Musician/actor/talker/personality Henry Rollins has been in touch Iann Robinson for years, long before Robinson’s days as the MTV VJ Horatio Sanz once spoofed on Saturday Night Live. Since Henry Rollins headlines Irving Plaza tonight and tomorrow, we asked Robinson to get his old acquaintance on the phone. This is what happened.
My first encounter with Henry Rollins came via a letter. I have always been a Black Flag fan–their logo is permanently inked into my skin in two separate places–but it was Rollins’s voice on Damaged that hooked me. One day I decided to write the man, figuring I’d never hear back. Instead Rollins wrote back not just a letter, but a fairly lengthy one.
During my MTV years as a VJ, I got to speak to Rollins on two separate occasions. One of my only fond memories from that era was when Henry called me to ask if I could do a quick blurb about his benefit record for the West Memphis Three–instead I got him an MTV web site feature and a full interview. After my career as music whore ended, only a handful of my celebrity “friends” remained in touch, but Rollins was one of them. He’s offered me advice, read my comic books, and given me some solid writing pointers.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not best buddies. But Rollins has always been very cool and very appreciative of my small attempts to help out. Not everybody likes Rollins, which is fine because not everybody likes me. Regardless, he is always outspoken, funny, and, most importantly, he looks ahead instead of wallowing in his past. Once again, I had the good fortune to interview the man. And once again, I learned some things.
You tour constantly, you do lots of spoken word talks all year. You have pretty much mapped out the rest of this year. Does it still surprise you that people come out and listen? Like do you ever walk out on stage and go, “Well they’re here. I wasn’t sure, but there they are.”
Yes. It surprises me that sometimes the crowds get bigger. The biggest show I’ve ever done was yesterday in London. I sold out the Royal Festival Hall to 2500 hundred people.
Yeah, I felt like Freddie Mercury for a minute–um yeah, that’s a hell of a thing, no openers just me. I’m 49 and the audiences are in many places growing, where it goes into the second night, the third night. And I’m just grateful. Because without gratitude, you suck–you know what I mean? What good are you if you’re not thankful?
So it’s completely surprising to me, and it’s a little terrifying, in that I feel a real duty to this audience. I can’t overemphasize that. Like if I do a bad show I must lose a finger.
You’re performing at some festivals. Are you doing spoken word there or music?
No, no. I got no band right now, no band members, no band plans, so it’s all me, just me on my own, the whole year, just talking.
I’m sure you’ve covered this before, but just for me, what made you decide that you were kind of done with music for now?
The necessity of doing old music music on tour. I went out in 2006 and played old music with my old bandmates [in Rollins Band], and while I love them dearly, you remember why you broke up with that girl when you go out to dinner with her a month later. “Oh yeah, I remember why we broke up. I really want to get out of here.”
When bands break up and you get back together, by the second show, all we remembered was why we broke up. The shows were fine, we didn’t talk much between shows. It was not acrimonious; we just kind of came to the end of it. It was our guitar player’s idea to reunite, and we all kind of went, “Okay!”And so we did six weeks opening for X. Pretty fun, we played very well, and I was very happy when it was over. I said “Okay, that’s it. No more old material.”
And then in ’07, I saw Van Halen play. I had a night off, we called David Lee Roth and said, “Hey, can we come see the show?” I’ve known David Lee for many years, and we went, and Dave gave us great seats. And the band was awesome. But it was men in their 50s playing music they wrote in their 20s. It’s something John Coltrane would never do.
I take my cues from the jazz guys–and from Ian MacKaye. You notice if the drummer quits in Ian’s band, he just makes a new band, he just moves on. And he’s really unsentimental: “Fugazi–yup one of the many bands I’ve been in. What’s next?” He’s not cold. Just like, “It is what it is. It was what it was. And let’s get on to what it will be.”
One of the things I’ve always respected about Ian is that no matter how much money they throw at him, there has not, nor will there ever be, a Minor Threat reunion.
He’s not interested. It’s not a money thing. When I see Jane’s Addiction get back together, when I see these bands reunite, like the Buzzcocks, who I love, who go out and play that same set every night for the 30th year–I guess it’s a paid check. I’d rather starve, personally.
I’m not putting down Ozzy who goes out and sings “Paranoid” every night of his life. And I’ve had a chance to talk to Ozzy about that, and I say, “You go out and play all those songs every night” and he goes, “Yeah, I like to make people happy.” I understand. It’s a different head. It’s an older-school show-business head. I don’t want to do it. And most of the time, I don’t want to watch. The only time I’ll watch is when Iggy goes out and does Stooges songs because he’s still terrifying.
