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Provoking Human Evolution: An Unexpurgated Conversation with Henry Rollins

September 2007


by Melanie "Sass" Falina

Henry RollinsHenry Rollins is by far the easiest person to interview. He's intelligent, he's extremely well-informed and globally conscious, he's funny, and he inherently appreciates what it is that an interviewer needs of him. Add each aforementioned aspect to the fact that he's got his hand in several cookies jars as far as his life's work goes - and it makes for a mentally titillating interaction, to say the least.

While currently on the road with his "Provoked: An Evening of Quintessentially American Opinionated Editorializing and Storytelling," spoken-word show, UnRated Magazine caught up with Rollins just four shows into the tour - another two months, a couple of coasts with a whole lot of cities in between, and Canada still await him.

"It's going really well so far, I mean there's only like 50 more to go. It's been great." Rollins comments on the first few shows now under his belt. "I'm in Austin, Texas tonight which is always a cool time and I've been in this venue many, many times. I'm always happy to be on the road, quite honestly, there's nothing that I miss at home and there's nothing that I'm waiting to come back to as far as being off the road so I'd rather be here than there."

Passages in some of Rollins books and even his website's dispatches often tell of his distaste for Los Angeles, the city in which has become Rollins' home. When asked if he detests L.A. as much as it seems, Rollins explains:

"It's always been a tough place for me, but I do very well there and at the end of the day it's been very good to me. I've always felt like a fish out of water there. I have it very good there but the west coast is just an odd place for me."

Sadly, the idea of living elsewhere isn't a feasible option for Rollins at this point in his life.

"I have thought about [moving] quite a bit and I've even thought, 'Well, I'll get property in D.C. and live in my hometown,' but I really like my radio show, and I don't know how I'd pull that off. I'd be flying out to L.A. from everything from the TV show to the radio show, for meetings and whatever, and I'd be taking that D.C.-L.A. flight pretty much like a taxi and I don't know if it would be worth it. Also, my company and my office is out there and my staff, and that office does provide me with a place to go every morning and get yelled at by the women who work there," Rollins chuckles, "I think it would be pretty hard for me to recreate that in D.C. I'm kind of inured to the people who work at my place who've been there for 10 years, they mean a lot to me and I like to work with them. But I think about it all the time, when I do walk around D.C. I see the limitations in it that I've got no desk to sit down and work at, but I sure do like the trees. And those people that I knew when I was 12 - I still know them and now I know their kids. And I do miss the seasons changing, and rain and snow, stuff like that."

For anyone who's seen any of his spoken-word shows in the past, be it either in person or on DVD, you can't help but wonder how someone with a schedule as busy as Rollins' is can prepare a couple hours worth of material to bring out on tour with.

"I'm constantly gathering material for the next one in that I go on stage and talk about my life. So a lot of the big chunks of the on-stage material are derived from travel and traveling to interesting places that I've not been to before. And this year there will be a lot of travel stories on stage because this year I've been in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, Israel, Australia, and Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, and Scotland, and what else? I'm probably leaving something out, but in any case I go to these places sometimes for shows and sometimes, like in the case of Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, I went to just go check them out. Have a look and see what I can see, and so those things I write about either for myself or newspapers and those stories always get dragged up on stage."

"The preparation I do - if I'm going to be in a place where I'm going to want to relay some kind of historical context - I have to do some research and do my cross-referencing to make sure I have the right information - or at least information that's as good as I can get it because history is written by the victors most of the time - and if there's any statistical information that I want to research, so that's the preparation I'll do. But by and large I just go up there and tell it how I remember it, tell it how I saw it."

And much of his material does have a humorous spin, but unlike comedians Rollins isn't too worried if a bit doesn't receive an anticipated laugh from the audience.

"If it's a part of the thing that I want to tell and it doesn't register as funny to someone but it's still a part of the story, well, I just kind of go on - I'm not looking for laughs. I do try to find the humorous aspects of the story which is usually the joke is on me and I try not to hide from that, or omit it from the story to look good or whatever. If the egg has to hit my face, well, so be it. I also know there's nothing I'm doing that's wretched or awful, I'm not that bad a person, so if I have to take one on the chin and look kind of stupid, well, I must have been stupid in that moment so have a laugh on me."

A common subject in Rollins' routines in recent years has been, understandably, President Bush.

