When Rollins sees them, he drops the box, wearily asks how everyone's doing, and comes over to sign stuff and pose for pictures. One girl looks at him, wide-eyed, and rambles on and on about how great he is. "I love you, I love everything you've done from Black Flag to Rollins Band to your spoken word, I think you're so funny and smart and talented, no one's going to believe I met you . . ."
Rollins scowls, scribbles his name on a piece of paper, and says nothing. Then the girl says, "I own a record store."
Suddenly, it's like Rollins has just downed a case of energy drinks. His eyes light up, and he starts talking faster than she does. "Really? Do you have any early punk pressings, limited editions, singles with the original sleeves, Japanese, British, or Belgian imports?"
Some say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but the best way to Henry Rollins' heart is through his turntable.
The night of that Celebrity Theatre appearance, in March 2001, he was desperately seeking the limited-edition Belgian pressing of the Buzzcocks single "What Do I Get?". Four years later, Rollins finally has his Buzzcocks record, sold to him by a friend who purchased the platter in a private collection. Now the elusive single sits safely in a plastic sleeve, in one of 20 acid-free, alphabetically arranged boxes of early punk singles that line a wall in Rollins' Los Angeles home. Next to the singles are boxes of LPs, also arranged alphabetically. Everything is logged in a database on his computer.
As an artist, Rollins has run the gamut -- singing for bands like Black Flag and Rollins Band, writing books about his experiences (he won a Grammy for his 1995 book Get in the Van), and spouting spoken-word performances that deftly blend sarcasm and social commentary. As a record enthusiast, he has a slightly narrower focus. The 44-year-old started gathering LPs during the FM-rock era of his childhood, but punk rock turned his hobby into an obsession.
"I became a 'record-store guy' with punk rock," Rollins says. "With punk rock, all of these bands have cool singles. The artwork is really cool, the flip side isn't on the LP, and the record would come out in another country with a different picture sleeve, and that made it fun. So you could go hunting in these record stores, and they became somewhat like treasure troves."
After more than 30 years, Rollins' record collection has become a treasure trove unto itself. "Some of my Misfits records are insanely rare, given to me by the band. A lot of them are hand-colored, and there's only 10 or 11 copies," he says. "I have a Damned record there's only a hundred of, and I'm the only one I've ever seen who has it."
As the singer of seminal punk band Black Flag in the early '80s, Rollins had access to all sorts of now-rare vinyl. "A lot of the early Dischord stuff is very rare," Rollins says, referring to the label launched by Minor Threat and Fugazi singer Ian McKaye. "And I was there for that, so I didn't have to go very far. Back in the days of the early Cramps tours, you could just go right up to the roadie or somebody with a couple of bucks, and all of a sudden, you have the first-ever Cramps record in your hot little hand, in perfect condition. And I have all that. I kept it all."
Rollins says he thanks his "lucky stars" that he held on to the records he bought for $2 or $3 several years ago, because he sees them pop up on eBay auctions now for hundreds of dollars. "I'd be hard-pressed to pay for all those records now for what they go for," he says.
That would be heartbreaking for Rollins, because he's always looking for something rarer than his last find. For him, collecting vinyl is about quality, not quantity.
"You see those people with 80 million records? I'm not anything like that," says Rollins. "You go through their records, and they're just into so much mediocre stuff. Like, 'Oh, that's great -- you have everything the Captain and Tennille did.' And they're like, 'It's really funny!' Well, it's not that funny. It's just eight pounds of weight. If you're not gonna play it, lose it."
But even Rollins has some surprises in his music collection. "I have a 'bad section' in my CDs, and I collect bad records. I have every Vanilla Ice CD," he says. "As you well know, it's very hard to get the soundtrack to Cool As Ice on CD. There's always a big fight on eBay over that one."
However elusive Rollins finds vintage Vanilla Ice, there is one record he's dying to find more than any other, and he swears he will never see it. "It's kind of hard to inquire about the band just because of their name," says Rollins. "There's a punk rock band called the NY Niggers. It's not the kind of title where you want to go, 'Hey, do you have this record?' We knew one guy who had it, and he passed away, and a friend of mine went looking for it so he could tape it and hear it, and somebody had already stolen it. And that's a record I've never seen offered."
In addition to vinyl, Rollins has also been collecting cassette tapes of rare punk performances. Right now, he's working on a gold mine, having just started "the basic excavation of Johnny Ramone's collection."
"I've been working with his wife Linda on Johnny's autobiography that he left behind, and I said, 'Linda, I'm gonna need every tape in this house. I've got to back up everything,'" Rollins says. "And she said okay. I'm the guy for the job. I'm your Smithsonian dude down the street."
Rollins has been transferring the tapes into digital format, and hopes to one day see a release of stuff from that stash. "There's some mind-bendingly rare stuff in there," he says.
And for Rollins, few things are more important than a rare record. "I remember being a younger guy, relatively broke, and you'd have to ask, 'Is it food or a record?' The smart guy always goes for the record," he says. "You can suck it up and go a day without food if you could just get that record. It's like books. You never regret the records you buy; you just regret the ones you don't."