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Sticking It To The Man with a Passport And a Mic

An Interview with Henry Rollins (2008)

by Melanie "Sass" Falina

Henry RollinsRewind to autumn -- 2007 -- this time last year...Henry Rollins was embarking on one of his spoken word tours: "Provoked: An Evening of Quintessentially American Opinionated Editorializing and Storytelling" and he hasn't really rested or slowed down since. A full year later, after intertwining a couple documentaries and his personal, obligatory travels in with the tour, he's now kicking off a brand new one.

"Yeah, the only time I've had off was around the Christmas holidays and I've managed to turn those into kind of high-anxiety bits of down-time," Rollins chuckles.

"For instance, last year for Christmas I called the USO and said, 'Hey, can you use me for anything? If I had my way I'd get sent to Afghanistan or Iraq.' But they said, 'No, we've got nothing, the budget is gone for the year.' -As it is for every company by the end of the year, they're all broke. And they said, 'Call us next year.' So I said, 'Well since you don't need me I guess I'll just go to Islamabad, Pakistan. And so I was there when Bhutto was assassinated and I walked all over the city when things were burning and men were crying. I wasn't happy about Bhutto being killed, but as far as there being one day to be in that country that was eventful that was it. So I did Christmas in Islamabad and it was very eventful -- a little terrifying at times - they locked down Islamabad and closed the airport so I was there for better for worse. The Christmas before I was in Djibouti , Africa with the Navy and Marines at Camp Le Monier, and before that I was in Kazakhstan , and the year before that I think I was in Kabul."

So Rollins, obviously not big on traditional holiday activities, and combined with his voracious love of travel -- has seen some things and been a lot of places that most people only get to read about in their lives. In addition to his amassing what must be a mouth-watering amount of frequent flier miles.

"I try to get places that are interesting. I was just in Burma five days ago I just got back here. I spent about six weeks in Southeast Asia so far [in 2008] and it's been interesting. Very very nice people, but I think Burma is the second country that I've been to that endures sanctions. When I was in Iran, that's a country with sanctions, but you don't really notice it because Tehran has got everything; you know, BMWs and everything but KFC and Starbucks. But in Burma, the country's so poorly run by Than Shwe he's a wreck -- they're really nice people with a really bad guy running the show. And it's not like Than Shwe misses a meal or the junta misses dinner, it's always the poor folks who get cut off from medical attention and three square meals a day. When you get to the interior of the country where there's like no roads, you see that sanctions -- well, I must say that I don't believe in them at this point, as far as them being an effective tool of making a government bend to your will; it's not like Castro has ever missed a meal."

And sadly, here in present-day America, we're pretty mismanaged as well.

"In a way we're so much worse off because of our conduct and the way we run the show; so many good people in America are getting so ripped apart by this administration. I'm not a fan."

Speaking of the current administration, it's particularly the end of the Bush-era which has inspired the name of the new tour which Rollins is sliding into: 'Recountdown.'

"For America it'll be all new material. Some of the cities will get some of the same stories as the last few cities of the last leg of it because they will not have heard them. But shows in Europe have to be all new material, at least since January when I was last there. Thankfully, things have been very eventful, travel-wise and story-wise, so I think I've got good material for these upcoming shows."

When writing for his shows, one wonders if he has to alter his material much for the rest of the world as opposed to American audiences.

"Not much. The objective is don't leave anyone out, don't be exclusive, don't exclude people, so if I say 'Ann Coulter' in America everyone goes, 'Yes, we know' and you have your opinion of her. You do that in Preston, England and you lose three-fourths of the audience. And to explain her -- who cares? So either you know and you have an opinion or have me trying to explain this person who you have to see to believe. And so when I'm abroad I don't need to dumb it down -- because it's not like I'm this bright light -- I'm just very clear and that's why the travel stories are very good because I go into these places as a foreigner. And so my experience as a foreign person in Vietnam or where ever would be very much like their experience in that they're a foreigner there too. And so that has weight, that's a good way to go when you're with a European audience or an Australian audience, and I find myself performing outside of America quite often. This year I was in South Africa doing shows in Johannesburg and Cape Town and I'd never been there for shows -- amazing audience!"

Henry RollinsBut is President Bush as popular -- material-wise -- elsewhere as in America?

