Henry Rollins, who brings his spoken word showThe Long March to Vicar Street next Sunday, talks politics, travel and photography with Siobhán Kane.
Henry Rollins has been a contrarian for a long time. As incendiary frontman for bands Black Flag and the Rollins Band, he has long been part of an alternative culture, remaining resolute about disseminating the excesses of the mainstream. His particular sense of things has been explored through his spoken word career over the years, which in some ways he was prepared for through his Black Flag days (brilliantly detailed in his memoir Get in the Van) of arduously touring, often to places where punk and hardcore hadn’t even been heard of yet. This kind of ethos is something Rollins continues to carry with him to this day, touring the world not only with his spoken word, but as an interested party, a conscientious citizen. This curiosity has taken him to places such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and Burma – collecting stories,and living experiences that often filter back into his reactive, passionate polemics.
This passion is carried over into his publishing company 2.13.61., his writings that encompass journalism and poetry (his new photography book Occupants has recently been released), his acting work, his radio shows on KCRW – all emanating from an impulse to do more, and to understand more. Rollins has always possessed a strange coalescing of gentleness and stridency, and though he is sometimes misunderstood, he is never uninteresting, as Siobhán Kane finds out.
Your new book Occupants is very interesting. You modestly say that you are not a “professional” photographer, which framed your book somewhat differently, but you have a particularly aesthetic, and your photographs evidence the kind of openness you have about paying homage to people’s diverse experiences – where do you think that comes from?
Thank you. In the situation of being out in the world with a camera, it is curiosity that drives me. Also, I am trying to give the subjects respect and dignity. That is perhaps the most important thing of all.
Was it hard to put the book together? How do you feel now that it is completed, though does it even feel completed?– since you are on a constant journey, reflected in the book?
The hard part of the book was the writing and teaching myself how to process the images. The book is a chapter of my life and an instant of the people inside it. The book is exactly what you said; reflective, a constant journey. The next photo book is a good way to being completed. I reckon I will put it out in 2014.
Your book is an honest testimonial of a world whose truth rarely gets disseminated, certainly not by main news organisations – truth-telling just seems to radiate from you – what have the reactions been to your book and more than that, to the kind of work you have been doing the past few years?
I don’t read reviews of what I do, ever. These people can write whatever they want but it’s not interesting to me. Different press agents in different territories always want me to read something nice that was said about me and I can understand, but I never do. I have not for almost twenty years. The only reactions that have relevance to me are from the people who come to my shows and check out what I do. They are the people I serve and they are very important to me. I would never change anything I do content wise because of a “negative” reaction.
Seeing your shows always evince many feelings; sadness, humour, despair – you really inhabit the experiences, obvious to an audience when you are retelling the stories. Is it difficult, since some are so emotional? Though one of my favourite stories is the humorous one about the man you met a few years ago who had an interesting turn of phrase – “put the biologic to the tree” – and “Henry! What’s your life?”
Sometimes the stories are hard to tell because there’s no good ending, no solution to the problem that I could find. That’s part of the job though, to get the story across and suffer whatever wounding comes with it. When I am on tour, I live with these people in the stories for months at a time. It’s an intense relationship. Sometimes I see these people again over time and wonder what they would think about being known in a certain way, to people all over the world.
You spent some time in Northern Ireland, was how you experienced it different from what you expected to find there?
In a lot of ways, it’s just another place to do a show – nice people, etc. Obviously, there’s some serious history and perhaps a lot of things happening that are out of sight for a person passing through. I had no expectations, I try not to. When I did the work for the documentary there a few years ago, I learned a lot and was surprised how alive and hot the past conflicts were, I guess I wasn’t expecting that. None of us in the crew were.
From music to radio, spoken word to acting – there is always a sense of truth at the core of all that you do. Can you remember a moment when you realised that was the only way to really live? Van Dyke Parks recently said that he wanted to at least “strive to live in an age of heroism”, as he perhaps feels people and ideas are too timid at present – what are your thoughts?
