Henry Rollins: Post-Punk Pundit

The former Black Flag singer walks a fine line between supporting the troops and hating the war.

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Audio from this interview is available here: (stream | download)

Henry Rollins is best known as the frontman for the hardcore punk band Black Flag and later for his solo project the Rollins Band.

He performs regularly as a spoken word artist and a comedian, and has written and published books of prose and poetry. Rollins is a radio and TV personality, actor, and voice-over artist. He's done several USO tours to Iraq since the war began.

Mother Jones recently spoke with Henry Rollins about his USO tours, punk rock, the newest season of his television show, and the art of storytelling.

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Mother Jones: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was your USO tours. Can you tell me about how and why you got involved doing those tours?

Henry Rollins: I do it because that's my way of protesting the war, and it's my custodial duty to go behind this president that started this needless war that's hemorrhaging everything from needless lives to money and everything else. And the fact that the soldiers don't dictate policy; they just go and do what they are told, leads me to believe I don't really have a beef with the troops, I have a beef with the people who sent them into where they are deployed. So I go and I meet these people without any hesitation and I quite like them.

MJ: And can you tell me what your interactions with the troops are like?

HR: You meet them in hospitals, you meet them on the ground, in the mess hall, sometimes there's a meet and greet situation set up where you shake hands, tell stories, whatever. Sometimes you're just at dinner, kind of holding court. It's called a handshake tour, what I do. Sometimes they ask you to go up and speak for 20 or 30 minutes. I do all of that.

MJ: And is there anything that you've felt or seen during these tours to Iraq that you weren't prepared for?

HR: In parts of Iraq, when you go the motor pool, and you see vehicles that need to be repaired, and why they need to be repaired, like bullet clusters where the driver's head was, you know, thankfully it's bulletproof glass, or the sides of these vehicles looking like the biggest bullet possible just tore through it. And you realize someone tried to kill these guys. And that's pretty arresting.

MJ: Have these experiences changed the way you think about the war at all, having met so many people one on one, face to face?

HR: No. [The war] was a bad idea. It never was a good idea. It's an illegal war. We're not there for the purposes that George W. Bush says. He has a perfect situation there because if you leave it now, you leave these people who did not ask for your incursion; you leave these people in worse shape than when you got there. And so no, I don't think anything different about it, I just feel it more acutely, and at this point it's now more of a personal thing. I get letters from the wives saying my husband died. I get letters from the moms. I got a letter from one mom who wants me to write a letter to her son to try and talk him out of joining the Army. I get letters from wives who miss their husbands, moms what to tell me regretfully that their son, who loved my DVDs, and his friends, who all love my DVDs, and they all listen to my CDs out there, he died two days ago and she had to tell somebody. A guy who shot and killed a child mistakenly, he writes me and asks me to give him good reason why he shouldn't kill himself. These are the letters I get, and I get them pretty often. So this thing is a very personal experience for me. It's more than just something I see on the news.

MJ: A USA Today article I saw talked to Al Franken and other people who had done USO tours and they mentioned one occasion in which you kind of slipped and made some disparaging comments about Dick Cheney, and there was mixed reaction from troops. Is that difficult, to go and not let your ideas about the war come out?

HR: No. Because the war they are fighting and the war you speculate on from the safety of your home are two different things. There really is a disconnect. And so, I don't think it would be anything but deleterious to morale to go out there and say "this is a bogus war, man." Anything that could be deleterious or distracting to these people is not on.

MJ: One last question about the military; when you were younger, was the military ever something you considered?

HR: No.

MJ: Why not?

HR: I went to a military prep school for many years, and I graduated, and the last thing I wanted to do was be told to stand up. And I was into music. My father was Army, my step-brother was Navy, I come from Washington, D.C., and was surrounded by it, and never had any interest.

MJ: I'm glad you brought up music, because I wanted to shift gears and talk about music, specifically punk rock. Where do you think punk was able to succeed the most, and where do think punk failed the most?

HR: [Punk] gave music back to people. For a long time, when I was very young, I went to go see arena rock bands. I was 16 and it was all I could get in to see, legally. And I saw Led Zeppelin and Ted Nugent and Van Halen and all that. Me and [Minor Threat and Fugazi vocalist] Ian MacKaye would go to these concerts, and it was fun. You know, seeing Led Zeppelin did not suck, in the least. And then punk rock came along and all of a sudden you are standing five feet away from Dee Dee Ramone or the Bad Brains, or you're carrying in the gear with the band, or now you're in the band, and so music became this very immediate thing to me, where I could experience it from a very close-up vantage point instead of bringing binoculars, which I literally did to see Led Zeppelin. So I think it actualized music for a lot of young people. If you wrote the band, they would write back. You could meet the band. It became this thing that was a part of your life, not this thing that you paid a ticket for and through peanuts at. And that to me was huge. I think a lot of people became very inspired by that ethic of, you know, I'm gonna confront authority and really see what that's all about, and question authority, read between the lines, and be suspicious. And I never heard that in a Ted Nugent record.

