An Interview with Ian MacKaye

For a while I’ve been interested in the relationship between Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dischord Records) and his long-time friend, Henry Rollins (Black Flag, Rollins Band, everything else). It’s pretty amazing to me that two people who have had such an influence on punk rock culture and music have a friendship that goes back to their youth. I wanted to find out more so I contacted Ian and he graciously agreed to spend some time talking to me about it. Go here to read Henry’s thoughts on Ian and their relationship.

What is one of the first things you remember about Henry?

We grew up in a neighborhood in DC called Glover Park. I grew up on Beecher Street and he lived about two blocks away on W Street. Word got out that there was a kid down on W Street who had a BB gun. And we said to ourselves, “Whoa, we’ve got to check this motherfucker out!” because nobody we knew had a BB gun at that time. So we went down and knocked on the door and there was Henry.  He was slightly bigger than me. He was 12 and I was 11. He wore horn-rimmed glasses. We said, “Hey, we heard you had a BB gun.” And he said, “Yeah.” Henry was a latchkey kid. His parents were divorced and his mom worked, so he came home to an empty house. We started going down to hang with him in the afternoons. He had a BB gun – a rifle and a pistol – and he had a little shooting range set up in the basement. There was a cigar box with slots cut in the top that held poker chip targets and behind that was big piece of Styrofoam to protect the wall. The Styrofoam was not that effective. Henry actually went down into that basement a few years ago and could see that the BB dings were still in the wall.

We listened to Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Cheech and Chong records. This was 1974. He was a pretty fucking cool guy; maybe a little bit nervous, but I didn’t really know him that well.

Then I went away for a year – my dad had a fellowship at Stanford University. I lived for nine months in California. While I was gone, one of my close friends got into a scrap with Henry. So when I came home I inherited the scrap. I spent the next year terrified of him because he was always trying to beat our asses. He caught up with me one time and threw me against a wall and I realized he could be really fucking scary.

Then my friends and I started skateboarding and one day we saw him on a skateboard and we thought, “Oh, great! Now this psycho is a fucking skateboarder!” We had built a ramp in the alley behind my house and one day he was riding by and said, “Can I ride the ramp?” And we said, “Sure,” and ended up reconnecting.

There was a period in my life where every job I had, Henry got for me. He worked at the pet store – he got me a job. He worked at the movie theater – he got me a job. He worked at the skate shop – he got me a job. He worked at Häagen-Dazs – he got me a job. So we spent a lot of time together.

Then, when his mom tossed him out of the house, he would stay at my family’s house and store his stuff there until my mother would say, “You’ve got to figure something out,” and then he would stay in his car for a while and then come back to our house.

We got into punk together. He didn’t go to the first show with me. He was a little leery. And that was The Cramps in February of ’79. Two weeks later I went to see The Clash and Henry went to that. Pretty mind-blowing shows.

I formed The Teen Idles with some other Wilson High School friends and Henry was our roadie. We called him the fifth Idle. It’s funny to think that we had a “roadie” since we never really toured. In fact we never played outside of Washington until July of 1980 when we decided to play two shows in California. We took a Greyhound bus there and back. It took four days to get out there and we took not one, but two roadies with us! Henry was one and Mark Sullivan was the other. It took me years to realize how absurd it was for us to have roadies because we only brought our guitars and a pair of drumsticks. Mostly I think we just all wanted to go to California. Later that year The Teen Idles broke up and I started singing for Minor Threat. Henry formed S.O.A. exactly at the same time. He had always wanted to sing in a band, in fact he even sang at one Teen Idles practice, and he had written a bunch of lyrics, so it made sense. The two bands were wrapped up with each other and we played a lot of gigs together, or at least were booked to play together. It was common for shows to get shut down at that time, so the two bands jockeyed for the opening slot in hopes of playing a few songs before the cops showed up.

In May or June of 1981, Henry called me up and said, “Guess who’s singing for Black Flag? Me.” I had no idea. He had gone up to New York to try out for them without even mentioning it. His recollection is that he said, “Black Flag wants me to sing but I don’t think I can do it,” and I said to him, “You’re crazy. You’re going to be incredible.” That may have been the case; I don’t know.

The question of who was going to be the new singer for Black Flag was something that we had all wondered about having heard that Dez wanted to move to guitar. As I remember Flipside Magazine had been reporting on rumors of who it might be, but no announcement had been made from the band. I had no idea that Black Flag had driving across the country trying people out. One person I remember hearing that they tried out was a guy named Dee Slut who sang for The Sluts from New Orleans. I don’t know who else they checked out, but apparently they had been talking to a number of people. They got rehearsal space set up in NYC and asked Henry if he wanted to try out. He drove straight up after getting off work at 2 in the morning and then straight back down to get to work the next day. I guess after he sang the band said he was in if he wanted it.  I had no idea about any of this, so when he called I was completely in the dark. When he asked me to guess who was singing for Black Flag, all I could think of were LA people. To say I was shocked when he told me it was him would be an understatement. I was pretty freaked out, but ultimately very happy for him.

