Henry Rollins explains why ‘He Never Died,’ and those Charles Manson tapes

AUSTIN – “People write me letters all the time. I do my best to answer but they think we”re pen pals.”

Henry Rollins has a lot to do, y”all, which sometimes makes him “crotchety.”

The former Black Flag and Rollins Band singer continues to tour with his spoken word material. He has a column in the L.A. Weekly and Rolling Stone Australia, plus his KCRW radio show and the Henry & Heidi podcast. He”s dropped by for acting cameos on “The Kroll Show,” “RuPaul's Drag Race” and “Adventure Time,” had recurring roles on “The Legend of Korra” and “Sons of Anarchy” and is still out working for his next acting gig. He”s an activist and author and he”s got a three story building just to house all the records he owns. He mostly listens to them all, too.

He just probably doesn”t have time for that demo you handed him; he”s still working out which pressing of “Raw Power” he loves best.  

At SXSW, the punk icon and performer was on the promotional trail for the new horror movie “He Never Died,” in which he stars as… well, a guy who just can”t seem to die. Sitting in the lobby to a downtown Austin hotel, Rollins added punctuation to his sentences with his hands, speaking in long thoughts at rapid tempo, and in third person, dotting his Outdoor Voice with physicality that causes him to shift from one side of the chair to the other just saying the word Twitter.

Below is the abridged version of our interview, on playing a vampire, the indignities of auditions, his relationship to radio and what happened with all that Charles Manson music business.

HitFix: If you”re spread so thin, how does this film “He Never Died,” fit into all that for you?

Henry Rollins: Well it”s one of the things that spreads me thin. I work. I get film work now and then. It”s just all that other stuff, “I love your radio show. Here”s my record.” Oh, okay, because I buy records. I buy up to three records a day – between one and three. So I”ve got this many albums I want to listen to. Daddy bought them. Leave daddy alone, it”s Saturday. Stop it.

I”m that age. I get to say – I get to be crotchety. I”m AARP. I can do that. But I”m always looking for employment, you know, I like to work. Not in a dull utilitarian stiff. I like to do stuff. I don”t want to be in a rut. I hate the grocery store trip every Tuesday. I live in L.A. when I”m not everywhere else. Every Friday: Starbucks coffee, write the L.A. Weekly article. It”s a cool rut but it”s a rut. I”d rather be doing a movie. I”d rather be on location with National Geographic or the History Channel or on tour. Otherwise it”s like 101. It doesn”t move. Or I”m going to an audition or they”re going to laugh at me by the time I”m in the parking structure. That”s life.

That sounds extra harsh — The film industry sounds like it”s an extra hurdle.

So much known. So much unknown. The other day I went in for this thing, this audition. I did three solid pages of dialogue with hundreds of words. I memorized this ridiculous thing and all I did was I sat in a room with this casting person. I just did it, pitch perfect, good acting. And they just went, “Thanks.”

Exit left.

I said, “Do you want to see any other way? Can we talk about it?” They”re like, No. And you”re like, “I am so out of here.” I never heard back from them again of course. And so you have to wonder, Do I suck? Am I wasting my time? Am I awful? Am I an awful person? Or do they want someone who was not great. Did they need an accent? I don”t know. You”ll never know because you”ll never find out.

That will be one of the great mysteries of your life. Why they never even called back to tell your agent, he sucked. Which I”ll take because at least I can try and work on that — “Okay, I sucked in that one so don”t suck the next time.”

And so there”s a lot of that in the movie world — at least for a little guy like me — and acting in general there”s a lot of ambiguity. “We love Henry here so give him the job.” Well, we”re not gonna do that. But I loved doing “Sons of Anarchy” so you know I can act, so give me a job.

