“You can’t dance to a book”
Neddal Ayad interviews Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins is a hard man to pin down. He first came to prominence in the early eighties as front man for the legendary Los Angeles punk band Black Flag. In the early to mid-nineties he broke through to a much larger audience with The Rollins Band and through his spoken word performances. Many people probably have some sense that Rollins writes. In 1994 he won a Grammy award for the audio book version of Get In The Van, his account of life on the road with Black Flag. However, many people are probably unaware of the extent of his bibliography; he’s written over a dozen books and published work by Hubert Selby Jr., Nick Cave, Michael Gira (formerly of NYC art-punks Swans, now in The Angels of Light), Henry Miller, Roky Erickson, and many others through his 2.13.61 Publications imprint. Rollins can be a notoriously difficult interview. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and I was more than a little intimidated when I called him up at the 2.13.61 offices last spring. I was relieved to discover that Rollins is a very friendly, self-effacing, and gracious guy and that he was more than willing to talk about his writing and the writers he’s worked with over the years.
Many thanks to Heidi May and Tresa Redburn for facilitating this interview and to Carol Anne for her mad transcription skills.
Neddal Ayad: I’m talking to you for a Web site called The Modern Word. They cover writers like Kathy Acker, J.G. Ballard, Ezra Pound, Faulkner...
Henry Rollins: Yeah, just so you know, that kind of writing never really did much for me. I knew Kathy more that I read Kathy.
They’re also big fans of Nick Cave over there.
Yeah, and we’ve published Nick here.
And William S. Burroughs, and Hubert Selby Jr.
Cubby [Hubert Selby Jr.’s middle name/nickname] is a long time friend of mine. But a guy like Burroughs, I tried to get through a few Burroughs books and was never able actually to complete Cities of Red Night, Exterminator, all that stuff, I could never punch through them.
Was it the style, or...
It never held me. That whole Re/Search magazine gang, you know, my life experience was so street level, on the ground touring. I remember reading On the Road by Kerouac in ’82 and the only thing that occurred to me was, “Kerouac, what a pussy,” because it was so nothing like what I was enduring on the road. I was watching people get stabbed and I was seeing some pretty rough stuff.
That’s interesting; I was going to ask you about the Beats, because...
Kerouac, I can’t stand, I don’t see what the fascination is. I’ve tried Visions of Gerard, Desolation Angels... I got through part of the Cody book. Desolation Angels I tried to read as a favour to a friend of mine. I couldn’t get through it. On the Road I got through because it was the only book at SST to read. But the rest of it... I just can’t identify with it.
You’re tossed in with the Beat writers.
That’s too bad. Allan Ginsberg’s poetry I’ve enjoyed. I was raised with Kaddish and Howl. I think Howl is one of the strongest pieces of American literature, I mean, at that point. That’s one of those things you really wish you had written, you know, it’s a beautiful piece of work.
Um, okay well, what do you want to know?
How long have you been reading and writing?
Well I was raised primarily by my mom, and my mom’s place was always shelves, many shelves, groaning under the weight of many many books. And so she taught me to read before I was in school. And we would read aloud to one another. And that’s how she helped me with reading and as a kid I would read a lot from Dickens’ Great Expectations. In school I really didn’t dig math or science but I liked literature. I was one of those introspective skinny boys who read because I would get my ass kicked on any level playing field with athletics, so I read my mom’s Dylan Thomas and E.E. Cummings and I really enjoyed John Steinbeck I read Grapes of Wrath when I was in 6th grade and completely dug it. So as a kid, I read voraciously as kids do. You know, you just tear through stuff. And I was very fond of Truman Capote, who I still really like. American literature, I read a lot of it, like Hemingway, so I’ve been a fan of books since I was a little kid.
Were you writing at the same time?
Not really. I would write for school projects and then around puberty I’d get so frustrated at my school I would write short stories, and they’re probably horribly written, about blowing up my school and murdering all the teachers. Which I would show to this English teacher who I was friends with, my one ally at this school. And he would go, “Okay, don’t show this to your real English teacher. You know, because you can’t say ‘fuck’ and hand it in as an essay at this school.” I went to a pretty uptight all boys school. But he said, “Show me this stuff.” And, “I like that you’re writing creatively. Keep this up. Just don’t show it to your ‘teacher-teacher’ because you’ll get in trouble.”