Picture by Kevin Salk

How important was it that Henry like your music projects?

Uh, what kind of question is that? Of course I want him to like what I do. He’s my friend. Of course that doesn’t mean that I always do things with Henry in mind.  There were times when I didn’t get overwhelmingly affirmative reaction from him, but you’ve got to remember that he moved away in 1981. It’ll be 30 years in June when he moved out of Washington. At the time he moved our relationship shifted because of the geographic reality of it. If you’re with somebody all the time the dynamic is different than if they’re gone all the time. Quite often, if you’re developing something and there’s someone who is not in the picture and they weigh in disapprovingly, it’s like, “Well, too bad. You’re not here.” Or they may not weigh in and that’s a sign of disapproval or it could be that they’ve just got their own shit going on. There is no doubt that Henry’s got his own shit going on! He’s one of the busiest people in the world. Henry has done an enormous amount of work and while I try to be on top of it and be in touch with him, I can’t keep up with him and weigh in on everything he does. If anything I’ve been less demonstrative in following his work than he has of mine. He’s written books and been in movies – there have been movies he was in and I didn’t even know he made them! I was actually talking to some people the other day and they said, “Hey, your man Henry – the voice of Verizon.” And I said, “What?!” It’s funny, though, because I had been looking at something on television and I remember this particular ad for Verizon being played but I had no idea it was Henry’s voice. It wouldn’t occur to me it was his voice. And I said to him, “Wow, look at you – the voice of Verizon,” and he said, “Yeah, pretty cool.”

How did being friends with someone who was in a punk band on the other side of the country shape and expand your views on punk?

Well, first off – Henry wasn’t in a punk band. He was in Black Flag.

Our relationship with Black Flag really began when I called Dukowski. In Slash Magazine and Flipside there was this SST ad with a phone number and I called the number. Chuck answered and he became my friend and we talked on the phone a lot. You also have to remember that I was friends with Kevin Seconds and [Jello] Biafra. Knowing people into punk in other parts of the country totally influenced and affected me. It was like finding comrades and we had a reason to get there. If you’re driving from Washington to points west and you know someone in Reno, then you’ve got somewhere to stop. The first successful driving tour across the country that Minor Threat did was in 1982. That tour routing reveals who we were in touch with. We went from Washington to Boston, which was SS Decontrol. Then to Lansing, which was The Necros, and then to Reno, which is not an easy drive. And then from Reno to San Francisco and from there to Los Angeles. From Los Angeles we went to Austin, which was the Big Boys. So knowing people throughout the country makes you feel like you’re involved with something because you are involved with something.

With Henry, he was a DC guy who was going out to California and his take on it was interesting. We were huge fans of a lot of LA stuff and he would say, “Oh my god, I saw this guy from The Weirdos!” or he met this guy or that guy. But at the same time Henry was going through a huge transition and he was under an enormous amount of pressure. He was this new guy from DC and was already almost legendary in California at that time. They had heard about the scene in DC and wanted to know who this guy was that Black Flag went all the way to Washington to get.

Also, it was a really extreme time for music. There was a lot of serious aggro. Henry had to fight his way out of it. Meanwhile the band itself was under such an intense situation because they were having all kinds of problems with the police. There was a lot of psychological insanity going on, so it wasn’t always easy. So on the one hand it was cool because we could talk about these things like, “Oh, you saw the Whiskey,” or something like that, but on the other hand he was changing, but he had to change. He was Henry Garfield when he lived here. But he was Henry Rollins by the time the dust settled.

So, everything being said, do you have any advice on how to maintain a good friendship with someone over all the years and distance?

For me, I think friends and acquaintances aren’t that far removed from siblings or parents. What I mean by that is that they are essentially a form of blood relative. Though chosen, they have a similarity for me. I’m not an idiot – if I like somebody and there’s something about them I find compelling then there’s probably a good reason for it.

My point is that just like a brother or a sister, people may drift or transgress but it really doesn’t make a difference. If they’re your friend then they’re your friend. The door is always unlocked on this end. For me, I’ve known Henry for just shy of 40 years and I would say that we are closer now than we’ve ever been before. It’s not always that way. That’s part of friendships. I may say to somebody, “You’re a weirdo, but you’re my fucking weirdo and you’ve been rolling with me for a long time. You put up with me and I put up with you.”

When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves in reverse, but friends are people who see us the right way and that’s important to have in our lives.

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