Henry Rollins has been inciting and infuriating audiences since the early 1980s. A critical force who helped punk rock throttle forward, the D.C. native served as the lead singer of Black Flag, and then in Rollins Band, and has since published over 25 books, hosted radio shows, starred in the likes of Sons of Anarchy, and beyond. Rollins, now 55, has long since quit playing music, but he’s still getting up onstage most nights out of the year, sharing stories of his travels crisscrossing the globe, sharing memories of fallen friends like the late Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, and, now, weighing in on United States’ tense political landscape.
Still, Rollins—who is currently on the U.S. leg of an international speaking tour—may surprise you when he says he has “no interest in provoking or inflaming” his audiences these days. He doesn’t even curse—”bring your 12-year-old,” he says. Instead, the goal is “What I do with my shows is that I gently try and inform, try and do it without anyone even knowing, and hopefully they walk out of there wanting to get a passport or fill their present passport full of visas, or wanting to read more,” he says. “I’m ridiculously curious. What’s your excuse? I’ll be dead in 17 years, screw it. What do I have to lose? Zero. And I hurl myself forward.”
Ahead of his spoken word performance at the Lincoln Theatre on Election Night, Rollins chatted with Washington City Paper about politically-informed punk, and how he never liked being in a band.
Washington City Paper: What was your first experience with spoken word as a medium, and why choose to do that on tour?
Henry Rollins: The first talking show I ever did was in 1983 at the behest of a local L.A. promoter. He would throw a bunch of people onstage and everybody would get, like, seven minutes. I would go because the bass player in Black Flag was asked to be part of it. And you’d have someone from The Minutemen, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club, Exene [Cervenka] from X. It was a real who’s who. And it was fun, and lighthearted, so if it wasn’t any good people would applaud more, you know. One day the promoter, Harvey Kubernik, said, “Hey why don’t you do this?” And I said, “What am I gonna do?” And he said, “Well, you’ve got a big mouth, and we’re paying ten bucks.” In those days, that was a lot of dough. And I said, “Yeah! That’s dinner, man. I’ll take that action.”
And so I got onstage and I told the story of what had happened the day before, where a white supremacist had tried to run over our guitar player near band practice. Which is just another Tuesday for Black Flag, but for an audience, “What?!” I read something I’d written, and went, “Well, my seven minutes are up, thanks.” And people ran up to me after and said, “When’s your next show?” And I said, “What do you mean?” “Where you just talk.” “Well, never. I mean, I’ve got this 10 dollar bill, I’m outta here.”
And Harvey said, “That was good, you should do this more often.”
And then it just kind of started building to where it’s a medium I really like. ‘Cause I grew up in Washington, and me and Ian MacKaye and all these people we grew up with, we fancied ourselves raconteurs. And we’d try to imitate our friends’ voices and our parents’ voices and we thought we were so funny. And so living as I was, it was very eventful in my life. In those days, in a van, playing in kind of the armpits of the world, you’d see a lot of raw things go by. Which lent themselves to storytelling. I mean, crazy, “Wow, a guy just got stabbed in front of me and here comes the undercover cops into our shows.” You could definitely take up a half an hour of someone’s time and they wouldn’t be bored.
Spoken word sounds like nothing I would ever go to. It just sounds like something really over-serious, the acoustic guitar comes out and there’s people crying. I first heard that term in the back of a car in 1983 and I was like, “Ugh, I hope I’m never that.” So I just call it talking shows… what I do maybe lends itself more to comedy than poetry and I’m just going up there, talking, there’s a lot of laughs. Cause life plus time is sometimes funny. But that’s what it is. I go up onstage and I talk at a high rate of speed for about two hours with no notes.
And also this year… the political climate is so toxic, like it got hit upside the head with a brick. It’s so stupid. My show is on the night of the election. Which is… going to be an interesting show. Because I expect my audience—I can’t believe people are showing up—but I reckon that they’re just going to be staring at their cellphones. So we’re going to try and find something to do onstage to be reflective of how states are falling either red or blue. And I’ll be offstage at around ten, so things west of the Rockies will still be in play. So people can see me then dash home and root for whoever they’re rooting for. I think my audience is going to be decidedly one way, but I don’t know. It’ll be an interesting night at the theater.
WCP: Everybody could do with a little reflection and humor on November 8th.
HR: Well here’s what I’ve been doing, because you can’t do these shows without talking about it a little. My audience, I’d like to think, are mostly adults and are incredibly switched-on. I’m not into swaying anyone’s opinion. I really don’t like someone telling me who to vote for or that the candidate like sucks, and it’s not anything that I like to do in that I respect your adult opinion. If we don’t agree, fine.