Where did it fail? I don't know that it failed, I think it kind of just got absorbed into popular mainstream. When you hear a Stooges track or a Buzzcocks track or a Ramones track or a track by the Fall, or what have you, in a car ad, some people, whenever that happens, I get a letter saying "What a sellout." And I say "no man, we've arrived." The person making that ad grew up on that music. You're no longer confined to interstitial, instrumental music, you're gonna get Iggy Pop and the Teddy Bears singing I'm a punk rocker to sell a car. What would you rather hear? Some wanky keyboard or Iggy and the Teddy Bears? I know which one I'd rather hear, and I just hope they get paid quickly and double scale, because it's about time. I don't so much see the failure in as much as that anything that has been around for 30 years or more.

MJ: It's been an interesting trajectory to see you go from this kid from DC with long hair to this multimedia punk rocker who hangs out at William Shatner's house from time to time.

HR: Yeah, it's been an interesting ride. That's why I try to document it, because it does make for a good story, that's undeniable. And what do I think of it? Well, it's my life. And when you get a certain grip on it and you start doing what you want to do, that's a very powerful thing, and you start to see that a lot of people don't ever get their grip on that particular set of handle bars. There's a lot of mountain climbers trapped inside of bodies of people behind the counter at Kinko's.

MJ: You've done two seasons of The Henry Rollins Show on the Independent Film Channel, where you interview artists and invite bands to play. IFC seems to have given you complete freedom to do whatever you want on the show.

HR: Yeah, I think I called Karl Rove "Baby Huey Fat Fuck." Yeah, I did that.

MJ: You're definitely taking that freedom and running with it. You're not afraid of dropping curse words or words like "neo-conservative douche bag pundits." What's that like to have extreme freedom to do whatever you want?

HR: It's wonderful [laughs]. It's fantastic. And I love the hate mail I get, the unsigned, misspelled letters I get telling me to go back to Russia or wherever.

MJ: You also don't shy away from a gay joke here, or even poking fun at yourself quite a bit.

HR: Well you have to poke fun at yourself. But a "gay joke," now you have to be very careful there. When I say something that is "gay," you know [comedian] Jeneane Garofalo and I decided that we're taking 'gay' back. Where you can say "gay," or "that's pretty gay," and it's not a slight in any way, of anyone that is having a same-sex relationship. Because I have not one bit of homophobia in me. I mean, to me, I am in disbelief about how this country is just up in arms about same-sex unions. I mean they should just go and get a life and get on with themselves and not feel the need to stand outside of churches where two women are crazy enough to get married. To me, marriage is insane, but if two people want to do it, then as Americans, shouldn't you be saying "Yay, land of the free, home of the brave, and if two women want to get married, this is the perfect country for that kind of thing," because you couldn't really pull that off in Turkey or Saudi Arabia, without a little bit of turbulence. We shouldn't have that kind of thing here.

MJ: A few more things about the show I want to go back to. You did a funny piece on Wal-Mart that was animated. And if I'm not mistaken you called Wal-Mart the paradigm of capitalism. I'm just curious if you could elaborate a little bit.

HR: Yeah, it's getting things for cheap. And when you're in there and you're paying like $.40 for something or getting some Tylenol for like a dollar less, you buy it. But you also need to understand what it means long term. And it tests your mettle as an American. Like how much trade debt do you really want to hand off to your kids?

MJ: One interview I thought was interesting was with Marilyn Manson, and you had a chance to talk about Columbine. What do you think that incident says about this larger connection between pop culture and youth violence and the media?

HR: I exchanged letters with a survivor of Columbine who asked me what I thought of all of it. For me it was a responsibility issue. You know, my beef is with the parents. I mean, you don't know your kid is making a pipe bomb in your garage? Why don't you pull your head out of your ass and go be a dad or a mom and police that kid. If the kid is making a pipe bomb, why don't you know? Why do you have guns around the house? I'm not saying ban guns, but why are there guns around the house that the kid can take, and why don't you know they're gone?

MJ: You have your own publishing company, and you've put out other works from people like Nick Cave, but also a lot of your own stuff. Why did you get into writing, and what do you think your strongest skills are as a writer?

HR: I'm not a very good writer. I'm working at it. What I have is access. I go places. I can get in and out of places and come at it with my $3.50 an hour mindset. All my big heroes are literary, writers. I'd love to meet Jimmy Hendrix or John Coltrane, but I'd much rather meet Thomas Wolfe, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or [Albert] Camus, or [Charles] Baudelaire, or what have you. Words and books have always meant a lot to me. That someone can take words and string them together to where they will move me is just a hell of a thing. It's amazing to me; more amazing to me than music or painting. It's always been the written word or the spoken word, like a great lecture or a great lyric, or a great poem. To me it's just amazing. And I always aspire toward capturing that, or my version of it.

MJ: I saw you once in Tallahassee, Florida, years ago, and I remember feeling very surprised, because I was expecting you to be pissed off and angry and irate, but you came out and were just making people laugh. And people were really laughing. It wasn't what I was expecting.

HR: Most experiences I have survived I am able to have some fun with. There's some things that aren't funny, but most of the time, just the fact that you crawled out with all digits intact, there's some humor in there. And the farther and wider I go it's kind of hard not to come back with a story.

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