(Photo illustration by Emily Hunt)
Henry Rollins has an undeniable knack for finding himself in the thick of things. On December 27, 2007, in Islamabad’s shop-laden Blue Section, he watched with a documentarian’s eye as armed mobs spontaneously formed, burning tires and mauling signposts. Earlier that day opposition candidate Benazir Bhutto had been shot dead. Rollins was in Pakistan on holiday (in one of the places he feels Bush America would have warned him away from going). Rather than holing up in his hotel before things got out of control, he seized the moment’s energy and threw himself into it. Like any good punk rocker, he fell in with the crowd’s paroxysm of anger and energy, and marched to the local mosque. Later that night, smoke billowing on the horizon, Rollins assumed yet another role, one somewhat typical to the age we live in: he blogged about it.
Known foremost as the unabashed mouthpiece for the seminal hardcore punk band Black Flag,Rollins has taken one career turn after another. With Black Flag’s 1986 demise, Rollins launched 2.13.61, his record label and vanity press—yes, that is his birthday—through which he’s channeled dozens of works, written and recorded. In 1995, Rollins earned a Grammy Award for his spoken word album Get in the Van.This after his outing as an author—the recording was read from his memoir of the same name, recounting his time on the road with Black Flag. More recent projects include the eclectic weekly radio show Harmony in my Head, multiple USO tours in the Middle East to entertain soldiers (his show is a far cry from the Bob Hope cliché, since he has denounced the Iraq war repeatedly), and an eponymous talk show on cable’s Independent Film Channel.
But it is the spoken word tour, Henry Rollins Provoked: An Evening of Quintessentially American Opinionated Editorializing and Storytelling, which will see him everywhere from Iowa to New Zealand. This could end up being Rollins’s most surprising and—dare we say?—important roles, as he serves as a very unlikely cultural ambassador in an age where stock in American cultures both high and low is at an all-time nadir, for reasons beyond the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. Along the way, of course, we can expect more blogs, not just aiming to document local color in the hinterlands for American fans, and to promote his tour, but also to gripe about the Bush years, the Iraq war in particular, and spark discussion. Reverse de Tocqueville, musician with a case of hubris, apologist for the world’s former (all too brief) Only Superpower, lackey for the Great Satan—call it what you will. Though we were skeptical at first, now we think it all sounds pretty fun.
[Interview by Joseph DiPalo]
Guernica: Your outrage clearly has some appeal. Is what you do activating people, or are you preaching to the converted?
Henry Rollins: Well, I’m not trying to amass people in the streets. I just want them to be more aware. So many Americans, for one reason or another, they watch the news and it doesn’t really give them the idea of the world. Or they don’t read or travel. They have no idea that America is part of the world and not the world itself. And so anything from the travel stories I tell, that’s what I’m trying to get across. That you have to realize there are other people, other economies, governments, cultures, religions, and destinies going on at the same time as yours. You have to widen the scope of your lens and start seeing more. Because Americans, it’s easy to make us freak out. When the going gets rough, you have to get conservative. That’s what’s happened to America in the last eight years. I just try to point out that there’s more going on than most people pay attention to. I don’t do that to say, “Hey, you’re not on the ball.” I mean, who am I to say that? I just tell them, “Well, here’s where I went and here’s what happened.” Last year I was in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, and as you can imagine it was really informative and amazing. A lot of these countries are places George W. Bush tells you that you should not go. So I went and I had a really good time.
I like people. Rightwingers don’t. They like business, they don’t care about people. I like education, they seem not to care much about it.
Guernica: In 2006 you were “nominated as a possible threat” by the Australian government for reading a book (Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia) on a plane. And last year found you in Islamabad on the day of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Would you say your curiosity has put you in some precarious positions?
Henry Rollins: She was assassinated in Rawalpindi. I was down the road in Islamabad when she was killed. The most eventful day was the next day when everyone was outside dealing with what had happened. People were burning tires in the street. But I never felt like I was in any danger. I talked to people and watched the press deal with the whole thing. It was a very interesting time to be there. Of course, I’m not happy about the fact that she’s dead but as far as having one day of the year to be in Pakistan, that was probably the most interesting day of last year.
Guernica: Were the locals receptive to your being there, as a westerner?
Henry Rollins: I felt never a hint of aggression towards me, and I went all over the place, by cab, by foot. I’m not trying to impress or say I’m brave, but I am curious and I believe that people are usually nothing like they’re hyped up to be on the news. Quite often governments are one way and the people are another. You can’t judge the many by the actions of a few. What if Americans were all judged by the actions of the Bush administration and people did not know the truth? That America is full of people who are, at present, poorly represented and poorly catered to by the media. All these places I go, people say that America is good and I’m like, “Well, thank you, I’m glad you can see it.” And you know—we are good, we’ve just got work to do.
