.’ It’s for Hank, because he’s got to go to work now.”

The band laid into the song. I got onstage, took the microphone, and sang “Clocked In” with Dez. Sure felt good. I left the club to drive home. I finished the rest of the set in the driver’s seat.

Days later, I’m working at the ice cream store and I get a phone call. It’s Dez. The band is in New York taking a few days off, and they wanted to know if I want to come up and jam with them. I don’t really understand what they mean, but they are paying the train ticket, so I go.

The next morning we all meet at the Odessa, a restaurant in the East Village. Greg tells me that Dez wanted to play guitar, so they are looking for a singer. Would I want to try it out? I could not believe my ears.

We went to Mi Casa rehearsal studios and set up. I told them the songs to play. What words I knew. I sang. The ones I didn’t, I faked. We did two sets. At the end we all kind of looked at each other. Chuck said, “Well?” I said, “Well, what?” “ARE YOU GOING TO JOIN OR NOT?” he yelled.

December 1981, England

We were broke. We were hungry. We were cold. We were miserable. We had a show in Manchester. Early one morning, we drove our rented van from London north to Manchester. We spent all our remaining dough on petrol just to make the gig. At Manchester Polytech, we learn that we are playing with Chelsea, a well-known English punk rock band. For some strange Reason Black Flag was headlining. I smelled trouble. We didn’t even have an album out in England, just the Six Pack EP, and we were headlining. Someone, somewhere was going to be pissed off.

We unloaded the equipment and went upstairs to the dressing room to relax and find some food. (I should mention at this point that the dressing room was huge and was to be used by all the bands on the bill that night.) OK, so I fall asleep on the floor next to the wall, out of the way of everything and everyone. Fine.

I am woken up by a boot in my ribs. I grab my side and look up at Gene October, the singer in Chelsea. “Excuse me, Los Angeles. Sorry about that. I just tripped over you.” Yeah, right, but that’s cool. I go back to sleep. I get woken up again by the same boot. “Oh, Los Angeles, so sorry.” I still remain cool, me being the only Flag in the room, which is now full of Chelsea and crew.

The jerk starts talking to me, “You really don’t have any good music in America, do you, Los Angeles? The Dickies and the Ramones, I mean they are a load of shit, aren’t they, Los Angeles?” What a drag! I had two Chelsea records at home! I just stare and nod my head.

Hours later, Chelsea is onstage. Gene is talking to the crowd between songs: “There are some short-haired hippies from Los Angeles in the crowd tonight. It’s Black Flag. I want you to get them.” The crowd cheers. Me and Ian MacKaye (then singer in the D.C.-based Minor Threat who visited England with us) walk into the crowd smiling and waving, saying, “Here we are, come and get us.” No one took the challenge. Personally, I was kind of hoping one or five of them would jump us so I could have had the pleasure of taking nine days of misery our of their faces.

On the Road With Black Flag: Henry Rollins' 1986 Essay

Finally, we get to play. The kids in the crowd were real cool. I thought we were doing OK. This one boy kept spitting on me for the whole set. I didn’t do anything about it…trying to be a good chap, you know. Well that was too much for old Ian. He smacked the bloke upside his head.

After it happened, the entire audience took a few steps back. I apologized for Ian’s actions, even though I thought what he did was right on. Now as I write this I have to put my pen down because I am laughing so hard—Ian, that was so hot, man! You blew that boy’s shit away! That was great, brother.

Of course, we have no place to say, no blankets, nothing. We find these two girls, who agree to put us up in their flat. “Don’t get your hopes up, we’re on the dole,” says one girl. Fine. We arrive at the flat and it’s a split-level apartment! The place is nicer than anyplace I have lived since I lived with my mom at her place. But no heat, no hot water, no food. I wiped the spit off my hair, face, and chest as best I could with a washcloth and went to sleep on the floor in my coat. I kept waking because of the cold and the dampness.

Finally, morning arrived and we drank all the hot tea the girls would let us have and then we got in the truck and left for the next show.

February 1983, Austria

The previous night in Munich, we had played the Lowenbrau Keller, a large beer hall where Hitler used to give speeches. It was real scary. They served beer in glass mugs that were big enough to crawl into. I had never seen anything like them in any bar in America. For most people, a beer mug is something you drink beer out of. When you are in a band, you also have to consider them as potential projectiles.

I can remember sitting behind the cabinets writing a postcard to my friend Lydia Ely back in Washington, D.C. The message went something like this: “Dear Lydia: Hold on to this postcard, because it will probably be the last thing I ever write since my cranium will be smashed tonight by a three-pound beer stein that one of these people are going to heave. Henry.” But 1,300 people, and not one cheap shot.

We arrived in Vienna late the next afternoon. Our tour manager brought these two girls along with him for his trek with us. The girls were twins, one had black hair and the other had white. Supposedly, they were both virgins. Almost everybody in the crew tried to scare on them several times, but nothing ever came of it. They never talked to any of us, they just smiled and blushed a lot. More on those two later.

On to the show. The Minutemen, a confused but brilliant San Pedro, California-based trio, opened. Every night I would watch their set: it’s a good way to gauge the crowd, pick out the assholes, and see how they move. A few songs into the set, D. Boon, the guitar player, gets hit with a trash can, a goddamn trash can! I thought this was going to be my last show. Tonight was the night that my head would get flattened by a trash can.

Just before we go on, a Pat Benatar song is played on the P.A. The crowd didn’t like that much; personally, Pat doesn’t do a thing for me, but I don’t think I’d get offended. So anyway, I walked onstage in these thermal-underwear pants, grabbed the microphone, and started lip-synching with good ol’ Pat. Now, I thought this was great. However, the crowd got really mad.

