Perennial loudmouth and punk rock multi-tasker, Henry Rollins, is someone I’d always admired since my teens. His stint with L.A. institution Black Flag spearheaded my discovery of punk rock and hardcore and as a result, he quickly became a hero of mine.
I remember staying up late on a school night to listen to Mike Davies’ ‘Lock-up’ show on Radio 1 (from 2am-4am) and he played Black Flag’s My War. It was the first time I’d ever heard it – though I was already of their previous album, Damaged – and it was just so fucking creepy and manic and incredible. Rollins, in his prime, was hollering and howling and screaming like the act of simply being alive was causing him to be in screaming agony. It was so disturbing and raw. It wasn’t even like it was particularly ‘heavy’ or anything, at least not by metal/hard rock standards. It was just wild.
However, not everything Rollins has done or lent his name has been to my liking. I wasn’t a huge fan of Rollins Band, for example, and late-era Black Flag just became too dirgey and cynical for me. But his spoken word performances opened up an impressively different side to him – one that has since made a big impression on me.
His way with words, the common sense of much of his world view and his ability to capture hundreds/thousands of people in the palm of his hand for three hours of non-stop one way conversation is something I’ve come to appreciate possibly even more than his music. Don’t get me wrong, the intensity of his vocal performances, his wild, savage style and even the story as to how he joined Black Flag in the first place was/is all incredibly inspiring to me. But these days, I find him to be more satisfying as a modern explorer or punk rock professor; trying to find the truth and bring us along for the ride. He also happens to be pretty funny.
Anyway, that’s enough of the back story. You get the point – I like the guy. So, when I tell you that I interviewed Henry Rollins on the phone one afternoon in December 2009 from my bedroom in Glasgow and halfway through, I noticed the poster of him I had on my wall from a Black Flag show, you will hopefully understand how ridiculous and surreal it all felt.
Despite a couple of stumbles on my part, I think I did pretty well and somehow managed to keep his attention for about 45/50 minutes without serious failure. It really did something for my confidence and made me believe that if I could speak to one of my heroes, especially one with a tendency to be confrontational and not suffer bullshit, then maybe I could speak to any of them; maybe even all of them.
Below is the transcript of that conversation, done in advance of his upcoming spoken word tour in January 2010, complete with extra material that wasn’t published in the final piece. You can see the article in its original context, here.
(Interview Date – Roughly December 2009)
Could you tell me a little bit about the tour – judging by the name “Frequent Flyer” it sounds again like it’s centred on your travels?
Henry Rollins: Well a lot of the tours I do do that. I travel a lot and I get a lot of perspective, as one does, by going to these places, so travel will certainly be part of it, but not all of it.
So what exactly has inspired this tour in particular?
HR: Well, since the last time I was in the UK, so much has happened to me and to the world. America has a new president, and as for me, I’ve been all over the world. To the Middle East and Africa, South East Asia and all over, and I just got back from eight weeks of some pretty interesting travel. So, basically, I’m spoiled for choice, which is the position you want to be in on stage. ‘Not enough’ is when you hit panic mode. So, I’ve got plenty to talk about and I’m looking forward to getting that going.
Speaking of the new president, it’s been almost a year since Obama’s inauguration – do you feel he’s doing a good job so far?
HR: In a single word: Yes. I think he walked into a hell of a daunting situation. You have a wrecked economy, a war on two fronts, a health care system that needs a real stern looking at, and to look at the man a year in and go, “well, the room’s still messy”, it’s like, “yeah, you should’ve seen it when I walked in”. So I think the first two years of the man’s administration is just going to be getting the broom out, trying to sift through the rubble to find where the furniture is. There are some Americans that will tell you that the change they were hoping for has not come soon enough – and I think they should stop whining and hang in there – my beef with the man, is that I don’t want this Afghanistan thing at all. I mean, I’m sure he means well, and I bet he’s a lot smarter than I am – I’m pretty sure he knows a few things about Afghanistan that I don’t – but I look at the history of Afghanistan and anyone who comes over to occupy or invade, and they all go home without their limbs, or they run. If you look at Alexander, the Mongols, and Britain… everyone left. This is going to cost us billions of dollars and kill a lot of people; a lot of Afghan people, a lot of American people, people who don’t deserve it, and it gets us further and further into this thing that “America makes war for a living” and I hate it. I think things have to change. So I was kind of hoping that he would be pushing back against all that and obviously, I was wrong.
