A special introduction from author and friend Peter Farris.
I know that guy.
Depending on your age and musical tastes, you might’ve been exposed to Henry Rollins as he ground it out in punk rock titans Black Flag. Or like me, you might’ve been an impressionable teen, watching that “Liar” video get heavy play on MTV’s Alternative Nation. I’m sure there are folks out there who only know Rollins from his books and spoken word performances, or his numerous television and film appearances. The tattooed dude with the muscles, right?
Regardless, you know that guy.
Almost as fascinating as the cult of personality that has grown around Henry Rollins over the years is the way he’s deftly navigated a creative life, always working with a desperation that one day it could all go away—IT being the audiences, the paying public, the speaking gigs and acting opportunities. That fear is common in Hollywood, but in Rollins’ case I think it has only served as motivation: to leave it on the stage every single night (whether he’s speaking or screaming) and make every sentence count. One reason why I can claim I’ve never, ever been disappointed in Henry Rollins.
He’s probably the world’s first anti-social humanitarian and as passionate in his opposition to war as he is for his support of U.S. military personnel. His emergence as an astute social commentator doesn’t surprise me either, and whether you agree or disagree with his distillation of what I’ll call the bullshit, you will always get a smart argument.
But do we really know that guy?
My obsession with Black Flag runs deep (I have Pettibon’s Family Man tattooed on my leg), and Get In The Van is (and always will be) an annual source of inspiration, but what’s most astonishing is just how much Henry Rollins has informed my own tastes. Rollins is a music lover first and foremost, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge that’s been referenced in his non-fiction for more than twenty years. I learned from Rollins that Black Sabbath was punk rock. And so was Thin Lizzy. And John Coltrane. And The Stooges. And Parliament. And Miles Davis. So was Henry Miller and Thomas Wolfe for that matter.
More importantly, I learned from Rollins that there was nothing wrong with being alone. I crave solitude. It was nice to know there was someone else who cherished isolation as much as I did. Someone out there who didn’t feel in lock step with the human race and instead of fighting that alienation, embraced it and channeled it into their work.
Now fifty, I do wonder if Rollins has any regrets leading the aforementioned creative life largely on his own? Is he finally comfortable in his own skin? Does he crave companionship? Children? Has seeing the world through a misanthropic lens made it all the more confusing?
I suspect the answer to all of the above is no…but I also suspect we’ll never really know. And that’s okay. There is a remarkable body of work worth knowing above all else, and that is the most important thing.
– Peter Farris 3.27.11
The Henry Rollins Interview
TIS: First of all, congratulations on an amazing 50 years.
HR: Well thank you.
TIS: Of course. So in your 50th year, you’re going stronger than ever. Where would you say your greatest strengths and determination come from today?
HR: I’m basically curious and angry, so my anger kind of fuels my curiosity and the place my curiosity leads me to is sort of an angry place. The anger isn’t like I’m trying to kick a dog or punch a hole in the wall, it’s nothing like that. The anger is more like civic anger, where you see people going without…and seeing a lot of what I’ve seen, you see some pretty rough views of the world, and rather than just say “oh, that’s sad” and be timid in the face of it, it really makes me mad and want to try and change things. So I try to do that in my own small way in America and abroad. I’ve lent myself to a couple of organizations that I really respect like Drop In The Bucket, who actually draws water wells in Sudan and Uganda. I’ve traveled with them and am ok with putting my face on their campaign cause they’re doing the right thing. I also work with the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America because it’s a very good anti-war organization. They’re working really hard to get more rights for these guys coming home who are, you know, pretty screwed up. So there’s things I try and do in an organized way that has a public face, and then there’s other stuff I do on my own. The further I go though, I’m getting more and more opportunities to do things then when I was 20. It’s like, “hey, you wanna try this?” and I’m like “yeah”, well for the most part…and it keeps me really busy, hence, more of the visible level of activity…
TIS: Right, right…so one of the things you mentioned, which really impresses me, is all of the volunteer work you do with the troops, yet you’re still against the wars we’re involved in. Can you tell me where your reconciliation between the two is?
