In celebration of his 50th birthday, the ageless Henry Rollins has launched another talking tour. It’s always a special occasion when the rocker/author/ humorist shares his wit and wisdom.
He does a weekly radio show on the Los Angeles NPR affiliate, KCRW. In April, Nat Geo WILD will air a TV special, world traveler Rollins exploring “Snake Underworld.”
We thought it would be an ideal time to share three of our past Rollins feature stories. For the latest Rollins news, including tour dates, visit www.henryrollins.com.
ROLLINS HAS SPOKEN!
by Paul Freeman - 2008
Henry Rollins could be the Last Angry Man. And you’d better listen when he talks. Not because he’s built like a tank. No, you should hang on his every word, because he’s remarkably astute, insightful and funny.
Perhaps the last bastion of common sense, Rollins is on a spoken word tour that brings him back to the Bay Area. The punk/hardcore icon, author, poet, actor and host of IFC’s “The Henry Rollins Show,” makes hours seem like minutes as he wittily rails against society’s absurdities and disgraces. He’s Lenny Bruce without the self-destruction. Mort Sahl with tattoos.
His intense discourses are ripped from today’s headlines. “I talk about where I’ve been lately and this year was a lot of travel,” Rollins says. “I was in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. All of those places are in the news - depending on where you look. All of those trips were informative and substantive.
“My President, now that his mind isn’t tended by Karl Rove, says some really incredible things about how dead or alive Nelson Mandela is. So I’ve got to talk about that. There’s a lot going on in the news, as we ratchet up the speak, heading towards Iran. Things need to be monitored very carefully right now.”
Rollins has done seven USO tours, including such danger zones as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The most eye-opening of all the USO stuff I do is always the hospital visits - Walter Reade, Bethesda Medical. Two weeks ago I was at Bethesda and most of the young men I visited that day were T.B.I. - traumatic brain injury. Parts of their brains are gone, parts of their skulls are gone. They had heads that looked like a deflated ball. That’s hard. I’m 46. They’re kids to me, in their twenties. And their lives are so changed now.
“Most of these visits, I’m in orthopedic - meeting guys with their legs gone, or some kind of awful combination - arm, leg, eye,part of the face, whatever. Usually IEDs (improvised explosive device), maybe mortars.”
Too much of the public is disconnected from these harshest realities of the war. “They’re not well served by the media in this country. The information is out there, but Fox News won’t show it. People like Wolf Blitzer lightly gloss over it. They’ll announce that there’s casualties or mention Walter Reade... but they won’t tell you what it smells like... or just how grim or how packed these places are. It’s not like it’s a few people missing an arm or a leg. It’s room after room, hallway after hallway, floor after floor, building after building.”
Some Bush supporters dismiss detractors as weaklings who don’t have the stomach for war. “War is easy,” Rollins says. “There are wars all the time. Peace is hard. You’ve got to sit in a room with people you disagree with and hate and come up with a solution. That takes some real strength.”
He would like to see a more objective look at the Iraqi situation. “It’s not a matter of the Iraqis hating America. The discussion should be, ‘How would you handle it, if you were in their shoes?’’ We have military bases in like 130 countries in the world. Can you imagine if the Russiansdared to set up a military base in San Francisco and one Russian soldier at a bar on a Friday night punched out some local?
“We do this in other countries all the time. We rape. We kill. You can read all about it in Chalmers Johnson’s book ‘Nemesis.’ We wave our d--k in everyone’s coffee everywhere and get mad when they go, ‘Hey, f--- off!’ That’s what the Iraqis are doing now. We just repackage them and call them insurgents. They’re basically the locals, doing what you would do. If there was a guy kicking your door in, clipping your car with his Humvee when he drove by, you’d be pretty incensed.”