You’d be arrested for that now.
Well, yeah. Yeah exactly. But this is like the 1870s, it’s a long time ago. The real turn on, for writing, for me, happened after high school when I started reading... Well, as a teenager I was reading Stephen King and stuff like that, ’cause things like Salem’s Lot or The Stand are great when you’re 16 years old. You know, it’s fun, you can’t put it down. But the real major turn-ons for me occurred in my early 20s. Henry Miller, Camus, John Fante, Lautreamont, Baudelaire, Artaud, Rimbaud.
I read Lautreamont’s Les chants de Maldoror in 1984 and it just really turned me on. Camus still does it to me. The French kind of really lit me up. Reading Henry Miller was really very... Reading Miller gave me a lot of courage. You know, just to see how completely flat out he was, you know, with his thing, he was so brave. And as a young man reading Black Spring and the Tropics and the Paris writing, of Miller, that gave me a lot of strength too. Bukowski was fun. You know, for a couple of summers when you’re in your early 20s, I think it’s really great reading. I think that to worship him in your 30s is to kind of lose the plot.
Hubert Selby’s books were huge to me. And years after that I really kind of gravitated towards the Lost Generation writers. Thomas Wolfe is a huge inspiration to me, as is F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner.
And Hemingway to a certain extent. But there’s so much inherent misogyny and the more you learn about him... I’ve read a few critical biographies about Ernest Hemingway and there’s not a lot to like about the guy past the short stories and the actual work itself. The man was, you know, kind of a motherfucker. Mean to his friends, tough on the kids, hard on his women.
I was going to ask you about Hemingway because you mention him quite a bit in your work. Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Wolfe.
In one of my books I mention Hemingway a few times. In two books, actually. There’s a few interesting books that have been written about the lives and letters and friendships of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who brought Ernest Hemingway to Scribner’s.
He talked to Max Perkins, the guy who edited both of them and said, “I met this young guy in France, I think he’s the real deal. You should check him out.” And Perkins actually signed him to Scribner’s. Thus starting this massive ball rolling. But all those writers were very inspirational to me. And when Hemingway’s good, he’s really good. But not a very likable person.
If an author is not likeable as a person, does that detract from your enjoyment of a work?
No. No, I read anything from that period, where... Well, you see this guy’s take on women. You can’t justify misogyny on any level, but you can go, “Well, you know, things were a little different then.” So you have to read something in it’s time period. If you ever read James Ellroy, you know, the crime guy, it’s “Nigger this, nigger that.” And he’s trying to affect that 1940s L.A., “Let’s go to nigger town” dumb cops talking that way. It’s not like he’s a racist himself, it’s just how the time was.
And so, there is some of that in Hemingway, where you see that women are here, and the men are here. You know, like, “Okay, well, yeah, you guys were still in the primordial ooze and you had not yet evolved.” And women had not yet stood up and said, “Hey! We’re not that thing in the kitchen that, we’re not obsequious baby making meatloaf cookers!”
You mentioned Ellroy, you’ve lived in Los Angeles for a while...
I live there right now. From D.C., but live in Los Angeles.
Ellroy writes about L.A. a lot. Obviously you weren’t there during the time period he’s writing about, but do you think he captures the vibe of the city?
Well, if you go to L.A., in some parts of downtown you can almost feel Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Those are moments which I really enjoy. It’s really cool to see that older L.A.; the architecture is pretty magnificent and it’s really something.
Are you a fan of that writing, Chandler and Ellroy?
I love Chandler, yeah, he’s a real treat.
Are there any other crime guys that you dig?
He’s pretty much the only one, him and Dashiell Hammett, because the style of writing is really great. I’m not much on crime literature and the hard boiled genre, and the pulp thing really doesn’t do it for me.
Uh, what’s that guy, Thompson? Jim Thompson! Read a handful of those books, you know, he made so many. And someone gave me a stack of them. And I read The Grifters, and three or four others very cool, very well written. I read a few Harry Crews books; Feast of Snakes, Gypsy’s Curse... Scar Lover I read that one just ’cause I liked the title so much. And I thought it was all cool, but nothing I’m gonna read twice. Or want to pursue. Whereas a guy like Thomas Wolfe, I think I’ve read damned near all of it, except maybe the letters to his mom.