Do you think there is a foreseeable end to this?
HR: Well, when you say stop, it ends. When do you stop beating your head against the wall? When you sit down or when you walk away from it. So, that’s when it ends – when you pull the troops out. Do I think there is a foreseeable end? No. We’ve been there eight years already and all we’ve done is die, so I can’t see why another eight years won’t be great for Halliburton, KBR, Coke, Blackwater… all these people that make money off conflict. I mean, if you sell bullets, the only bad part of your day is the threat of peace. So the Republican party, the conservatives, they’re all inured to that war machine. So when you say peace, they say “NOOO!! YOU HATE AMERICA!” and I’m like, “no, I like Americans but I like them alive with their arms and legs still on their bodies.” “You’re a communist!”, “no… I’m not. You can’t even spell it.” So… yeah, I thought my president was going to handle that one differently. I am sure he has nothing but good ideas, I’m sure he’s not like “yay, more war!”, y’know, I’m sure he doesn’t like war at all, but that’s a major sticking point with me in the man.
Do you think a lot of his actions concerning Afghanistan were because he couldn’t afford, as a newly elected president, to look like he was doing nothing?
HR: That’s not an excuse when you’re talking about human life. That’s an excuse when you’re trying to get your dad off your back so you pretend to wash the car so you can sit on the phone and talk to chicks. When you’re talking about sending 21-year-olds into harm’s way just so everyone will “get off your back maaan”, that sucks. And I do not think that’s what he’s doing. He would never do that with human life, that’s just…no. I think, like a lot of presidents, or perhaps even every president, they go in on day one with all these high hopes and someone sits them down and says, “ok Kiddo, here’s how the game is really played”. And you go “oh, so I don’t get to do that?” “Oh Hell no!”
Yeah, you would imagine a lot of it isn’t their choice.
HR: Absolutely. This game has so many choreographed dance steps already painted on the floor I don’t see how a lot of change is at all allowable because the thing is kind of die-cast already to the point where you can insert any live human into an executive position and it’s already kind of determined what’s going to happen: these guys are going to get this much money, at some point we’re going to push some country around, we’re going to find some other middle-eastern country with oil under its feet to demonize and push into a situation where they eventually go “screw you too” and push back and we’ll go “ooh look, they attacked us” and we’ll go in. That’s what Bush tried so hard to do in his last days with Iran. He tried so hard to get that party going and he couldn’t. His last 6 months were all about Iran and he and Cheney, especially Cheney, they’re tied to that. That’s them, that’s what they do. I think we can do something else. We need a different way of looking at things.
Certainly, the show I do is not going to be 2 hours of that, trust me. But, it is a thing that does concern my country, and yours as well, because you are in Afghanistan; you all did go along with Bush with this whole Iraq thing.
How do you feel about Obama being awarded a Nobel Prize?
HR: He got a lot of heat for that. He didn’t ask for it, he didn’t say “hey can you hook me up with that prize man?” they just gave it to him. And my theory was – I wrote a short piece about it for vanity fair – that perhaps the Nobel committee gave him that prize as a cautionary procedure, y’know, as if to say: “just remember your job Mr. President”. If there’s any one country that needs to be reminded that peace is the prize, it’s America; a country that has used weapons of mass destruction; a country that went into a sovereign nation and killed a whole bunch of people, and maybe that was the Nobel committee going – “hey man don’t lose sight of the prize”. You know, some people went “what’s he done to deserve it?” Well, that’s really just for you to yell at the Nobel people about. He didn’t ask for it! Just shut up! You’ve probably heard at least part of his acceptance speech which was kind of like “shucks, I don’t know if I really deserve this.” He’s a guy who has an ego, I mean, it’s the only way you can run for president, to be the guy with the plan, but I think he keeps it in check rather well. Hopefully, the Nobel thing registers with him that his mission is essentially, or ultimately, peace. I think it should be every world leader’s job to make peace, and everything else comes along with it. It did strike me as a little odd that he got that, but those prizes and any weight attached to that is a bit much. I think he probably put the thing on his shelf and went “Ok, that was cool, but I’ve got a lot of work to do”, and went back to doing his thing. The fact that he got the thing was not all that interesting to me as much as the firestorm of all the people on the internet who got angry at him.