I see this dude up front with a lit cigar. Every time I get close, he takes a poke at me while the people on either side of him laugh. I make a note to watch him. However, I forget, because I’m playing hard. The third time, he jams the cigar into my leg. I slap i out of his hand. The big guy gets onstage and starts putting his arm around me. He’s nice, but not my type. I look over at the bouncers, and they wave their hands and give me this “Oh no, I’m not going to get involved with this one” look. Fine. So I smile at him and gently direct him to the edge of the stage so he can get off. He turns around and belts me in the mouth.

Thanks. OK, it’s easy to tell at this point that this crowd is a little rough.

The set is far from over. I am at the front of the stage singing away and…YOW!! Some dude jabs me in the chest with a pen. A moment later the guy grabs the mike, screams, “Shit!” and bashes me in the mouth with it.

OK, now it gets really crazy. I look into the crowd. I see three white caps bobbing around. Cops. I keep staring at the white caps to watch what they do. All of a sudden, the caps start to jerk around and then disappear. The kids took the caps from the cops. We stop the music and watch. Kids suddenly were wearing the cops’ clothes and were kicking the shit out of the cops. They killed a police dog. The doors of the hall open and the dog and three guys in their underwear go flying out into the snow. We finish the show, and the crowd yells, “Fuck you.” We yell, “Fuck you, too,” pack the equipment, and depart.

About those twins—I found out that Karl supposedly de-virginized them both, and a few weeks later they went to prison on charges of heroin trafficking. Now go play the theme from Dragnet.

On the Road With Black Flag: Henry Rollins' 1986 Essay

Spring 1984, New Haven/New York/Boston

The schedule was to run like this: Friday, New York; Saturday, New Haven; Sunday, a matinee in Boston. Fine. Sounds like a normal three days to me.

However, somewhere, somehow the Friday and Saturday shows had to flip-flop. That’s fine, no problem.

So, we drive to the gig in New Haven on Friday afternoon and look for the load-in door at the club. Suddenly, we’re not playing until tomorrow night. Todd Rungren’s Utopia is playing tonight. Oh no! Does that mean we screwed up and we are playing New York tonight? We call New York. Nope, the New York show also is tomorrow night. Nothing to do but hang out in New York all night or stick around and see ol’ Todd. We had no place to stay in either place so we stuck for Todd Baby. Personally,  I thought the dude sucked. And when the MC announced that “L.A.’s Black Flag will be here tomorrow night!” about 2,000 people gave me the distinct impression that they thought Black Flag sucked too. And…uh, well, anyway, yeah.

I forget where we slept, but we were in New York early the next morning and made our plans for two gigs in two states in one night. The Meat Puppets, who were on tour with us, would do their set, load their van, drive immediately to New Haven, unload, and do their set. We would do the same.

So the Meat Puppets do their set. As the chords of their last song are still ringing, our road crew pulled the power from their guitars and did the fastest breakdown and load-out I have ever seen. It was pretty funny, seeing them carrying stuff out, kicking their way through the crowd. The roadies figured that the audience were only New Yorkers and were used to that treatment, so it was OK.

OK, so we did our set, and the crew did the kick-and-load scene again. It was past midnight, and we had a 90-minute drive, the load-in, and a full show still ahead.

We hauled ass to New Haven and unloaded while the crowd was watching. We were sweaty and gross from rushing to unload and set up. By the time the first song was over, I felt great. I felt like I could play all night. The people were so cool, sticking around, waiting for us. Thanks, you guys.

Summer 1984, London

We were in England on our third European tour.We had a show at the Marquee Club in London. The club is a small, low ceiling-type place. We sound checked in the afternoon. Everything sounded real good. We were really looking forward to the show that night. I really like playing in London, because the crowd is uptight and they make me play hard.

Bill (then the drummer for Black Flag) and I were amped. We were walking around, looking at each other, and grinning. “Let’s kill everyone.” “Ok. You know, that’s real funny. I was thinking the same thing.” You know, that kind of trip. Sometimes, like when you’re in London, you open your mouth to say something, but the only words that seem to come out are “destroy” and “kill everyone now.”

Finally, it’s about an hour away from gig time. Bill and I are pacing around the dressing room. The DJ is playing this limp punk rock/new wave music. We go into the DJ booth and make the guy lay cuts from ZZ Top’s Eliminator LP. The fucking DJ apologizes to the crowd before he plays ZZ. “Sorry, everyone. This is a request from Black Flag: ZZ Top!” The crowd starts to boo. That made me laugh so hard, I wanted to ram it right down their throats.

Bill and I are back in the dressing room, and this guy walks in. I stare at him because he looks so familiar. I keep staring. Could it be? Yes! It’s Gene! Gene October! I say, “Oh, Gene—do you remember me? I’m that boy you kicked in the ribs; that short-haired hippie from L.A.!” He starts saying some shit like, “No mate, I don’t remember kicking anyone! I think you guys are great!” He keeps blabbering away.

Bill walks over and says, “Hey, Hank, is that the guy you said you were going to kill?” Old Gene really bums on that one. I say, “Yeah, man, that’s him, all right!” Gene says, “Wait! I don’t want to fight!” I say, “That’s really a drag, because I do, and I’m going to break your face right now.”

Bill says, “Kill him now, kill him now.” Gene is really getting bent out of shape. I can hardly keep from busting up. I had no intention of touching him; he was drunk. “Well, Gene,” I said. “Today you can go, but your toilet privileges have been denied. Now scat!” He left. It was cool.

We went out and played a good set. I passed out at Greg’s feet during “Rat’s Eyes” and some dude kicked me in the nuts and punched me in the mouth, and I didn’t feel it.