What I’ve been talking about a lot is what happens afterwards. I said, “Look. You’re going to get a new president in a few days. And going forward, what do you with that?” And this guy in my opinion, got eight years of his life wasted by a country that elected him solidly. Like, by two very convincing margins. And when he got there, not so much. He basically got no from Congress for the last six years. If I was Obama I’d want my money back and my time back. So I’ve been saying, “The real betterment of this country doesn’t come from a law, or a president, or a governor. It comes from you!” So I’ve been telling people, “I want an upgrade from you. From me.”
I beg young people in my audience—everyone has to be younger than me in that place—I just say, “Look this country’s yours. It’s kinda mine but it’s mainly yours in that the steering wheel is now in your hands and you gotta, you know, because I’ll be falling over needing a juice box and a lie down in two years, so you really need to push this forward and get the damn opinion and get it going. I’m begging you. Don’t sleep on this.” So I’ve been trying to put a positive spin on it, like: “It sucks, but you don’t.”
WCP: How do you prepare to talk for two hours without notes? Do you ever tell the same story twice?
HR: Oh, sure! Absolutely. Pretend I’m a one-man band without an instrument. I’ve got a big centerpiece story, hopefully travel has given me a real good one, or there’s a topic. What I do is I go out into the world and get raw information. Like me, a month, backpack, central Asia. I did that two years ago. But what’s the story? Where’s the melody in what I saw?
So I will get these ideas and say them out loud to myself on many treadmills that I occupy in many gyms, long walks I take at night in the San Fernando Valley when all the stores shut down on Ventura. You can walk for, like, 10 blocks and see nothing but dog walkers. And so I literally say the stories out loud so my brain can hear my voice say them. And I go, “Okay, that’s a boring part. Lose that.” And I bring that, it’s weeks and weeks of preparation.
So I go out onstage pretty much knowing exactly what I’m going to say. I’m not into improv. It’s laser-targeted, impactful, not wasting your time. You paid $35 to sit in front of me, which is a preposterous endeavor for an audience. I don’t know why anyone shows up. It’s insane. I’m stunned every time I show up and there’s people there. So I can’t let them down. But my idea is to go out hyper prepared so there’s no “ums” or “uh huh” or “what was I talking about?” Anything like that. I just hit it. To waste an audience’s time… I’d rather lose a finger.
WCP: What does a talking show get across that music doesn’t?
HR: Well for me, no band practice, no collaboration, and the slowness of that. And the lock-step of verse-chorus, and trying to get some words across without the caterwaul of the band. And I’m not putting any of that down, because for many years I did both. I did six months with the band and I’d take the exact same lap on my own. I’d do, like, 150 shows a year, 75-75 split. Same countries, eight months apart, you’d see me back in France, on my own. Kind of like “Henry Unplugged,” or whatever. At this point in my life, since I got into my forties—I’m 55 now—I really enjoy just the quickness with which I can change topics or uptake information. Something’ll happen in the news… boom, I can bring that to the stage that night if I’ve got something.
And something happened with me as a forty-something. I literally just ran out of lyrics. You know, I had that much toothpaste in the tube, I squeezed the tube extraordinarily hard and there’s not a bit of toothpaste left in it. That is to say, lyrical content. I don’t think lyrically, I don’t write lyrically at all. I write journalistically. All of my writing, which I write a lot, is reportage. I’m trying to be a guy like Robert Fisk, the great British journalist. I aspire to write sentences that hit like that. When I was 22 I aspired to hit like Rimbaud… “wow, deep.” And now I’m just trying to be clear and accurate, hitting like a train, putting the words in the right order. So the talking shows adhere to that, where I’d feel almost like a narc if I was onstage with a band. “So kids, here’s some music!” I feel that far from it.
But as a listener, I’ve never bought so many records as I do. I buy one to three every day. And I share the road with my road manager, Ward, and he’s a vinyl nut too. Believe it or not, we have a turntable on this bus. We have analog get-downs. And we hit record stores in every single country we are in. Like, in Moscow, we were in maybe in the biggest record store either of us have ever seen, and we’re booking a day off into the next tour so we have a whole day in that place. I’m always making radio shows. I have one on NTS in London, one on KCRW which is NPR in LA, and have a life in music. I’m subbing for Iggy Pop’s BBC6 radio show half of January; it’ll be my second time subbing for him.
I never enjoyed being in a band, which is an interesting thing to say. But that’s how I know it was real. I never enjoyed it, but I had to do it. I was compelled. And music played me. And when I started playing music, I said, “Ah I don’t think so,” and I got out. But I have no interest in being in a band. So the talking shows mean more to me than ever.
