50 - An Interview with Henry Rollins - Feb 22nd, 2011
By Mike Bax
All photos by Chapman Baehler
In this, the fiftieth year in the life of Henry Rollins, the former Häagen-Daz employee, punk rock icon, public speaker and avid traveler decided there was no other way to turn fifty than to tour it.
Being the self-professed road warrior that Henry is, dates were laid out from February through May that will see Rollins all over North America, talking about traveling, growing older, wiser and cresting the almighty half-century mark in front of a live audience.
Will the tour be dignified? Perhaps.
Entertaining? Most definitely.
There are few on the planet with a willingness to travel and learn like Henry Rollins. I type this with zero pandering to the man - the simple fact is this: Rollins has spent the last decade bucking the homogenized journalism and half-true news broadcasts you and I take for granted when we read them in the paper or see them on the television. Where some of us might simply smell a rat, Rollins will procure the necessary Visa, board a plane, and fly out to see that very rat up close and personal. His musings will sometimes shock, offend, entertain, and surprise any who take the time to hear what the man has to say.
Henry Rollins wears many hats. No longer playing music, he can be described as a singer-songwriter, stand-up comedian /spoken word artist, a writer and publisher, a sometime actor, a regular radio DJ, and internet blogger, a political activist and documentarian. In a society where most people seem to walk about deflecting information like their internal hard drives are too full to possibly absorb anything new, Henry seems relentless in the pursuit of truths and information. If CNN says somewhere is unsafe, Henry wants to know why and will fly to wherever to take a look for himself. Throughout the Bush administration, Henry remained very vocal on his opinions of George W Bush and the state of the nation, taking the time to watch, read, and learn as much as he could about why his country was rupturing before his eyes. In 2008, Henry toured extensively around the presidential election that saw Barrack Obama eventually come into power, calling his tour Recountdown. In 2009 - 2010, Henry took his Frequent Flyer Tour all over the world, discussing at length his unique world-view based on his many travels in pursuit of insights unavailable to him through North American newscasting.
This year, on a short run of forty live dates, Henry will be coming through Toronto on March 24th, performing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The tour (simply entitled '50') will be something very much worth seeing, like all of his appearances tend to be. Do put it in your calendars and come out - it's a given that you'll exit the performance more enlightened than when you entered.
Henry: This is Henry.
Mike: Hello Henry. This is Mike. How are you doing?
Henry: Very well, thank you.
Mike: I’m guessing this year, 2011, is likely the most you have ever been wished a happy birthday, Henry.
Henry: Good observation. I believe you are right.
Mike: I’m going to add myself to that lengthy list and wish you a happy 50th.
Henry: Thank you, sir.
Mike: Are you enjoying yourself so far in this fiftieth year of yours?
Henry: Well, yes because I’m doing shows. And that is when I am always at my happiest – when I’m working onstage every night (well, almost every night) And so this year, for a little while, I get to be on the road. This tour started two weeks ago and goes until mid April. That’s not a lot of shows for this year, but next year I’m doing a BIG tour. I’m just doing forty shows this year.
Mike: You did dual shows on February 13th, your actual fiftieth birthday. How were they for you?
Henry: Good. A little jumbled in that we shot them for DVD, and the lights were on brighter because you need to shoot everything. With the lights being on like that you see there’s way more (pauses) faces. It’s harder to concentrate because you can see so much. So it was a little disjointed. I think I did ok. I got some nice letters about the shows.
Mike: So, in general, you don’t see as much of your audience when you are standing up in front of them?
Henry: You see some. The nature of you being lit up and they all not being lit – it’s like looking out the window at night. They can see you and you can make out a little bit of them.
Mike: And for you – they are all looking intently right you.
Henry: Yeeeeah. And that’s not a problem, really. Basically to shoot for DVD in high def you need a lot of light. And so they light the stage, certainly. They also kind of keep the room at about 50% lit, and there’s people that I know in the audience. So I’m looking at people I know (pauses) there’s my mother, right? Right there…
and all of that kind of provides this eye-candy while I’m up there, or at least a distraction that occasionally pulls me away from my performance.
Mike: Do you think she’s freaked out by being in the audience, watching your candor and some of your observations?
Henry: My mother?
Henry: No, she kind of taught me to have all of that candor (laughs). At this point, she’s been watching me be onstage for about thirty years now. I don’t think there is anything I’m doing that she hasn’t seen from me before. I mean, I don’t really keep in very close contact with her. I see her at my shows, basically, when I’m in DC every twenty months or so. We talk briefly. I don't know her all that well now. We’re friends, certainly. But I don't know if we have that mother-son thing going on. I don’t really know what that is. But she is a very interesting woman. She’s been a big influence on me, in that all of the apartments we had in DC when I lived with her are kind of how my place looks now. You know, lots of books; lots of music; lots of art on the walls; and no TV.