What about someone like Flannery O’Connor?
I love Flannery O’Connor. That’s one of the writers I was introduced to in school and pursued on my own. My favorite Flannery O’Connor is a book called the Habit of Being, which is her book of letters.
I’ve not read that, I was actually...
Aww! You should, if you like Flannery O’Connor! She’s a wonderful and funny letter writer. You know, if you liked Wiseblood... you’ll dig the letters because you see a more playful side of her.
It’s funny because just before I called, I was flipping through a Flannery O’ Connor collection.
Yeah, I haven’t read Flannery in years. I mean, I’ve read all of it, I’ve read Everything That Rises Must Converge, etc.., etc... I read, I just kind of went from one book to another, re-read the A Good Man is Hard to Find, which pretty much every high school student in America reads. I re-read all of that and then actually read the novels as a twenty-something year old guy. And really enjoyed the ride. But really loved the letters. I’m a fan of the letters of writers that I enjoy. I have every Henry Miller letter book, all the Thomas Wolfe letter books, every possible letter book I’ve been able to find of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hemingway was an interesting letter writer.
The letter books are interesting because it captures them in this kind of unguarded moment rarely do people think, “Well, this is going to get published.” So you catch them when they’re not, you know, in character or whatever. It helps you to appreciate this...thing they were able to build to make their literature really work.
Chandler’s letters are supposed to be really good too.
I have them, but I have never read them. Ben Franklin had a quote, I wish I could pull it out of my mind and say it to you. Basically he said, “It’s okay to have a whole lot of books that you don’t read. Or don’t get all the way through. It’s not a bad thing to be kind of surrounded by books.”
So you’ve got a big stack?
I have walls of them. And I’ve read a good number of them and some of them I’ve not read yet, and a lot of them I’ve read parts of. And I love nothing more than just leaning up against a bookshelf and pulling something down and reading from it for a while. And then putting it back. History books I tend to go in and out of. I have a lot of history books. Cold war history, and recently I’ve just been trying to read and educate myself a lot on the mujahideen and the Soviet Afghan war and kind of how Reagan and Bush and Clinton all kind of dropped the ball with Osama Bid Laden and Afghanistan.
You’ve been traveling over there recently I believe?
I’ve been to Afghanistan twice. And so I try and learn all that. And history books, I kind of pound through, but I’ll often buy more history books on a topic than I’m going to get to, because I can find them used, cheap; and I like to be able to try and find the same event covered by different people with different interests.
So how does that work into your own writing? How do you synthesize all those different...
I don’t know if I do. I mean, my writing for me has always been very inept, it’s a callisthenic I have to work so hard to get it over the wall. I have really no talent for writing, merely an obsession and some kind of strange duty I feel. Yet I never felt that I’m any good at it. I can’t even say I enjoy writing. I sometimes wish I could stop. Unfortunately I can’t.
Does it go hand in hand with the talking thing, the spoken gigs?
Well, talking shows are a lot easier, actually. They’re easier than the other ones, than the books, than the writing. Writing is just a lot of writing and re-writing, kind of overhauling it. When you get kind of deep in on a writing project, I don’t know if I’ve written anything good, but I’ve written a lot. And I now understand why writers are usually such angry, kind of miserable people. Because they are forced to deal with themselves so much. Like Hemingway said, “A writer, if he’s any good, he faces eternity or the lack of it every time he sits down to write.” I’m sure I got a word in there wrong, somewhere. But that’s basically what he said, and I find it very true. So it’s hard if you’re going to put the real stuff down on the page, chances are you risk it being somewhat painful.
[Editors note: the quote is from Hemingway’s Nobel speech, and is “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”]
Do you separate that, the more autobiographical stuff such as the journal entries from the more surreal pieces?
Sure, and there’s stuff I write that’s very journalistic, like I’m writing an article for something. I’ve written a few articles on my U.S. road travels. I’ve done a few things for the West Memphis Three. And these are very factual and researched. Anything I write on Iraq or Afghanistan, I research the hell out something like that before I dare send that off to a magazine. You know, you don’t want to talk lightly about anything, any situation where young men are getting their legs blown off.
How has that been, doing the U.S.O. tours?