"Not exactly picking on him but just kind of pointing things out, he makes it easy just because he gets up there and speaks and you can download the word-for-word transcript, and I have some healthy disagreements with his agenda, and I have healthy disagreements with the things he says like, 'If we don't fight them over there, we have to fight them over here.' I think that is one of the greatest and brightest shinning lies of this new century. I don't want him dead, I don't want him killed, I don't want any of these people assassinated - I just want oversight, I want truth and I want fair and equal time in the press. I want a press with backbone. I want you people [Rollins stressed to me, as a member of the fourth estate], the press, to do their job. And I think that that backbone was sorely missed at the beginning of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, so that's what I want, and perhaps that is not so bad. But yeah, the president, he feeds himself to me every day. What would I do without him, without these beautiful one-liners like going to Australia and thanking [Austrian Prime Minister] John Howard for OPEC [while at an APEC summit]?"

So what are some of the topics Rollins will be covering in his "Provoked" show?

"The Katrina disaster - and that the real disaster was that we let these people down. I'll be talking, momentarily, about Larry Craig in that it's too bad if he is in fact homosexual - that this is the way that he needs to find company, and if that's the case then maybe we should change the way we look at homosexuality in this country so no one feels the need to have to hide themselves. I don't care that he's a republican, or if he's a hypocrite, people are hypocrites all the time, myself included. I'm trying to look at the bigger picture on that. There are some interesting moments about abstinence-only sex-ed - examples of its ruinous effects that I'm going to talk about. And this thing that I've been kicking night to night here and there about Mother Nature getting some get-back on humans in the form of predator animal deaths. I don't think it's exactly funny or warranted but I think it's noteworthy, definitely something that I find interesting where some people die of old age and some people are eaten by cougars. And you can find all kinds of this stuff on the internet and a lot of it - how people are slowly being eaten alive by Mother Nature which is something I've been having some fun with on stage."

Despite the fact that The Henry Rollins Show on the IFC, Independent Film Channel, is well into its second season, Rollins scheduling around the show is actually less complicated than one would imagine.

"We shoot that show three of four days a month and sometimes we'll get two months of programming, and one month we'll shoot six to seven days in one month and then it's over for weeks at a time. It's kind of a hustle and bustle at work from January on and off until July but it's not that impactful on my year. Like last year I shot a movie and did speaking dates all through the season of shooting the TV show, and it worked out just fine, I just work around it. But for a tour like this, it would be impactful and prohibitive. But I do the TV show and then I do the tours. And I like working - the sacrifices in my schedule I make to do the show, so far, have been worth it in that I enjoy interviewing these people, I like writing my editorials, I like introducing the bands, and I like having a TV show - it's a kick."

Henry RollinsIn journalism, one of the most necessary elements to an article is the interview. However, this can also be the most difficult part of the job. Some people will give you one or two-word answers to your questions when you really need two or three sentences. Henry Rollins has been interviewed countess times spanning his Black Flag days and through the years amidst his pursuits in writing, acting, speaking, publishing, and in music with his Rollins Band. Yet, on The Henry Rollins show, Henry Rollins is actually the interviewer rather than his familiar role of interviewee.

"You would think that maybe being interviewed as many times as I have, which is many, would have helped me interview people - it was not the case. The only thing that helped me to learn how to interview people was interviewing people, and what helped me was the fact that I've been interviewing people for several years in magazines and things - mainly musicians. Back in the days of Bikini and Raygun Magazine I would be asked to interview people like John Lee Hooker and people like that. I also was asked to do video press kits for people where I'd have to do long-form interviews over multiple days for Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so I did quite a bit of interviewing with all of those people. And Ozzy I've interviewed like five or six times - I've interviewed him for magazines, I've interviewed him on MTV, for my own show. And I've done interviews with other musicians for magazines where we kind of interview each other; I've done that with everyone from Maynard from Tool to Ice-T to Lemmy from Motorhead, et cetera, et cetera. It gives you kind of the hang of what to do and how to keep the conversation going and how to gage your subject. Does he answer quickly? Does he ramble? Is he angry to be here?"

"And I've found the thing that benefits the most no matter who you're interviewing is to be prepared - if the guy's got a new movie, try to see it, if he's got a new album and you're going to talk about it, damnit, listen to the record. Do a little bit of research. When I interviewed Gore Vidal I did two solid weeks of preparation for that. I re-read books I'd read of his before, I read a whole bunch of articles he had written that I had not previously read, so when he came in I could finish a couple of his sentences. I didn't want him to go, 'Oh, I'm 84 and you're wasting my time? I don't have a lot of that left!' When you get an afternoon of Gore Vidal - he's got maybe a few hundred of those left to give the world - don't waste it. Like I wouldn't waste your time interviewing me, I wouldn't show up to the interview high, or tired, or not into it. And believe me; I've suffered many interviewers who go, 'Uh, so, you were in a band?' And I go, 'Oh no! I'm traveling through molasses with this guy.' But I have to suffer this guy because he gets the last say with his article. I want to say some choice words to him but I basically have to interview myself while his tape recorder spins. There's a lot of that in this business."