Mike: No TV? Interesting.
Henry: Nah. I watch TV on the tour bus. You know, I like that First 48, that crime show?
Mike: Oh yeah. Good show.
Henry: And I’ll watch TV on DVD. I’m not trying to say that I am immune to the Dexter...
but I tend to buy things on DVD and watch them on long flights. In fact, I save those kinds of shows for trans-Atlantic / trans-Pacific flights and jet-lagging in hotel rooms, almost exclusively.
Mike: I think that’s the best way to experience shows - no commercials. Especially shows with ongoing storylines. There’s no waiting a week for that next show…
Henry: Yeah, except I’m like a year and half late… after the show’s been on and everything… then I’m on it. On a tour bus, that First 48 show, if that’s on after we finish doing a show, if that’s on I’ll watch it for sure. Now and then some TV News, too. But by and large I’m a news-hound as many of us are, and I prefer to read it - newspapers or online articles, rather than that CNN thing. Every seven minutes it just repeats. I’m not trying to put down CNN here… I’d just rather read a journalist’s piece on something rather than just get a blip.
Mike: Fair enough. The artwork for this tour, which I’m assuming is by Shepard Fairey again, features a caricature of you with the grim reaper peering over your shoulder.
Henry: Yes, it’s Shepard’s work again.
Mike: Is your material for this tour steered towards being ‘closer to death’, Henry?
Henry: No. Not any more than it usually is…
I’ve been talking about different places I’ve traveled to recently like North Korea and Tibet, China and Vietnam - talking about this and that. There’s some old stories from when I was younger, but nothing like: “I’m fifty now, so here we go into obscurity and senility”. I don’t feel obscure or senile. I’m probably fairly obscure, but I’m not feeling senile just yet. When I’m actually feeling that way, I’m sure I will have forgotten how to spell ‘senile’ so I’m sure I’ll be ok. I could be there now and not even know it. But this isn’t a ‘Woe Is Me’ tour. There’s no way I can let 50 go by and NOT have a few nights on stage to have some fun with it. And really, to give Shepard an image like that – me with the grim reaper… it’s just too funny (laughs). There’s no way I’m leaving 50 alone, and it’s really not a big tour. Next year’s the big one. Next year will be about 160 shows. This year is about 40 or 50.
Mike: Yeah, that’s like a quarter of next year’s number. Crazy.
Henry: Eh, that’s what I do.
Mike: Indeed it is. Do you get nostalgic around milestone birthdays, Henry?
Henry: I’m kind of nostalgic at different times every day. You put a record on and you remember the first time you heard it. You look at an old photograph and relive the moment. I have a lot of things here at the office that remind me of the past in that I collect old music posters. So I’m surrounded by ancient bands, some of whom might even still be touring to some degree. I have a lot of reminders. Also, people send me a lot of photos of myself in the mail or by email. I’m constantly asked questions about Black Flag or something else that I did when I was younger. And so my past is constantly being trotted up to me with people saying, “What about THAT?!” I am constantly in that position of having to reflect and say something about days gone by. So, maybe not nostalgic, but I would say that I remember things with a fair degree of fondness that only distance will allow. And at the time, I was utterly just miserable, you know? But with a little bit of distance you can look back and say, “Well, it wasn’t so bad!” I think that’s a nice coping mechanism. I’d rather have more fond memories than not. And I do have some that no amount of time or perspective will make any less horrible.
Mike: If it was possible - and you met your 20 year old self this year - do you think you’d like him, or even relate to him?
Henry: Uhm… like, maybe. Relate to, maybe not. It’s not like I was a racist when I was twenty, and now I’ve seen the light. I was like a lot of young men, very generic. It’s not like I was anything special. Very hard headed, very hot headed and very quick to judge, as young people often are because they lack perspective. They just haven’t been around much. They haven’t seen a lot of things. You wind up being the wise fool. You might know a little something but you really don’t know that much. You should do a lot more listening than talking. In those days I did a lot more talking than listening. See, now, I’m making up for lost time. I listen quite a bit AND I talk quite a bit.
Mike: I’m sure when you were younger you had people you idolized. Are they the same people you respect now?