"Yeah, and when you say Bush in these other countries they really get off on hearing an American tear the guy a new one. Because he's kind of universally not liked; at least with my audience, I'm sure there's lots of people who love the guy. But when I mention him or I imitate him people just howl. And it's interesting to talk to Europeans because some of them will say, 'Well we thought all of you liked Bush, we didn't know that there are people who don't.' And I say, 'No, there's well over half of America that's really done with this guy, and please don't judge America by the actions of Bush, we're really very nice people.' And I don't think he even represents republicans; I mean I may have disagreements with some republican ideas but it's friendly and respectful, it's not mean. A lot of them have that 'every-man-for-himself, free-market-capitalism thing, and I say I hear ya, but the way you push farmers around in other countries you wouldn't survive free-market capitalism unless you rigged the game. I go, you guys rig it so that you win and Chili and Argentina get hammered, and Brazil gets hammered, so where's the free-trade part? So that would be my argument, not 'hey you asshole' - where the way the Fox [Broadcasting] guys come off they don't make the republicans look good, they make them look like ignoramuses who think in bumper sticker bits of propaganda. And so I think the Bush administration has given a lot of those people a lot of greased rails. I think the republican-democratic argument is valid and fine, they've got points -- ok -- and they don't have to be bad people. But Bush has engendered these kinds of yahoo sayings, 'Well I'm a conservative' -- Really? You're voting for a guy who's cleaning you out. You go have fun with that. It'll be those funny, liberal book-readers who will be feeding you when you and your family are sitting outside the 7-11 in a row."

And with the "Recountdown Tour" we can hear Rollins paying, possibly, his final tribute to the man who has given him -- and so many other comedians, commentators and the like, so much material over a good part of the past decade.

"Well yeah, it's been eight years with the guy -- my pal -- and I can't say I'm going to miss him but things will be different. And I just want to have the last days of the dying embers of the Bush regime before the new century finally starts -- I've been waiting for the year 2000 for eight years now."

"This isn't going to be Bush, Bush, Bush -- not at all, in that there's nothing I can say that you don't know. No malaprop that's come out of his mouth, no gouging and mauling of the English language that I can do that you would go, 'Oh he said that?' We've all heard the top-100, 'food on families,' whatever. What this show is mostly going to be this time around is where I've been in the last few months, and I've seen quite a bit of things in the last few months -- it's been extremely eventful. Going to HIV and AIDS clinics in South Africa, and standing in Nelson Mandela's cell -- which I did recently - was very powerful. And hiking through Burma for two weeks was interesting, and I just came back from a trip to Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia and all of that was very informative."

Kicking off some of the newer antidotes on the road is a bout of eight nights at the Edinburgh International Festival in the UK.

"I was there last summer so it has to be all new material. Since that summer I will have no shortage of material. What I'm going to be doing at those shows is working on new material, just kind of seeing how it fits. Not demo-ing in front of a live audience, but basically just taking out new stuff. I've got some funny stories from when I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand a few weeks ago that I haven't had a show to do the new stories at, so I'll be using Edinburgh and changing the material almost nightly."

Is Rollins at all concerned that whomever America's new president may be come 2009, that he simply won't have the buffet of inspiration that Bush and company has offered him over the last few years?