Sharing with Rollins how sometimes friends will chide my interviews because I am not doing enough talking for their liking, and though personal friends might want to hear more of what I've got to say, the average entertainment reader is more concerned by what Henry Rollins is saying, or whomever the interview is with.

"It's kind of your job if you're going to get those three-inches of column." Rollins noted in agreement. "And in this situation the readers maybe are interested in my opinion a bit more than yours - in this certain situation. But if we were sitting anywhere else, your opinion is at least worth fifty-percent of the conversation."

"One would hope," I laughed.

"Well, I'll give you fifty percent of the time," replied Rollins.

With Rollins having spawned from Black Flag's now legendary punk roots, it seems there are always one or two fans of the band who cast certain disapproval upon the Rollins Band's material - even despite the fact that it's of a completely different genre. When asked if this sort of feedback surprises Rollins he replied in the contrary.

"Well, no, at this point nothing surprises me. And I get mail [which says]: 'You suck now!' What am I going to do - stop? Cry? You just have to get on with what you're going, life is short, get on to the next thing - you just get on with it as best as you can. I think that's all anyone can do. In this business you suffer the swings and arrows because everyone does have their shot at you and I do read the email, and you can get to me - I'm not made of Teflon. You insult me - you got me, you win, you insulted me. But I've got to keep going. The thing I've noticed in myself is that as I get older, I care - quite honestly - less and less about what anyone thinks about what I do. And I'm not trying to say, 'I don't give a fuck!' I'm not trying to come off like that, but if you say my last book sucked, well, I'm not Joseph Stalin - I'm not going to suppress you. But I'm definitely working on the next book and I can't stop because you don't like me. I can't stop that."

Stating to Rollins how I know, personally, that at my core there are things about myself which have not changed, but that a lot of things about me are different now than they were 20 years ago - as I'm sure is the same with him as well.

"Yeah, you're evolving. Isn't that great in that you are a complex creature capable of change? If everyone kind of took their 20-year old values we'd be mad and suicidal every time our date said there would be no second date, and we wouldn't laugh at it and go, 'Oh well, life goes on.' So I definitely think a lot differently than I did when I was 20, and I'm very glad of that," commented Rollins.

"You're absolutely right. There are a lot of core values that remain the same like you weren't a racist then, and you're not a racist now. So some things haven't changed, you haven't shot anyone in a liquor store hold up from year 20 to whatever year you're enduring now. And so, I don't rob liquor stores, that one is probably still set in stone. But a lot of other things, yeah, and for me what has changed is I realize the world is a big place. When you're young you're often very precious, it's one of the cool things about being young - it's me, me, me. A lot of that came from me from being young, but it also came from being really broke where I was looking not far past the food bowl and the next gig because the food was not always guaranteed and the gig was always a hard deal. As soon as I got enough money to where I knew I had the meals covered and the rent was covered, I could look beyond myself and go, 'Wow, can I be of any help any where else?' Now that I have the meals covered it allows me to be a pretty good American in that I can also help feed someone else. And I do, I make a point to do that. I quite enjoy it. I enjoy my civic activism."

But as far as Rollins' activities abroad, you can't have an conversation with the man without talking about where in the world he's just been to - and where he's about to head towards. In my last interview with Rollins [May, 2006] we had talked about his plans for taking the Trans-Siberian Railway which departs from Moscow and travels to it's destination in Vladivostok. Rollins later talked about this trip in his Rollins: Uncut from NYC (2006) DVD.

"I did that, it was fun. Well, not exactly fun, it was informative. And I'm hoping to take the train from Moscow to Beijing - that's the next one that I want to take, that's the Trans-Manchurian Express. I'm either going to that from my show in Dublin, or I'm going to South Africa, it's going to be one of the two. From the emails today it's looking like it's going to be South Africa, it's looking like I've got shows down there. I've been to Johannesburg before but only as a tourist. Today's emails were, 'We've got Johannesburg wired - do you want to stay and do Cape Town?' Which I would like to do."

Another fascinating place Rollins has just spent time visiting was Iran. With such speculation on the relations between America and Iran in recent times, I'd asked Rollins if there was ever a point while in Tehran where he worried for his safety.

