By Josiah Hesse
For most of my adult life, I’ve viewed Henry Rollins as the avatar for every guy who kicked my ass in high school. At the same time, Morrissey represented the queer sensuality that inspired the ass-kicking.
I clung to these two truths with a religious fever, instantly feeling a solidarity with anyone who vaguely enjoyed The Smiths, and forever suspicious of those with Black Flag tattoos (even though Rollins was the fourth singer to join the band, and I actually quite liked their stuff before him).
If anyone challenged my position on either account, my pulse would quicken and a catalogue of Rollins’ sins and Moz’s miracles would sputter from my lips, inspiring wide-eyed shock and revulsion in this person who’d thought they were engaged in rock music small talk, but have now found themselves the audience of a street preacher’s rant on gender dynamics in 80s pop culture.
Though now, at the age of 36, I’m beginning to wonder if this world view is unsustainable, if not a bit silly and hypocritical.
“If I could direct this video, Morrissey would be doused in gasoline and set on fire,” Henry Rollins once said to an Australian journalist, his massive neck muscles twitching as he commented on the new Morrissey video, “November Spawned A Monster.” “We’d set up a wild sound mic and catch the sound of his hair burning, the polyester shirt melting into his skin and his last cries on Earth.”
Set in the Nevada desert, the video that inspired Rollins’ violent ire features Morrissey in a sheer, crop-top shirt, dancing with his hands behind his head, his hips thrusting as he sings about a deformed girl who desires love, not pity. Behind his ear rests a hearing aid, worn in support of a fan who said she felt self-conscious appearing in public with the appendage.
It would be years before I discovered Morrissey, but I was already very familiar with the smirk on Rollins’ face as he imagined the tortured screams of an effeminate boy. That look of teeth-gritted pleasure, that restless hunger for vengeance against those whose existence is a (perceived) threat to others’ masculinity. From the age of 10 to 18 I saw that look at least once a day, often on the faces of broad shouldered males sprinting toward me down a school hallway, a locker-room, or an alleyway, a pubescent lust for hostility raging through their muscled arms as they shouted “faggot!” “pussy!” “fucking femme!”
Hard as I tried to widen my stance, not cross my legs, and keep my voice at a deep register, it was impossible to hide my lady-like features. More than the threat of a serious ass-beating, there was an internalized hatred of my femininity—partially from a misogynistic society, partially from a misogynistic religion—that led me to curse myself whenever I’d see a photo or catch a mirror reflection of me looking like a dandy on poppers. You are a fundamentally incorrect person, I’d tell myself, you are bad on the inside.
All of this changed the day a friend of a friend loaned me The Smiths: The Complete Picture DVD. The 80s music video collection of an obscure British band (obscure in the U.S., at least) featured a lead singer in various states of unapologetic delicacy. His pale, skinny body was prominently displayed, not disguised or hidden away but decorated with women’s jewelry and silk blouses. He clenched his hands together like a Disney princess, licked his lips, shimmied his feet and sang about loneliness, beauty and despising employment.
The group of friends who watched this DVD alongside me laughed at Morrissey, employing the typical monikers of “pansy!” “faggot!” and then demanded we listen to Tool. I joined in with hazing Morrissey, terrified that they’d discover the intense kinship I was feeling toward this English poofter.
For the next year I listened almost exclusively to The Smiths, beginning every morning with a screening of The Complete Picture DVD. The footage of Morrissey bopping his hips and swinging his arms became a talisman for me, a lighthouse in the sea of nut-tapping, gay-bashing, catcalling jocks I was forced to contend with in rural Iowa.
At this time, punk rock had become a large part of my identity. But this was 2004, and by then punk rock had splintered in so many directions the word was almost meaningless. My allegiance bent toward the 70s punk scene in England (The Clash, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks) and New York City’s CBGB crowd (Ramones, Television, Blondie), both of which were extensions of the art-rock/glam scene that preceded it (Bowie, Warhol, Velvet Underground). There were more than a few queers in this culture, and a strong embrace of fashion, drugs and flamboyant behavior—which, by then, had become my new holy trinity.
Yet throughout the 80s, punk scenes in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. were embracing a more testosterone-fueled musical aesthetic, one where shirtless males would charge across the stage (and the mosh-pit), eager to vent their existential anxieties through swinging fists cracking against broken teeth.