OK so for “He Never Died” to be specific: It was in 2012, I”m on tour finishing 190 shows in 19 countries. A good year. Very long. Ten and a half months of touring, which is fine. It”s what I like. So it was no problem for me. I”m in New York doing a week of shows and Heidi, a woman who runs my life, she”s my boss. For 17 years she”s been cracking the whip at my office. And she said “I just got a script in. I read it. This is so you. You”re gonna love this – read it now.” I read it immediately. I said “I love this.” She goes “I knew you would. The director and the producer are in New York right now. They want to meet you tomorrow. No audition. The guy actually wrote it for you.”

Which is, I really don”t believe that, but apparently that was the case.

That”s got to be very flattering.

And I said to [director] Jason [Krawczyk], when I met him I said “No one ever writes me anything but a parking ticket so who did you really want?” He goes “No, I wrote this for you.” I said “”It fits me.” He”s like “Oh I know you. You can do this.” I said “I could do this.” So he said so. I said I”m in. I”m attached. Let”s go. I”m so on your team man. And he”s a wonderful guy.

You got to play it pretty deadpan, pretty small.

He”s a kind of sort of been-there-before, the-guy-can”t-die, which describes any vampire drama. However, he”s not a guy with fangs who goes “wha ha ha.” [Ed. note: Rollins kind of nails this vampire impression.] I can”t give it all away because it”ll ruin it for you. I”ll talk around it. He”s a very significant person in history and he can”t die. And the wonderful part about it that appealed to me, he”s bored. He”s bored to where he”s clinically depressed. Sleeps 15 hours a day. Lives in his underwear and a t-shirt like – watches TV and plays bingo.

It doesn”t sound like you.

No but it”s also an interesting idea because you and I have at least one thing in common: we”re going to die. And as adults we”ve considered our time and gone, like, “Okay I want to go to Brazil. Well I”m not looking any younger. Either I bottle up and go now because there ain”t no ‘I”ll do it when I”m 20.” That was for me over half a life ago.” So you start doing stuff, like, Let”s get this done.

But what if you had eternity? Like, “Okay, I met Cleopatra. I fought in these wars. I was in the Soviet Afghan war. I was in World War I and II, bubonic plague, whatever.” There”s a lot of violence in the film and I have to be violent because people are trying to be violent to me. Where I get shot in the head and it”s such an annoyance because I heal so quickly. If I don”t get the slug out, it”ll cause migraines. So while the wound is still open I have to quickly go in and extract the bullet.

As you do.

As you do. So everyone around me flips out because I”m unceremoniously — with no heat whatsoever — killing people who have put a gun on my head I”m like “Could you not do that, can you leave? I”m gonna kill you… You”re not actually going to die, you”re funny ,so you should go.”

So I have to underplay everything and let everyone else kind of act around me. I am a horror show rendered on the faces of everyone around me. But for me it”s like “Oh, you”re crying, yeah, people cry a lot.” And that”s my whole nature. So every day I show up and it”s like “Hey, ready.” So I”m not being lazy. It takes a lot of calories to be that ehhh. Trust me.

What”s the easiest job you have right now?

Radio show. It”s easiest and I just, you know, put it together. Good songs for nice people.

How has your relationship to radio changed?

I love it more and I”ll hate it – when they fire me I”ll hate it. I”ve had a radio show for 11 years and I love my listeners. I love giving them good music. In my mind it”s a 16-year-old kid in the Midwest whose parents said “No rock and roll.” And so I”m giving them Black Sabbath, Sun Ra, Cole Trains, Stravinsky, Jane”s Addiction, all kinds of stuff. Music from Tuvinian throat singers.

And I have all those records. I”ve got a lot of records. And I”m into a lot of records. So they”re getting this potpourri of eclecticism. And so I want to be the guy to some middle-aged guy, who walks up to you and goes “18 years ago you turned me on to Miles Davis. Thank you.”

There”s a film called “Manson Family Vacation” [which played at SXSW] and it touches on Charles Manson”s music career and about the draw to the myth and the man. You had been involved with some of his musical output in the 1980s…

Well let”s frame it correctly. His attorney sent SST Records – I”m not an owner, I just work there, SST and Touch & Go and every other indie label — a copy of a C90 and a C60 of Manson playing at Vacaville [Prison].