That’s an animalistic thing. He’s primal.
I saw the Stooges do seven shows on that last tour and it was terror. It’s fucking godhead. He’s a murderer. He’s terrifying. I’ll walk on bloody stumps to see him play.
But I don’t want to do it. And at age 50, there’s nothing you can tell me about writing, or recording, or touring music that I don’t already know.
So the talking shows allow me to live how I’m living now and go onstage and tell you about it. Music was maybe the abstract of that message: give it to you nine months later for the next three years. I’m now Sun Ra’s Arkestra instead of cookie cutter here-we-do-the-set-again over and over. I’m enjoying the latitude.
The spoken-word stuff allows me to make more trouble. You can get in a whole lot more trouble with your mouth than with a song.
There’s no artistic interpretation. It’s “This is what he said.” Instead of, “He could’ve meant this, he could’ve meant that.”
Like you know, I get a lot of access these days. I can get on some pretty major airwaves and say my First Amendment-given freedom-of -speech things. As far as politics, I’m very short and to the point. Something like healthcare. My take on it is there’s only so much money to go around. There’s a distribution problem that ultimately, either you favor preventative care–which makes it less time in the emergency room, less chronic care. And if you put the same amount of money you put into the Iraq War into America’s youth, you probably have less war, less robbery rate, spousal abuse, and out-of-marriage babies. So either you invest in America, or you invest in the problem, and that’s what they call disaster capitalism. You could put all my politics in two paragraphs, and you either agree or disagree.
I err towards common sense and being a humanitarian: I don’t like the guy in the Ku Klux Klan, but I don’t want him to lose his house if his wife gets breast cancer because I think there’re alternatives, and we can take better care. But that’s about as political as I get [in my talks]. Besides having fun with Sarah Palin, because she deserves my wrath.
Exactly, she deserves everybody’s wrath.
I get incredibly misspelled letters telling me that Sarah Palin is the do-all and end-all and that I’m a communist–it’s great to see communist spelled with a K.
[But in general] I just basically tell stories from the world and on the road. Like tonight, I’m going to probably go on stage and open with a thing that me and Ian MacKaye just finished doing an hour and a half ago. We got this behind-the-scenes tour of the National Archives. I was holding onto pieces of paper signed by Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, Davy Crockett, John Adams, and my mind is a little blown–make that a lot blown.
I get some cool opportunities, you know me, I travel to Afghanistan, Iraq and places like that. So I can get back to you–the audience member–with some pretty cool reportage. And that’s what this show covers. My politics come from feet-on-the-ground, not some wonky pseudo intellectual place.
It’s “I’ve been there, this is what I saw,” as opposed to “War is bad.”
Exactly. My take on war. I’ll tell you about the times I went the military hospitals in DC and I hung out with lots of young men with their faces gone, their balls blown off, their brains sucked out of their heads, skulls missing to where it’s all just soft tissue. The many afternoons at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] with guys who will be hooked up to a machine for the rest of their life–oh and they already have two kids and a wife. You see life so completely destroyed.
All my politics come from there: what it smelled like, here’s what it sounded like.
I’m sure Bono means [his activism] or Shakira means it, but I don’t know how much they’ve actually experienced or lived it.
I think [Bono’s] humanitarian efforts actually do get a lot done and if you give him the opportunity to get up on some crazy shit, he’d go for it. I think he really means it.
If I can get down the throat of something I will. And that’s why I travel the way I do. You give me three weeks off, I’m out, I’m out of America, I’m somewhere hot, or you know someplace the President told me not to go. That’s why I went to Iran, that’s why I went to Syria, it’s why I went to Lebanon, it’s why I went to Pakistan.
I was in Dubai one night eating dinner with some American people and they said, “Never go to Pakistan.” So I went, and you know me, I’m not some tough guy, I’m just looking for information. There’s no way to learn about America like going to Cambodia and seeing what America looks like in Cambodia, or Jakarta, Indonesia, where you see America washing up on the shore of other countries.
You’re afforded tremendous opportunity to do this much traveling, rather than just sitting at home and doing this comfortable tour. Everyone I know would like to travel to these places just to experience it, but we don’t all have the opportunity. So it’s almost like, “Well, let’s hear what Henry has to say simply because he was there.”
Right. Well actualizing the thing is what it’s all about to me. I’m not saying no one is entitled to an opinion from afar. But that’s why I like investigative journalists, and people who are there as the rockets are passing overhead.
But anyway, I do have some music projects lined up with some different people that I’m trying to do in the next year.