At one point, I came to the conclusion that going for the real thing was the best strategy. For instance, some artist types rely on their past to make a living. They will play ancient songs from when they were young because they can’t write new things that get interest, they can merely play their old material well. To me, that’s not keeping it real. They are living in an unstable environment. I would rather pass or fail on the merits of what I am doing now and not what I did then. The day Black Flag was over, I knew that my existence would rely on what I was going to do the next day. I have never strayed from that mindset and it has served me very well. In my mind, I am in 2013 as far as planning. 2012 is already scoped out. I respect and admire Van Dyke Parks and understand what he’s getting at, but I do think there are very brave people doing heroic things. Syria, Egypt, Yemen—these people are getting killed for freedom. I don’t know how much more brave and heroic one can get.
From this side of the Atlantic Ocean, there is a lot of interest in American politics. At present, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the bizarre Republican primaries – what are your thoughts on both of those things? It’s strange because they seem diametrically opposed as well – though are taking the public imagination by storm.
Occupy Wall Street is a great thing. It must be—look how angry the Fox News people are about it. They are addressing things that should be, need to be, must be, addressed. Tax loopholes for the wealthy, bank deregulation, etc. The Republicans, they are the source of so much comedy in America and obviously elsewhere. None of them will be president, what a relief. Can you imagine? Anyway, with the exception of John Huntsman, they are ridiculous people. I really miss Herman Cain. He was the best of them all. So in over his head. As the Republican debates roll out further, for example, the one in South Carolina recently, you will see the “potential candidates” rip into each other, which is cute and enjoyable but also, they will continue to lie and do whatever they can to please their ever-shrinking psychotic base. If you want tragi-weird comedy, stay tuned to it as you prepare for the second Obama administration.
There is this really strange dynamic between art and politic, artists are often the most reflective, and history often looks to artists to explain what happened, but then it can also be so revisionist – just a really, quite bad example – is the recent film about Margaret Thatcher. If people didn’t know much about her, this paints her in quite cosy terms, very misguided, whereas Errol Morris’ Fog of War might get people to think reflectively, and actively. Maybe there is something more powerful in the documentary, when it comes to politics? I am not sure if that makes sense.
It makes sense to me. All history, as they say, is written by those who survived to write it—often the victors. How are you going to call yourself the bad guy and sell it? You can’t, you won’t, you never do. So, there’s always an agenda. With history, I always try and look at human motivation. That has never changed. If you can get your head around the why, then the rest is easier to sort through. As to the Thatcher film, it’s too late for Margaret Thatcher, everyone knows, and no movie will bail her out. I believe that history will get recorded more accurately in this century than in any other. There are too many people out there documenting it. Bush – The Butcher of Baghdad won’t get the glossy finish that Reagan did. Neither will Blair, Cheney, etc. Documentary has become the all seeing eye. Someone should do that same thing with Rumsfeld in a few years when his hubris wears off and the ghosts of all the people he killed crowd him out of his mind and he confesses.
You are a real proponent of “knowledge with mileage”. If you had to pick a place that has impacted your life in a profound way, which would you choose, and why?
Afghanistan. The ruggedness of the place and knowing that you can’t hack it makes it interesting to me. I have been twice and it really hit me hard. I would like to go back to Burma and see what changes have happened since the new leader came into power. I would like to go back to Southern Sudan to see what is happening there post secession.
Does all this knowledge with mileage come with a certain loneliness? I think we are all lonely in a way, but I wonder if somehow it can be more acute, when you are taking on such epic travels, seeing (often) such obvious devastation?
I get lonely now and then, not really for any one person, but for contact, it happens, the species being at the top of the food chain, we are complex. Past that, no. I can go for months on the road and not miss anything or anyone. When I was younger, I would miss a girlfriend, but these days, I just take the mission and go. I see a lot of blown up stuff and things that are not pleasant. I work at it. I want to see it, I want to know. Being a loner type, it allows me to go far and not have to break for human kindness to Henry day. I get a lot done.
You elevate humour in dark situations – who makes you laugh at the moment, in terms of comics?
Believe it or not, it’s not a world I pay any attention to. I like Patton Oswalt as a person and a hilarious person. Past that, I really don’t check out the comedy scene. If something is funny, I will laugh at it but I don’t check out comics really. Most of the ones I have met have been complete self serving jerks.
Since your days with Black Flag, through to the Rollins Band and several other musical projects – do you think your relationship to music has changed a great deal, or do you feel that the same ideas, principles, visceral live experience – means the same to you now as it did then?
It has changed to a certain degree. I don’t do music any more, that’s a change. At this point, I enjoy listening to it as much or perhaps more than ever. Writing it and or playing it holds no interest for me at this point.