Songwriter for the (phenomenal) LA punk band, X, John Doe attempted to write an anti-rape song called “Johnny Hit And Run Pauline,” but when they’d play it live there’d be a crowd of what he described as “boy-men” punching the air as they sang along, championing the idea of bashing a woman named Pauline.
Despite counter-efforts from the musicians and fans, punk rock shows were soon populated by racist, women-hating meatheads looking to kick the shit out of anyone weaker than them.
This would probably be a good time to state that Henry Rollins has never championed assaulting women or gays, and has generally spoken out against the Nazi/alt-right contingent that has infected punk rock culture over the decades. Yet as I became aware of him throughout the 90s (via his endless appearances in films, documentaries and commercials), it was easy for me to mistake him as the pied-piper for chauvinism in punk rock.
“Quite honestly, most women bore me,” Rollins once told a German documentary crew, staring with intense anger out the window of a taxi. “If they smoke, I’m turned off. If they drink, I’m outta there. If they’re stupid, I’m bored. If they’re trying to use me, I’m outta there. If they don’t workout, I’m not interested. If their mind is lazy and their body is lazy, who cares? If they’re not in shape, hey, go be fat on someone else’s time.”
Over the years I’d had friends and roommates that adored Rollins. His role in the iconic punk band Black Flag had made him a legend for young converts, and by extension his solo work in Rollins Band, and his stand up comedy and column in LA Weekly have kept him relevant throughout the decades. But from the very first time I saw him perform on Saturday Night Live in 1997—stomping across the stage, 85% naked, like a horny gorilla looking to fuck something to death—I knew he was someone I was born to hate.
“Men have a hard time handling their emotions, and when women cry, men become unhinged” he says on Live & Ripped In London, speaking like he’s chewing the air. “ ‘Why are you crying?’ [in weepy female voice] ‘I don’t know! Sometimes I just have to cry.’ For a man this makes no sense whatsoever. ‘You don’t know why you’re crying? Bullshit! You know why you’re crying! Everything happens for a reason!’ [more weeping] ‘You don’t understand me!’ ‘Bullshit! You don’t understand yourself. I am organized. I have all my CDs in alphabetical order! I get to work on time! I know how to fix my car! You are just an emotional creature! That’s why you will never be president! That’s why we don’t let you run companies! That’s why you’ll never drive a spaceship to the moon, because you know why? Because once you get there you’ll cry! You’ll freak out! And you’ll paint something some gay-ass color! Fuck you!’”
There’s a slight wink of self-awareness in this, some small suggestion that the man in this scenario is somewhat in the wrong. But the wink is so small as to be insignificant.
In the 1994 film The Chase, Rollins found his ideal acting role as the trigger-happy, overzealous cop who feeds rape-jokes into Charlie Sheen’s ear as he . . .
. . . Ah, but here I go again. If left unchecked by my editor, I could easily wax on for another ten-thousand words, citing all the lyrics, specials, interviews and film roles that reveal Henry Rollins to be a despicable human being. Some of which would have merit, but most of which would be short-sighted, selectively edited tidbits in my grand collage of vengeance against a man who never really did me any harm.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve wasted a lot of time studying Henry Rollins. I’ve watched all of his specials, been through every episode of The Henry Rollins Show, and have viewed every clip of him on YouTube. For a few years, he was to me what Nixon was to Hunter Thompson: An elusive white whale that, on the surface, I loathed, but deep down held some dark affection for.
This reached its zenith on August 21, 2014, when Rollins penned a column titled “Fuck Suicide.”
It had been ten days since Robin Williams ended his life, following a (mis)diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Henry Rollins had a few things to say on the matter.
“I no longer take this person seriously,” Rollins declared. “I may be able to appreciate what he did artistically but it’s impossible to feel bad for them. Their life wasn’t cut short — it was purposely abandoned. It’s hard to feel bad when the person did what they wanted to.”
Two years before this, I’d lost my best friend to suicide, and while I viewed that as an inarguable tragedy, never did I see my friend as weak or selfish (which is how Rollins described the act in his column). I viewed suicide as an inalienable right one has, allowing them to do with their body what they will—no different from abortion, gay sex or drug use. David Foster Wallace once described depression as an “invisible agony” that has the potential to reach “a certain unendurable level that someone will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”
Like your typical narcissistic, over-privileged millennial, I was eager to express my dissent from Rollins’ column on Twitter. Though once there—my itchy fingers ready to DESTROY Rollins’ short-sighted views on suicide—I found I’d been beaten to the punch by a small army of outraged tweeters with similar perspectives on Rollins’ column.