Well I have a beef, a major beef with the President and the administration, but none with the soldiers. They’re government employees, they go where they’re deployed. So my beef really isn’t with them, my beef is with the people who are sending them into harm’s way. For what, I can’t really understand as being any good reason. So, having done the U.S.O. tours, I have a different understanding of all of it. Because I’ve actually been in it, more than I can be by merely watching CNN or BBC world news. I’m kind of getting a taste of it.
Have you had the opportunity to talk to any of the locals in Afghanistan or Iraq?
No, in Iraq, everywhere you are is pretty damned dangerous. So you’re not really able to just go and hang out. You have to really watch your ass. In Afghanistan I got to talk to some locals but their English wasn’t very good and you didn’t really have a chance to really sit down and speak.
I can imagine.
I would love nothing more than to meet some Afghan people who could speak English, who are around for the Soviet Afghan war. Afghanistan, now that I’ve been reading about it, is one of the more fascinating places.
It’s an intense place. Historically, it’s been intense.
Oh, completely! When you see what these people, what this country has been through. How many people came through and said, “It’s ours now.” And the mujahideen or the Pashtun or whoever it was at the time went, “Nooo.” There are reports of the Anglo-Afghan wars where they’re beheading British soldiers and rolling the heads down the sides of hills into the campsites of the British, saying, “You want some more of this?” And the Brits were like, “No, we’ll go home...” I’m not into people getting beheaded, but it’s a hell of a chunk of history to read.
I’d like to go back to the writing for a little bit. What made you decide to start your own publishing company?
I started knowing full well it was the only way I was going to get published. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to be able to go out and someone’s going to publish me. And it’s a great way to avoid humiliation. Because not only will they not publish me, but they’ll probably xerox anything I sent them and send it out and make sure people laugh at me.
So I’ll just do it on my own, do my own little thing and this is like, many years ago, when I was in Black Flag, and I just printed my own little fold-and-staple books and figured I’d probably wind up giving away more than selling, which proved to be the case. And I’ll get to be a little publisher guy. That’s why I named the company after my birthday, because it was only going to be one little fold-and-staple book. And then my ego got out of control and I said, “Well, there could be, a paperback could be made here...” Unfortunately, I found the company that would make a paperback, and I was off to the races, as it were.
When did you decide that you were going to publish other people’s work?
When my friend Nick Cave had his book, King Ink, that was coming into America as a $26 import and I said, “Well, I bet there’s interest for that book here. And I know Nick, he’s a buddy of mine, maybe he would let me license the title.” I knew that much about that kind of thing, having been in the independent music world for so many years. And so I called him and I said, “Hey, what about that?” and he said, “Well, talk to Black Spring, the publisher.” And I knew them as well, and I said, “Here’s what I want
to do, what do you think?” And they said, “That sounds like a great idea.” We just kind of did it over the phone they sent the artwork and the masters and we made our first little run. And that was like this amazing project for my little company. We had a Nick Cave book on our label. I mean, it was a huge deal for me.
You did a version of Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel as well.
Yeah. We are the American publisher for that book.
Are you doing the trade or is that the paperback? Because I know there’s a mass market paperback...
No, we printed our own. That mass market paperback is out of print. And the deal came up, and Penguin, I think it was Penguin got the American rights, they didn’t want to do it, so they licensed it out and we got it.
So obviously you’re a fan of Cave’s work.
Oh yeah. And a long time friend. We’ve been friends for about twenty-two years.
So when you’re reading Nick Cave, for example, do you draw inspiration from his work?
No. I mean, I think it’s great. I mean, it doesn’t make me want to go and write Faulkner-esque...
I didn’t quite mean it in that way, I meant to say does it make you want to go write yourself, that kind of thing?
Sure. I mean, I get that when I listen to a good record. It makes me want to go in the practice room with my band. Or, you read a great poem and it makes you want to put down the book and write one of your own.
And it’s a wonderful thing to feel that. Before I go to bed every night, I read, I’ve been reading a few pages of this Velimir Khlebnikov poetry collection. And he’s usually inspiring to me.
So then it started with Nick Cave. And I was going to ask you, so how did you hook up with Hubert Selby Jr.?
I’d been reading his books, as many of us have, and was awed by the power of them. And I got to the fourth novel, Requiem for a Dream, and found myself unable to write anymore. I was just so intimidated by the weight of his writing, that I said, “Wait, what am I doing? Why should I bother writing?” You know, what a waste of time. And so I figured the only way to break that block was to meet him. I found he was in the phone book, and I called him. I just cold called him. I said, “Hi, please don’t hang up, I’m not a maniac, I’m just a young guy and Requiem for a Dream has completely shut me down and can I meet you?” And he went, “Yeah.” I went over to his little place on Orlando, and you know, the same apartment he had the whole time I knew him. And that was December 1986 and we spent the afternoon hanging out.
He signed my books and we became good friends. And I invited him to one of my talking shows. He came, he loved it, and I said, “Well, why don’t you get on some of these bills with me?” And he said, “No one will know who I am, no one will care...” I said, “Ahhhh, I don’t know about that Cubby. Let’s see, I think you’re wrong.”
I put him on the bill, and of course people freaked out. He started doing a lot of talking shows with me, and we eventually did a spoken word CD from a bunch of tapes I had made of him when we did Europe together in 1989.
That must have been a trip.
It was great! It was great to travel with him every day. The best part of it was, you know he’s loved in Europe. He’s kind of a god there. And it was just fascinating to see him! Every very day he’s doing three TV shows, and people are coming up with these beautiful old hardcover editions of his books in German and French, “Mr. Selby, please...?”
He was like, a rock star, over there; whereas in America he couldn’t get arrested. He used to say, “I’m a fucking pariah!” But in Europe, he’s just being wined and dined, and it’s really cool to see.
What did you think of Afronsky’s film version of Requiem?
I thought it was good. I mean, I really thought the camera work was fascinating. I think Ellen Burstyn was very brave and really great. It took some liberties from the book, as, you know, movies are wont to do. I mean, I prefer the book. But yeah, I think it was very good. It was really fun for me to live in Hollywood, which generally is not the best place to live but to drive down the street and see a big billboard for Requiem and see Hubert’s name so huge on it, I would just keep driving by it and go, “Look at you. Go man go.”
What was his reaction?
Oh, he loved it. He loved the film. He had a lot of happiness with the film thing. Right before he passed away, one of his films, one of his screenplays had just been picked up. And so he kind of ended on a positive note. I made friends with the guy who he was writing with, and he actually called to tell me that Selby had passed away.
Yeah, I mean, it sucks. But, you know, you get old. And he had a good life. He had a long life, for a guy in such appalling physical condition. I mean, it wasn’t his fault, he got TB as a kid, as a young man, and they had to take a lot of ribs out and remove a lung, so he always was kind of... you would walk around with him and he would kind of get out of breath and turn this very strange shade. You know, like, “Okay, is he going to be okay? Is he going to expire in front of me?” And he was told, “You’ve got this many weeks to live.” They told him that so many times in his life
Yet he managed to do the spoken gigs.
Oh and everything else. He was one of the first ever members of AA, and so he was one of those keynote speakers. I’ve never really drunk alcohol, but I would go with him to his AA meetings to watch him speak. He would just tell this marvelous story about how he became a member of AA, and how he used to drink, this hour long monologue he would tell, which is just, you know, a great story. And I would go. I would just hop in the car with him and just kick it with Selby all evening and watch him do his thing. And you know, it’s just a cool night out for me.
How did you pick up the Henry Miller book?
Henry Miller, the book Black Spring, was given to me by Lydia Lunch, the writer, poetess, chanteuse many years ago. In 1983, she said, “I think you’ll like this guy,” and I’d heard of Henry Miller, but I never had read him. And she gave me Black Spring, which I devoured and that book was hugely influential to me. And like I said before, I had never read anything that brave, and his bravery and his lust for life that comes through in the writing was just so strengthening to me. It just, I don’t know, really gave me a big shot in the arm.
You also published a collection of his letters called Dear Dear Brenda?
That was a reprint. I bought it hardcover in the 80s. It was a series of letters that Miller wrote to Brenda Venus, his kind of last-ever girlfriend. Although they never had any sex, he would write her up to three times a day and they were very good friends.
And the book... I’m friends with the publisher’s son, who’s interviewed me for magazines and stuff, and he goes, “My dad’s Miller book is up for optioning, does that interest you?” And I said, “Yeah!” He says, “Well, you’re going to have to talk to Brenda.” I said, “Okay,” and I had a meeting with Brenda, and she was incredibly cool we’re still friends. I said, “Let’s do this. But let’s make it unique. Let’s do something different with the book, let’s go through some of Miller’s letters and let’s see if we can add something to the book to make it different than the previous version.”
So I went to her house one day, and had this amazing afternoon of going through six-inch thick file boxes of letters, written in like a flair pen on a legal pad. It was incredible. In one of them she was an aspiring actress she said, “I’m trying to get you a meeting with Coppola, but he’s in the jungle shooting some movie with Marlon Brando.” Like, oh my God! And that letter went in the book.
Yeah, it was very fun to be able to publish a Miller book on my label. It was a way to bring the thing all the way around.
Were there any books that you had the opportunity to publish, but that you passed up, and that you’re like kind of kicking yourself now?
No, no. No, actually, it’s not like anyone of any weight is seeking me out.
A lot of the books you’ve published are now out of print...
Yeah, a lot of the stuff we put out, no one bought it. And so it became, every book you make when you start losing $5000 per title, you just can’t keep putting them out. So a lot of the titles we put down to a nice price and basically moved them through, and a few of those titles still remain, but yeah, we have published a lot of books in this place.
If someone were to go to the Web site right now and start browsing randomly, what would you suggest they buy?
There’s a writer on the label, his name is Don Bajema. In my opinion, he was the finest writer on the label we ever had. And my favourite book we’ve ever put out was his second book called Reach, which I worked with him on, and edited for about two years, so it’s almost my book too, it’s very personal to me. And I think it’s just an extraordinary piece of writing, I just think it’s amazing. And what can I say? I’m a fan of Don’s work, I really believe in his talent.
I was so proud when we finally got that book out into release. No one cared of course, but those who do read it, when they buy it for two dollars, they get back to me and they’re like, “That’s a read and a half,” and I go, “Yeah, I know.” And I hated to tell Don that no one’s really caring about the book, it’s kind of hard to explain that to an artist. It’s also very hard to sell books to people without a massive Judith Regan-sized budget end cap, or an I-fucked-Madonna chapter.
It’s just hard, because, you know, books, you can’t dance to a book. So it’s always been a challenge and a label like ours, we don’t have the sheer buck power to buy the big cut out.
Is that why you’re focusing on your own work right now?
We decided to go with what works, so we don’t go belly up, basically. You have to go for what really moves, and what moves is my stuff. And so we reconfigured the company a few years ago, and now we do great. And you know, the Nick Cave thing, we did that knowing that it would work.
I have a couple of different record labels there, too. One is called District Line, which is all bands from Washington D.C. I’ve done two of those releases, and they don’t sell very well, but they will make their money back. But I just want those records out there so people have access to them.
Those are more like collector kinds of things?
Yeah, and also, I just want information accessible. I think that’s important.
Do you foresee a time when some of those books might come back into print?
Or do you foresee a time when you might start doing other people’s stuff again?
It depends. It would have to be something I feel as strongly about as I felt about those books we did put out where I’m ready and willing to go to the wall for them. Also, you don’t want to waste a writer’s time.
You want to be able to promote it properly.
Yeah...ask any independent publisher, it is really hard to do.
It’s hard to get people’s attention.
It’s really hard. Talk to Johnny Temple over at Akashic he puts out beautiful books, and he’s a great guy; so you figure, boy, he’s really kicking ass. But you know, he struggles, he really has to keep his eye on it. Thankfully he’s got an overwhelming amount of energy and he’s clear-minded and he can do it. But with as many high quality books as he has, it’s still, you know...
It’s the same kind of thing if you’re talking to authors, even people published by the bigger houses, the so-called “midlist” authors. It’s the same kind of deal with them, and I know writers who’ve published absolutely amazing books and they’re still working a day job.
Yeah, and it says something about America. It’s too bad that a writer of great note also has to have a day job. Ideally, they should be locked in a room and be left alone to make that great read for the rest of us. But I think we’re a long way from that being a reality. I mean, it could happen some day, but it’s gonna take a while.
The other book I wanted to ask you about was Michael Gira’s book, The Consumer.
Yeah, we put out The Consumer. And I’ve known Michael a long time and I just remember, he had all this writing, which I have a lot of xeroxes and things he gave me in the mid-80s. And I remember just how crazy this stuff was. Like, you’d never read anything like it!
I did shows with Michael, I’ve got tapes of Michael reading at shows, and you can hear hair growing, it’s just the delivery, like, “You kill me,” “I drink my own blood,” “You’re a cop, you own me, I love you.” God, it’s so unrelentingly heavy, the audience would just be bludgeoned into complete obedience. At one point in the 80s or early 90s, I called him and I said, “Hey, Michael, what about all that writing, should we do a thing here?” and he went, “Yeah.” And he got to work and he assembled and edited and presented us with The Consumer, and we put it out, it sold very well. It sold through the print run. And I called him and said, “We’ve sold through. What do you want to do? You want us to do it again?” And he goes, “No, this time around, I’m going to put it out, I’ve got my Young God label, I’m going to do Young God Publications and I’m going to put it out.” And I said, “Good luck to you. Go ahead.” Because a lot of times, the author, after four years of having the book in print, has figured out that he can do it himself. And that’s okay, because I would never endeavor to own anything of Michael’s.
So now until he gets it out, it’s one of those silly pricey things on Amazon.com, like $70 or something. But hopefully Michael will put it back out. I mean, I’d put it back out if he wanted me to. But he says he wants to do it because he’s got his Young God thing going.
I haven’t actually read it because it’s one of those things I saw on the 2.13.61 site at one point and I almost...
And then you didn’t!
Yeah, I almost bought it, but I didn’t.
Too bad. It’s completely damaged and twisted reading. I mean, he’s brilliant. Michael is completely on his own in that there’s nothing like what he does.
A friend of mine has the book, and he said he was reading it on the bus and he said that he’d read one section and then would look over his shoulder to make sure no one else could see what he was reading before he’d move on to the next. Apparently it’s quite intense.
Yeah, it’s overwhelmingly powerful, some of it. It’s really something.
And then he said, you’ll finish one story or one section and then you’ll get to the next one and it’s more intense than the last one.
Yeah, after that came out, we did a Best of 2.13.61 book, and he contributed a new story to that. It’s a thing about an airplane, a jet airliner crash, and it’s better writing than anything in The Consumer. He’s just evolved. He’s one of those interesting guys you keep track of.
Let’s talk about your recent books. One is something related to a radio show you did called “Harmony In My Head?”
Yeah, it’s an expanded edition of the annotated notes of that radio show. A completely self-indulgent fanboy screed. An insult to trees everywhere. What was a 40,000-word file swelled into an 80,000-word file of band information, Web sites, anecdotes and useless information on punk rock 7-inches and the like.
What about Roomanitarian?
That one’s five or six sections of anything from short prose to a fake series of letters. One is a series of letters to a woman named Anne Hitler, who is loosely well, basically it’s Anne Coulter. And then there’s another section called, “Letters to Whitey” where I just indict white people. It’s just completely fun. I go after Trent Lott, he’s always fun to punch. And just white people in general. And it has some weird, twisted short stories, reminiscent of things that are found in Solipsist. And then there’s “Roomanitarian,” which is about being someone who lives alone in a room a lot of the time.
Have you thought about attempting a novel?
I would love to be a novelist. I don’t have the discipline or the skill to go that length.
Do you analyze your own writing?
I do a lot of re-writes, so yeah, I tend to pore over it, yeah. I think you have to.
I read that you did something for one of Matt Groening’s The Simpsons comics?
I was asked to do that and they said, “Can you try that?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll give it a try.” And so far I’ve been unable to come up with something to turn into comic book form. It was interesting to see that at least for now I can’t get my mind to work that way. It won’t go.
Well it’s a different form and I guess you have to...
Different for me, and it’s supposed to be like a Halloween theme, and I have tried all kinds of different ideas. While I admire “The Simpsons” very much and I’ve seen a few episodes, it’s just hard for me to think in that mode. I just find that maybe my thinking is too normal or something like that.
Or is a write-on-demand kind of thing?
Well, it’s just a different way of thinking for me. I tried to, I came up with one idea where Homer’s able to clone himself so he can get more candy at Halloween time because he’s greedy. And hoping there’d be someplace to go with that, and I just, I couldn’t get it to go anywhere.
What about screenwriting?
Nah. I’d never attempt it, really. Never really attempted much dialogue. I’m not a very, I’m not skilled, I’m very good at rendering myself, which seems to hold some interest.
I don’t want this to sound like an insult, but is it a case of “know your limitations?”
Yes, that’s it exactly. And I am severely limited. But I think if you can work inside them and seek to push them outward, then you can make some progress. You can achieve something.
And there’s nothing wrong with knowing your confines, acknowledging them and going, “Okay, let’s work within them and seek to kind of start pushing against them.” And react to that to ceiling and acknowledge and not go, “Oh, I’m so great.” I think it keeps you earnest. But I would also be loathe to go, “Well, here’s my little box, I do my little thing,” and that’s all. I’m always pushing against it, trying to make the sentences better, trying to make the writing more impactful, say a lot with a little like that. So I’m always pushing towards making it better and better.
How do you feel when you look at your earlier material now?
I don’t. I mean, hopefully it’s typo-free and there’s nothing for me to do with it. I have read parts of it here and there when someone shows me something or asks me about something and I quite like it. A lot of it I don’t remember writing. Like something that would be nineteen or twenty years old. And I have been in print for over twenty years. I won’t exactly remember it. But I’ll read it back and go, “Wow, that’s pretty intense. I wrote that?”
You’re into doo wop records, which might surprise a lot of people. I’m wondering if you have a literary equivalent of a doo wop? Are there any books or authors that people might be surprised to hear you enjoy?
Oh, I see. Am I into some weird romance novel series or something?
Yeah, for example if you said, “I’m into Anne Rice.”
I read part of an Anne Rice book because it was literally in the van on one of the tours. Do you know the one with the vampire? Interview with the Vampire? Is that it?
I couldn’t stand it! I just hated it! And the attraction people have to that writing, to me, it’s hilarious.
No, I have no guilty pleasures. I mean, I do read some mass market guys, like Ellroy. I have read all of Ellroy’s books, and I eagerly await the next installment. And he’s probably a guy who I would not get along with at all. I mean, I’ve seen him in interviews, and he seems like a raging asshole, but I really enjoy his writing, it’s furious and insane; and those last two books, American Tabloid and the Cold Five Thousand are just brilliant. I also like his short stories, aYeah, yeah. And that’s what I was making reference to. I think it came out right before or right after My Dark Placesnd the book Crime Wave, which collects Vanity Fair articles, pieces from True Crime, stuff like that. I think he’s always up for banging out 3000 words for someone who’s gonna pay him twenty five grand!
Well, wouldn’t you?
Yeah! I mean, yeah, sure. I would love to be that in demand. And it’s never gonna happen. But a book like Crime Wave, it’s a lot of previously published pieces. But they always throw you a bone there’s one or two things that, you know, “just for this book only.” I always buy the stuff. I don’t think you can ever make a mistake buying a book that looks interesting.
Besides Ellroy, are there any modern authors you enjoy?
I like Richard Price a lot. Let’s see if I can find this guy. A French guy. I never can remember his last name, but boy do I like him a lot. Houellebecq.
Oh yeah. He just did a book on H.P. Lovecraft.
Huh. Well, I’ve read the two novels. I’ve not read the smaller one, Whatever. But I’ve read Elementary Particles and Platform. And I just think, boy, I am such a fan of that guy. That was a happy discovery. I read a review of Platform, and thought it was extraordinary. I just loved the review. It said this guy’s a smartass and has the talent to back up the attitude. Well... I went on Amazon.com, and three dollars later I have a book. And I opened it, and the first ten pages in, I thought, “This is gonna be a great read.” I’ve bought a few of his books for different people like Guy Picciotto of Fugazi. I’ve sent him those books saying, “Guy, I’ve got your writer.” He loved him.
One more question: Are you surprised at the amount of material that you’ve generated?
Yes. Yeah, I’ve been surprised that I get paid to do what I do. That after 25 years I still get to do it. I still get bookings, I can still tour. While a lot of people I started out at the gate with, no they don’t have the same privilege. So, yeah, I’m always kind of surprised that I’m still around doing it. That anyone would care. That you would care to talk to me. Yeah, all of that stuff surprises me.
2.13.61 Publications The homepage for Henry Rollins’ press.
And the Ass Saw the Angel Review LJ Lindhurst reviews Nick Cave’s novel for The Modern Word.
Akashic Books Founded by the bassist of Girls Against Boys, this New York press aims for the “reverse-gentrification of the literary world.”