Q&A: Henry Rollins talks running for office, living publicly in unearthed interview

I was going through my old files and I found the following interview with Henry Rollins.

For one reason or another, I never shared it. It took place last year before Rollins came to Lincoln and, though The World-Herald did publish a portion of the conversation, the entire Q&A never did make it online.

Rollins, to me, is a rock ‘n’ roll spirit guide who’s not necessarily all that spiritual at all, but he’s been there, man. Rollins can be funny and he can be serious, but he always has a way of distilling whatever he’s talking down to an essential message.

His style of spoken word is not to read poetry or to do an arty performance, but to tell stories from his world travels and his experiences with Black Flag, Rollins Band and just generally doing cool and interesting things.

I called Rollins last September in the midst of his Capitalism Tour — it visits all the state capitals (including Lincoln) and Washington, D.C. He was on a stop in Cheyenne, Wyo., and we talked his tour, traveling the world, presidential elections and if he’d ever run for office himself.

Q. How is the Capitalism Tour going?

A. It’s going very well. I’m about 126 shows into the year and a lot of the stories I’ve got going are very well worked-in. There’s hours of working material. There’s so many things happening and things to recall upon.

A lot of things I do onstage is informed by the travel I do. I go everywhere from all over America to the Middle East to all over Africa and places like North Korea, Iran and wherever else. I talk about those travels, and I talk about stuff i did with National Geographic last year — I’ve been working on documentaries with them.

It being an election year, I’m trying to remind my fellow Americans that it’s very important for them to vote. Who they vote for, I have really no concern about in that it’s not my business. That they vote is my concern.

I ask them to remember that, at least in my opinion, our similarities and our common needs far outweigh our dissimilarities.

Q. Do you prepare your material?

A. Yeah, heavily. I’m not looking to improvise. That’s for the talented. I’m not there to waste time. I’m not there to figure it out when I’m onstage because it takes time. It’s not for you, the audience, to endure me going, ‘Well, what do you guys want me to talk about?’ Are you kidding? If I was in the audience, I’d go ‘Really? You came to Superbowl Sunday in your underwear? Come on.’

I go out there after a lot of preparation and there’s preparation on the day of the show. It’s prepare, prepare, prepare.

Q. Is it hard to remember? You usually cover a whole lot of material.

A. No. It’s stuff to happen to you so you’re recalling your own history. If you’re as self-involved and self-interested as we performer types tend to be, it’s no problem.
The thing that becomes difficult is I seek to memorize big chunks of documents and memorize dates. To have all that at the ready all the time, that can become challenging.

I’ve memorized parts of the constitution, parts of speeches, the dates when wars begin and end. I usualy retain these things for years. I can cross-reference things onstage or pull up the dates of the Anglo-Afghan Wars in Afghanistan — 1839, 1878 and 1919 — I think those were them.

I have a lot of stuff like that I need. On this tour, I’ve been quoting Lincoln a bit especially his speech to the young men’s lyceum on Jan. 27, 1838. It’s just a really beautiful bit of wording where he cautions Americans not to freak out. He says emotion’s has served us very well, but it’s going to turn into our enemy at some point and we need to go at things in a reasoned way. He was reacting to some people caught gambling in Missouri, I think, and they were hanged. Two black guys were burned a live. He said, ‘What can befall America? This. Don’t worry about hte enemy abroad. Worry about stuff like this.’

Q. You’re talking about the election, too.

A. I will tell you who I’m voting for if you ask me directly. It’s fairly probably obvious who I’m gonna vote for. I have been remarking that there are some Republicans and conservatives in the audience tonight and I feel bad for you because you’re being poorly represented by Mitt Romney.

You can’t be happy about it. It’s not like he’s your guy. You’re voting for him because you don’t like President Obama. It’s the same reason I voted for John Kerry. I wasn’t jumping over the moon about that guy but I voted for him because I thought another four years of Bush would have been ruinous to America. I was right about that, of course.