Rollins would like to see our government’s differences with Iran settled by nonmilitary means. Iranians are not a faceless foe to him. “I met a lot of people and I hope none of them get killed. I like their kids. I went all over Tehran. I had phone numbers and addresses to contact . Had home cooking every night. Explored the city by myself. No one told me to leave. Quite the opposite. People were extremely friendly, funny, very cool. Same thing in Syria and Lebanon. Government’s usually one way, the people are another. In Iran, they’re scared. They’re scared of Bush. They don’t want to die.
“if we go into Iran, I don’t know what will befall us. And what other countries will join us? More and more, we’re on our own. Too bad, because we’re not the world. We’re just part of it.”
Rollins is merely expressing his viewpoint, not trying to provoke. “When you call someone provocative, you’re minimizing their point of view and attempting to marginalize them. Like when Sean Hannity beats up on the sacrificial scientists. When they say there’s higher rates of acidification in the oceans than ever before and evaporation rates are rising, he’ll just say, ‘Uh-huh. So why do you hate America?’ All of a sudden, the discussion’s over and you don’t get to any real dialogue.”
In San Francisco, he finds audiences who want the unvarnished truth. “In the coastal cities on both sides of the country, you find a lot of your internet crowd, your bookworms, your student types. The coasts are perhaps more progressive.
“Then you go inland, where a lot of the soldiers are recruited, and you find people are often more conservative. But they’re going on old information or on some talking point that they heard on the news. They don’t research it. They hear it once, one bumper sticker-like bit of information, and go with it. If Bill O’Reilly tells them something, it’s good enough. It’s never good enough for me. I cross-reference everything, because everyone’s got an agenda.”
Rollins has no illusions about songs or spoken word suddenly turning things around. “If rock music could stop wars and change things, then Bob Marley and Bob Dylan would have cured all the ills of the world.
“You can write a song, go to the gig and go, ‘Yeah man, Kumbaya. ‘ But Bechtel doesn’t rock. When you look at the bigger, badder world - people moving around billions of dollars, ready to sacrifice thousands of human lives, you can protest with your little sign all you want. They don’t care.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t believe you should go out there and try to change stuff with music or words. But when you look at the big, cruel world of naked capitalism, you start to get the idea that the people in power just do whatever the hell they want. They’re always telling you how moral they are. There’s a lot of blood on the ground, for all that morality.”
Rollins encourages activism, voting and finding humor in the world’s madness. “To me, one’s sense of humor reinforces one’s rage and the willingness to plunge back into the propellor of all this crap. Otherwise you just become more bitter or heavy and ineffective. So you have to keep smiling somehow. And eventually, things do change.”
ROLLINS' 'THINK TANK' TELLS IT LIKE HE IS
By Paul Freeman - 1998
In Henry Rollins' fertile, ferocious mind, life's quirks and quagmires ferment into unforgettable stories.
"Storytelling began in the days when there was no TV," Rollins explains. "You'd get grandpa to tell the whale story again. Then you'd eventually tell it to your kids.
"There's something cool about somebody weaving a tale and keeping you enthralled -- or at least amused -- for a while. There are no machines, no special effects. It's all human-generated. There's something neat about that. And I like to be the one that puts it out there."
Rollins, an accomplished rock singer, author and actor, recently released a double-disc spoken-word album, "Think Tank" (DreamWorks), as well as a long-form video, "You Saw Me Up There."
Many of Rollins' observations are hilarious. Other segments ripple with power or poignancy.
"There's always some serious stuff in there with the stuff you laugh at or laugh with," Rollins says. "You need a mix."
If his commentary causes controversy, all the better. "It's important that I come across clearly with my perspective and let them agree or disagree. I'm into disagreement," he says. "It forces people to think, to flex their minds. And that's a good thing."
When Rollins rails at our society's insanity, he extends the paths forged by Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. "They're both geniuses," Rollins says. "I'm not on that level. But I do share that spirit, definitely. I grew up on those records."
Today, Bruce and Pryor might be categorized as spoken-word artists rather than stand-up comics. "Stand-up guys now have to get up there and make it work in five minutes," Rollins says. "They just rattle off jokes. There's no context. I'm funny. But it always has context. It's coming from something."
