Still angry after all these years
|By Rich Tupica|
After an hour-long conversation with punk legend Henry Rollins, one thing is clear: The guy is intensely patriotic and socially aware.
For those who’ve followed his 30-year career, it should come as no surprise. He’s passionate and vocal about virtually everything. His fervent personality has become somewhat of a trademark for the brawny, tattooed dude. He’s always frank, often angry, and profoundly opinionated. His demeanor is downright stern. And that hasn’t diminished over the last three decades. To the contrary.
“I get angrier as I go,” Rollins said from his home in Los Angeles during a recent phone interview. “People ask me all the time if I’m ex-military.” (He’s not.) “They were asking me that when I was really young. They’d say, ‘You have a really military bearing.’ I’ve heard that all my life.”
These days, the 51-year-old is channeling his intensity through politics. Rollins rolls into downtown Lansing — anger and all — on Monday as part of a 50-city speaking tour (he’s hitting all the U.S. capitals) in the run-up to this year’s presidential election. Tea partiers probably aren’t safe from his biting message, but he doesn’t plan on pontificating about whom you should vote for.
“We’re ramping up to an election, but I would never, ever, ever … tell you who to vote for,” he said. “I think that’s really damn rude when someone does that. I’m not going to be that guy. I know who I’m voting for, and the direction I lean is probably pretty obvious to anyone who sees me at my show. That’s fine, but I’m not crazy with it.”
Refusing to play the hits
Growing up in Washington, D.C., where he attended an all-male prep school, Rollins found his way into the early ‘80s punk scene after becoming disillusioned with popular rock and roll.
“When I was 17 I heard punk music and I thought, well, finally, someone is putting a mouth to my scream,” he said. “Before that, I was listening to Ted Nugent and hard rock like Van Halen and Led Zeppelin. None of them wrote a lyric saying how pissed off they were. They just wrote about cars, girls and dragons and all that.
“Then I heard The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones, which seemed to me the ultimate outsider music,” he said. “They were singing about schizophrenics and shock treatment, and I thought, yeah, this’ll work. To this day, that music works for me quite well.”
In 1981, Rollins relocated to California and took over as lead singer for the now legendary hardcore band Black Flag. The California-based band’s 1982 video for “TV Party” was one of the first videos aired on MTV, though Rollins admits, “That was when MTV only had like 10 videos.”
After Black Flag disbanded, he gained further commercial success with his ‘90s-rock unit Rollins Band, which scored a “Beavis and Butthead”-approved hit with “Liar” in 1994.
Rollins said he hasn’t performed in Lansing since 1999. However, he has old connections to the Touch & Go zine and record label that was started here by area shock-rocker Tesco Vee. He also mentioned that he’s a fan of The Fix, an early ‘80s hardcore band from Lansing. Rollins said he’s managed to hang on to the band’s highly valuable 7-inch single over the last 30 years.
Vee, frontman of The Meatmen, remembers Rollins as “an intense but affable guy who was real serious about his craft and was fiercely loyal to the DC scene” when he first met him in Washington before he joined Black Flag. “He did have a sense of humor, which was quite necessary hanging with us wacky Midwestern hayseeds,” Vee said in an email.
It was after his hardcore days when Rollins started dabbling in spoken-word albums that largely chronicled his spoken-word tours. In 2006, Rollins all but announced his retirement from rock music. He felt it had run its course.
“When I was younger, things would occur to me and they would find themselves in a lyrical form in my mind,” he said. “You know, you think about something and all of a sudden you start putting beats behind that idea. I no longer do that. I don’t have that anymore, and if I can’t make new music, the last thing I want to do is go out and play the hits.”
Perhaps Mick Jagger enjoys celebrating big anniversaries, but Rollins finds it somewhat despicable to ride it out that hard. “I see ancient people on stage playing ‘Satisfaction’ for year 48, but for myself, I just can’t do it,” he said. “If I’m up there singing a 30-year-old song, that’s not really artistically risky, is it? It’s just resting on laurels. To me, it’s not only artistically corrupt, it’s dangerous. That’s taking your eyes off the road. It’s like you have chosen to put your progress on pause by going back to the university and pretending you’re a freshman. The real freshmen look at you and go, ‘Dude, you’re a little weird around here, please get out of our hot tub. Your wrinkles on your face are freaking us out.’”
Uncovered from the caterwaul
Rollins now prefers to vent about his life and frustrations in front of audiences on speaking tours while also juggling jobs in Hollywood films, radio, writing and charity events. He said the spoken-word shows are surprisingly more nerve- wracking for him.
“With a band there are people on stage with instruments, so if you screw up a line, no one knows. It’s all covered by this caterwaul of noise. But the talking shows are a lot more difficult in that you’re out there on your own. You’re the only person on stage generating anything. So if you don’t talk, nothing happens. The meter of the whole thing is so self-generated, so it’s a hell of a lot of concentration. It’s the hardest damn thing I’ve ever tried to do on stage, that’s for sure.”
His “Capitalism” speaking tour stops in Lansing Monday at the Cooley Law School Temple Conference Center. This pre-presidential election tour is hitting every capital city in the country. He said he’s not trying to push an agenda on anyone, though he’s been known for taking jabs at radical conservatives when handed a microphone. Rollins says he plans to point out some of his ideals on being a good-willed American and his vision of left and right coming together — or at least tolerating each other in a more refined manner.
“In my opinion, we are more united than divided as Americans,” he said. “There’s far more we have in common as far as the dissimilarity. We should not forget that, because it’s really easy to forget that in this present day very polarized America, especially in an election cycle.”