On a rather different note, how do you feel about the influx of social networking these days, especially in terms of how it’s used in conjunction with music?
HR: Well I’ve never tweeted I don’t know how it works, I don’t want to. I don’t have time to play around. I think I have a MySpace page; I’ve never been to it. I don’t really pay attention to this. I think humans have always found ways to wave at each other and go, “hey I’m over here”. It’s like one of those old boats with big sails so you can go waaaaaay over there and say “hey man, what’s happening?” Or the kid who would never be on the football team can now how 500, 000 friends from his bedroom. I think people reach out through these social networking things for all kinds of reasons, it allows a great deal of anonymity which I’m not all that crazed about. And, I must say I’m not dancing and jumping up and down in delight that someone can just take your album and just have it. I am not the drummer in Metallica, I’m not coming after you for my 65 cents, y’know, sometimes kids write me and say “hey man I’m broke and I downloaded, like three of your talking records, are you mad?” and I have one kind of stock answer that I say to that, which is “I’d rather be heard than paid”. I think it allows one to be irresponsible and anonymous and lack a spine, y’know. You don’t have to have any backbone but I think it’s really a minor Achilles heel compared to the fact that you can be the small band with no money, and if you can get two songs together you put them on the internet, then the world can listen to you; I mean there is the potential for everyone in the world to hear you – which I like. It’s great for music and it’s great for political points of view and investigative journalism that won’t make the mainstream, etc, etc. One day it may very well topple a corrupt government, you never know. It could be that the cyber Bastille Day may very well one day happen. I think that with social networking things… homo sapiens are a lonely species and will do anything from hanging out in men’s bathrooms to going on the internet to make a connection with someone.
With all this in mind, what do you make of the recent internet campaign to get Rage against the machine to Xmas number one over here in the UK?
HR: It’s cool, but every interviewer’s like “what do you think of that?” Well, not much.
How about this, let’s just call it for what it is: Sony just made a whole lot of money on a 20-year-old song and bought a house boat, and Simon Cowell bought a house boat next to the one Sony bought with his piece of product. Some units got shifted, “the Man” did not get stuck to, the wall did not fall, and all it was, was that a lot of people shelled out a lot of money to go “Screeew youuu man!” and now their wallets are lighter, and Sony’s wallet is heavier. So, rebellion? I don’t know about rebellion when someone’s going “hey, thanks man, thanks for the rebellion, can we have one next Christmas?!”
Well, I suppose that was the biggest point made about the whole campaign, that no one really got “taken down” as such…
Let me ask you this, “what did you win?!
HR: Yeah, nothing! Is the answer to that. You think you’ve kicked Simon Cowell’s ass? Believe me, he made a pile off that. To me, the approach to anything in the media, say you don’t like any of his TV shows – just don’t watch it. For me, there’s bigger fish to fry than what any of these people get up to. I mean, Rage Against The Machine, long may they live, I just think it’s one of those interesting moments in the media and is a product of 24 hour media and an internet that never closes, and we have to keep that entertainment ball in the air, y’know, who can we kick around now? Now that Brittany Murphy’s body’s all cold, where do we go next? And… y’know… (gives up mid-sentence) ah, I don’t care.
I don’t think anyone invested too much time in it, I don’t think any lives were lost, or jobs were lost. I mean, in this country right now the healthcare thing is so huge. It’s in every conversation; it’s on everything on the radio, on the front page of every newspaper. It’s a huge thing and it’s getting very ugly and very long and protracted. To me, everything else is dwarfed by things like that.