I know you have gone away from producing music with the Rollins Band, but music is such a huge part of you – do you think there is potential for musical projects in the future?
No. I am not a musician. I am an angry, loudmouthed, explosive person who got a chance to be in a band. I did it harder and longer and more frequently than any frontman ever has by a mile. Now I am onto other stuff.
Radio is such a great medium – it has a subtle intimacy, and it really suits you -was it always an important medium for you growing up?
I like the medium very much. I grew up with it and spent a lot of time alone in my room or car with the radio on. I still do. Who I I listen to is best checked by going to my site and looking at all the play lists from my show on KCRW. I listen to a lot of different music, all the time. Hard to list it.
When the musical style of Black Flag shifted a little, various fans were outraged and chose to display that very physically – it seemed incongruous in many ways.
I suppose Black Flag wasn’t my band, it was Greg Ginn’s. I was the last of four singers. As far as changes in musical direction, Greg Ginn made the changes, the rest of us suffered the slings and arrows. I am a person who had his arms in front of his face saying “don’t hit me”. I got hit and hit and hit. So, I was forced to learn to hit back. When you come up that way, you just might become tougher than those who came at you initially. Basically, when you learn the hard way, you are able to give lessons the hard way. Harder than some might be ready for. When one is whipped into shape, they are hard to stop.
Black Flag and various other bands seemed part of a movement bigger than the individual – is there another revolution coming? Things seem strange; weird technological advances, and people finding many ways not to connect at all. Your live shows with Black Flag were a great example of people, maybe incoherently, trying to connect – genuinely. We seem to be in an age of expanding information yet shrinking connection. What do you think?
I personally never felt part of any movement. There were never any meetings to go to that I am aware of. Punk Rock pushed back against how boring and predictable Rock had become and thankfully, we have a ton of great music that came from that shift in tolerance. As far as a change in music, I think that’s well under way. Mainstream music holds no interest for me at all. It’s not even music really. It’s just corporate utterances. I feel bad for people who buy those records and miss out on that which is so much better. Music from the underground is very alive and very well and takes up a majority of my listening time. Labels like Chondritic Sound, American Tapes, Memoirs of an Asthete, U Tech—these are the labels that I pay attention to. As to the social media stuff, yes, it’s a separation machine. Disingenuousness is built into the software. It’s how you say you were there but never left home. It’s cowardly and this kind of thing allows you to do just that.
Do you think that your time having gone out to various countries and performed and visited US troops has changed your opinion about war at all?
No. War has always been a bad idea to me. It’s population control and acquisition. Hearts and minds, that’s a load. God and country is another load. It’s how you get someone to leave their family, go somewhere else and kill a bunch of people. It’s amazing really, what humans can be talked into. Just because a soldier is well trained doesn’t mean he’s not weak willed. The soldiers who get sent to Iraq were duped.
What is your opinion on Barack Obama’s presidency? It is such a complex situation, but also such a vast undertaking, do you sense a positive sea-change, or do you sense a sea-change at all, since the days of George W. Bush? Are so many politicians – right and left – willing to just go towards power and leave their principles behind?
Corporations have taken control of the America. The politicians are for the most part mere lobbyists, both Democratic and Republican. You throw in with these scoundrels and you get what you get. The only people who should be surprised are the ones who don’t have their eyes open. President Obama came into power after a period of the looting of the America by the Bush Crime Syndicate. An illegal war off the books, which the president put on the books and then got blamed for the deficit. He walked into a US Government that had already been for the most part bought and paid for. You can only do so much about that in three years as a black guy with a Congress that says no to everything. In spite of all that, he has done a lot. Corporate America can’t stand the idea of the citizens getting too much food, knowledge or mobility. Their very existence depends on a weakened and intellectually malnourished populace.
I sometimes think of you in relation to superheroes, perhaps because of your history. I often relate a love of superheroes to people who obsess about the state of the nation as well as the small things, like Jerry Seinfeld with Superman – do you have a favourite superhero?
Never was my thing. I believe in human effort. All those brave NGO’s in Africa, all those Peace Corp youth in the middle of nowhere, church groups helping in places, people flying to a devastated area on their vacation and helping out, that’s the real stuff. Seinfeld should try some of that.
Henry Rollins brings his spoken word show The Long March to Vicar Street next Sunday, 22nd January.