an interview with Henry Rollins
by Michael Hill
After recently celebrating his 50th birthday, the maturing, former heavy rock front man is showing no signs of slowing down or mellowing out. He is not "aging gracefully," he is turning up the volume and raging full on.
Rollins first came to prominence in 1981 as the fourth singer of the seminal hardcore punk band Black Flag. After a brief tour of duty fronting State or Alert in his hometown of Washington, DC, he relocated to Southern California to join Black Flag. Rollins toured extensively and appeared on several recordings until the band broke up in 1986. He was back on the road the following year in 1987 with the Rollins Band which garnered modest commercial success during the 90's with "Liar" and "Low Self Opinion." After three lineups, the band parted ways in 2006.
During the Black Flag years, Rollins founded the 2.13.61 Publishing Company, basically a P.O. Box, where he published a series of folded and stapled self-publications. Ultimately, the roster would expand to include Nick Cave, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and Glen E. Friedman among others. Additionally, he has acted in films such as David Lynch's "Lost Highway", "Feast" and "Heat"(where he shared a scene with Al Pacino) as well as appearances on television as a part of the cast of "Sons of Anarchy" and on his own IFC talk show.
These days, Rollins is mostly known for his unique brand of spoken word performance. Though, often times humorous, I hesitate to call it stand-up comedy; it exists in region where Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks and Friedrich Nietzsche converge. It's part political commentary, part travelogue, part story telling session delivered with a high intensity pace the delivers the goods without fail. I've been witnessing these performances since the late 80's when the audience consisted of a handful of punk rockers congregating at some out-of-the way hole in the wall in a bad neighborhood. I caught one of his sold out dates at Joe's Pub in New York City, a nice place with reserved seating, food and a well-stocked bar.
Henry was kind enough to set aside some time in his schedule to talk to us. Read our chat below....
What is 2011 going to look like for you? I've read that there's going to be a photo essay book called "Occupants" coming out, and also some touring on the horizon.
There's not much touring for this year, well not for me, it's like 40 shows, which is just getting warmed up as far as I'm concerned. Next year's the big tour. So this is a handful of shows in America, four in Australia, which I'm leaving for in a few days, a couple of summer festivals in Europe until August, I'm doing Leeds and Reading and two shows at the Edinburgh Festival. That's kind of it for the year unless some university date pops up. But in October and November I'll be doing book work. That "Occupants" book will be out hopefully October first. And then I'll be getting ready to leave for the big tour of next year, which will be January to November. This year's going to be the aforementioned shows which takes me back to about April. And then I'm hoping that National Geographic, who I've been doing documentaries with for the last several months, I hope they keep me very busy and keep me kind of going with work until the end of the year.
I just saw the Nat Geo Wild Snake Underworld episode that you were working on. So, where does the fascination with snakes come from?
When I was a kid I had snakes and I used to work at a pet shop I grew up in D.C. and I kept snakes on and off over the years. So I was at the office of Nat Geo, with my boss, and Jeff from Nat Geo Wild walked in said "We're putting this thing together, are you looking to do something? Are you afraid of snakes?" I said, "Well no actually, quite the opposite." So he said, "Well, look over the treatment and see if you want to do this." I looked it over and I went "Yeah, I'll do that."
This "Occupants" book, I don't really have a lot of information about that, you care to go into that?
It's photos that I started taking many, many years ago. It's like 2003 to 2010. And the photos go from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, all over Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam Laos...you know, fairly far and wide. Some in America, Israel, South Africa...uh, where else, Mali, I don't think there's anything from Senegal in there. It's a photo on the right page and then on the left page is some abstract writing you know, from looking at the photo. So I looked at the photo and wherever it took me, I went.
So it's little bit of a departure from the sort of journalistic writing that you usually do in your books.
Right, and then in the back there's a section with all the images thumbnailed and captioned.
You're a world traveler. In addition to your tour schedule, in addition to the actual show-related traveling, you do a lot of travel on your own. Where does this wanderlust come from?