Rollins uncovers humor almost everywhere, firing off fresh takes on familiar subjects, such as airports, El Nino or Michael Bolton, then veering into more dangerous territory. His band's nightmarish trips to Brazil and Russia turn into excitingly edgy stories.
"Finding the humor in a difficult situation is a skill. Sometimes it's like finding the needle in a haystack. It may come to you weeks later or years later.
"Tragedy plus time equals comedy," he asserts. "I don't know who said that, but it works. There are some things in my life, like friends dying, where I never find an element of humor."
That doesn't mean that Rollins, he of the bulging muscles, brash tattoos and gravelly voice, shies away from the topic of mortality. On "Think Tank," he tells of a courageous, teen-aged Australian fan who died of leukemia. He manages to sprinkle humorous moments even into this heart-rending, uplifting story. "Death is part of life's pageant. You've got to tip your hat to it a little," he says.
Rollins has had a profound impact on many lives. "I just got a call from a kid whose brother died of cancer. He had put all the ticket stubs to my gigs in his brother's pocket, in the coffin, because the shows meant so much to him."
"It's trippy when a guy sends you the bullet in the mail that he was going to blow his brains out with, but your book got him over it," Rollins continues. "It was something I said that made him think it over at the last minute."
Throughout his performances, Rollins rants about rampaging idiocy and inefficiency. But his greatest outrage is reserved for the subjects of homophobia and racism.
He points out that the mistreatment of blacks is not ancient history. "A fellow got dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, not long ago by three white guys. They dragged him until his body fell apart. It's not 1898; it's 1998. The entire country has taken two steps back. How are you going to evolve when there are still people who would do this?"
Despite his impassioned outbursts, Rollins describes himself as more aware than angry. "How can you be a conscientious American and not be a little angry? If you're complacent, you're part of the problem, not the solution.
"When kids are getting shot in schools, when you see the illiteracy, the homelessness, you'd better get angry," he maintains. "If you go with the flow, the flow's going down the tubes. I'm not going with the flow."
This maverick attitude distinguishes Rollins in the music world as well as with other artistic pursuits. In spoken-word performances, Rollins has referred to his "rock 'n' roll animal" image.
"I'm the first one to lampoon it. Many years ago, there was a perception about me that I was a boneheaded Neanderthal. I don't think that's especially true. Doing interviews and getting to speak has turned that around. I don't know exactly how people perceive me now. How much attention should I pay to that?
"I wouldn't want anybody to think I was some white power guy," he says. "I don't want people to think I'm something I'm not. But past a certain level, you've got to let the chips fall where they may."
Rollins will perform his unyielding brand of rock only as long as he can maintain credibility. Now 37, he calls himself an "aging rock icon" in his spoken-word shows.
"I've got to keep it real. If I can't shoulder the weight, then I shouldn't be out there. There's nothing worse than someone who overstays his welcome in the entertainment world. Rock 'n' roll is a young man's sport.
"Iggy is 50-something and still kicks a--," Rollins says. "Other guys, by the time they're 28, they're like 48 and they try to act 16. It's hilarious to watch them having their midlife crisis in front of people."
This past summer was the first in 17 years that Rollins did not tour with a band. In 1981, the Washington, D.C., native joined the seminal punk group Black Flag. After the band split, he formed the Rollins Band, in '87. The most recent album, "Come in and Burn," though he considers it one of his best, did not garner heavy sales or airplay.
Rollins says he is surprised when people buy tickets, CDs and books, not when they don't. "It always amazes me when anyone shows up, always. It's a rough business. People change their minds. They go somewhere else, and you're left high and dry. It makes you think, 'I shouldn't get that close to the audience, because they might hurt me later.' But then you get out there and everyone's smiling and clapping and glad to see you, and you have to love them. There's no feeling like it.
"That's why people perform when they're ancient. They don't need the money. They just want people to be there."