HR: Well for me, it’s more of a humanitarian thing. These guys are there…these guys and gals, let’s not leave out the ladies, they’re over there. They signed up for this, which probably wasn’t the best move, but America has put a lot of people into an economic straight where it’s not only a viable option, it starts looking like maybe the best option, and when the best option for a young person is basically playing Russian Roulette in Kandahar or Kabul, I think we need more options.
HR: So things need to change and until they do, I’d like to see if I can be of help and so when I’m there in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s not a political thing, because once you get there, there’s no politics. The only politics there are don’t get killed, that’s it. It’s a very apolitical place. Like Paul Rykoff who runs I.A.V.A. (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) he’s a veteran and came home and saw there was nothing for these people and thought, well that’s no good, so he’s standing up for veterans rights, even if it’s just getting a couple of guys a place to meet so they can commiserate, or trade stories, or even just a couple of tickets to a ball game. One of the things I’ll do is give him my guest list, so anyone he works with that’s interested in seeing me can get into my shows through him. Just something small like that. It’s a reach out program. It’s hard for me to sympathize with a young person who chooses to go into the military now because they know where they’re going. They know they’re going to Baghdad or Afghanistan and I think we need to start depopulating the military. We need to start radically defunding it and we need to get out of the over 150 countries that America has a military presence in. There’s no short fall of troops. We just happen to have them like icing on this big global cake, but do we need to have them everywhere? No one has a real answer for that which doesn’t reek of propaganda. So I think the entire model needs to change. The entire priority needs to shift. The military would be good for something like Libya. I’d really love it if Moammar Kadafi was more of a man and saw that people want him to step down. He’s had a very good run for a dictator, and he should stop the bloodletting and just step off. He’s got a lot of money, he can go to Saudi Arabia, where he’ll find a lot of sympathy, or somewhere else, and basically just piss off. I think what we’re doing now is just perpetuating further conflict and perpetuating that myth of American “exceptionalism”, which when you’re on the ground in America, it doesn’t always look that exceptional. You can see all the people without health care or all the G funded schools, so instead of going after Planned Parenthood or National Public Radio and beating up on teachers, they’re firing one million dollar missiles at some building. It just shows you where we’re at and I want that to change.
TIS: Right, and you mentioned teachers which hits close to home for me as my brother is one and on many occasions has voiced his frustration over our current educational system. I read that your mother worked for National Education and Planning and had a very frustrating time there too?
HR: Yeah, she worked for Health Education & Welfare for years until I think Reagan killed it, and then she worked for N.E.A.P. until she retired and the entire time she was frustrated, trying to figure out why Johnny can’t read and how to fix it. That’s why I could read before I was in school, she made sure of that.
TIS: So would you mind elaborating a bit on our current educational systems problems?
HR: Well it’s not a problem for some, for those who make sure these schools stay broke. The goal is to create basically a two tier system. When you give people semi-literacy, and no sense of our countries history in the world etc, you get people who are open to propaganda, easy to fill with fear, easy to fill prisons and battle fields with, and that’s the military industrial complex, and the prison industrial complex working hard for you on a Saturday night. Both organizations make a lot of money. They have strong lobbying groups. I never really considered how much money we spend on a convict, so I looked it up one day. Different states have different rates, and for example, as a convict gets older sometimes medical bills force it into a high six figure fee to keep them alive and on medication. The prison guards, in California at least, have a very strong union. The prison industrial complex is a big money maker. It’s a multi-billion dollar enterprise. So what are the things that would get in the way of that? Well, peace and prosperity, literacy, education. The same thing that would get in the way of those who sell bombs and bullets. That’s why there’s conservatives and republicans angry that we’re not on the ground in Libya, because we could be firing bullets and they sell those bullets. Peace is their enemy, democracy and freedom also seems to be there enemy, as well as the constitution. So these hypocrites, these banksters have been running America for quite a long time, at least visibly since Reagan. So that’s what you have, the poor people will stay poor and stupid and their options will be few, which will often lead into dangerous behavior or expendability. When you say you want to change that, you’re called a socialist. Rush Limbaugh will call you a communist. He can call me whatever he wants, I like the first amendment too, but these things need to change. I don’t know if they will. I don’t know if enough people will pull their heads out to see it. To me, it’s glaringly apparent. It’s just a money game, it’s not hearts and minds. It’s a grift, a con game. It’s a street that’s uptown, it’s forty floors up and it wears pearl cufflinks.