After wading through thousands of “go fuck yourself you piece of human garbage!” and “go blow your own ignorant brains out you lowlife piece of shit!” tweets directed at Rollins, I sat back in my chair, having lost a bit of the wind in my sails. Hurling cruelty at Henry Rollins suddenly didn’t feel like the best vehicle for a message of compassion toward those suffering from depression.
The following week, Rollins wrote a follow-up column, apologizing for his glibness and expressing a surprising (to me at least) level of humility, thoughtfulness and vulnerability.
“I cannot defend the views I expressed,” Rollins wrote. “However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t be taught a thing or two. . . . I promise that I will dig in and educate myself on this and do my best to evolve.
“Like a lot of people, I have battled depression all my life. There have been some truly awful stretches, as I am sure there have been for anyone who deals with depression, that have at times rendered me almost paralytic.”
Rollins wasn’t using his own depression as a scapegoat against prosecution (the way Kevin Spacey did with his sexuality). It was both a confession of experience and ignorance: he knew what average depression was, but not severe depression. When viewed through this prism, he experienced a catharsis (aided by thousands of angry letters) that lead him to conclude that Williams didn’t purposely surrender his life—he’d just lost the battle.
Following this, I revisited some of Rollins’ interviews, learning that he’d been molested as a child, and broke off contact with his parents. For the first time in my life, I felt a similar kinship to Rollins that I felt for Morrissey. He was a broken, isolated human who had trouble relating to others, attempting to navigate the turmoil of childhood trauma through art.
I also took a second look at Rollins’ lyrics, realizing that I’d somehow missed that he’s been writing about self-loathing, emotional turmoil and fear of intimacy his whole career. Suddenly the gulf between Morrissey and Rollins was looking smaller and smaller: They’re both drug-free, mostly celibate, curmudgeon loners (yet somehow made L.A. their adoptive home) who enjoy going shirtless on stage and appeal to their audience by making inflammatory statements they (likely) only half believe.
Suddenly, it felt a bit unfair of me to chastise Rollins for threatening harm against Morrissey, especially when taking a sober look at Moz’s championing of violence in the past— like offering to marry anyone who would murder the queen. Or that time (notoriously vegan) Morrissey was offended by the smell of nearby barbecue at his Coachella show, and exclaimed “I can smell burning flesh, and I hope to God it’s human.”
These vicious lines were delivered with a seasoning of wry humor, and I laughed at them knowing Morrissey wasn’t sincerely advocating for the execution of human beings. I knew this because Morrissey was my guy, he was on my team, the pansy team, the team that got the shit kicked out of us for being queer teens but who eventually took revenge on the world through our art.
So why couldn’t I afford Rollins the same grace? I mean, he didn’t kick my ass in high school, and other than some vaguely homophobic and misogynistic comments decades ago, he seemed to be an alright guy. Looking back at some of the obnoxious, purposely antagonistic shit I wrote during my Westword years (shitting on everything from Christmas and voting, to cruiser bikes and tipping), there’s plenty of ammunition for someone to declare me an asshole.
The older I get, hating Henry Rollins has come to seem more unreasonable and unsustainable. In this age of President Trump and call-out culture, defining yourself by what you hate has grown distasteful to me. It’s like the immortal Carrie Fisher once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Besides, over the years Henry Rollins has grown to be more gentle, apologetic and inclusive, while at the same time Morrissey has seemed to have lost his humor and replaced it with a misguided xenophobia. And even in spite of this, Rollins has warmed quite a bit toward Morrissey. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Rollins retracted his previous desire to record Moz burning alive and even had some kind words for his former nemesis.
“I like the guy. I think he’s very intelligent and has real good taste in music. [Wanting to burn him alive] is nothing I’d say on stage now because I think it’s poorly meant, but that’s why we humans are allowed to subtly evolve here and there. There are definitely some people I wouldn’t mind seeing burned to death—I absolutely have a kill list. But not good old Morrissey. I think the world is a much better place with him in it.”
Author of psychological horror novel Carnality: Dancing on Red Lake, and a regular contributor to VICE and The Guardian, Hesse aims to blend journalism and the arts within the pages of Suspect Press, making it both a reflection of our time and an innovative force of creativity. He’s recently released the second book in his series, Carnality: Sebastian Phoenix and the Dark Star, available at several Denver booksellers and on the Suspect Press website.