Today's rock audience, according to Rollins, has never been more "fickle. They're getting thrown so much garbage. I blame MTV and a lot of media for the mediocrity of culture. Everyone's gotten greedy. Major labels don't patiently develop artists. Nowadays, if you don't hit immediately, they move on to another band with perkier breasts and higher cheekbones."
Rollins feels good about the solo rock album he'll be unleashing in '99. But he knows he can't control the reception it receives. "I just try to keep jammin', knowing it could all be over tomorrow. The entertainment world is not for the faint of heart."
So the bold Rollins charges into many arenas at once. His publishing company, 2-13-61, will soon be issuing his new book, "Do I Come Here Often? (Black Coffee Blues, Part II)," and he'll be seen soon playing a hockey coach in "Frost," which stars Michael Keaton. He also recently become the voice for auto-maker GMC.
"With Black Flag, the whole concept was using the mainstream. Let's get the underground overground. I'm not going to hang out at the table, waiting for crumbs. I'm eating! Move over, Bon Jovi, I'm hungry too.
"I was offered a lot of money to do a whiskey commercial in Japan. I turned it down, because I don't drink and I don't think anyone else should. But a truck is a truck. No problem."
As Rollins goes full speed ahead on the creative front, he believes he cannot afford to be married. "You can't serve two masters. How can you be a husband or a father when you're gone all the time? And I want to be gone all the time."
Enthusiastically involving himself in so many artistic ventures, he does not feel schizophrenic. "It's all the same thing to me. Some days you're rock 'n' roll dude. Some days you're a spoken-word guy. But no matter how you slice me, what you'll always get is somebody who's going to give it everything he's got."
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HENRY ROLLINS, ON DISC, STAGE, PAGE
By Paul Freeman - 1994
Hey, slackers, you'd better either get it in gear or get out of the way.
Henry Rollins is charging forward at top speed, and he won't slow down for anyone. The rock performer, author and spoken-word artist has a staggering number of projects in the works.
Rollins strides into the hotel bar. He exudes energy, despite the fact that he has had almost no sleep. A few hours after their arrival, members of the Rollins Band are preparing to reboard their bus for another in a seemingly endless stream of performances on this tour.
A waitress compliments Rollins on the elaborate tattoos that decorate his legs. A sweatshirt hides the fact that he's dedicated to pumping iron. He orders an espresso and seems amiable even while venting his spleen.
On his latest album, "Weight," Rollins and his progressive punk band pull no punches. There's bite to his lyrics and a ferociousness to his vocals. The song "Disconnect" derides those who would shut themselves off from our chaotic world.
"These days, a lot of people want to disconnect," says the raspy-voiced Rollins. "I feel that way a lot. So much that goes on around you is an insult to your intelligence and to your very existence. There are those who count people as little numbers, as bits of cannon fodder. To me, it's a call to arms, a gauntlet being dropped."
The 33-year-old Rollins says it's difficult to be a young person at this point in time. "You can't find anything sharper than a 1994 teenager. They've got to be sharp to cut the grind. They've got to see this soulless, apathetic, disrespectful, gouging environment as a challenge. It's a chance to be a hero, to pull humanity out of this damn rut. So don't sell out by getting into alcohol or drugs or guns or racism or sexism.
"The ultimate rebellion now," he says, "is to get into art, higher learning, integrity, intensity and prolonging your life-at the expense of no one else."
In addition to his recordings, books and concerts, Rollins spreads his positive message by speaking his mind on MTV and various talk shows. "I'm just one guy. But at least I'm trying to do something. Am I making a dent? Yeah, absolutely."
He receives 50 to 100 letters a day from fans, many of whom he has empowered. He has helped them feel less futile, less victimized. When Rollins was growing up, listening to the music of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed pulled him through rough times.
Rollins, born in Washington, D.C., with the last name Garfield, was the only child of a couple who divorced when he was very young. It was in 1981, when he joined the ground-breaking L.A. band Black Flag, that he found his direction in life. He is currently in the process of publishing a book of his tour diaries from that period.