The world is an interesting place and I have the means, so I go out in it. You know, I wish more people could travel, would travel. I think in America, if the Americans would travel, the better off we'd all be. Because I think there seems to be a real disconnect with the information of the world. Where people have these wild assumptions about countries in the Middle East or African countries, and you go to these countries and you meet very sophisticated, very generous, very buoyant and resilient, very peaceful, generous people. And you might not know that about these people from these countries, or you see how they're really suffering. And it makes you see very acutely how good America has it relatively. So, I like to get that real information. I wanted to know more about Iran, so I went. I was just in North Korea in September because I wanted to know more, so I went to Pian-Yang for a week.
And also just on an awareness level too, for example, Europeans travel between countries constantly. And in the States, it's actually surprising how many people do not travel even from, say, the west coast to the east coast. Someone from, say, Oregon, may never have been to New Jersey...
Well, you meet so many Europeans who take advantage of where they are geographically. Many of them have been to at least Northern Africa, you know, Morocco, Tunisia...When I was in Tunisia many years ago, I met a lot of Spaniards. People just kind of hop across the water and go. It's like a one hour flight from Malaga to Tunis. So, these places are available to them. And I think they might have a different take on culture, the need for it, the need for diversity, and the need for art.
And speaking about the U.S., travelling may also give people a peek beyond what the generally accepted forms of media might indicate other parts of the world are really like.
I think our media is, to a certain degree, propaganda. I don't think any country escapes that all the way. I think we're taught to fear. We're taught to have this kind of bristling, chest-out, love-it-or-leave-it attitude. It's odd to be in someone else's country and see the American tell the local how it's done, or feel the need to. "Really, do you know where you are? It's not home. Be cool." But for some people it's just not how it's going to go down.
One of the major criticisms I have about mainstream media in general is that there isn't any journalists laying it on the line to present the truth. There aren't any people like Daniel Ellsberg (former US Military Analyst that released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, a top secret government study that dictated decision making in the Vietnam War).
With corporate news, there's no longer a need for them. Let this person rake the muck and find something about this company or corporation he or she works for. It was the media that helped America walk into the Iraq war. I hold all of the major newspapers complicit. They have as much to do with it as Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush and the Partners for the New American Century. I mean, they knew better, and they didn't speak up. CNN knew better and didn't speak up. All those people, they're no better than Colin Powell. They knew better, and they didn't say anything. They eventually serve the war economy. All these companies eventually did really well, and that's why they keep breeding so much, so you have more to hurl into the next conflict.
The biggest fear that Conservatives and Republicans have is that the new regime in Cairo won't buy the amount of ordinance that we sell them every year. You know, basically getting our cash back on the subsidies that we send them. That's how the defense contractors get their money back from the taxpayer, by selling Egypt JDAMs? Does Egypt need Joint Direct Attack Munitions? They don't really. You know, it'll make Israel sleep poorly. So we arm the world, over and over and over again. It's an investment in future conflict, because eventually, they will fire that stuff at us, so we can say, "Hey, they fired that at us!" and we can start another costly war.
That's what we do, and the threat of all of this is that democracy would be spreading across the Middle East. You can't invade a democratic country. They will eventually form some kind of NATO or OPEC of their own. You'll have to let them sit at the big table; you can't go in and soften their economies with the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund; you must treat them as equals. You won't be able to demonize and marginalize Islam; that was a great fundraiser and talking point for the right. And you're seeing the meltdown in America and the right-wing are just freaking out. As all these people stand up it's the end of things for this party.
It's an interesting time, to willfully watch these guys sail their Titanic into an iceberg. They're steering it right towards it and doubling down. They're flooring it. And a lot of Americans...the media doesn't tell them that. It's quite evident but you're not going to see anyone on CNN saying that but it's as plain as the nose on your face. It's fairly undeniable.
You have to look a little bit, not even actually that hard, all you need is a Netflix account and you can find some documentaries about the corporate gains in the Middle East, you know, with Halliburton and Titan and those different defense contractors and how much money they made off of the wars in the Middle East.
