Henry Rollins returns—and he has a lot on his mind
With a brawny build, a shaven head sprouting gray, and darting eyes that stare down like a bull about to pounce on a cape-waving Spaniard, Henry Rollins can pierce through the lens of a camera looking like a mean mofo. But, as he’ll tell you himself, he really just aims to be one polite dude. Pleasant and matter-of-fact, a one-on-one chat with the guy proves to be more of a relaxing, earnest exchange of ideas. Is the infamous Black Flag and Rollins Band frontman a big softy? Pretty much. But a pushover, he ain’t.
Outspoken about any topic you throw his way, Rollins isn’t slowing down as he approaches the gates of 50. Onstage, whether in a rock band or as spoken-word connoisseur, he’s always been pure adrenaline. These days, it’s well-thought-out adrenaline pummeling smart yet gut-busting commentary on everything from war to women, politics to mix tapes, and anything in between. And, most importantly, everywhere in between.
Roaming the globe is what gives him the greatest satisfaction, and it’s during his fearless travels that he culls the topics for his onstage banter. “I have the South African constitution bookmarked in my laptop, so I was actually quoting it to the audiences over [in South Africa],” he remarks from his tour bus in Canada, noting his current fixation with Apartheid and one country’s political and social recovery from it. His shows, like his writings, are bold in their duality: Rollins can be lighthearted and self-deprecating one minute, then confidently scathing when broaching serious matters the next.
As an author of several books, he journals on the road like a mad man, reads voraciously, and scours through music with the obsessive quality of John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity—retaining, in a no-holds-barred manner, the curiosity of someone forever young. Before taking the Rio Theatre stage for another memorable talk on his “Frequent Flyer Tour” on Saturday, June 5, Henry Rollins reveals his take on life on the road, Mandela, visiting the Middle East, tunes, and—I had to go there—vandalism as anarchist activism.
GT: You’ve written a lot about loneliness in your books. Is traveling a cure or a cause?
HENRY ROLLINS: Both. I really don’t get all that lonely at this point. It’s kind of a feeling that’s dried up as I’ve gotten older. The thing that makes you feel most isolated is being around so many people. I meet a lot of people: I’m in front of them all night and then outside of the bus after the show I talk to anyone who is there until they leave, every photo gets taken, everything gets signed, every question gets answered. And they’re very nice people, it’s not like I’m running away from them. … But that in a way is very isolating, it’s a very distanced relationship; they know you from a book or a record or a show they just saw, so you say thank you a lot, which is nice, and then they split. Then you find yourself hyper alone, and it’s how you deal with that. Some people medicate and that’s why you see so many people on tours get into so many bad habits.
What’s informing your current tour?
I went to South Africa a week and a half ago and it was really informative. It’s an oddly inspirational place because you see this country standing up and walking off Apartheid. Even though it’s in the past, it had such a hold on that country and you see what has been done from legislature to just awareness of a whole country. I got to hang out with a guy named Dennis Goldberg, who was the white guy who did all the time with Nelson Mandela and all those guys. He did 22 years for standing up to Apartheid … and I was allowed to go through Mandela’s prison journals to look through his notebooks. It gave me an overwhelming amount to think about, and I’m still getting my head around it.
What stood out to you in Mandela’s journals?
His eloquence, his grace under pressure. From what little I read and from what little I know of the man, somehow he never lost his humanity, and that’s what they were trying to strip him of by treating him like some barnyard animal. … I think I might walk out of a place like that with a chip on my shoulder.
What’s the one thing you want people to walk away from your show thinking?
That it has to be more than just looking out for yourself, at this point. If you don’t look out for someone else, the way we’re going right now is unsustainable.
You’re anti-war and anti-Bush but you’ve done USO tours. How was it to entertain soldiers abroad?
I always tell [the USO] the same thing, “At this point if you use me for anything, it’s either Iraq or Afghanistan, otherwise don’t bother.” I’m not going to Germany or Hawaii where it’s soft, just only send me to Baghdad or Kabul. … There’s nothing like sitting in a dining facility with a bunch of soldiers as they all watch Fox News and laugh at it. Or you see a news report of something that you actually heard happen that morning. Like when you’re watching a report of a bombing in Afghanistan as it’s being beamed in from Atlanta, Georgia, and you remember how three hours ago that blast woke you up. And that is what happened to me in Afghanistan; I heard all these explosions and then at lunch I watched it on TV. And [soldiers] just laugh and say “that’s the G version.” Their reality is so hyper real compared to you and me in that it’s on the line every day, and so you quickly see what’s on and what’s not on for discussion.
Anarchists recently vandalized Downtown Santa Cruz. As a punk veteran and activist, what are your thoughts on that form of protest?
It’s hard to get people to side with you if your response is to put a brick through the window. Although, I do like it that every summer or so in France people just pick a McDonald’s and get mad at it and smash its windows out, because it’s just vile to so many French people who see such crappy food served in their country—so I think it’s funny. But on a more serious note, if you’re trying to get your point across and your public display is breaking a store’s windows, it’s hard to get a more mainstream consensus because all you are is radical and very few people will see it your way. … Ultimately that kind of destruction, I don’t know, I don’t think it gets through. I don’t think the goal is achieved; I think you just get arrested, thrown in jail, have a bad week and get fined a ton of money. I think you can vote with your feet, vote with your dollar, vote with your vote. I think when you try to destroy a place they just sweep up the glass and start again.
What’s on your current playlist?
There’s a band called Jaguar Love, which is Johnny Whitney and he’s very good, and the new album is called Hologram Jams. I also always try to throw in a good dose of world music into [my LA radio show], specifically Africa and Southeast Asia; music from Java, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam. There’s a new Omar Souleyman record coming out any second and I think I just ordered mine. He’s a guy from Syria. A big thrill for me late last year when I was in Saudi Arabia was when I hit record stores in Riyad and was able to walk out of there with Omar Souleyman CDs. The guy behind the counter was just scratching his head at this weird white guy holding on to a CD going, “No way, only seven bucks!” which I was doing.
What book are you reading?
I’m reading two. I’m reading “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid” by David Welsh, and I’m reading the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln in “The Portable Abraham Lincoln.”
How does your talking show affect you in comparison to rock shows?
The music is a whole different thing due to the nature of the work; there’s all that volume, all that sweat, and the incredible amount of calories expended. With spoken-word I strive for absolute control of the material because I’m just talking not yelling. It’s not like I’m out of breath and losing two pounds of water weight each night onstage. So basically it’s a constant bit of concentration, which is incredibly taxing. Last night I was onstage for two hours and 48 minutes with no break, no water, no nothing. After you walk off stage you sit down and it kinda catches up with you after about three minutes of adrenalized euphoria that I pulled it off, I did it!
So why don’t you ever stop to drink water or take a break during your shows?
I have this weird idea that if I take that amount of time and kind of release [the audience] from the grip, the show will somehow go sideways. So I just try to hold them by the scruff of their neck until I say goodnight.
Henry Rollins speaks at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 5, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22/adv, $24/door. For more information, call 423-8209 or go to ticketweb.com.