All the labels passed. SST didn”t. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski said yes to the project. There was no one there to edit it, everyone”s busy. And I said “I”ll do it.” I put on the tapes and listened. It”s good! Like there”s an album here of acoustic folky bluesy scat improv vocal music.

I write Charles Manson a very Boy Scoutish letter. “I read Helter Skelter in ninth grade so I”m aware of your career.” I said “I”m your editor and I”ve been working on edits. I”m going to fade in and fade out. I have a 35 minute record. I think it”s good.” Like, I”m your editor. Not a producer because the tracks were produced in a prison cell.

And he wrote me back immediately. “I”ve seen you on MTV, man. You and I look alike. We”re brothers of a different time.” I”m like okay, he”s trying to get in my head.

And I had this correspondence with him that lasted from ’84 to 1987. And like I have letters, photographs, maps, drawings, things he”d make me out of yarn. Crazy stuff. But the record got as far as the six test pressings. Word of the record came out, the L.A. Times got a hold of it. We started getting the most incredible death threats. Like, “Here”s your address and I will cut your head off if you put this record out.” And “I know you practice here. You live here and you walk this way to practice.” I”m like wow, this is real.

I wanted to put the record out. I said screw these guys – let”s do it. Greg and Chuck cancelled it.

Manson took it all out on me, like “I knew you”d rip me off!” He called me a bunch of names. I tried to explain the cult politicism of SST Records and our stated station in L.A. I tried and he”s like “No, you ripped me off. The Beach Boys ripped me off. All you guys…” – All kinds of language.

Yeah, he just flipped out on me. I”m like, “Charlie, it”s not me. I”m on the label but I”m not the label.” You can”t explain something like that to a guy like that. I did the best I could and finally, on the last letter he cooled out a little so I think he did have a moment to… I said it”s not me. It”s Frank and Chuck and they”re afraid they”re going to get cut up. I said fuck it, let”s just put it out.

The last letter I ever got from him he said okay, we”re cool. And then I never heard from him again. And so it”s not my property. It”s not even SST”s. They dropped it.

So it belongs to Charlie I guess. A good record. It”s been bootlegged. It”s out. I called it “Completion” from his poem he sent me. And if you type in “Manson Completion” [in a search], that”s because that”s the edited tape. It made the rounds and I”ve seen it online. In fact, I”ve seen a CD of it. And so you can find it. Of the six test presses, I have two. So that”s probably the rarest thing from it. But it”ll never be released by SST, I doubt it. But it”s out there, it”s around.

Other labels have put out his music.

Yes, quite a bit. He sent me about 40 hours of stuff that I”m sitting on. The album, though, is from only the two tapes. But his lawyer is like “Well Charlie wanted you to have this” and it”s these books of cassettes. I”m like “Thanks.” I”ve played some of them. Some of the sound quality just sounds like a bunch of people in a prison just slamming doors. But I have many hours of Manson that he gave me.

Would you like to put that into the world?

Well it”s not mine. And I”m very – I”m proprietary of other people”s stuff, in that it does not belong to me. It is not mine to put out. How dare I. And people give me stuff all the time. I”ve got rare music like you”ve got hair on your head. The kind of stuff like, that I shouldn”t have, like this never happened. All kinds of music that”s never gone anywhere because I promised I wouldn”t play it.

I know what”s mine and what”s not mine and I don”t betray. Like, you could give me a million dollars and leave. Come back in 20 years, I go “You left this.” I”m not going to rip you off. I”m just not that guy. It”s been done to me. I don”t want to do it to someone else.

I have a big music archive, a lot of things that I have one of a kind, cover artwork, correspondence. I buy estates, you know, like if a guy dies, I”m like, “Are you going to sell that?”

You need a house for that, right?

Well it takes the capacity of a three story building, all the stuff.

So anyway I”m very honest with all that stuff and so the Manson stuff, that”s up to him and his people. I haven”t been in touch with the guy for 30 years or so, so I don”t know what his life is like.