"When I got into Black Flag," he remembers, "I learned that music could be my steam valve, a way to vent. I used to manifest my anger by hurting myself, mentally, physically and spiritually. Now I use my rage in a positive way.
"I never got into music to (make) money. With Black Flag, there was never a thought of getting rich. It was, `We're going to eat today? Oh, yes!' We just wanted to survive, playing music we believed in."
Black Flag broke up in '86 and he formed the Rollins Band in '87, which has slowly muscled its way to prominence. "Liar," the first video from the "Weight" album, was directed by famed photographer and videomaker Anton Corbijn, and the number has received heavy play on MTV.
Rollins, who says he would be bored if rock were his only creative outlet, is at work on a number of projects: An album of jams with jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle soon will be released; Rollins' own label, Now Hear This, will issue tapes of obscure bands; he is starting a reissue label; his publishing company, Human Pitball, has put out books by such talents as Excene Cervenka, Don Bejema, Nick Cave and Hubert Selby, as well as 11 Rollins volumes.
And Rollins also has turned to acting. He had a small role in the recent Charlie Sheen movie "The Chase." In Robert Longo's science-fiction epic "Johnny Mnemonic," which co-stars Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren and Ice-T, he portrays a cyber-scientist who uses neuro-implants to speed people up. Rollins himself needs no artificial assistance to motivate himself.
Later this year, a new spoken-word video, "Live in London," will be released. Rollins' spoken-word performances have all the fire of his music, but they're also brimming with humor, often of the self-deprecating mode. When he lashes out at the madness of society, his vitriol recalls the best of Lenny Bruce. "In my opinion, Lenny Bruce is one of the greatest artists in the history of America," he says. "He was a genius, a hero. Had he lived, he would have had a huge impact on the world. I'm nowhere near his level."
Rollins is excited about releasing spoken-word albums by Cervenka and Selby. "My success is allowing me to help other people get their work out there. I'm trying to put my money where my mouth is. I want to do more of this kind of thing, bringing out records, books, whatever. It makes me eager to get up every day."
Rollins can even imagine walking away from his role as rock performer. "If I can't play with the urgency that makes what I do good, I won't play anymore. I don't want to be one of those pathetic rock guys hanging on forever. Look at the Eagles. Look at Mick Jagger, Mr. NutraSweet.
"On the other hand, there are artists like Ahmad Jamal, who are gray-haired and still devastating musically. If I could have that kind of impact at his age, I'd stay with it. Quite honestly, I don't think I'd have it."
One way or another, Rollins will continue to immerse himself completely in artistic endeavors. He has few close relationships. His best friend, Joe Cole, was murdered in 1991.
"Relationships, after a certain level, slow me down. Most of the people I know, I have a professional relationship with. I am close to Hubert Selby and Don Bejema, both writers. When Joe was killed, they were the ones I called to say, `I need a reality check.' "
Happiness is not a primary goal. "I've been happy once in a while," he says. "It's pretty boring. To me, there are more interesting things happening out there on the extremes."
The gym is a place where Rollins can find satisfaction. "I need that kind of harsh stimulus. I go there and work until blood capillaries break in my eyes," he says with a laugh. "I like to power-lift until it really hurts. I get off on that. I come out going, `Yeah! That's awesome! I feel like I could eat a Buick!' I'm in pain and I love it."
He has heard from youngsters who have followed his example, using the gym to release their frustrations. Rollins wants to exert a positive influence, but, as his song "Icon" reveals, he doesn't welcome adulation. "When you treat people like icons, putting them above you, the virtues you see in them become unattainable, other-worldly. It's important to see the frailties and reality of these people. We're all human.
"I don't feel special," Rollins says. "I used to work in an ice cream store. I'm from a middle-class, dysfunctional family. To me, signing autographs is ridiculous. I say, ‘Don’t worship me. Dig yourself and the world will be a better place.”