John Kerry would have been a really blah president. It would have been four years of gridlock and mediocre aspiration. With Bush, you had the rich getting richer and a lot of soldiers dying.

Q. One of my readers asked if you’d ever run for office.

A. Me?! No. I’m a high school graduate and any opponent would be able to take me (out). All you’d see is attack adds running me on MTV, running excerpts of my books saying I want to chop a hundred cops up and write them on fire. I’ve written all kinds of stuff thanks to the first amendment. So, it would be an easy take-down just because I’ve lived my life very publicly and a lot of politicians, you know, it;s a lot of BS. I don’t exist in that world so it would be easy for a BS artist to be like, ‘He said this.’ Yeah, I probably said it.

It’s a lot of work to be a politician. I don’t think every single politician understands what they’re getting into when they get into it. I don’t know if all the congressmen and senators when they walk in there realize it’s gonna be like 16 hour days and reading 100 pages of a document in a day. Congresspeople and senators, they grind it out. I think some of these newer ones, some of these Tea Party candidates that just got elected, I dunno if they’re really up to it.

But Congress takes a lot of vacations. It gives them a chance to take some rest.

Q. You mentioned that you’ve lived publicly and you really have. You’ve written tons of books, released tons of spoken word albums and it’s all about your life. Have you ever thought about how much of your life is out there?

A. Yeah. I put it out there. After decades of doing that, like 30 years of veering dangerously into too much information you get what you get. You get a bunch of people having a real grip on you as far as, ‘In 2004, you said this.’

‘Well, yeah.’

‘That’s a pretty screwed up thing to say.’

‘Well, I was mad and you had a mic in front of me.’

These days, you’re talking to people post-show out by the bus and people have their cell phones on and they’re recording you. You’re just on record all the time. It’s interesting to conduct yourself in a glass house. Fortunately, I don’t have a 14-year-old girlfriend, a coke habit and four smashed Lamborghinis in my driveway.

I don’t have to deal with that. There’s nothing I’m trying to hide. There’s no face lift I have to go into hiding to heal up from. Here I am. Here it is.

I think if you’re going to be the artist type, one of the ways to go about it is to turn it loose and put it out there. That’s what I seek to do. You pay for that. There’s a price to pay for any one of these endeavors and you suffer the slings and arrows with the best game face you can.

Q. I enjoyed the “Occupants” photography book you released. Do you take a lot of photos while you’re out?

A. When I can. On tour, i tend not to bring out too much photo gear because the pre-show hours are taken up by pre-show obligations. I’m in the gym every day. I write for a couple of publications. I’ve got writing I’m trying to do, books I’m trying to edit. There’s a lot on, so to go out on a photo opp would be really distracting to the show that night.

What I do for photos is I just basically go off on my own. Next year will be a gather information year. It will be an inhale year. This is an exhale year. I’m onstage telling you what I saw.

Next year, I have to divide my time between employment — which I don’t have any yet — and going to interesting and dangerous places, get information, photographs and interviews and come back with all my fingers intact, document it, find the wisdom of the story in of that clay, make the statue and then drag all of them out onto stage in the year 2014.

Basically, my life is either touring or preparing for at our. The byproducts of the prep are the things like the photo book.

If you want to learn about Tibet, go to Tibet. You can read a book about Tibet — that’s an hors d’oeuvre. You want the meal? You gotta go.

The byproduct of that is interesting journal entries that turn into books. Interesting bits of life turns into stories. Interesting scenery turns into a photograph.

It’s in the off tour year where I kind of inform the on tour year, book releases, et cetera. 2013 is going to, hopefully, be as busy as this year was. I’ve been on the road since Jan. 6. There’s been breaks between the legs. Two weeks here and I was off for four weeks in July.

Q. How many shows will you do this year?

A. One hundred twenty six so far this year. The tour taps out at 185 so I still got a ways to go. After this Capitalism Tour is over, two days later, I’m in New York interviewing Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three. Then I start a week of residence shows in New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, and LA. The next day after the last one in LA on Dec. 1, I’m gonna do a benefit show for a buddy of mine. By 10 p.m. on Dec. 2, that will be 185 shows and I’ll crossing the finish line and getting to collapse and work in December. I’ll be off the road listening to records and editing two books that will be out next year. And hoping for employment.

