2.13.61 isn’t just the company name listed on the back of Henry Rollins’ many books and CDs, it’s also the date that little Henry Lawrence Garfield came into the world in Washington D.C. Now he's is in the midst of the 50 tour, taking his spoken-word act across the country to commemorate a landmark birthday. We talked to him to find out what 50 looks like through his eyes.
You started 2.13.61 in the early ‘80s, while you were still with Black Flag. What gave you the confidence to get it off the ground?
You don’t wait around for approval -- you just do it. And I had good training working at SST. Everyone in Black Flag worked part time at the label, because you were living there [at SST HQ]. So I worked there and I learned, and kept my eyes and ears open for the most part. And growing up with [Minor Threat founder] Ian Mackaye, I watched him build Dischord. And from that, I knew how to go to a printer, I could do layout and design, I understood the importance of distribution. I built the whole thing from what I learned at SST and Dischord, that’s all I knew. I knew that no one would ever publish me. I’m not a real writer, I’m just a guy who likes to write. Just because you have a camera, that doesn’t make you a photographer. And so I knew not to waste my time and humiliate myself submitting a manuscript because it just wouldn’t cut it. When you’re self-published, there’s not any real rational means of restraint. You just kind of go “Hey, that’s a great idea. I second that.” Or you can third that if you want, there’s no one in the room but you. So the label became a thing.
What did the DIY approach entail in the pre-Internet era?
You send out flyers, and get a P.O. box so someone can reach you. You get a steady address so someone so inclined can find you as easily as possible, and you make yourself readily available, and you promote it and talk about it every possible minute, and try and find that audience who will hopefully love this thing. I certainly learned it at SST because that was, like any label, what you did all day. And Black Flag, we would make our own records, we would tour, and then come back from the tour and Greg had written a bunch more songs, and we’d go and record them and get Greg’s brother, Ray Pettibon, to give us an image for the cover, and we would lay it out. Depending on who had time, sometimes the roadie would lay out the record, sometimes the soundman would, sometimes I came up with the image and all of that. It was truly DIY.
Did you have any notion at the time that 2.13.61 would still be around by 2.13.11?
In those days I never thought very far past the food bowl. When I was young it was me, me, me – “I want to meet the chicks, I want to play well, I want to be in this band.” I wasn’t thinking about the bigger picture of the world or the potential of my writing. I just wrote what I thought, put it in a book, and tried to earn out, tried to get the thing out of the back of the truck, and I never thought anything more of it. I thought of cassette, LP, and little books.
What has propelled you over the years to pursue so many other areas of expression outside of music?
A very clear awareness of where I come from and what I could easily be going back to…desperation to succeed, tenacity, and having no illusions as to what I’m really trained for propels me very aggressively and assertively forward. And that’s kind of how I go at it. I work hard at everything, but I get a lot of interesting offers, a lot of access, and a lot of varied work.I’m not trying to brag or impress, I’m just saying it is varied, like I’m in the studio doing one thing one day, and the next day I’m on the set of the Paul Reiser show, cracking wise with Paul, and then the next day I’m doing my radio show on KCRW.I just reckon life is short, and people in my position, you get tired of people like me. You say, “Thank you, that’s very, very nice, we’re moving on now.” And that day eventually comes, unless you’re like Ozzy, or Frank Sinatra, and so at one point all of this will come to an end. I can handle that.
In the ‘90s you started yet another label, Infinite Zero, and reissued some great albums – by Tom Verlaine, James Chance, Suicide -- how did that come together?
This was before eBay, or before I knew of eBay; you’d see these records in New York collectors’ stores going for like 75 bucks, for like the first Alan Vega solo record, and I bought that for like four dollars when it came out. I said, “Well, that shouldn’t be, you should be able to get a clean-sounding CD at a reasonable price, and this should not be obscure music. Anyone should have access to it.” I pitched the idea to Rick Rubin one day. He said, “That’s a great idea for a label, let’s do it.” And when Rick Rubin wants something to get done, believe me, it gets done.
If Infinite Zero were still in operation, what would be at the top of your reissue wishlist?
It would be great to get all the lawyers to stop yelling at each other and get everyone to make nice and release all that Sun Ra material, all the outtakes and all the albums that are quarreled over and cannot come back into print. It’d be great to do a comprehensive Sun Ra reissue project where all of those $1,100 LPs on eBay can be accessed for cheap download and reasonably priced CDs, or well-made LPs with a download card. The Sun Ra catalog, there’s so much of it that’s unavailable, to the point where if you are so inclined you can go online and get it all for free for download, because it’s so long out of print people have just said “Look, you really gotta hear Hidden Fire 1 and 2 as a free download, because you can’t hear it on vinyl unless you’re willing to sell your car.” And that was the spirit behind Infinite Zero.