WCP: You never liked being in a band? That’s surprising to hear.
It’s fun to be a fan. I’d much rather be a fan. Like a lot of punk rock people, I came into all of it being a fan and through the kind of egalitarian nature, especially of the D.C. punk rock scene. “You’re standing there with two empty hands? Here, put a microphone in it.” That’s how I got into a band. Someone said, “The singer just left this band to join some band called Minor Threat. Here’s a fully formed band who needs a singer, why don’t you try it?” I’d never met them before. So I said “Hey, I’ll sing with you guys.” And they went, “You’re kind of scary looking, sure. You’re kind of crazy, you want to be in this band?” And I went, “Well, yeah.”
So I moved to California. I went from minimum wage work into full-time international, you know, world-class touring [and] recording act. Literally from $3.75 an hour scooping ice cream at the Häagen-Dazs in Georgetown to frontman in Black Flag, because that was punk rock. “You’re a maniac; sing.” It started with me saying, “Yeah, I’ll try that.” I was looking at my apron, looking at what I had to look forward to… I’m just a high school graduate, you know. I got nothing. And so I went into everything very boldly and that’s what I do every night onstage. I’m bold enough, crass enough (laughs) to be like, “I got something for ya.”
When I was younger, I never thought that I was exceptional. Nor do I think that now. I never got along with anyone at school, and everyone said, “Man you’re really weird. You are a weird person.” Me and my best friend Ian MacKaye, we were both kind of like that. Me, more of a hectic weird. Him, more of an intellectual weird, and we both got in bands and made music, as you know, Ian with Minor Threat and Fugazi and Dischord, which has had an unbelievable impact on youth culture decade after decade. But all that came from, “Yeah, we’re kooky. We should try stuff.”
WCP: In one of your L.A. Weekly columns, you made a point that while times seem abysmal right now, the music of today is not. I can’t help thinking that the political climate is in some way informing that—I mean, some of the best punk rock was made during the Reagan era.
HR: Absolutely! Oh my god. Are you kidding? That was when the music and the political landscape, in my mind, those two orbits intersected. There were bands that were realized because Reagan and Thatcher inspired and infuriated young people at the right time, and I’ve never seen it since.
And I would posit that a lot of bands that I listen to are almost blissfully disconnected from politics. I never hear any of that in a Ty Segall record. Maybe it’s implied, but I’m not getting it from the poetry of the lyric. But in those days, man, it was high contrast. You know, “F you Ronald Reagan.” I was in Black Flag and I was in England a lot and the Thatcher/Reagan thing, people would be angry at you because you were in the same country as Reagan. And you’re like, “Are you kidding? You’re mad at me because of that guy?” Come on.
But it was on. And I’ve never seen, even with Bush and the fake war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, I’ve never seen the music be so aligned and so resultant of an administration in a political atmosphere. It would have been the Vietnam War, MC5, and bands like that reacting to seeing their friends get sucked out of their neighborhoods never to return.
WCP: You recently told the IndyStar that: “Hope, to me, is sitting around. Solving problems is about action. Being hopeless, as it were, allows me to be effective.” There’s a lot of rampant hopelessness, but I don’t think a lot of people see it or use it as a driving force to be engaged. What will it take for people to become more galvanized?
HR: I mean, I don’t know. That is a Nietzschean point of view. He said, “Hope is the first sign of defeat.” And if you’re caught at 22 with a Nietzsche book in your hand, you should really find something else. That’s a young person’s anger. But I think he got that right. And I really do like that idea of being hopeless but resolved. Like, “Okay, this is enemy, so let’s go.” As the French would say when they go into battle, “Au revoir!” Yeah, we’re not coming back, but we’re gonna give ‘em hell on the way out.
And to be hopeless, to me, is to be like, “The crap has been cut, the lens is very, very unvaselined, it is what it is, it ain’t pretty, let’s make it better.” Here’s the problems; they’re in your face. Soon they’re going to be in your lap.
And so basically, you say, what’s it going to take? It won’t be an invasion of Iraq. It’ll be your toilet’s not flushing. Truly. All you need to do to get a city on its knees is to cut off the water. There’s your angry electorate. It’ll be the little things. Like, “What, no internet? No!” That’s the thing. It wouldn’t be global climate change, because that doesn’t have enough people moved into action.
…So, of all people, the great Ian MacKaye has just stepped aboard this bus. We are going to go to Cornell today, where we’re going to get the rock star tour of the behind the scenes archives. We are hopefully going to get to go see the Gettysburg Address. And see some music stuff as well.
Henry Rollins speaks tonight at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. 6:30 p.m. $40.