Every week for the last four years, Henry Rollins has written a column for the L.A. Weekly, a free alternative weekly newspaper in Los Angeles. And almost every week, some editor cuts something out or changes the title. But while you might think this would send him into some Hulk-like rage — especially if you don’t know much about the man and his professionalism — Henry instead just saves the originals for an ongoing series of books he calls Before The Chop, the first volume of which is available both physically and digitally . With the second, Before The Chop II (digital) now out, I sent him some questions via email to ask how much his editors change his work, if these changes have impacted how he writes for them, and why — after twenty years of writing about music, his life, and other real things — he’s never penned a work of fiction.
For those unfamiliar with it, what is your column in L.A. Weekly about?
I am given carte blanche to write about anything I want. The column is in the music section, but I have been told more than once to write about whatever I want. It’s often about music, but sometimes about a current event, especially if there is something happening in America having to do with Civil Rights, LGBT, racial issues.
But the versions of the columns in Before The Chop and Before The Chop II are your original versions, not the ones they publish. Why did you decide to go with yours instead of theirs?
The L.A. Weekly often changes the title of the work, and usually takes out about 10% of what I wrote for space concerns. What you read in the Weekly isn’t exactly what I sent. It’s what an editor did with the work. If I used their version, I would have to give them credit where it was due, and it would make the book a bit redundant as the Weekly versions are on their site. These Chop books are, to me, not “real” books, but compilations of previously released work. I like the idea that a hundred pieces at a time are neatly contained in one volume, but I am not thinking that I achieved much of anything. I put a lot of work into the actual writing, but as a book, it is just a compilation.
Have the changes they’ve made ever impacted what you’ve written for them? Like, have you ever thought, “Well, they always cut out whenever I go on a tangent about Aerosmith, so I’ll make sure not to go on another one this time.”?
No. I just write what I think is good and keep it at a thousand words. What they do with it is up to them. I know that I will have my version released eventually.
Are there ever times when you agree with the changes they’ve made? Or at least understand why they make them?
Of course. All the people who have edited me at the Weekly are real editors. They actually know what they’re doing. I’m just a jackoff who writes a lot. The way we edit the journal books is a method Heidi May, who is my life’s show runner, devised. I read the manuscript aloud to her. When she hears something boring, redundant, confusing, etc., she stops me and I work on that section. Basically, I have to defend my book to a judge and jury, who thankfully, is on my side.
In putting together this collection, or the previous one, have you ever reread one of the columns and realized that your opinion of something or the facts of something had changed so much that the column was irrelevant or now wrong?
So far, that has yet to happen. I might know more about a certain topic a year later, but probably have not had a major reversal or change of thought. It’s not like all of a sudden I think that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a great idea or that if Mary and Thelma get married, America is doomed.
True. In terms of what you write about, do you ever look at other people’s columns, either in the L.A. Weekly or in other publications, and if so, have any been particularly influential on what you’ve done?
I don’t read the L.A. Weekly. I am busy and trying to get a lot done, so I don’t read probably nearly as much as I should.
One thing that I’ve long noticed about your writing — even when it’s something like this, an interview being done via email — is that your style is concise and straight-forward, while your spoken word performances are decidedly more lighthearted, relatively speaking, and loose. Have you ever tried writing more like you talk?
With writing, there are multiple drafts. On stage, there is one take. I do a lot of preparation for shows, so, for the most part, what you hear me say is pretty much what I wanted to get at. Say it’s a sculpture, it will be pretty obvious that it’s a horse. On some nights, the features are more skillfully articulated. I have never thought to write as I speak, not conceptually, anyway. I like how I write better than how I speak. For me, speaking to anyone — on a stage, in an elevator — I am looking for impact and connection. The same goes for writing. The fact that you can have a chance to go over things more than once with writing allows one to refine the work. I have gone through transcriptions of talking shows of mine. It might be okay to be at the show, but nothing I would want to read.
You’ve written more than twenty books in as many years, but they’re all non-fiction. Why have you never written fiction?
There are a few reasons. I lack the skill to hold a story line for the length required for a novel or even a short story. I have never had an idea that could withstand a hundred thousand words, or even ten thousand words of rubber meeting the road. Ideas I would have for literature wouldn’t even get out of the parking lot. I believe that there are some people who can really write. They can take what they know and make a world with words. I have no understanding of that kind of talent beyond the fact that I know I do not have it.
This is just my opinion, but after having read a lot of fiction, literature, whatever you want to call it, from Wolfe to Houellebecq, I think you have to have an understanding and insight of the human condition that is informed and motivated by a desire to immerse yourself in the human world and bring these stories to bear. I simply don’t have it. There is not one human story I want to depict, or remotely have the ability to depict besides my own. When you read Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night — which to me, is a staggering work — I cannot understand how he could hang in there with that story and those people for almost a decade to write it. It’s difficult for me to be around anyone for longer than an hour. Love, death, elation, sorrow, I just don’t care all that much about any of it. I am at this point, more of an observer/journalist. I cannot explain how disconnected I feel from much of the human experience. I think the most “passionate” I get about actual humans are the ones I want to kill. I enjoy helping. I like doing benefits and things like that, but don’t feel the need to be thanked or even meet the people I am doing the benefit for. I feel close to people like Jimi Hendrix because I connect with his music. Not the man but what he did.
I get asked the question of what writer would you like to have dinner with or whatever. I don’t have an answer. I don’t want to meet Damon Runyon nearly as much as I just want to read what he wrote. I think to write fiction, again, this is just how I see it, you have to have a powerful need/desire to connect. I can’t. Wanting to and not being able to has lead to a lot of misery in my life. I have written about that. So, I write what I can. I think being able to write like Michael Connelly and have a character that goes from novel to novel, or to dramatize history like Vidal or Ellroy, or have an explosively inventive mind like Bulgakov, would be an incredible thing. I don’t have that. I only have what I have.
So what’s next for you, book-wise?
Editing a journal/travel book of 2011-2012 writing, next photo book is almost done, Fanatic! Vol. 4 is well underway. Just Henry stuff, basically.
Finally, if someone enjoys Before The Chop II and they’ve already read Before The Chop, what book — not yours, but someone else’s, something similar — would you recommend they read and why that?
I have no idea how to answer that besides recommending reading who actually accomplishes what I unskillfully attempt to do: Matt Taibbi, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Robert Fisk, Greil Marcus.
To read an earlier interview I did with Henry about his book A Grim Detail, click here.