You recently hosted a documentary on Nat Geo examining the existence of a gene that’s alleged to contribute to violent behavior. How did you get into that?
National Geographic and I have been conspiring to work together for quite some time now, actually, and it’s a major thing for me. The MAOA “Warrior Gene” defense has already been used in a court of law. A guy was up on a murder charge and eventually his charge was knocked down to manslaughter. One of the things that his lawyer used in his defense was that he had the Warrior Gene; was it a determinate factor in getting the guy’s sentence knocked down? I have no idea. But here we go again…now the legal system has to accommodate more science. But I think the upside is that we as a species get to find out more about how we tick, because we are neurotic and complex creatures, humans. We’re the only animal that willfully commits suicide, or litigates. I’m a layman, but I’m someone with a lot of anger issues, so anything that deals with that, I’m interested to learn more.
You also figure prominently in an older documentary that’s just been reissued on DVD, Punk: Attitude, by Clash cohort Don Letts.
He and his film crew came to Los Angeles and interviewed a handful of people. I was one of them, and the thing went very long, we were in there for hours. Very nice guy – he approved of all my Clash bootlegs I showed him – and later on he contacted me and said “Okay, the thing is done, and you were one of the only people who could string words together that slightly resembled a sentence, and so you’re going to be all through this thing, I hope that’s OK with you.” You know, I do documentaries all the time – I think with the advent of the DVD, everyone’s a documenter now. Everyone, as they approach middle age, or are knee-deep in it like me, they’re trying to sum up their lives, hence the need for the documentary. “What the hell did all that mean anyway?” is the basic question all these punk rock documentaries seem to ask, and “Who was real, and who’s the poser?”
So, now that you’re hitting the 50-year mark, what do you feel you have to show for it?
Just basically experience, and I’ve had a lot of it in the last 30 years since I left Washington. I’ve toured and traveled relentlessly. Even without needing to be onstage, I travel just because I travel. Like September, I was in North Korea, which was odd, China Mongolia, Buton, Nepal, Tibet, and Vietnam…Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda. I see a lot; I see starvation, I see what a war looks like years later. I do a lot of work with the USO, everywhere from the Bagram air base in Afghanistan to Camp whatever in Baghdad to Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital looking at kids with their legs blown off. And I learned from these experiences, and that’s perhaps what has made me much different than a self-absorbed young person.
After all your travels, what do you suppose you’d think of America if you were viewing it as an outsider?
Next year, me and this organization I work with, we’re planning on bringing a Southern Sudanese guy here, so he can speak at some universities and work on his autobiography. The guy was a child soldier, he fought for 20 years against Northern Sudan, and he’s seen some really awful stuff, as you can imagine, and he’s a really soft-spoken gentle guy with beautiful children, but his stories will peel the paint off your car. And I was thinking yesterday as I was driving to the supermarket, What would he make of all these paved streets, and faucets and hot water, all that relative ease? Coming from Sudan or Uganda or Johannesburg…maybe America would almost be psychedelic. It would be trippy. Everything is so big, the air conditioning is so cold, the lights are so bright, everything is cranked up so much, because we live in upper case, not only America, the West. There’s only the immediate in a lot of countries, so when someone would come to America and hear about life insurance or a savings account, that might be a concept they would not be able to get their head around, because they have no concept of a future.
For all the different hats you wear, you’ve sworn off the rock-star gig for good at this point.
When Mick Jagger does “Satisfaction” for the 80 millionth time, which is now what, a 40-year-old song -- I can’t put down Mick Jagger, he’s Mick Jagger and it’s awesome for him to do, I just don’t want to. When I’m at the airport and I see a line of bearded men, their laminates swinging from their necks, some band on tour checking in to get on a flight, I look at them and I don’t feel part of that. I don’t want to be in that line with those guys, off to rock out. I do, but I don’t want what comes with it, like “Wow, I’m 50, and this is what I’m doing.”
One of the more recent responsibilities you’ve taken on is a regular column for the L.A. Weekly. How did that come about?
The LA Weekly said, “Hey, would you like to write for us?” And I said, “Well I’m not really a writer,” and they said, “Yeah, well I think you’ll hold your own.” I try. It’s not easy. If you really do it well, words become fairly slippery. That’s why I admire people who can write a really good column, people I read religiously, like Matt Taibbi, who I think is a great feature writer, and Frank Rich, who’s funny and gets it across, and Christopher Hitchens, who I don’t always agree with, but boy, that guy can write. He says more in a sentence than people get in a whole damn page. So I just basically put out there what I think is the truth, with some humor involved. That’s the First Amendment working hard for you on a Friday afternoon. I read from the Constitution almost every single day. I love it. It’s taken me a while, but I’m getting my head wrapped around it, I quite like it.