Like what? Is it anything you can talk about?
It would not be old material, it would be different people doing new material. We came to the conclusion–me and these worthy constituents that I’ve been talking with–and the less we plan the better. We’re basically going to roll a hard drive on this thing and see what happens, hopefully later in the year.
What’s this Flaming Lips thing? The Pink Floyd cover record?
The Flaming Lips covered Dark Side of the Moon, and as you know on that record, there’s a lot of speaking and laughing and craziness, and they asked me to supply all that voiceover. So I did–and now I’m on a Flaming Lips record. You couldn’t meet nicer people. They’re a great band too.
It’s tough to top Dark Side of the Moon, but if there was one band that somebody said, “Here’s band that’s going to do it,” and you go, “Okay.”
They didn’t cover it, they reinterpreted sonically, and it’s fucking impressive. I’m all over that record. I think they’re going to do it at Bonnaroo this year. And I might be at Bonnaroo, and if I’m asked, I will have to get that together.
I was as surprised as anybody to see you on Sons of Anarchy, playing a white supremecist. Acting isn’t your main thing–do you do it because it will help finance the other things you want to do? Or are you at a point where it’s just fun?
I’m at the point that I like to work–and, of course, cash flow is nice, as far as expenditures one has in ones’ life. As far as making a [personal] project happen, I don’t need a show to do it. I can just do it. But I’ve been showing up to work since I was about 13, throwing newspapers on and on, and that’s what I do: I like to work. Like ALL the time.
Also, I got the radio show in LA as you know, and that keeps me busy. I got me and my assistant, and I work.
Is it hard to do the radio show as much as you’re on the road?
Yeah, it’s a bitch. We do the whole thing from the road, on the bus. I have ProTools, we send in the parts to my engineer, he glues it all together, and whala, we have FM.
And you’re going to be on the RuPaul show?
Yeah, I shot an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race for RuPaul because he’s my pal. Ru’s the man. I’m one of the guest judges this season. You judge the different performances of the different lady boys, as they like to be called.
You’re always doing different things. Does it ever surprise you the breadth of things you’re called in to do?
Basically, I don’t say no to much [work]. I’m not eclectic, nor am I a renaissance man, I just like staying busy. And so I’ve been lucky. I get these crazy calls, and “Hey, you want to do this?” And I’m like, “Yeah,” so I go. I’m not always prepared for it, I just lean into the wind [laughs] and see what happens.
That’s a great way to be.
I’m just trying to make good on peoples’ trust and to make good on the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m real lucky, I got to be in a cool band, I came out of the minimum-wage working world and won the lottery basically. I got to be in Black Flag, and from there, all of this. I have them to thank.
Do you think Black Flag helped focus your work ethic? You seem to have a pretty tremendous work ethic.
I had a lot of that from my upbringing. But then you get around Ginn, Dukowski–I thought I was hard worker and then I joined Black Flag, and that was like boot camp. I found I’d never gotten out of second gear and those guys were continually in fifth.
The first year in that band was like running to keep up with these guys who could do a 16-hour days standing on their heads. That first year was a lot of adjusting for me to do. I had no idea what I was in for. Where you draw the line and say you’re done? They’re a mile up the road and saying, “Hurry up.”
A lot of your peers tend to spend more going, “Oh it was the best back in the good old days.” Why is that? Do you think it was better in the good old days, or do you not even think of it that way?
The past I have fond memories of, but things were different in those days. But I think things are great now. It’s an amazing time to be alive–we live in very interesting times. And while I might wax nostalgic when I walk down the old streets, I’d much rather be in 2010 and then in 1980. I’d much rather be 49 than 20. That’s why they make records, so you can go back and play them and go, “oh yeah.” But then you back and look at journal entries from those days: “I’m so MISERABLE!” We tend to paint the past with gold and sand off the jagged edges–like when the chick left.
I like where I am now with me and things that come with age. Like knees that always hurt and in the howling in the right ear. Thankfully, I have a sense of humor and I laugh at it.
Why do you think after all these years, Henry Rollins is still someone to champion and respect?
The reason I’m still around through all this is persistence. And the fact that I’ve always gone for myself, in that I’ve never hooked onto a trend, it was just me doing me. I stuck to that, that’s what the talking shows are about, what my books are about. I stuck to my guns through times of great poverty–well, less than poverty–I did it my way.
Believe me, many slings and arrows came my way. Every bad review of the book–probably because it sucked–but I’m still here. And when you win doing it your way, your name is signed at the bottom of all the sheets of paper. And so it’s all yours at the end of the day because you toughed it out.