(Credit: Henry Rollins)

From Mark Twain to Allen Ginsberg: The 30 books that changed Henry Rollins’ life

Henry Rollins is a true icon and one of the instrumentally pioneering figures that helped shape hardcore as we know it today. Black Flag, under Rollins’ stewardship, earned a top class reputation for putting on a live show that was on a different level to anybody else around. With the band set firmly on their own trajectory, they became missionaries who brought the word of hardcore far and wide. Thanks to the firebrand swirling energy that filled up each and every room they visited from the first note until they left the stage with sweat dripping off every part of their body. When he’s not making rooms shake with his mere presence, however, you’re most likely to spot Rollins with a book in his hand which is some juxtaposition from the day job.

Rollins still remains Black Flag’s longest-serving vocalist, having joined the band in 1981 before their eventual first-break up in 1986, the singer was plucked like something from a film, was transformed from a 20-year-old fan and into the band’s uncompromising leader. It’s a punk-rock fairytale for the ages and the opportunity was one that he didn’t waste. Following his addition into the group, Black Flag went from strength to strength and built up an international fanbase. Their following may well have been small but they were met with adoration from their cult fanbase in every city they visited. 

Since his departure from the group, Rollins has gone on to tear it up with the Rollins Band and has become an icon of hardcore music. The life-changing moment that saw the musician get his big break occurred when he was offered a partial audition for the role as frontman in his favourite band at Tu Casa Studio in New York City. Eventually, Black Flag then asked Rollins to become the new face and vocals of the group after the former regional manager for an ice cream shop quit his day job in an instant.

It was a crossroads moment for Rollins, “I looked at the ice cream scoop in my hand, my chocolate bespattered apron, and my future in the world of minimum-wage work,” he said. “Or I could go up to New York and audition for this crazy band who is my favourite.” He didn’t care that the opportunity provided a chance of humiliation in front of his favourite band because “meh, I was used to it.”

His career is a truly astonishing ride and the longevity his musical progression has had has seen Rollins defy all odds, grabbing every opportunity with both hands. While his life story sounds like it would make a bestselling book well, that’s because it is. His 1996 memoirs, Get In The Van, became an overnight hit given the journey Rollins has embarked upon. The book told the story of what it was like touring the world with Black Flag, it tells the tale of what it was like playing the toilet circuit and the less glamourous side of a life spent on the road.

Although Get In The Van has become essential reading for any budding musician who wants a peek behind the curtain to see what touring is actually like, when the ever-humble Rollins discussed the books that changed his life with The Reading Lists he unsurprisingly failed to mention his most notable work.

One poignant selection that came from Rollins was when he was asked which book reminds him the most of his childhood, which elicited him to respond: “The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. One day, I just picked it up and started reading it. Guys at school didn’t believe I was really reading it but I was. I found it hard to put down. During lunch, I would stay in the library and read it. Afterwards, I saw the film version.”

Rollins also revealed the one book the book that’s had the greatest impact on his career is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium. “I think Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the greatest writers I have ever read. Amazing journalist,” the former Black Flag man said before paying the ultimate compliment and stating, “One line of Kapuscinski is worth ten of anyone else’s.”

He also noted that Henry Miller’s Black Spring is a book that he wishes he read the moment that he left school and stepped into the great unknown, “There is a lot of life in that book. He allowed me to think that writing was possible for me. I wish I read him a few years earlier than I did,” he said.

Rollins is not only one of the greatest punk frontmen of all-time, he is much more than that. The former Black Flag man is an atypical rockstar who has proved that you don’t need to be the rock ‘n’ roll cliché and, by being nothing but genuine, he has shown he has more rockstar credentials than most. Reading is a hobby that is viewed in quite the opposite fashion as most expected behaviour of someone like Rollins but it has enriched his brain and helped him become even better at his craft.

Take a look at the books which mean the most to this punk icon, below.

Henry Rollins’ favourite books

  1. The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk
  2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  3. Black Spring by Henry Miller
  4. Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski
  5. Shot In The Heart by Mikal Gilmore
  6. Ask the Dust by John Fante
  7. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  8. Swann’s Way by Lydia Davis
  9. The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby
  10. Selected Speeches and Writings by Abraham Lincoln
  11. Letters From the Earth by Mark Twain
  12. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  13. Mysteries by Knut Hamsun
  14. Ghost Wars by Steve Coll
  15. The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson
  16. United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal
  17. The Castle by Franz Kafka
  18. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
  19. The Book of Five Rings by Miyamato Mushashi
  20. Maldoror and Poems by Comte Lautreamont
  21. Howl by Allen Ginsberg
  22. Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe
  23. Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire
  24. The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner
  25. In Cold Blood and Other Voices Other Rooms by Truman Capote
  26. Platform by Michel Houellebecq
  27. Max Perkins Editor of Genius by A Scott Berg
  28. Somebody In Boots by Nelson Algren
  29. The Fall by Albert Camus
  30. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
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