It's just on the day-to-day. I mean, we sell stuff to countries all the time. It's our economy. We sell more arms to the rest of the world than Russia or China, it might not be that eventually, and this whole world is kind of on that footing. And America, we've been on that footing...that's why the rhetoric is so intense. Like "America, love it or leave it" or "Better dead than red". That's why all of that is so ramped up. As if communism would invade America. And you don't want Southeast Asia going communist, you know, we lost that one, because you want to be able to sell them stuff. And that's all it is, it's just money, it's not hearts and minds, it's not ideology, it's only the bank. That's it. That's all it's ever been, under any president, Democrat or Republican.
And I think the people are starting to figure it out because the street doesn't lie. And the street and the media are now kind of at odds. Fox News will tell you that 65% of Americans disagree with what's happening in Wisconsin. And basically they just flipped the numbers, it's actually 65% approve, but it's not in its best interest. It's in the best interests of Rush Limbaugh to call teachers bottom feeders and bloodsuckers as they live on a paltry wage. And it's a basic thing in this country to devalue education. Because if you have an educated populace, they would've said no to the Iraq war. That would have been grounds for impeachment, I mean, they just would not have said yes to this. They would've fired all their congressmen.
It would have been very different. But, the less you know, the more you'll go along with the rhetoric. The less you'll question, the less you'll feel the need to question. There's no investment for you in that.
This lack of education...the devaluing of education in our country...
Well, it makes for better soldiers. And I'm not saying soldiers are stupid, but it just makes it easier for people to hurl themselves into that world. It also helps the prison industrial complex. Certainly, and a lot of people make money. When Johnny robs the liquor store, people get rich. A lot of people don't understand that because there are companies that sell all the uniforms, the lighting, the sanitation systems and products; even the gardening around a supermax penitentiary. And as long as those are full of people, again, your tax dollars go towards maintaining someone who takes sixty to a hundred thirty thousand dollars a year to keep alive inside. Someone has to sell that guy cheese sandwiches.
I think Jeb Bush was in on a lot of that, I forget which company. They supply a lot of catering to GOP events, they also do a lot of the prisons. I think Jeb Bush was a big guy in that, making money when you don't educate. So these guys are gamers, and the game is basically, it's like Vegas, the house is gonna win. You're a sucker, you walk in there, roll the dice, so let a few people win, that's the honey that attracts the fly. That's the grift. And the suckers come from all over the world to dump their money on it.
One of the worst things about the devaluing of education in this country is the long-term effects.
But you're seeing it now though. This has been in the works...my mother worked for national education and planning and health education and welfare when she was working. I think Reagan killed that one and Bush 1 killed the other one. Because you know, health, education, and welfare: no, no, and no. National education and planning? No, stop it.
My mom's whole life was that of frustration. She was trying to understand why Johnny can't read. She'd fly all over the world, analyzing other educational systems, bringing back the info to America, trying to fix American delivery systems of education. You know, why aren't these kids learning? And all Bush can come up with is, "Well, learn to the test!" so it looks good at election time, it's cosmetic. You dogmatically memorize that so you pass a test. You get no aptitude.
There's no understanding or evaluation skills.
Exactly, so it's not really helping you. Now, you always have to wonder, well who's winning with that? Why is this a good idea? Someone is obviously putting a lot of time into this. It's money and an educated populace wouldn't stand for that. And I think things are turning around. I think the next election, you know, if it's fair, the next election in 2012 are going to be...you know, as they say, get your popcorn.
This is a fascinating time to be alive, not only in America but in the world. The world is changing very quickly. I mean, it took Mubarak eighteen days to step down after thirty years. Gaddafi: he's going to have to kill a lot of people. That was fairly obvious, I saw that coming. So a lot of these guys aren't going to stand down very easily. If this happens in Syria, Bashar Assad would stand his people down pretty hard. Iran might turn very quickly. These other countries... like Yemen, that's going to be pretty bloody, just like Libya's been. But, nonetheless, I think this ball has started rolling.
With all the work you've done overseas with the U.S. troops deployed, with all this knowledge and perspective you have, how does that translate, when you talk to these guys out on the front lines? Are they open to these ideas? Do you even discuss these things with them?
