SOCIAL STUDIES: HENRY ROLLINS
by John Richards (@jrichards202)
Henry Rollins discusses “Capitalism” and why you (yes you) should vote
Henry Rollins first rose to fame as the front man for legendary punk rock band Black Flag. Rollins stalked stages around the world with Black Flag, and later the Rollins Band, with his signature intensity, in your face, take no prisoners and brutally honest style.
Today, Rollins’ work mainly consists of spoken word tours and his radio programs. His latest spoken word tour, the election year inspired Capitalism Tour, will take Rollins to every state capital and Washington, D.C. to share his unique perspective on the nation’s political process. With the tour winding down, The Couch Sessions caught up with activist, author and easily the most famous former Häagen-Dazs employee ever to discuss his early days in Washington, D.C., what keeps him going and why debating him could be hazardous to your health.
The Couch Sessions: You’ve said you were raised on “Ritalin and fear”. What was your childhood like?
Henry Rollins: Well, I was a nervous person, not a very good student and [I] had a very hard time gettin’ along. But I learned a lot. The early years of my life in Washington DC, where I was raised, politicized me at a very early time in my life and gave me some lessons which later in life proved to be very, very good for me. While it wasn’t enjoyable all the time, it was very useful.
There was a lot of racial tension in Washington D.C. in the late 60’s, I’m sure you can probably go around the city and find it now. But, in those days things were pretty revved up because of the war and things like that. And you know I was put upon by my classmates for being white. So I got a very, kind of up-close, view of racism. That alone was very educational; it made me never want to do it, to engage in it. From a very early age I realized that America’s got work to do.
The Couch Sessions: What inspired you in the beginning of your career?
Henry Rollins: Well, the first music I ever really got into, in a meaningful way, was arena rock. Just the stuff that you could go see and listen to on the radio. So, I listened to everything from the FM music like Gladys Knight or Stevie Wonder to Ted Nugent, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. I saw all those bands at the old Capital Centre in Largo, Maryland. But the thing that really switched me on, that perhaps left the biggest dent in me, was punk rock. Seeing bands like the Clash, the Cramps, and the Buzzcocks, the DC scene; seeing the Bad Brains, Minor Threat and the Teen Idols. All of that was really influential. Seeing The Ramones in small places was a hell of a thing. That’s the music that formed a lot of my opinions. Just my version of society, it’s a punk rock idea I have about it, the idea of community and fairness. I got a lot of those ideas and ethics from punk rock music.
The Couch Sessions: “Positive Mental Attitude” and things like that?
Henry Rollins: Yeah exactly. Also, you’re dealing with different people. Not a set of people who are digging conformity, there’s a lot of different ideas flying around in that community, a lot of different people. Perhaps the misfits, the people who aren’t gonna necessarily go to the prom.
The Couch Sessions: [Laughs]
Henry Rollins: I Found these people to be very cool in that they weren’t judging me. I was used to not fitting in at school, not fitting in anywhere, and then you realize there are other people who don’t fit in as well and it now has a soundtrack. So here’s your records, here’s some people who won’t laugh at you and the music was good. It was a place to go. I don’t think there’s anything new about that. I’m sure it happened decades before and it’s happening right now. You find some people to be with who aren’t trying to beat you up, or make fun of you. You’re like, “this is working for me” and you gravitate towards it.
The Couch Sessions: Okay, let’s talk about the tour. The Capitalism Tour will take you to every capital city in the US and the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. This gives you the opportunity to take the pulse of the country during an election year. What’s on America’s mind? What have people been saying to you since you been on the road.
Henry Rollins: Well, I talk to the people who want to get talked to by me. In that the people I meet, by and large, are at my shows. Those people are the ones, who are, probably in agreement with how I see things, or they find what I have to say not so objectionable, so they can sit through it for a couple of hours a night. The people I’m talking to are very excited to vote. They are very one sided as far as who they want to vote for and they’re worried about America’s future and their own finances. They seem to be on the side of education and science and not so interested in future wars, homophobia or racial hatred. They seem to be a pretty smart, forward moving bunch. These are the people who show up to see me. That’s not exactly America, it’s a certain slice of it. So, I don’t think I can really say I have my finger on the pulse of America.
It is an interesting time to be in America, any election cycle America kind of kicks into a whole different kind of America. This election, I think there’s quite a bit at stake you know? I don’t know who’s going to win. I don’t have a crystal ball. I must say, I’m somewhat disappointed that the race is close; I can’t believe it’s neck and neck. It’s astounding to me how so many Americans could go for, well basically, the guy who I think, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
The Couch Sessions: What would you say to people who are not “excited” to vote?
Henry Rollins: That I can understand their apathy. That I can understand their mild or severe disgust, or how they feel alienated, or disenfranchised. Or whatever would lead them to not being energized to vote. I understand it. Then I would hope, that they could move past that and tap their civic backbone and understand that Jeffersonian democracy, this thing that you and I enjoy, this ever evolving social experiment, it begs for you to vote. To get a true, real look, a real version of American democracy, everyone who can vote, should vote. It very well could be that neither party represents you. I know there’s more than one party, but the two major parties; you could be a Republican who looks at the Republican Party [and says] ‘this is not my Republican party, these people do not represent me, they seem insane’. Or you could be an Independent who says, ‘I think they’re both not representing me’. Or you could be a Democrat who says that the Democratic Party exists but it’s not the one I remember. It’s not the one from decades past, they’ve gone somewhere where I don’t wanna go and so what am I supposed to do? There are a lot of people like that. So it’s a very tall order to ask them to vote.