Guernica: You’ve said on numerous occasions that when celebrities sound off about politics or take a stand, you tune out because you don’t want to know. Which of course begs the question, how is what you do any different than what Susan Sarandon or Bono does, or any of the guests you have on your show for that matter?
Henry Rollins: I don’t know if there’s any real difference at all. But the whole thing, that because Lenny Kravitz is Lenny Kravitz, his opinion is more important than a plumber’s opinion, that’s where I have a problem with it. As far as people like Bono and Susan Sarandon, Bono actually gets a lot of substantial work done. The guy really does put a lot of things together and, while I’m not a fan of his music, I greatly applaud his humanitarian efforts. I think he is sincere and he does make a difference and he’s not doing it for the press op. Someone like Susan Sarandon and her husband have committed money that we’ll never understand to organizations they feel a sympathy with. They put their money where their mouths are and they’re not unintelligent insincere people. It’s just that I don’t go to them for opinions. I’d rather read someone’s opinion from the New York Times or someone like Naomi Klein, who intellectually wipes the floor with every single person we’ve just mentioned. To me, she’s one of the greatest and clearest thinkers of our generation. I think she’s fantastic. If she writes an op-ed column in The Nation I’m reading every word two and three times.
Guernica: The Guardian said your spoken word show in London “represents liberalism but with a rightwing face and a rightwing haircut.” Are you concerned you might be lumped in with other talking heads or viewed as almost a caricature? Like a Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, only from the left, and with tattoos?
Henry Rollins: To some, I very well could be someone like that, just a blowhole. But if you stop putting microphones in front of my face, I’ll just talk to walls. I don’t know what else to do except say what I feel. I certainly don’t feel rightwing. I like people. Rightwingers don’t. They like business, they don’t care about people. I like education, they seem not to care much about it. Sure, you can get lumped in as one of those people, but a critic is someone who gets paid by the word to comment on people who are actually doing something.
Some soldier will say, ‘You know, sir, you and I have some political disagreements, but I’m glad you came all the way out here.’ And you know, you say, ‘Well, maybe one day you’ll see the light but I’m glad to be out here with you.’
To me, they’ve always been ants at the picnic. They derive their paycheck from what I do. I am the shark, they are the fish under my chin. All kinds of things are going to be said. If you’re crazy enough to put your hat into the ring of speculation and punditry, you’re going to get some turbulence. But if it’s coming from some journalist with a comfortable degree of body fat, I’m not losing any sleep over it. I’m certainly not changing a fucking thing I think. Unless the real information signals me to do so.
Guernica: Because your stance on the war isn’t in any way ambiguous, you seem an odd candidate for doing USO tours. Are the soldiers you visit aware of your position? Does it come into the fold at all or is it something you find you keep muted while you’re there?
Henry Rollins: Oh yeah, they’re aware. And every once in a while we talk about it. Some soldier will say, “You know, sir, you and I have some political disagreements, but I’m glad you came all the way out here.” And you know, you say, “Well, maybe one day you’ll see the light but I’m glad to be out here with you.”
Guernica: That sounds more cordial than the discourse over here.
Henry Rollins: Well, the opinions of a soldier are very interesting to me because they’re actually out there doing it, while we sit here just talking about it. I’ve never felt all that comfortable in that position. But what I’ve found is that a lot of soldiers are surprisingly apolitical. Their reality is, “Today I’m going to leave the gate for twelve hours, and I’m going to make it back to the dining facility by sundown with the arms and legs of me and my buddies intact.” So you say, “Well, what about the Project for the New American Century and the preexisting agenda blah blah blah?” They go, “Yeah, that’s cool, but I have to get through today.”
So their reality is not a political reality as much as it’s, “If I’m driving by this piece of garbage, will it blow up?” That’s quite different than anything you and I ever deal with on a day-to-day basis being civilians. I’m sitting on a tour bus in a parking lot in Tulsa. I’m not really worried about rolling over a pressure plate tonight and getting blown up. In Baghdad or Fallujah, that’s a legitimate concern. So I listen carefully to these guys. Also, you have to realize that motivations are different. These people are doing what they think is humanitarian work, bringing democracy to this country. Only in a wider look at this thing do you realize it is about the oil and the suppression and domination of the Middle East. That’s what this whole thing is basically moving towards. Evidence of that are all the military bases in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, brought to us by our pal Dick Cheney.
Guernica: Has talking with the soldiers ever made you question your position?