TIS: So you’re obviously quite educated in all of this.
HR: I kinda just see it. I mean it’s kind of obvious. And you can read very well informed writers like Chris Hedges or whoever, but it’s kind of obvious when you look around.
TIS: Right on. And is it true that read from the constitution every day?
HR: Absolutely, a little bit every day.
TIS: Can you tell me where your understanding is, versus what you hear coming from Republicans/Conservatives?
HR: Well I think what Republicans do, like talk show hosts or Michelle Bachmann, they’ll find something they don’t like about Barack Obama, and they should just really come through the front door and say that he’s black, but they can’t, so they’ll find an amendment and try and turn it into a hot button issue, oversimplify it, misuse it and just throw it out there. You know, I listen to a lot of lefty radio, and for example Randi Rhodes will get eight callers screaming about the tenth amendment, which they can’t quote, nor do they know the year it was ratified. So when you ask them to use it in context, they really can’t. I think the tenth amendment is “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” It’s a states right issue and that often becomes something like, for example, no abortion and no fags, it’s our state, and there’s usually an anti-gay agenda or pro-life agenda etc, under the guise that “we’re strict constitutionalists”. And sometimes the fourteenth amendment will come up. When Ron Paul was running for office, he was ranting about the fourteenth, which is in five pieces and ratified in what, 1868. This is there to keep people from trying to enter on the thirteenth amendment, which barred slavery in 1865. So they’ll just hold them up and the acolytes will be like “Yeah, what she said!” but they won’t read it, nor will the try and get any context, and they won’t read the amendment before it, which usually corresponds to the one that came after it. Society was slowly evolving and that’s why your founding fathers gave us amendments. In article 1 I believe, you have that 3/5ths of a person thing, where a black person or non-white, Native Americans weren’t counted, but non-whites were 3/5ths of a person and the fourteenth amendment changed that, basically for the concerns of congress in that the south was teaming with population, and a lot of it was slave labor. They didn’t want those southern states to be able to stack the House of Representatives, so they had to kind of temper it with making those “imported” people a fraction of a person. It doesn’t come off very well, so they had to change it, hence, amendments. So what I take away from the constitution is that society has changed, hence the need for an amendment. It wasn’t until the 19th amendment in 1920 that allowed women to vote. Can you imagine telling a woman now she can’t vote!? The women I hang out with would be going home with parts of your anatomy swinging from their rearview. It’s so obvious that things need to change, and that takes time. The civil rights were in 1964 and I think that was maybe the third attempt to pass the thing. The second time was 1875 and it was knocked down in 1883 by the Supreme Court as it was in violation of the Fourteenth amendment. So that’s what I take away from reading the constitution. America is in flux, it is a social experiment, a democracy, a grand social experiment, and I think a lot of Americans in desperation and in fear, they lose the “united” part and they want 50 little countries, which is what Lincoln had a war for, to try and keep the union together. And if these states really wanted to rip apart, fine, let Texas secede. No one who says that really looks at the books and sees how much money Texas gets from me and you to help with Hurricane relief etc, and all those military bases would leave and we’d have to make them show a passport when they came into Arizona or wherever else. So these things are rarely thought through and I’m trying to put a little but more thinking into all of this lest I shoot my mouth off and lose the plot. I have my little constitution book. It’s in my road case which I’m staring at right now, and I have my little portable Lincoln book I take with me. So yeah, I’m trying to edumacate myself on this stuff. I’m just a high school graduate. I’m no bright light, but I’m curious, so I let my curiosity take me forward.