Speaking of the health care situation, from here, the idea that anyone could be against free healthcare for all seems a little odd, to say the least.
HR: You would be against it if you were in bed with big insurance, or you would be against it if you are inherently against the idea of equality. What would happen if there was a better education system in America? What if America was number five in literacy, not number 46? It would mean a lot of non-white people with college education, and you know what that means? It means the prisons would be empty and it means that the next time we have a fake war with a sovereign nation, like the invasion and occupation of Iraq, millions of Americans would go “ahhh, NO!” you wanna go to war? I’m not showing up to work today.”, “I’m throwing my rifle on the ground and you’ll have to court marshall me and 300,000 other guys because we’re not going; because we are educated, we know our history and we’re not going for this bloodlust.” And that’s why this country fears the education and fears the equality of health care. Because heaven help us if we had a whole bunch of healthy people making wise decisions; we might just have peace and posterity. I think there is a concerted effort to keep some people where they are and I think that is the inherent thing about the health care system. I don’t want my Americans to lose their home because momma gets cancer, because I like people and I like my countrymen, and I want them happy and well. Because if they are happy and well, our factories work better, our roads are better, quality of life is better. You don’t feel like robbing a liquor store or slugging your wife. Things get better.
These days do you ever turn your thoughts to returning to music?
HR: Uh, no. The analogy I’ve been using is: pretend music is a bell. Whether you like what I’ve done musically or not, you have to admit, I rang that bell very often and very, very hard, and at this point, at 49 years of age, to go out and make another record and tour, would mean a good 16-19 months of my life to do something that I’ve done a whole bunch of times as I slide into year 51 one of my life. And I just don’t wanna repeat repeat repeat, I’d rather do new stuff. That’s why the travel’s interesting. These speaking dates allow me to change material minute to minute so that it’s never boring. I’m not putting music down, but it’s a thing I’ve done to where I bet you really can’t tell me much about making an album or touring I don’t already know. Life is short, so I’m going after that which I don’t know, rather than the sure thing I do know and feel the need to repeat over and over. Also, at this point, I do not want to sing 20-year-old, 10-year-old, or 5-year-old songs. I love them, they’re my kids, but I don’t wanna go back. When I went to see Van Halen play a couple years ago when David Lee Roth was back in the band, they played fine and everyone had their 80s moment. But I remember feeling distinctly depressed when I left the venue, and it wasn’t because the band wasn’t good; they did their thing and it was fine. But I went wow, that was really kind of an emptying experience. It wasn’t fulfilling was like, here we are still, singing ‘Running With The Devil, and I’d rather get up the road. So whenever I see a long trail of bearded men with tattoos and laminates checking in as the band, I look at it and I don’t miss it. I go, “yeah, rumble, young man, rumble, I got something else I’m doing over here”. For now, the band thing isn’t interesting to me.
What about your acting career?
HR: I’m loving the acting. It’s definitely something in which I can improve. I did quite a lot of acting this year on a very popular television show called the Sons Of Anarchy. Everyone said I did a good job and I had a blast, and met a lot of good people, worked really hard, which is something I like to do, and did something new. I’ve never done episodic TV before and I had a real juicy character. I wasn’t just in one or two episodes, I was almost in the whole damn season. And it was cool as hell and the show is good! It was fantastic. I could’ve gone out and done 20 shows with a band, which would’ve been cool, but more of the same. Whereas from April to September of this year I was on this crazy rollercoaster that was this TV show, which was fantastic. So I’m looking for more experiences like that. I have to keep it real for myself. These kids write me, like “hey man, when’s the band coming back? And I’m like, “well I don’t have any band plans.” And these kids write back and they’re sincerely bummed, and I’m like, really? Come on man! And I explain it to them; I don’t want to be up there dialling it in. I don’t want to take a song off the rack like it’s an old suit to see if it still fits. Life’s too short and you don’t want me on stage lying. If I don’t want to be there, believe me, you’ll know. I’m not good at faking it, and I wouldn’t want to betray the music.
Oh well, you don’t always get everything you want! Believe me, I’m used to that.