Henry Rollins: Absolutely not. They’re coming at it from a remarkably human point of view. They’re getting shot at, bombed, and trying to help humans who are impoverished or illiterate. What I hear from soldiers is, “Hey, we’re serving literacy centers, we’re helping farmers.” And they are, they’re doing great stuff. So if you say this thing is bad, you can potentially step on someone’s pride. And so the point gets lost. And the right wing is very deft at using that miscommunication by saying you can’t be against the war and be for the troops, that they’re mutually exclusive. I got into that with some guy on the radio in Michigan the other day. He said, “Well, the troops are the mission.” I said, “What are you, a child? The mission is the mission. The troops are the troops.”
They make it so that no one can get to the real point. Anyone on Fox News, they cannot get into the real issue. They won’t let a guy like Paul Rieckhoff from the Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America on there to talk because this guy’s been there, done that, and he knows the unsustainability of the occupation of Iraq. Bill O’Reilly won’t deal with him, none of those guys will. Because he knows more and he doesn’t take it from them. And it’s very convenient for them that we never get to have real conversations about this. Not on the news, not in the debates. The president certainly can’t deal with it, anyone who wants to withdraw is a defeatist, a defeatocrat, what have you. Yet a thing that costs approximately $334 million a day, how long do you sustain this? Where’s the money coming from? Kinko’s? Oh, wait. Saudi Arabia. China. Okay. Well, that’s going to be great for your grandkids.
But can a song stop a war? If Bob Marley and Bob Dylan couldn’t do it, it can’t be done.
Guernica: You’ve said that our freedom of speech is under attack and suggested that this is a function of both government censorship and corporate media consolidation. How much of that is at work when it comes to discussing this war?
Henry Rollins: The government is a functionary of the corporations—and there’s nothing new about that. You can find people in the 1930s talking about the army basically working for Wall Street in all of these countries [it invades]. I just read a quote from an old general in a Chalmers Johnson book the other day, talking about how he was just the hatchet man for major corporations. This is eighty, ninety years ago. There’s nothing new about the government protecting corporations and calling it the freeing of the world or bringing democracy to bereft nations. Nowadays, the media have to be there for them, to keep you from asking too many questions, from getting together with other people who might want to do the Jeffersonian thing and call out the government. You can say, “Well, I have a question,” and someone will say, “Oh, so you hate America.” And it has nothing to do with the discussion at all.
Guernica: The nuance gets lost.
Henry Rollins: The nuance gets crushed. The nuance is the actual discussion and these guys talk in bumper stickers. And that’s where the poor intellectual gets dragged onto Hannity & Colmes and just gets his lunch taken from him by Sean Hannity, who probably says a whole bunch of stuff he doesn’t even really believe or quite understand, and lacks the intellectual courage to look at it in a more critical way.
Guernica: Having been ground-level for the punk rock movement of the 70s and 80s, how do you think art shapes society?
Henry Rollins: Well, I don’t think it can very much. I think what we’ve seen in the last thirty years or so is that punk rock and hip-hop definitely had an effect on youth culture. I think hip-hop has definitely brought the black experience to white kids more than the civil rights movement did and more than any teacher’s well-intentioned lecture on Martin Luther King did. But can a song stop a war? If Bob Marley and Bob Dylan couldn’t do it, it can’t be done. Some people can perhaps become activated or more aware of things by a lyric or what someone in a band says. I always took quite seriously the things that Chuck D. of Public Enemy had to say. He’s always been someone I’ve learned quite a bit from and someone I pay a great deal of attention to. Joe Strummer, Johnny Rotten, and Ian MacKaye were all people who really made me see things differently.
Guernica: Because you’ve worked in different media over the course of your career, it’s likely that different people know you in completely different capacities. How is it you’d like to be remembered?
Henry Rollins: I never think of what it’s going to be like later. I only think in the present tense. The only time I think backwards is when I have to reissue something. Can I add something to the CD to make it better for the consumer? Past that, when I die, the world dies with me. I’d really like to leave it better than how I found it and I’m doing what I can to effect that. But as far as what people think of me, maybe my stuff should just be put online for free downloads when I’m gone.
Guernica: Have you been following the primaries?
Henry Rollins: I think it’s too bad that Barack and Hillary chew on each other’s heels when they should be taking a strong hard look at John McCain. I wish they’d start turning a bit of their ire in that direction to bring the middle of the road voters over to their side. McCain is endorsed by Bush. I don’t know what that means for him at this point, but he doesn’t seem to be getting hit by anyone other than Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, two people who no one really listens to that much. It’s an interesting wait-and-see moment in the election but yesterday eight Americans died in Iraq, along with sixteen Iraqis, and no one seems to be talking about that enough for my satisfaction.