"No, I'm not dependent on Bush to make my show. He doesn't run my life; he's just fun to romp around with. Whoever is the next president -- if it's McCain it's going to be four more years of this and maybe a push into Iran. And if you get Barack Obama -- who was not remotely my favorite for the democratic candidate but I will be voting for him, I'm wondering what he'll be able to do with four years. Gore Vidal says it'll take a hundred years to roll back the last eight. I think four years of any president is going to be sitting down and reconnecting America to NATO, to the UN, to EU, and I would love it if our next president, whoever it is, would sit down with North Korea, with Iran, with Syria -- let's start talking. I hate this, 'We don't talk to these people!' Why not? We're on the same planet, let's go, unless you don't want progress. If you sell bullets and you get off on war then peace is your enemy so it's better to just keep demonizing people so it keeps the cash flow going. That never really occurred to me until I interviewed Stephen Gaghan a few years ago, the guy who wrote Syriana. Wonderful guy, brilliant, and he said oil and arms -- that's what makes the world go around. And if you build super-max prisons you're only problem is a drop in crime, and you see the sheer profit of the prison industrial complex then you start to understand why we under-educate our kids. And when you see the military industrial complex and the cash-cow that is you see why we don't teach them history, because if you gave them a good education and a laptop, which is like 40-minutes of the Iraq War budget - to put a Dell on every desk in America, there would be less war because it's harder to convince a well educated populace that we have to go in and attack a sovereign nation. That's why Germany went: 'Hmm, nope!' because they have a grip on history but Germany certain makes mistakes too I'm sure. But never have I experienced such a developed country -- this major super power -- America, that's number 46 or something like that in literacy. Our education system should be the envy of the world, why can't we get that together unless there's an effort not to get it together? Because it seems to me it's not the biggest hurdle, it can be done you just teach kids information in a cool way and you'll have to lock up the school to keep them from breaking in at night to learn more. And yes, you need to keep your warrior and criminal class in tact, lest you have everyone vying to be a lawyer and someone who's non-violent -- which would keep America from being that guy."

Rollins continues: "So the next president, it'll be interesting to see what they do with the bundle they've been handed. It was interesting to watch Nixon, who I'm no fan of, but: "Here! Here's the Vietnam War, you go have fun now.' And the next president is going to be handed Iraq, Afghanistan, China as a developing nation, this president's country is going to have no money, and is fighting two unsustainable conflicts and rattling the sabers of the third. So I don't envy any of these people, but I fear McCain because I don't think his brain is all that good."

Sass and Henry RollinsIn addition to all the traveling abroad that Rollins has done this year, he's also spent some time America's Crescent City this year, New Orleans.

"I just did about a week in the 9 th Ward with a film crew, and interviewed people about their Katrina experiences. And some of these stories are not even real -- they're just insane. To see bodies and it's some kind of nightmare apocalyptic sci-fi thing and it's just some guy in his neighborhood telling you how it was. And so I definitely have some stories to tell."

Fortunately for people like Rollins, his documentary on New Orleans post-Katrina will remind the rest of America and the world that though three years have passed since the hurricane decimated the New Orleans area -- all is not okay now. We are influenced by the media, and the media tends to just move on to that 'next thing' making people assume that if it's not on the news anymore then everything must be alright now -- back to normal; but that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"You see these neighborhoods where there's one guy building his house -- we interviewed him -- and all around him is shoulder-high weeds, and I said 'Well, what used to be here?' And he points down the street and says, 'That was a high school...' - and there's nothing there. He says, 'This was a bus stop, and my neighbor was loud...' -- and now you hear birds and the distant sound of someone hammering like way away. And there's a great spirit with the people there, no one's like 'poor me,' they're just kind of getting on with it. And I'm going to go down there later either this year or early next year because they take volunteers -- we drove by tons of people who were painting, a lot of kids with Sean Penn's 'Dirty Hands' outfit, church groups, all kinds of people which shows you what America really is -- that's my version of America, all these people working for free. People taking their spring break and going to New Orleans, people doing Christmas vacation with a paint brush in their hands. And so I asked our producer down there, 'Can I come down here and do something?' And he was like, 'Are you kidding? I'll start you tomorrow, there's always drywall that needs to be put up.' They said 'As soon as you want to come down here call us and we'll hook you up,' so I'm going to go down there work by day and eat by night. That'll be my reward; I'll get to eat like a pig. New Orleans food, come on! I can do it like every other year; it's like the heart-attack diet. I was down there for five days and my daily reward of a shrimp po-boy was well worth it."

Like in New Orleans, the majority of Rollins work of late has been very centered on the world and what's going on in it -- UnRated Magazine asked him if he feels somewhat of a responsibility to try to spread awareness, or if these topics are simply what he's passionate about.