Henry: Yeah, believe it or not, Ian MacKaye, my buddy who I grew up with; Iggy Pop; Muhammad Ali; Abraham Lincoln. People like that. Ian I have met. Iggy I have met. Lincoln, sadly, he died before my time. There’s a lot of people who I admire, certainly, a lot of people I grew up with, I still keep in touch with them. I still see them. Nearly thirty years and I still hang out with the same people when I am in Washington, or wherever they have moved to. There is still a bond, and most of that is from the music.
Mike: Are you finding yourself starting to struggle with keeping up with things like TV? Technology? Progress?
Mike: I remind myself of my parents more and more in that I now have to read more instructions for new purchases; I gloss over at some of the ways people socialize and communicate now; Jersey Shore makes me feel like television audiences took a stupid pill. I feel a bit more obsolete every year, it seems.
Henry: Ok, right. I’ve never seen it (Jersey Shore). I guess it’s a reality show… I’ve seen pictures of the cast. I know the one woman gets a bit of headlines. It’s not a show that… I’m not putting it down, it’s good work if you can get it, I guess… but so far it’s not interested me at all. The fact that I don’t know about that show doesn’t bug me. I like to think that I’m frying some pretty big fish with some of what I do, and it takes up a lot of my time. So no, I don’t Tweet. I don’t do 'the Facebook'. I can’t look at everything. I do have my days pretty much pre-set. I’m not standing around – I’m onto stuff, so that takes up a lot of my time being at all of these various projects. I don’t really feel like I’m missing out. To do one thing is to miss out something else. But to not know who won on American Idol, I don’t think that’s any great loss.
Mike: You are still an active music aficionado, correct? I know you still like the music of your youth very much. What about what’s happening right now? Are you excited by anything music-wise currently?
Henry: Yeah, sure. There’s a lot of great young bands. There’s a lot of great music coming out of the American mid-West – Ohio and Michigan. All the noise-bands… like Wolf Eyes and Dead Machines, labels like American Tapes. These fiercely independent labels where all the records are hand made. Sometimes the vinyl is hand-lathed
and they don’t even bother cutting the corners or anything; You get a square seven inch, cut from a slab of plastic with a spray-painted cover. That is reeeaaaaly working for me. I’m into a lot of that kind of music… which I guess could be considered ‘room-clearing noise’, but I dig it. There’s a lot of younger people like Marnie Stern on killrockstars – she’s a great female guitar player. I think she’s amazing. HUGE fan. I play her on my show all the time. Lots of great labels out there are doing some great things - Dischord, Ian MacKaye’s lable; Ipecac, Mike Patton’s label; of course, killrockstars; there’s lots of great labels doing lots of great stuff. Subpop is doing the new J Mascis solo album. They sent it to me the other day because I BEGGED…
I’m such a terminal J Mascis fanatic. He’s the best. There’s lots of stuff… you are kind of spoiled for choice as far as music coming out. I think as long as there are young people out there – they’ll always be plugging into something and making interesting music happen. When older people… people like me kind of lock themselves into this static position of: “Well, back in my day we planted the flag here, and you kids don’t know what I went through!” That’s just so boring to me. You can’t go anywhere with that, it just doesn’t travel. It just sits there and says, “Well, we hacked through the dense underbrush so you could have a Starbucks there”. Maybe some of that is true. The Stooges and the Velvet Underground got punched in the mouth so Black Flag could get punched with maybe a cleaner fist. So what then… youth bands now can have a better more efficient trajectory? I don’t know. Every band is going to struggle if they are worth anything. That will never change. It’s not for me to say, “We were more real”. When band’s do that they are just showing their insecurity. Every band is real. Bon Jovi keeps it real, right? I can’t put the guy down. It seems like he’s working hard. He’s not my kind of music but more power to him. That perspective is something I couldn’t have reached as a young person. That might not have occurred to me as a young person.
Mike: Back in the eighties, I was impressed by your raw intensity and by your stage presence as a musician. Now, I can still say that I am impressed by the same things, but I find I am more intrigued by your willingness to be informed.
Henry: Yeah. How else are you going to get information? You have to listen. And these days I get listened to a lot. I do more press than anyone I’ve met because I just say yes to every interview. Why not? I go on stage and I speak. I notice that young people listen to me. They write to me with a great deal of seriousness. I don’t, thankfully, take myself seriously but I take information seriously. And I take the fact that I’m being listened to with a great deal of seriousness. So, to justify being listened to, I try to be as well informed as I can. Hence, the travel. Reading is good too. Reading gets you part way there, and I do read pretty voraciously for a guy who’s trying to write so much. When you are writing it take sup a lot of your time, right? But I try and have my game on. If I am going to speak out about a country, most of the time, it’s a country I have been to. I am loath to speculate on a country that I have not been to. And just because I have been to a country for a week, we both know that doesn’t make me an expert on that country. But at minimum, it gives me perspective, and I can detail what happened when I was there. Anything else and it’s like you are trying to reference things.