Well, I never really got into it too deeply with anyone in a war zone. I don't think it's appropriate, in that I wouldn't say something to distract someone from doing their duty. I think that's a great way to get them killed off.
Yeah, it's a life or death situation.
Well yeah, I don't think it's a strategic move to go to Iraq and go, "You know, this is bullshit. You know why you're here? You're here for corporate greed." I don't think you send a guy out of the gate with that, because he's thinking too much, where he should be thinking about getting him and his buddies back to the dining facility at sundown. In those situations, I've found, they're very apolitical. Because now you're just down to "it", don't get killed. And it doesn't matter who's the president, it doesn't matter who's the secretary of defense or how anyone voted. You are still leaving the gate that day for twelve hours, and that pile of garbage could blow up and send your Humvee over the power lines. So I have found that it's really not on, in those situations. You can have those conversations later in the relative safety of the parking lot out by the bus, where I can point by point dismantle any of those arguments. But in the field, when those guys or girls are out there, I don't think it's appropriate.
Well, I mean, they're connected by the internet for the most part. They're probably aware that you're very active. Do they ever ask you any questions? Are there ever any of those type of discussions?
Well, I say what I think about stuff and I say "Look, I want you to get home in one piece" I think we shouldn't be in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think these are positions and points that we don't need to occupy. That's just my opinion, but my other opinion is that I want you home in one piece so take care of your friends and take care of yourself. And that's it basically. Because a lot of guys will go, "I know this is bullshit for me, it's a job". I say keep your head down, stay focused, get out of this, don't take your eyes off it. Imagine if any foreign force came to this country. No matter how benevolent, you know, it would be like ipecac, we would reject that force like a hairball. The Belgians are going to park their naval battleships in Delaware, ah, not for long they won't.
The US country does that all over the world, aside from even hot zones like the Middle East, there are troops in Germany, Belgium, everywhere...
153 countries, plus.
Everywhere you go in travel, you run across military guys away from home.
Yet meanwhile, we sometimes rape the locals, we pollute, and we're not always on our best behavior and that has an effect. You know, all of a sudden you're back at base and, this happened in Japan, these Japanese are like well we want to put that guy on trial. And the American are like, "Well, no, that's the Status of Forces Agreement. So, we'll take care of him." And you know, the guy just walks it off.
Actually that's similar to the Blackwater security contractors in the Middle East.
And the contractors, conveniently, if you read Jeremy Scahill's book "Blackwater", conveniently and self-servingly hop back and forth over the Uniform Accountability Justice Line. So when the shit comes down, they go, "Oh no, well, we're military." Then when the crime is military, they go, "Oh no, we're contractors. The Uniform Court of Military Justice doesn't really apply to us. They kind of operated in this legal grey zone, which they manipulated to their own interests, and that's why a lot of locals in Iraq got killed by these yahoos.
There's no chain of command, they're outside of the Rules of Engagement.
They pull down bigger salaries while the infantry grunt is making a pauper's wage.
One of the things that I want to talk about is patriotism, or the concept of "Patriotism", in this country and how it's used to control people. Like, if you don't agree with the war, you're not a patriot.
Yeah, you want the Taliban to win. If they ever have their patriotism questioned, it's a good way to get an American all hot and bothered. And the right does it to the left. "Oh, you're not a patriot", or you know when Sarah Palin says, "Well you know, real Americans..." It's like, "Lady, now you're getting me emotional." And it's very easy, without being homophobic, if you use the word "faggot". You know, if you really want to confront a man: "Hey Asshole!", no response, "Hey what's up faggot?" It's on.
It operates on a different level.
It's going down right now, I mean that is basically saying, "I got no respect for you, you're not gonna do a damn thing." And it's a trigger, it's a hot-button. And questioning people's patriotism has always been a good way to keep people's dissent down, to keep the commentary down. "Oh, he obviously hates America. He wants the Taliban to win. He's giving comfort to our enemies." That was like Dick Cheney. That was a string that he could pull between his man boobs and have that come out. Very, very convenient to say that, it works, it really works.
