As iconic alt.rock figures go, Henry Rollins is right up there. Renowned for his tireless work ethic, he’s fronted two highly influential US punk outfits, Black Flag and Rollins Band, and he’s since attracted widespread acclaim as an actor, DJ, author, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and Grammy Award-winning spoken-word poet. One of his greatest achievements, however, may be acquiring the original painting that provided The Ruts with The Crack’s artwork.
“Instinct told me The Crack was an important record”
A singular artist in his own right, Rollins has inspired generations. Yet first and foremost he’s a devoted music fan and he’s blessed with a collector’s passion. As he puts it, “Punk rock hit me like a train,” and he’s avidly purchased vinyl since he discovered trailblazing late 70s outfits such as Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Adverts and The Ruts as a teen in Washington, DC.
During a visit to DC’s Yesterday & Today Records store with his best buddy, future Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye, Rollins snapped up The Ruts’ first single, “In A Rut,” in 1979. Instantly addicted, he soon sought out the band’s lone full-length release, The Crack. The album remains one of his desert island discs.
“[The Ruts] stood out on so many levels,” Rollins tells uDiscover Music. “As a kid, I think it was more instinct that told me The Crack was an important record, but as an adult, I can dig the individual components far more. Now, I can completely understand that Segs and Ruffy were a phenomenal rhythm section and that Paul Fox was a guitarist’s guitarist. Then there was Malcolm Owen – and there’s still nothing like that voice.”
However, while he loved the album from the off, Henry was equally smitten by The Crack’s artwork. Like a punk Sgt Pepper, the image was adapted from an original painting by artist John Howard, depicting the four Ruts sitting on a couch at a party at which an array of famous figures, including Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, are among the attendees.
“We’d be trying to pick out everyone in the painting and we’d be arguing”
“Man, Ian [MacKaye] and I were fascinated by that sleeve,” Rollins enthuses. “We’d be trying to pick out everyone in the painting and we’d be arguing for ages, saying, ‘Hey, that’s Keith Moon; no, that’s Malcolm McDowell,’ and so on. That went on endlessly.
“We were just kids. We didn’t know anything about Virgin Records or Richard Branson. I became obsessed and really wanted to find out more about the cover art. But also we figured it would most likely be hanging on the office wall of the record company’s main guy, so I was never going to get to see it.”
Yet, as it transpires, the story behind The Crack’s artwork is as fantastic as the music contained within. The minutiae is examined in Roland Link’s book Love In Vain: The Story Of The Ruts & Ruts DC, but in a nutshell, artist John Howard delivered his artwork to Virgin Records’ art department, who duly assembled the sleeve and gave the painting back to The Ruts.
The band then intended to share ownership of the painting, but when Paul Fox left it at his parents’ London pub, the fiscally challenged John Howard quietly liberated it and sold it to an American dealer without telling The Ruts, who weren’t best pleased. Henry Rollins only discovered the backstory when he flew to London to deputize for the late Malcolm Owen at The Ruts’ reunion gig at London’s Islington Academy, on July 16, 2007. That night, Fox, Ruffy, and Segs played live together for the last time – just a few months before Fox’s death from cancer.
“When I met the guys I had a million questions waiting to leap like a cobra from a basket,” Rollins elaborates. “One of those questions was about The Crack’s artwork. Segs told me it was this amazing four feet by four canvas and that John Howard basically rolled it up and took it from England. He moved to New York and sold it to an art collector in the Upper East Side.”
“I was dispatched into art-acquisition mode”
Sometime later, when Segs visited Rollins in LA and Rollins showed the bassist his collection of rare Ruts memorabilia, The Crack’s artwork again came up in conversation.
“Segs said, ‘Henry, you’re the collector, you should really have the artwork,’” he says. “So I said, gamely, ‘So you’re putting me on mission?’ He says, ‘OK, Rollins, go get it.’ So I was dispatched to go into art-acquisition mode.”
Rollins’ search, however, required considerable patience and tenacity. Even tracking John Howard down on the internet proved elusive, but eventually Rollins got him onside.
Due to Howard keeping in touch with the painting’s owner – an elderly art collector who liked the painting but simply called it The Party and had no knowledge of The Ruts’ music – a deal was finally struck. It took months of cajolery and a lengthy string of emails to clinch it, but with John Howard acting as liaison, Rollins at last acquired the painting “for a fraction of what I was prepared to pay for it.” He can still vividly recall seeing it for the first time after it was shipped to LA.
“I could hardly breathe,” he reveals. “It’s an image that was seared into my brain and there it was. I was staring at the four Ruts on the couch. Whoa! I started thinking of the journey the painting had taken from England to America, where it sat in an apartment in New York for 30 years and then finally came to me in Los Angeles. I could hardly believe it. I’d stared at this image as a high-school senior and now I’m a grey-haired man looking at the real thing right in front of me. It was mind-blowing!”
After some necessary reframing and stretching, The Crack’s artwork was given pride of place on Rollins’ wall, where it still hangs today – in a climate-controlled Californian building that’s designed to preserve, and which ensures the painting loses none of its original luster.
“I think that maybe the painting should be with Segs and Ruffy, but for now it’s here,” Rollins says plaintively. “I love it and I love The Ruts. I’ve been playing their records since I was 18, and I still do now I’m 57. There’s hardly a week that goes by without me listening to them, so it’s not just a sentimental thing – it’s in my DNA.”
This article was first published in 2019. We are re-publishing it today on the anniversary of The Crack‘s release in 1979. The 40th-anniversary vinyl reissue of The Crack can be bought here.