I don’t know what you say to them, but for myself, I’ve never been an undecided voter. I don’t understand that, I know exactly where I want to go. When someone says, ‘well they’re all the same’, I disagree and if someone wants to bring that debate to the table, I’ll chop them to pieces like sashimi. I mean these are very high contrast parties; they are going in radically different directions. One direction I think is the exact right way to go and the other, well some people are gonna get hit really hard by the other way.
The Couch Sessions: 50 states, 51 capital cities in two months. You’re not traveling around in a van like you were during your days with Black Flag but it definitely still has to be a grind. What’s a usual day like for you when you’re on tour?
Henry Rollins: I wrench myself off my coffin like mattress in my little box on the bus and the first thing I do is the morning press. As soon as the press if over, I throw the gym close on and I stagger off to the nearest gymnasium and I wake up on a treadmill. Then I hit the weights, I come back, eat and then on this tour we have participant media out with us so I do usually one and a half to two hours of interviewing people and filming stuff. This is somewhat problematic on some days where you just don’t feel like doing it. That leaves me enough time to come back, get a quick nap, get ready for sound check, focus towards the show and then all of a sudden I’m on stage. That’s about two, two and a half hours. Then I go off stage, change quickly. If there’s a shower available, I’ll use it. Usually there’s not. Then I walk outside to the tour bus and there are a lot of people standing around it. And I talk to every single person whose is there until they’re gone, that takes between 60 and 90 minutes. So, by the time I get on to bus, it’s midnight, or close to it and it’s been a very, very long damn day.
The Couch Sessions: Sounds like you have it all planned out, you’ve been doing this for a while so you know exactly what to expect.
Henry Rollins: Yeah, but it has to run with certain level of expectation, because you have to keep doing it. So, there can’t be too many surprises. There can’t be too much spontaneity, just because you just don’t have the calories to expend on the unexpected. Ultimately, I’m in all of these towns to do a show, that’s the main reason. That’s why everyone on this bus is getting a paycheck; Henry’s got to go on stage at 8PM. It’s all about that. So, I do whatever I can to get myself to that stage, hydrated, prepared, awake and ready to deliver. The rest is just fluff.
The Couch Sessions: You once told the New York Times that “the world’s a better place since I chose music.” Are you completely done with music?
Henry Rollins: Yeah, I just don’t think lyrically anymore, I used to think lyrically all the time, now I don’t. Just give me an issue or whatever. I just don’t feel like making a song about it or going into a room with a bunch of people and making music, or being part of a team on all of that. I like working alone. I stopped thinking lyrically a few years ago, I’m not going to make any new music, and I’m not going to make any music at all. Not gonna repeat the past.
The Couch Sessions: Going back to earlier question, what inspires you now? What keeps you going?
Henry Rollins: I get a lot of inspiration from the audience, I like these people, and I respect them. I get their stories; I get a lot of input. People tell me stories, stories that’ll peel the paint of your car. What people go through in this country is extraordinary, the challenges they face, what they’ve lost, what they have to endure. So I get a lot of inspiration from them. Luckily, I’m a very curious person. Curiosity and anger are two primary ingredients and components; they’ve pushed me down the road. I’m not mad at you, I’m mad with, which I think is unfair and curious to go see something I haven’t seen before. So, these things keep me going to countries and places I’ve never been to, whenever I can, asking a lot of questions and trying to figure out what the problem is.
Those are inspirations. Agitation inspires me, it always has really. I mean, I’ve never been the “happy” person. I’ve been kind of argumentative and as I get older I guess I’ll be a cantankerous old man. As it is now, I just wanna know stuff.
The Couch Sessions: Are you still optimistic?
Henry Rollins: Absolutely, I’m ruggedly optimistic in that I think things are getting better. I think things are changing. You get knocked back a few yards on the play now and then, but I think we’re getting down the road. When I was a kid in the, in the 60’s, there is no way America was ready for President Barack Obama. I mean, you just could not have had him running for president in those days. He may have been able to run locally and not get anywhere. Some people would go, “wow”, that guy’s got a, a great mind, but he wouldn’t have become president. He wouldn’t have been able to become a vice president; it just wouldn’t have been a possibility. So, in my lifetime, I’ve seen America change, radically. I mean, my mother was only 10 years of age when women were allowed to vote.
So, you see your America changing right in front of you. It’s moving, so you can either move with it or it’s gonna move over you and past you. You can end up like you know, like Multi cursing the darkness, so that’s what keeps me optimistic. When I saw what happened in the Middle Eastern world, what happened in Cairo, what’s happening in Syria, I’m not happy about the death count of course, but when you see that people are getting tired of what was. They’re getting tired of the brutality and unfortunately in some parts of the world in order to get rid of the brutality you have to use quite a bit. Change is happening all over the world, it’s moving towards a more efficient, more peaceful, less angry and ignorant.
The Couch Sessions: The Capitalism Tour closes on November 5 at the legendary 9:30 Club in DC. Growing up in DC and being a part of the music scene there, what does the 9:30 Club mean to you?
Henry Rollins: Well, it’s obviously changed locations from the one on F Street. But it’s a place I’ve been performing in…I’ve said the “9:30 Club” out loud in my thoughts since I was a teenager. Literally, and I’m now 51, so obviously it’s a big part of my life. I started going to the 9:30 Club very soon after it opened, it’s just one of those things, where it’s just part of my thinking, it’s part of my culture, it’s part of my life. [I’ve] had some of the best nights of my life, in that old 9:30 Club, and some great performances as well in the new one. I always have a good night at the 9:30. It’s like playing the Fillmore in San Francisco; you always have a good night on stage. There’s something about the place, it’s just conducive to a good show.