Let's abruptly switch gears. There's a Ron Asheton memorial show coming up in April and it's been indicated to me that you're somehow involved in this.
Yeah I'm MC'ing it, introducing everybody, talking about Ron. I'm working on all this with Ron's sister, Cathy. There's going to be a short video and I'm going to talk about Ron onstage and then me and the Stooges are going to play later on. Iggy and I are going to have some kind of sing-off he wants to do. I'm not quite understanding it, but I guess I'll find out at band practice the day before.
On one of your live recordings there was some discussion about this periodic conflict that you and Iggy seemed to go through about every decade or so.
Well no, he has no idea. I mean, we play together and I was seeing if I could out-calorie burn the man. You can't of course. And I think he heard it, he found it hilarious, and said "Well look, how about you and I keep up this duel." And I said to him, "Well great, I get to get shown up by you in Michigan. No thanks!" and he said, "No, no, it'll be fun." And I said, "Alright, you better start eating your wheaties man!" and he thought it was funny.
So when does the training start for this?
Uh, I'm always in training. I live in shape. So I'll be pushing my wind. I think that what we'll probably do is sing a couple of songs together, and what I want to do is "I Gotta Right" because it's fast and it's just one line over and over again, "I gotta right to sing whenever I want, any old time". I think that'd be fun and, uh, that'll be what we'll do. That's what I proposed to Iggy and his manager weeks ago. This thing has been in the planning stages for several weeks. It sold out in like, ten minutes. So I'm saying to Cathy, "Don't worry, I'll get this on the air. We'll get it promoted. I think we're going to be able to sell it out. Iggy doesn't like doing press, I'll do the press. Tickets went on sale in the morning and at like 4 P.M. I get emails from Cathy and Iggy's manager being like, "We're sold out". I went, "Well, that's one less thing to worry about, now we can concentrate on the show."
Mike Watt is playing bass on this?
Yes. Yeah, he's a Stooge.
Awesome, well yeah, he's been touring with those guys for a while too.
Well, you know, since they got back together. He's the perfect choice, because he understands why it works. The Stooges have a very unique lockup with the bass and the drums. You think you can play a Stooges song, like people think they can play a Ramones song...It's a real feel thing. And if there's one bass player I know who would understand why the Stooges' music swings like it does, it's Mike. He's more than a good bass player, he has that instinctive understanding of why this thing cooks like it does. The pocket on those Stooges records, on the first two, it's one kind of thing cause one's a different bass player and then Ron Asheton took over bass on "Raw Power". But the dynamics are different and Mike gets it. He knows how to lock in with Scott Asheton and you know in within like five seconds of listening because either they're going to have it or they're not. When they played at Coachella the first time, someone gave me a CD-R and said, "Well, tell me what you think." And I said, "Well I'll know if it's any good within the first two seconds." Cause it's all about the bass and drums, and when I heard whatever the first song was I went, "Yeah, it's gonna be fine. Mike is in the pocket." So yeah, Mike is the best choice they could've made. I can't think of anyone better.
Watt and Dukowski are probably my all-time favorite bass players.
They're great. They're very different and real distinctive players, both of them with a genius that's very unique unto each guy.
So recently you turned fifty years old. You probably talk quite a bit about this. So how does it feel logging in another decade?
I mean, you wake up one day and it's your birthday and then the next day it's not. You know, you keep putting your shoes on. Fifty's kind of a milestone, we have it in our heads. I'm doing some shows behind it just because it's funny. Someone gave me a cane as a birthday present, it's kind of like that.
It seems that every ten years, after twenty that is...
It's kind of how we do a lot of things. You know, it's metric, the decimal system. But fifty, you know, it's half of a hundred. And you're probably not getting the other half. To be well over the half-way mark it makes one pause and ponder things, it certainly has for me. I think one must take these milestones, big or small as they are, in stride and not let it get to you. Cause you never know, if you play your cards right, you'll be having all this fun twenty five years from now. And they go, "Wow, seventy five, still on stage!" which is what I hope for. I want the George Carlin treatment. Grey, angry, and somehow relevant. That's what I want.