“We are by and large products and the result of the Civil War and the Constitution,” he said. “There’s a lot that you can do with those ideas as far as equality and decency, moral uprightness and civic responsibility — I take all that stuff very seriously.”
Rollins suggests Americans attempt to keep one foot in both aisles as much as possible, for the obnoxious political bickering just flares the governmental rift and the climate of fear in the country.
“Everything is so extreme, and I don’t think there are solutions in the extreme. I’m sick of this division. I’m sick of everything in America becoming politicized,” he said. “There are disagreements and that’s good — that’s the only way you keep balance. I would hate it if everything was all Republican or if everything was all Democratic.”
“I think in the middle are all the best ideas,” he added. “You get some of what you want, and I get some of what I want. We’re both a little pissed off, but we got what we wanted, and we’ll get along with the bit we didn’t get. We’ll be OK. That kind of lowers the temperature, and we’ve lost that. That’s one of the parts I really love about America. And I must say, quite honestly, it pisses me off. The discussion needs to be better than, ‘You suck! No, you suck!’ I’m 51 and I have no desire to play in the sandbox.”
But make no mistake: Rollins refuses to compromise when it comes to basic human rights. This is where his fury surfaces. He began stepping up his involvement in political and social causes in the early ‘90s.
“To me, it’s one of those very quickly dealt-with issues in that, when people ask me, ‘So you stand up for gay rights?’ I say, ‘Well, yeah, because I’m standing up for my own rights.’ Under the 14th Amendment, equal protection under the law, heterosexuals and homosexuals are granted the same rights and liberties and freedoms and immunities from persecution and prosecution. That’s in the paperwork. So if someone says, ‘Well, I’m against same sex marriage’ — OK, that’s nice, thank goodness there’s a constitution that keeps you from really wasting my time.”
So what’s fueling some of this still prevalent intolerance and ignorance in the United States? From Internet memes posted on Facebook to millionaire talk show hosts preaching opinions as if they’re facts, the way politicians are sized up has drastically changed over the years — and Rollins thinks it’s dumbing down our country.
“I think a lot of people get the news that they want to hear that complements their point of view,” he said. “If you think the president is from Kenya and that he’s a Muslim-loving socialist, then you listen to Rush Limbaugh and you agree with what he says. If you think the president is really good and that he’s doing what he can to make America better, then I guess you listen to left-wing radio. If you are a good, upstanding, free-market capitalist, apparently you read The Wall Street Journal.”
For those looking to get hard facts on politicians, Rollins suggests skipping a lot of the network commentary and says to simply follow the dollar signs. “I read multiple articles by multiple sources trying to connect the dots,” he said. “That’s a very good way to do things. I watch BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN. They are way more free and more fact-driven, it seems. But I try to get my information from government websites. I go by the statistics. The way to cut through a lot of that stuff and save a lot of time is to follow the money. Follow greed: It’ll clear up a lot of your questions about why this country is in that country or whatever.”
So when was it that Rollins turned from a penniless punk into somewhat of an activist and commentator? Just follow the money.
“The answer might not be exactly what you wanted, but it’s the truth. When I got more aware of, ‘Hey, that guy’s hungry, we should help him,’ is when I got money,” he said. “In the early ‘90s is when I started making some money to where, ‘I got this — rent is covered.’ The better off I started doing financially, the more time I was able to delegate. That was the biggest quantum change in how I comport myself.”
A few things that piss Rollins Off:
"I got mine! Capitalism"
“When you see good people getting so disenfranchised and getting so put upon just so some guy can have more money than he’d ever be able to spend in 80 lifetimes. That some people have to lose sleep over foreclosure, that they have to dread every day of their life because they have so little money and then when you say, ‘Can we spread the money around a little more equally and give everyone a break?,’ you’re called a socialist. And that kind of capitalism, that predatory, vulture capitalism, that ‘I got mine, you suck’ capitalism, that bugs me because some of the people struggling are such fine people and they don’t want much.”
War In Iraq
“These fake wars — that anyone can try and support the Iraq war, it’s just hilarious. It’s always the same demographic of people, decade in and decade out, being put in a position where they’re being forced to hurl themselves into these gauntlets of extreme brutality. I don’t know why it’s not more apparent to people. Things like racism, homophobia, misogyny — these are all given to the rabble to keep them distracted from the power at the top. It’s fodder for the idiots below. You, me, the people on the ground, the city dwellers — ‘you get to hate this South Korean guy, you get to hate Muslims.’ It’s for suckers and so many people get goaded into this. Like Hitler convinced so many German people to take out their anger, fear, frustration and trepidation on Jewish people. It’s a scam.”
"Hating on regulations"
“I go off on my own, backpacking with a camera bag — I do that for months at a time. I’ll just look at the map and I’ll pick a direction. I’ll start here and I’ll arc across the world going east, starting in Jordan and ending in China. I’ll go across Africa, Southeast Asia, all over the Middle East, all over central Asia. In a lot of those places, there are no regulations. Parts of India I’ve been to may be the most polluted places I’ve ever seen. You’ll literally drive down streets with miles of garbage. And the water will kill you. That’s no regulation. So if you have any of your friends that hate regulation, tell them to go to Somalia: That’s what no regulation looks like. Basically, it’s lawless and in some parts of the world that don’t have real authority, you have to be careful. You go to the parts of Uganda in Southern Sudan and there’s no nothing out there. And the people you’re riding with — one has a .45 and one has a machete that’s literally laser sharp. I’ve lived in those environments for weeks at a time. It’s nothing like being around here. So if you think the regulations are crimping your libertarian day, you might appreciate them in place of having a dagger at your throat with no one looking out.”
Henry Rollins Capitalism Tour