For the last six years, Henry Rollins has been writing a weekly column for the L.A. Weekly in which he talks about whatever he wants. Well, mostly. Since newspapers, even free alternative weeklies, have a limited amount of space, and editors, his columns have always been, well, edited. But for those of us who like our Rollins uncut, there’s his Before The Chop books, in which he presents the original versions of his L.A. Weekly columns. Having just released Before The Chop III: LA Weekly Articles 2014-2016 (signed paperbacks, digital), I spoke with him about what he wrote in these columns, how being edited by someone else has impacted his writing (or not, as the case may be), and what we can next expect from him and his publishing house.
The columns in Before The Chop III were written in 2014, 2015, and 2016. So, obviously, you wrote a lot about the election and Donald Trump. Did you find those columns to be easy to write, or hard, or just the same as your other entries?
I do my best to only write about Trump when I can come from an angle that I have not seen someone else use. A lot of people like him, a lot of people don’t, so if I weigh in, it either has to be funny or insightful and more than mere piling on, as fun as that can be. It’s not the kind of writing I enjoy, as I am chronicling a bad situation that will get worse before it gets better. Though if I were going for the cheap laugh every week, Trump would be my perfect low hanging fruit.
2016 was also a bad year for great musicians losing their lives: Were there any that surprised you by being either a lot harder or easier to write about than you expected?
It was difficult writing about Lemmy. I knew him a long time and he was a great guy. I was not privy to how severe his condition was, so while his passing wasn’t exactly a shock, it threw me for a loop nonetheless. The last time I talked with him, it was a couple of months before he died. He was one of those people I was glad was in the world. He made things better. The truth of him was hard to capture in words but I did my best.
Bowie’s passing was surreal to me. Blackstar is one of the best records I have ever heard. The more you listen to it, the more astonishing it becomes. His No Plan EP was just more beautiful pain. Writing about Bowie is like trying to write about the universe.
Those were the two passings of that time that continue to affect me.
I’d imagine that there are some columns in Before The Chop III that haven’t aged well. When that happens, do you ever consider adding some new notation, like you sometimes do in your Fanatic collections?
I don’t recall proofreading anything that made me want to add a comment, which I wouldn’t do anyway. If I said it, I must own it. If I was insensitive at the time, got something wrong, etc., I am willing to bet that I have corrected myself going forward. I take criticism pretty well. I know I can always learn and improve. Amending something to me is inserting wiggle room where you don’t deserve to.
Speaking of which, I assume that if your editor fixes a typographical or grammatical error, you make that change for the version in Before The Chop III. But do you also make the change if the edit makes the column read better?
I have never once read the edited version of any of my L.A. Weekly pieces. They are two different pieces of writing. One is mine, the other is the editor’s. I have no doubt that he has improved the state of many, if not all of the pieces submitted. I write like I write, he edits like he edits. Two different conversations. The editor changes the title of the pieces. Almost every one of them I have ever seen, usually when someone writes me and asks about it, makes me cringe. I can only assume the editing takes the same line. This is one of the reasons we put out the Before The Chop books.
So how, if at all, do you think your writing has evolved from the first Before The Chop to this new collection?
I think I am keeping the energy more equally distributed throughout the pieces more consistently now. I think they state their case and make their conclusion a bit more coherently. It’s what I am working hard to do, at least. I could be fooling myself. I am self-taught at pretty much everything I am known for. While I might not achieve it, I ceaselessly seek to improve at everything I do. I never think I have it wired. I am the perpetual freshman/guy in the mail room.
You kind of already answered this, but I’ll ask anyway: How much of the changes do you think is because of your editor at The L.A. Weekly?
I get little to no input from the editor. Usually, I send in the thing on Tuesday and get “Thanks!” in reply. Now and then there’s a question about a sentence that clunks or something but usually, that’s the extent of our weekly discourse. I have been told more than once that I am an easy writer to deal with, as the pieces don’t need much work to be done and, judging from internet traffic, one of the more read parts of the publication. I have been nominated for some kind of award from the L.A. Press Club, I think that’s what they’re called. That happens next week. I won’t be in L.A. for the event. I don’t know what it means but the editor was very happy about it.
What about your spoken word shows. Do those ever have an impact on how you write about something?
Not really the shows but the travel to them, the people met, the things seen. All of that has impact on the writing. Definitely adds perspective and often allows me to understand things differently and hopefully with more clarity. I couldn’t write how I do if I lived in a house all year.
So do you know what your next book is going to be, and when it might be out?
We are a small publishing company — a vanity press is what I’ve heard it called — so we’re always up to something. This what’s in the works: Fanatic! Vol. 4 and 5, 2011-2012 journal travel book, next photo book.
Fanatic! Vol. 4 and the journal book are done and in edit. The Fanatic series will be changing drastically. The plan is to go to 8.5 x 11 format, and there will be next to no radio notes, the exception being the extensive ones I have done for BBC Radio 6 shows and Radio Helsinki shows. The next Fanatic books are mostly write ups on rare records, lots of scans of flyers, label copy, travel journals like with the Stooges in South Korea, with photos, etc. Basically, a fanzine that utilizes almost forty years of collecting. I have also confirmed interview opportunities with some amazing musicians that I want to get started on. I only allow myself to work on these books on the weekends and at night when I have finished all other work. I like them too much and will spend too much time on them, so I have to be careful.
The photo book is done but needs writing and work done on the photos. I am writing and editing literally seven days a week. There are also longer range projects in the works. I have a lot of travel writing that has never come out: Siberia, USO, etc. The Fanatic series will be an ongoing thing. Hopefully, I’ll get it all done and released before I die or collapse under the great weight of none of this being of any importance whatsoever.
What else do you have coming up? Heidi mentioned that you were on set, and I assume she meant for a movie or a TV show.
I am on location for a TV show. I will be here for at least a few more days. I am not 100% clear on the schedule. They have me on hold until June 28. I might be done before then, I really don’t know. After this show, I have another one. I will be at the Wacken Festival for three shows in August. There might be some more film work later in the year but nothing’s confirmed. When I can, I will be working on the aforementioned books.
Finally, if someone reads Before The Chop III and wants something something not so connected to reality to read next, what work of fiction would you recommend they check out and why that?
Exploits And Opinions Of Dr Faustroll Pataphysician by Alfred Jarry, The Box Man by Kobo Abe, and Man In The Holocene by Max Frisch. These books are, to me at least, extraordinary works of fiction.