I’ve been to Egypt loads of times. I’ve driven across the Sinai and lived on the Nile. That’s all very nice… but it certainly doesn’t mean that I know anything about what happened in Cairo. But I do have a sense of history… so by reading I can get insight into history’s great repeat, as all cultures do – no culture seems to learn that lesson. Those who don’t read are doomed to repeat. Everyone seems to read, yet they still repeat. Like Barack Obama – I’ll bet he knows a few things that I don’t know. Yet, look at him. Look where he is. He is in Afghanistan. And I don’t know why he can’t listen to Alexander the Great and the Mongols and the Brits and the Soviets, who all eventually left. And so shall we, either on our shields or on our feet, but we will be leaving. It just depends on how much blood he wants to let seep into the soil, and how much ill-will he feels like engendering. But that is where the history comes into play, and I have been to Afghanistan a couple of times so I can bring that into the conversation. So yeah, I try and get informed. It costs me a lot of money to do so. I travel the world to get informed, literally. I’ll go to that place. I went to Iran a couple of years ago because I wanted to be able to talk about Iran and not have to say, “Well, I read this or that’’ and have no perspective. Or quote Fox news in dialogue… if I’m doing that, I have nothing, you know?
Mike: Did you ever consider politics, Henry?
Mike: You don’t strike me as someone easily intimidated. There is a part of me that can to see you debating the hell out of some issues in congress.
Henry: Well, you know, I definitely have an opinion on a lot of stuff like many of my fellow Americans enjoying our First Amendment freedoms. But no. I was raised in Washington DC. My mom worked for the government. I was around politicians. My mom was on Hubert Humphry’s election campaign. I’ve seen photos of her and L.B.J. (Lyndon B. Johnson) standing next to each other. Politics is a thing that I follow because it determines what is going on in my country, but I vote and deal with politicians with a great degree of jaundiced eye. And there is none among them that I want to meet, unless I could meet the president and ask him to please get my countrymen out of Afghanistan, Gitmo and Iraq along with the other hundred and fifty odd countries which for some reason we still have an American military presence.
That would be the only thing I would have to say to Barack Obama besides, “Hey man, I voted for you”.
Mike: I always get a charge out of seeing you in movies and on TV. I haven’t seen Sons Of Anarchy yet, but it’s on my list…
Henry: Oh you better… it turned out good.
Mike: Stephen King was on this recent season, and I’m a big King fan.
Henry: I haven’t seen this recent season yet. I didn’t know he was on it. That’s cool.
Mike: It is my next purchase on DVD, for sure. I recently re-watched Lost Highway and Heat. You’ve worked with some of the finest directors in the medium Henry. Do you intend to continue to act?
Henry: Oh yeah, as long as they continue to pay me. For me, movie work and TV work is interesting. I don’t take myself seriously in it – I’m not an actor. But I take the work quite often more seriously than some of the actors on the set. I don’t drop lines – I come very prepared. I work very hard at it, but I am not an actor. Between tours I am unemployed and looking for work, and I live in Hollywood and acting is the work that is here for me. So I go at it as best I can and try and fake it with really disciplined and trained actors who are REALLY good. And I’m there with them, trying to put across this fraud because I’m not a trained actor. I give it my best shot and hopefully will keep getting work like that.
I sign up for all kinds of things. If you watch a stretch of TV for a few hours, there is a good chance you’ll hear me on some commercial or in some documentary or on a cartoon as some voice of a character.
Mike: I read somewhere that you do a lot of voiceover work. And I have been caught a few times catching an overdub and thinking, “Is that Henry Rollins?”
Henry: Oh yeah. It probably was. I do a lot of it.
Mike: Did your time on stage with David Eagleman a few weeks ago yield any surprises for you?
(David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. www.eagleman.com)
Henry: Yeah. I thought he was fascinating. What was interesting is that there is so much more to dreams than I had considered before I met him. That was really fun. He’s a fascinating guy. He’s very young and very brilliant. And just to find out rudimentary 101-type facts about dreams and the dream state was so interesting. The part of your body & brain that commands physical activity pretty much shuts down when you dream. So you don’t thrash around running from some monster. I did not know that. Like many people you have those nightmares where you are drowning or whatever, and you’d think you’d be throwing the sheets across the room, but when you do wake up, you are still kind of in the same position you were in when you fell asleep. I was surprised that you could be thrashing about in a dream and doing nothing of the sort in your bed. When your dreaming you shut down, so you won’t plug your wife in the head when you are having nightmares you know – like being chased by a bear.