Q. Employment doesn’t seem hard to come by for you.

A. I’ve been lucky. It’s nothing I count on. It’s something I will be showing up for with a lot of enthusiasm. When I was off the road in July and a little in August, my assistant and I went to a bunch of meetings with TV people and movie people. I said, ‘Look, I wanna work in 2013. You got something for me?’ So, I’m holding tight for auditions, trailers, pilots for TV things and movie things for next year. That’s what I’m working for is to get some TV work. If I could get something like “Sons of Anarchy,” where I would owe someone a bunch of work from April to December, I would take that action, as they say.

Q. That was a good role.

A. That was fun. I don’t know if jealous is the right word, but I was happy for those guys and girls and the people in the cast of “Sons of Anarchy” when I left, but I knew they had a gig to go back to. I admired it and I wish I had one for myself. It must be great to see your face on a poster all over LA. All over LA, the SOA posters are up. That show’s red hot and they’ve got at least two more seasons that Fox has bought. Good for them. They deserve it.

But man, to have a steady job like that. I haven’t known that since ‘80 or ‘81. With a band, you can’t count on it really. There might be work there for you, but you gotta make it. You gotta hope the next record does OK. There’s a lot of swinging from vine to vine in my life.

My book company does very well. I could devote a lot of time there next year. I have five books I’m working on and they’re all gonna come out but I have a lot of work to do. Steady work is nothing I’m used to.

Thankfully, people still like to see me onstage. I can pull of 180 shows in a year. How long will that last? I don’t know. I’ve lasted longer than a lot of the people I hit the starting blocks with, which is a hell of a thing. I don’t know what that’s due to. Tenacity? Perseverance? I don’t know. Not talent.

I can’t sing or dance. I can’t play an instrument. I just kind of show up.

Q. You’ve talked a lot before about how when you joined Black Flag, you guys worked so hard. Did that influence how you work now?

A. Oh hell yeah. Black Flag is the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me a work ethic from hell. I had jobs. I left a minimum wage job to work at Black Flag.
I was scooping ice cream. I was the manager of that store. I was in there 7 days a week. hands-on a lot (workign to buy) top ramen noodles.

You think you’re busting your butt and then you join Black Flag. Then you’re sleeping with your shoes as your pillow, which I learned from Greg Ginn.

I thought, “Wow. I’m like Huck Finn. This is crazy.” I came from a real work ethic, but you had something to show for it. You got a check. You cashed it in. There was some normalcy.

But this was the wild wild west. I remember asking, “What are we doing for breakfast?” and they said, “Whatever you can shoplift from Mayfair.” I was like, “No way.” Those days were very trying.

To this day, at age 51, I still have a minimum wage mindset. I’ll think, “You’re not drawing any money from your ATM account.” Well, I’m a guy. What do I need other than a microwave, a few cans. a hairclipper?

I buy books and records. It’s a work driven life. I’m instructed by all of that.

Recently, I saw Chuck Dukowski from Black Flag. I’m still in awe of the guy. I still look at him like my older brother. He’s a huge inspiration on me.

Q. You often say that you have to get people while they’re young to change their minds. Do you speak to a lot of young people? And what do you have to tell them?

A. I look at the audience and I’m older than most of them. I’m older than the older guy in the front with the Motorhead shirt.

It’s a fast-moving, economically turbulent environment, so you gotta get your smarts on. There’s a lot of people going for that sandwich. You gotta be sharp. If it were me, I wouldn’t be going at it high or uninformed or thinking I’m owed anything.
But not everyone gets it.

You really gotta prep. Travel. Get out there. See things. Give people respect.

You gotta be acutely aware of the idea of human dignity. People are a pain in the ass at the DMV but they all have a story.

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