TIS: I’ll have to play this recording back a few times to wrap my head around all of that, but yeah, sounds about right… I think. So to completely switch gears, I wanted to ask you about your acting, and one role in particular. You’ve done a ton of impressive work, but the role I’m most intrigued by was that of the Neo-Nazi rapist AJ Weston on Sons of Anarchy. He’s obviously the complete opposite of you so I was curious about your experience playing him?
HR: Well the character was pretty easy to access because he’s not very emotional. He’s a sociopath. He takes his marching orders and thinks a white America would be great, and you can’t reason with a person like that. He’s like a Palin 2012 person. There’s no turning that around, there’s no paperwork you can show that person that makes them say, oh ok, I’ll go home now. It’s never going to work. So the only reason that guy had a pulse was because he had two kids and that was the conflict. How can you shoot people by day, and go home and talk to your kids about baseball at night? That’s where the team at Sons of Anarchy were interested to see what I could. They wanted to see if I could make it work, and that was the hard part, otherwise he just takes his orders and is a foot soldier. Obviously his boss knew more than he did, and usually those people like AJ Weston, they know a third of the story and they’re being worked and manipulated. They’re the ones who go to jail and get shot. Not guys like Adam’s character, who goes back to Europe on a plane. They get to leave with a case full of money. Guys like my character get shot in the face, they get killed. So to me, I almost played the guy out of pity. It wasn’t really hard at all. Rarely when you act, at least for me, is there any emotional conflict, it’s just a job at the end of the day. It’s art in a strange way and at the end of the day you take the make-up off and jump in your Subaru, as I would do, and go to the grocery store, get your stuff and go back to the house and microwave it. I mean truly, that’s all it was. And most of those biker guys you see in the show are the nicest people you’d care to meet. All those tattoos on their arms are decals, so there’s a lot of artifice in the world of movies and TV and everyone kind of laughs it off and goes home. Charlie, the main guy, returns to his British accent and the sun sets.
TIS: Cool. So what does the rest of 2011 look like for you? I heard you have a book called Occupants coming out.
HR: Yeah, “Occupants” will be coming out in October and it’s a photo and essay book from my travels all over the world from 2004-2010. I’ve also got documentary work with National Geographic as I’ve been shooting with them now. I’ll hopefully be shooting with them in Southeast Asia, I’m just waiting for my marching orders. I have some more book stuff to edit back at the office in L.A. whenever I get a chance. I’m also going to be booking some trips for myself, just to go do stuff. I want to get to Palestine this year. I want to get back to Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Central Vietnam.
TIS: Yeah, I saw that “Warrior Gene” episode you did on Nat Geo, it was insane!
HR: Yeah, it’s an emerging science. We’re learning more and more about how complex the body is and that one gene could very well be the tip of an iceberg. We’ll probably know more in about thirty years or so.
TIS: So in close, things are obviously in turmoil the world throughout, I don’t really feel I need to get into specifics, but can you tell me what you think each person can do as an individual to effectively start creating change?
HR: Well voting is a good idea. Making an informed vote is a good idea. Recycling is a great and easy thing. Also I think everyone in this country should try living their day to day with like 25% less water. Just figure it out. Turn off the damn faucet while you’re brushing your teeth, don’t meditate in the shower. Go without some water and watch how many gallons you can go without a day, it’s amazing if you give it some thought.
TIS: Well I can’t thank you enough for your time. I’m beyond honored to have done this with you.
HR: It’s not a problem. I’ll see you down the road man. Good to talk to you.
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