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Henry Rollins: Punk icon talks Black Flag's early days, 'uncool' music and Ray Bradbury

Henry Rollins stands outside his home in Hollywood. On Feb 8, 2014, Rollins received the Ray Bradbury Creativity award from Woodbury University in Burbank.
Henry Rollins stands outside his home in Hollywood. On Feb 8, 2014, Rollins received the Ray Bradbury Creativity award from Woodbury University in Burbank.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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Henry Rollins is an actor, writer, singer, a DJ on KCRW and one of the most interesting people in Los Angeles today. He's appeared in movies, hosted TV series, fronted Black Flag — the pioneering South Bay punk band — and he's travelled to dozens of countries. 

Woodbury University, a private college in Burbank, recognized all that work, giving Rollins the Ray Bradbury Creativity Award this past weekend. 

Off-Ramp Producer Kevin Ferguson  had an opportunity to meet him at his home in Hollywood to talk about what made Rollins who he is today.

On Ray Bradbury, the Creativity Award's namesake:
"I read a bit of Ray Bradbury when I was a younger man. I don't read a lot of fiction anymore... like none. But I read quite a few of his short stories, and I was trying to remember a while ago where I found those stories. And it was either a friend of my mother's who gave it to me the book — cause that happened quite a bit. Or I probably intersected with the book via Ian MacKaye, my best friend.

"Also, in the '80s, there was some California radio station that would air Ray Bradbury short stories, either read out loud, or slightly dramatized as they do. And our old sound man would just whack those shows onto the cassettes. And we would have these epic drives.

"He was scary prolific. Just cranked it out. And won several awards, and all of that, which doesn't mean that much to me as far as awards... but the fact that he remained relevant at his craft all the way to the end... Anyone who tries anything artistically or creatively: Wouldn't you like that to be your fate? To be at some wheezing, ancient age and someone still cares about what you do? You know, I've been in the creative world, kind of singing and dancing for my dinner since I was a late teenager. And I'm 53 now. To still be able to do shows and be able to go into artistic endeavors is a big deal for me."

On growing up around the Washington, DC punk scene: 
"We were very young, and so there was a lot unknowns. When you go to your first rock concerts and you're actually standing near the stage. Which is very different than going to see Aerosmith — which was cool — but it was like a mile and a half from the stage. It was all the way at the other end of the hockey arena. And it is what it is. It's all reverb and backslap. It's kind of the aural equivalent of the last inch of a bottle of coke. Lot of saliva, it's not great!

"And then you get to go up close, and put your elbows on the stage, and have Dee Dee Ramone sweat on you. That visceral relationship that you have with music when you're that close to it — that's what those days were like for me. And all of your cool pals from high school and in the neighborhood, they're all in bands! Like Ian Mackaye. I was at the first Minor Threat show and you could tell; this band is going to be the king of the town. It was obvious. They were so good."

On setting down roots in L.A.'s South Bay with Black Flag:
"Wherever we played in California, we were always in the tough part of town with a rough audience. And the audience was one thing, the people hanging out in the parking lot were another. And then the local cops were another thing altogether. So my version of California for the first five years I lived here — I was kind of stricken. It was kind of terrifying! Although I lived in Hermosa and Redondo Beach for a good bit of the time that I first moved here. That's where Black Flag came from. And that was really nice.

"For Black Flag, it was never a community. We weren't very friendly people. And between tours, we would just write songs. And have band practice — which consisted of doing the set two times a night. And we did that Monday through Friday. And so we didn't really hang out with many people."

On culture clash in their Long Beach neighborhood:
"For a while we had a practice place in Long Beach, because it was cheap. And we were kind of right in the middle of the nexus where two different gangs met. And the locals come in, but the gang guys — they just walk in because you're in their neighborhood. If you're smart, you don't go 'And you are?' You go 'Oh hey, cool, right?' Because they're armed. It was in our best interest to make friends with everybody.

"We did a big show once at the Santa Monica Civic. We rented a bus, brought it down to that neighborhood, and loaded in anyone from the neighborhood who wanted to go to the show. And that was one of the most fascinating bits of culture clash. Because, when you tell some people you're going to a show, the lipstick and outfits come out, and the hair goes up, and everyone is dressed to kill! And you basically have them with 3,500 rabid people at the Santa Monica Civic. These are people who might not have seen that, at this point, very ritualized crowd behavior.

"Some of the girls were terrified. Some of the guys were a pit bull dropped into a fighting pit or something — they went nuts! These are guys having their minds blown. Bells are going off. And you see how divided we really are in California. A lot of them were not into it."

On listening to "uncool" music again:
"I was raised by Mom. She had a lot of books and a lot of records. We'd go to the record store up to two night a week, and so, as a little kid growing up: Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie. I was a pretty eclectic little kid. And then in your teenage years, you start kind of demarcating your own territory. That was Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Van Halen, Aerosmith.

"Then I saw The Clash one night. February 18, 1979 I think it was. I went back to my room and I took a lot of my records, Steve Miller, Aerosmith, all these records, and I threw them out. I said, 'These just don't matter anymore.' Which was such a stupid, young man, thing to do. Very reactionary. And I just sheepishly, when I could afford them years later, I bought them all back again. Because those are really good records."