"No, never once," he stated firmly. "I considered it, but I worry about my safety in Detroit, or south Florida, or L.A. I worry about my safety whenever I leave my house. But no, in those places I just kind of went in the naïve hopes that I would have a have a good time and meet people. And I did, and I did. I mean, I met a lot of great people and I asked them 'What do you think about America?' and every single person said 'I like America.' And no one said 'get out,' no one was mean to me. The food was good, the women were beautiful, and people were friendly. I also went though with my body language and everything saying 'Hey, I'm here to engage. I want to meet you, I'm here to learn.' I think people can read that when they see you and when you're one of the only white guys on the street - if not the only white guy on the street - you stick out. And so you better be friendly because you're at the mercy of every single headline and every single bit of foreign policy and every single opinion in op-ed that's been happening in that country since you got there. And I've done this in many countries, I've done it in parts of Africa and Morocco, Kenya, Madagascar, wherever, I've done this in Djibouti - I was there on Christmas day last year. So I just go to these places and most of the time it's been okay. I've never been chased anywhere but things can happen; it can go south for you anywhere, I'm sure Tehran is no exception."

As always, Rollins is also thinking ahead to his next adventures.

"Not this year, this year's kind of booked through. But next year definitely I've got two trips planned to Australia, and after one of them I'm hoping to have enough time to go from Australia straight north up into Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam because I've never been to any of those countries so I want to go do that. And I want to get to China next year, and whatever else. I should be going kind of far and wide next year and I don't know if the U.S.O. has any plans for me. I basically let them know my availability as many weeks ahead of time as I can and if they can use me they do, and if they can't they don't. And right now I have October 2nd - I will be going to Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital for a few hours for a scheduled visit with the soldiers who want to meet me. Basically there's a sign-up sheet and those who want to meet me sign their name and check the box so you meet the people who want to meet you. Since I'll be in D.C. for three days I let my representative know ahead of time, I said, 'Coach, put me in! I can play on October 2 or 3 - I'm open if you need me.' And they said, 'Yup, October 2 is your day,' and I said, 'Yes ma'am.'"

Between his September 23rd show in Orlando, Florida and his shows coming up in D.C., Rollins has a stint of 10 days back to back without a break.

"That's how I like it. Sometimes I do 10 and 12 shows in a row. Nights off are fairly productive in that I work, I write stuff, I work on my radio show, and I gather information. On a night off the other night I downloaded a lot of articles about things that I want to learn more about so I can get caught up on some reading. But I wish I was on stage from 8 until 10:30 that night."

Henry Rollins ProvokedAnd a fortunate quality of spoken word performances as opposed to when Rollins tours with the Rollins Band is that the shows are far less physically daunting.

"Absolutely right. The only thing that wears and tears on me on the talking shows is sometimes repetition. Having a limited amount of topics that you want to get to you get into repetition mode, but you just go out on stage and you have fun that night and all of a sudden the stories are new again. The thing you need to do to pull this off is to be on in the moment, as actors will say. You know, you have to be on-stage, that night, at that moment, not going, 'Oh, I'm on stage again.' As soon as I walk out there it feels like the only time I've ever been there. And I'm right in that town in that moment, and the fact that it's Monday and nowhere and there's one hundred people in a five hundred seater and it looks weird, it doesn't really occur to me. To get the thing across is the only thing that occurs to me, and you do it and it's fun. But you only do one show a night so it's not like you have to do all 50 shows on your tour all in one night. You just do one and you get 24 hours to turn it around and you do it again."

To which Rollins adds: "And also, let's not discount the fact that I'm an utter ham and I like being up there."

And the ultimate question asked of one voracious reader from another - 'What are you reading right now?'

"I'm reading a book by Chalmers Johnson called Nemesis which is basically the same book I just read called Dark Ages America by Morris Berman. They're basically about the same thing, about our foreign policy from Truman to now and likening America to Rome. So they're both bummer reads," Rollins chuckles, "But I'm learning a lot."

"And I've smuggled some F. Scott Fitzgerald out with me as I like to read F. Scott in the autumn months. He's my favorite American writer."

Rollins has also been known to speak fondly of author Henry Miller.

"He's a big favorite to me, but as far as an architect of great sentences, to me, F. Scott Fitzgerald is just amazing. I mean, I don't drink wine, but if it could be like a fine wine - that's F. Scott, and a good glass of beer with a sandwich - that's Henry Miller. Where I love Miller, he raised me, but in my later years I've come to really enjoy the work of F. Scott - where I read some stories over and over and some passages over and over."

Henry Rollins will be performing his show: "Provoked: An Evening of Quintessentially American Opinionated Editorializing and Storytelling," in Chicago at the Vic Theater on October 19, 2007.