Inside D.C. entertainment

Henry Rollins is angry, but is it genetic?

December 14, 2010 - 10:29 AM
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Henry Rollins has just one thing to say to you. (Photo: Associated Press)

Last week, I tested myself for the "warrior gene": a mutated version of the monoamine oxidase-A gene, which is found in a third of the male population and has been tied to violent or aggressive behavior. I thought I might have it; an email from Family Tree DNA this weekend informed that I do not. So if I'm an angry person, it's probably because I was a foot shorter than everyone else in elementary school. And in middle school. And in high school. Which I guess makes my anger somewhat genetic after all.

But what about Henry Rollins? The punk singer, who fronted D.C. hardcore band State of Alert before joining Black Flag, has made a career out of rage, albeit in an increasingly controlled form (as an author, actor, comedian, and activist). But was Rollins "born to rage"? That's the title of National Geographic Channel's Explorer episode about the warrior gene, in which Rollins hangs out with Harley-Davidson repairmen, Buddhist monks, former gangbangers, mixed martial arts fighters, and a retired Navy Seal–cum–successful entrepreneur. All are tested for the warrior gene, including Rollins, and the results are surprising — if, that is, you put much stock in the gene's affect on our behavior.

In an interview last week, Rollins wouldn't reveal the results of his test; he said I'd have to watch the show, which airs tonight at 10 p.m. But he said he often wondered whether his temperament, which he compares in the show to a stove's pilot light — always on, always ready to ignite the four burners — was the result of more than just his upbringing.

"I'm one of those nurture types," he said. "You really are a product of how you were raised, how you were socialized, how morality was imposed on you, and what the streets were like." And for Rollins, who apartment-hopped around D.C. with his mom, the streets were unkind. "For me, it was racism, and being subjected to it as a white kid among a lot of angry black kids." He would get jumped in elementary school, his attackers accusing him of killing Martin Luther King Jr.

"That also made me really angry," he said. "Going to school every day, scared that someone's going to kick your ass, takes a toll. It turns you into a real psycho, the anxiety." But it didn't turn him into a racist, thanks to his mother's influence. "She said, 'You didn't do anything.' She said, 'Look, things are very turbulent right now, and these kids don't know why they're mad at you."

Not that Rollins was going to let himself be pummeled simply because the world is a confused, unjust place. "Eventually I went all spazoid on one kid, and then everyone left me alone," he said. "I went, 'Oh, OK, violence is a tool.' I'm not good at it, but you kind of get used to it." By the time he was fronting Black Flag, he was not unused to throwing punches.

These days, though, violence is merely an impulse that Rollins, now 49 years old, refuses to succumb to. He doesn't pick fights — not physical ones, anyway. "At this point, most of my anger is at injustice," he said, and he harnesses that anger to create change. For instance, he just returned from a fund-raising trip to Africa for A Drop in the Bucket. He also writes for LA Weekly, hosts a weekly radio show on KCRW, and is preparing a spoken-word tour.

"When I get angry," said Rollins, "I get busy."

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