It was an amazing hour and a half, and I’m so glad that I was asked to be a part of it.
Mike: I understand you hosted a special on National Geographic that airs in a few months centered around snakes.
Henry: Oh yeah. We shot that last June. That’s been in the can for quite a while. It turned out really well.
Mike: So you have seen it? It’s finished?
Henry: Oh yeah. I saw the finished product in October.
Mike: How does something like that come about for you? Does National Geographic phone you up for this stuff?
Henry: Begging? (laughter) When I was at AMC, I was in France shamelessly promoting my IFC show at Vidcom at Cannes trying to get people to pick it up – other territories of distribution. And I met people from National Geographic who said to me “You seem to someone interested in going places. Would you like to work at National Geographic?” and I said “Hurry! Yesterday.”
I come from Washington DC, and I grew up near the Nat Geo building. So things go into the working progress after Canne, and meet who now is my boss there, an amazing woman named Juliet Blake – who is one of my favourite people. She is just so delightfully free of bull. She is so blunt, because it’s all she has time for as she keeps so busy.
Voice of pitcher: “What about this idea?”
Voice of Juliet: “That one sucks. Tell me another one.”
Voice of pitcher: “O.k.”
(laughter) Juliet is really great to meet.
Mike: She sounds brutally honest.
Henry: Uh huh. She was the one who kept sticking up for me. She was bringing my name up at meetings and her bosses didn't see it. This went on for years. So she’d call me every once in a while and tell me she was still pushing for me to be at National Geographic. And I’d reply with “that’s nice, but we both know it’s not going to happen”. And finally one day, her bosses saw it her way. And that was about a year ago. So we started to go into negotiations and for now, I’m a presenter of documentaries at National Geographic.
Mike: I think that’s pretty cool.
Henry: How long will it last? I have no idea. It’s all about ratings. If you do this project, or a few of them, and the viewers don’t dig you… Nat Geo will probably have to have that “we love you and goodbye” conversation with me. It’s all about the numbers at the end of the day.
Mike: This doesn’t strike me as a vehicle for Henry Rollins though. It’s not like something all of your fans will flock to because you are attached to. It’s more about the show itself, and what the documentary is about. You just happen to be there hosting something informative.
Henry: Well, yeah. I just happened to be in Juliet’s office when Jeff (Morales) from Nat Geo Wild came in.
He said, “Wow, you’re Henry Rollins. What are you doing in our building?”
I said, “I might be working with you guys.”
And he says, “Oh. Ok, cool. You want to do a thing about snakes for Nat Geo Wild? Are you afraid of snakes?”
I come back with, “Quite the opposite, I’ve been handling them since I was a little kid.”
And Jeff says, “Well, maybe you are the right guy for this.”
And he showed me the treatment for what was to become the Snakes special I was involved in and I said I was into doing it immediately. That became my first little employ for Nat Geo.
Mike: Nice. You mentioned IFC a little earlier, and I’m just going to close off with this one, Henry. Is there any chance IFC will release season two of the Henry Rollins Show on DVD? I’d love to own it.
Henry: Season Two? In Australia it did. Heh. How obscure is that? I sound like Spinal Tap, “Oh, the Scandinavian pressing is the rare one…” In America they offered me the chance to license it from them (IFC) to release on DVD for some stupid price – like just ridiculous amounts of money. And the music licensing deals on all of those bands you see on the show run out in, like, eight minutes. So I said no thanks. I think they put them on iTunes though. So they are downloadable on iTunes and there is a DVD edition in Australia if that’s not too desperately obscure for you.
Mike: No, I’ve got an all-region DVD player I keep around here for just this sort of obscurity. I’ll hit the ‘net and get that Aussie edition into my hoarde. I’ve honestly been holding off thinking it would eventually trickle out as a North American release. I thought it was good television
Henry: I thought we did such a good second season, too. I thought we had some good work there. Gore Vidal and Iggy, and Shatner?? I mean, come ON! We had Larry Flint. I really thought we’d get another season. IFC has always been really nice to me. And they took their money and went elsewhere. They seem to be more of a comedy channel now. If you look at them as a whole they do funny stuff now. Their motto is “always on – a little bit off”… Ohh – Kaaaye.
Mike: It’s been really good talking to you, Henry. I look forward to seeing your show in Toronto on March 24th.
Henry: I’m looking forward to it myself. Make sure you get to the show if you can, because we are going to have a bit of performance art at the show that I think you will find very pleasing. See you soon.