"I'm passionate about it and I feel an obligation to be part of a positive outcome. It's the only way I justify the access I have, my paycheck, and what I know. You know, when I was in Thailand I was there to shoot a documentary on hunger. We weren't using a Thailand as an example of famine but we got a cheap production space there so we did the thing in Chiang Mai. And I financed half of this hunger documentary and it was not a cheap donation - it was a lot of dough. And I'm the host of it because I believe in the solvability of world famine and I believe in the problem of it, and I wanted to kind of push back against it and inform others and to work at doing something positive and being part of a solution somehow. That's my passion. I feel as an American -- if you know enough to know then you can't shut up you have to speak out otherwise you're part of the problems. And as a guy who's nearly 50 doing stuff like this is how I stick it to the man, I don't want to throw a rock at a cop, I've got nothing against that guy and what does that ever do? But when you can try to combat something like hunger or ignorance or something then you're definitely pushing back at people who want to keep people starving, and you realize that you are ruining the day for someone when you are doing something charitable and I love that."

The documentaries in Thailand and New Orleans are in addition to spoken word performances that were filmed in South Africa, New Orleans, and Northern Ireland.

"There were three documentaries for the Independent Film Channel that come out later this year. And South Africa is all finished -- that one's in the can, I just did all the voice-over work for Ireland and New Orleans yesterday so they're whacking that in now, and then those I guess go off to New York to get the stamp of approval from the Independent Film Channel and I think they all run in October and November."

Henry RollinsAlthough 2008 was a big year in Southeast Asia for Rollins, years past he's frequented other parts of the world -- like the Middle East. Is where this nomad goes planned, or is it just kind of where his work and curiously takes him?

"I do that when I can, the first time I was in Southeast Asia this year was two weeks in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam -- my tour ended in Auckland, New Zealand and I had two weeks where I didn't have to be anywhere, so I said, 'Ok, now I have the time to make my first foray into this part of Southeast Asia.' And I did like four or five days in each place, got my toe wet and I can't wait to get back. Of all three places it's Cambodia I want to get back to the soonest, Phnom Penh was a very powerful experience. I went through the Killing Fields, and a lot of human remains with teeth everywhere with ribs sticking out of the ground, and dresses and clothes poking out of the soil, it's very intense. It's kind of this unguarded place you pay a buck or whatever to get in and it's very sad -- this is a country that did this to themselves. In America they'd never let you walk over bones, and there are these signs, 'If you find a bone please put it somewhere where we can collect it,' and you see trees with femurs and ribs leaned up against them from kind tourists who thought, 'Ok, here's your shin bone.' It's nuts! Little glass boxes, 'If you find any teeth can you please put them in here.' And there are teeth and little bits of wire where wrists were tied together and blindfolds, it's a lot to take in. Guys like me should go to places like that -- it's good because I've got a microphone and a stage to broadcast from and tell these stories. These are the things that I want to see, I mean -- I'm not a ghoul, but I want to see this stuff so I can know it and not from a book. That's one of the things that we were trying to do in Burma, we were trying to get to the Irrawaddy delta and we almost got a chopper ride in from the World Food program but at the last minute it blew out. But next year I'm going to be seeing what I can do to get out to some places and see some of this stuff so that I can know a thing or two; it was a great opportunity with the USO to go to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait and places like that and see this stuff and have an understanding of it that's not from CNN."

"Years ago I promised myself that I was going to get to Africa -- I've been there like five or six times now, different countries, and that was the start of all this. I was raised up on National Geographic magazine and always wanted to see those pyramids so like 10 years ago I said, 'Ok, I'm doing that' and that started my almost yearly trip to Africa."

"[Traveling] is a cure for xenophobia. Like my mother, she would save her money and we would go to Greece, we went to England, we went to Jamaica, when I was in the 10th grade I went to Spain, and so I had a passport with stamps in it. On the other hand, my father, PhD in economics -- smart guy -- never went anywhere. I don't know if he's alive or not but if he is he's probably listening to Rush Limbaugh right now, and probably loving the Fox News Channel, and that's him. And you'd say, 'I went to Spain,' and he'd look at you like: 'Fag!' Gee, that's great, Dad. And he never wanted to know, and I think that that kind of intellectual laziness turns you into kind of a monster; ignorance is scary when you're around ignorant people. The conclusions that they come to are so insane and lethal and dangerous and scary to be around."

Rollins wraps it up in the strong, concise way that he lives his life:

"This is why I travel, I'm interested anyway, but it's how I try to be informed by my own steam."

Henry Rollins will be performing his "Recountdown" spoken word show at The Vic in Chicago on October 25. Tickets are available here: