Henry Rollins on speaking, tolerance, and changing times
Henry Rollins is probably best known as the singer of the punk rock band Black Flag.
But when he left the band in 1986 he became a writer, actor, public speaker and DJ on KCRW.vHe currently tours and travels, sharing stories and reflections on life, music, politics and humor.
HPR’s Mr. Nick spoke to him ahead of his three-night appearance at Blue Note Hawaii. He reflected on travel, aging, bullying, and how he puts his speaking shows together.
He continues his Good to See You speaking dates at The Blue Note Waikiki from Thursday through Saturday evening. Tickets and information can be found at bluenotejazz.com/hawaii
Nick Talking about your show that's going to be coming here later this week, I wanted to ask for people that have that aren't familiar with your work… a lot of us know you as (the singer of) Black Flag, or the guy from (the movie) Heat or the guy from (the show) Sons of Anarchy. How do you describe your talking shows?
Henry Rollins It kind of straddles a middle ground between stand-up comedy, and just sitting around the campfire, listening to your old uncle tell the same stories he did last summer. Because a lot of the content when I'm on stage is derived from travel. And I've been to all seven continents, and about 80, almost 90 countries. And so a lot of the content is derived from the time I was in North Korea, or the time I was in Antarctica, et cetera. And then there's just a living breathing op-ed spewing machine. And so, you know, something happens in the news…. Well, I met that guy! And here's what happened when I argued with him, or whatever. And so, there's a lot of anecdotal, and bringing back a story. You know, like being in South Sudan, on the African continent, there's a lot of humanity in travel. If you, do it a certain way, when you really get out there and mix with people. I think there's a lot of value to be taken from those human interactions. And that's the part of the show that's not necessarily funny, because you see some pretty raw images and some pretty intense things. So you wouldn't dare make light of any of that. So the show isn't funny all the time. But humor comes naturally to me in that I just think a lot of life's experiences end up being funny. Someone's pain and suffering… No. But you know, at my inconvenience… absolutely. Are you kidding? It's prime material. And so the shows kind of just find themselves into making people laugh, and hopefully, they get something of use or value from it. But I'm not funny all the time. It's funny, a good part of the time. And what I say kind of walks at middle ground between stand-up comedy, and anecdotal recall.
Nick So without giving too much away, like how do you put these things together? Is it something like.. this one works, and I'll go with path B, you know, that joke will kind of like connect with that one? Do you just instead go up there? And just, you know, I'm just going to start doing this? Or is it kind of like literal?
Henry Rollins No, no, no, I'm hyper prepared. And it's not exactly like a string is being pulled out of my chest every night. But right down to the punctuation, I pretty much am trying to know every single fiber of the carpet when I walk out there. Because some people like to fly by the seat of their pants and improvise. And that's cool. I just don't have that kind of talent. I get by… by preparation. And so I actually hyper prepare to where doesn't sound like I'm reading off a script. If I'm going to be talking about someone else, I gotta be correct. So all of that stuff, I have to be almost like a journalist. But I'll come back from, some bit of travel. And go… what is the story in all the information that I came back with. The last time I was in Haiti, I saw a lot of sadness and played with a lot of kids, and made a lot of donations to orphanages, and churches and things like that. But where's the story? You know, it just can't be like just raw reportage you just watch the BBC and get a better version. So I have to find that, where's the humanity? And what's the takeaway?
Nick And as you take this show to different cities with different cultural demographics, and whatnot…and I asked because Hawaii is a little different from a lot of the US… do you find yourself having to alter things on the fly to suit that audience?
Henry Rollins I've been doing this for so long. I pre-program all of that stuff. And I treat shows in Hawaii…. like, I try to be very careful of being in a place that is culturally different than what I'm familiar with less someone think that you're disrespecting where they are. And I've always tried to be very careful and conscious of where I am, just as an attempt to be respectful. And I do not treat Hawaii like I do…the North American continent. And I'm not saying I talk slower. I'm just aware of that I'm not in Michigan. And so I wouldn't change things that much. But I'm just aware that this isn’t Indiana. It's out of respect of a geographical distance from the… what they call the mainland. And so I just try to be aware of that. So everyone understands and is respected. And that's why travel stories are so perfect for what I do. Because it's where neither myself or the audience are in that country at that moment. And so I can kind of hit that middle ground.
Nick And you've kind of touched on this before, but is there any central thing you always want people to take away?
Henry Rollins Yeah, absolutely. There's definite multiple through lines that go through what I do. And since I started becoming old, what occurs to me more and more is: this century has to end better than it began. And that every single person in the audience and myself included… we have to be part of that good ending, and, you know, tolerance, decency, empathy, you know, those, those aspects of human interaction have to come through in the stories like it, because that's how I work at that every single day just trying to be better. And that's hopefully, that comes through.
Nick So you mentioned growing old, I noticed that's become a reoccurring theme in a lot of your work. And I gotta ask: is this you grappling with the changing times? Or is this making light of it? Or…
Henry Rollins I make fun of it! You know, because I grew up. I'm 61. I've been in front of cameras, and people have been recording my existence, in print, on TV, etc, since I was 19. And not exactly growing up in public, but parking right next to that. And so, I've been very aware of myself, not in a self-impressed kind of way. But, you know, people ask: would you sign this? I'm like, I had dark hair, like which president was that? Oh, yeah, Reagan. And so I, my past is presented to me all the time. And so I'm very aware of aging. And it's nothing but funny to me that when I get up, I can hear my body audibly pop and crack. And you know, I'm in the gym six days a week. So I'm very aware of my physicality, my stamina, and how it diminishes. And I always tell the audience: “you know, you one day, you'll be old, like me, like, not anytime soon, trust me”. But um, you're gonna need some humor. You're gonna need all the humor that you can bring on board. And so there's that kind of an awareness. Having been young, middle aged, and you know, getting AARP. Now that I can see at least three bags on the baseball diamond as I head towards home plate. And to take in a fairly wide view, as a very aware that I'm being monitored person has informed a lot of what kind of material I've been putting across on stage. And hopefully, it's not like some old dad, “bring your galoshes”, but it's just... you really need to let women do what they need to do with their bodies. You really, really have to teach your kids not to tease the gay kid or the trans kid or the autistic kid at school. We must do better. Things must improve with human interaction. You won't remember this phone call. You won't remember me on stage. But on your deathbed decades from now, you will remember being six years old in the schoolyard. And the exact words that were said to you that made you cry with humiliation. And that's how sensitive humans are and how easy it is to traumatize someone. And knowing that no one is all that tough. Why don't we radically change how we comport ourselves on a day-to-day basis? And this is a thing I've been thinking about really hard for at least a decade and trying to really put that into action in my own life. And I don't go on stage and instruct people. It's not for me, a mere high school graduate to be telling anybody what to do. But I tried to put examples out, like, that thing that you said to that guy when you're both eight? Like, he's just, it's okay, you did it when you were eight, what do you know. But now that you know, when you have an eight-year-old, just remind your eight-year-old... The kid that no one talks to in class, go sit down next to that one, and have lunch with them. There's nothing wrong with that. Some humanity might really, really help. And when you see the cruelty that is exacted on people, you know, I think the Internet gives a lot of people interconnectivity, and insane isolation, and the capability of being really mean. We really need to check ourselves. So when you see how people are fat shamed, or victim blamed, or whatever, you see day to day on the internet, or this in local news, that's just you do what you want. I'm not… I don't try to get in anyone's way. But that's just not how I'm going to comport myself. And if I had kids, and I found out they were doing stuff like that… we would definitely be having a talk with them.
Nick And are you trying to pull this all together somehow in your shows?
Henry Rollins Well there's the thing I've been talking about, almost nightly on stage: when the female child says to Mom and Dad, I don't want to be a “she” and a “her”, I want to be a “they”, and the parents roll their eyes and go, “Oh, they're all doing it”. Maybe... maybe they are tired of walking to school with a carload of men slow rolling next to them enumerating all the things they can get up to in that car. And so being a “she” and “her” is toxic, it's nerve racking. Its puke inducing. And so they got away from that, like someone escaping the jaws of a shark and said, I'm an alien to them. We are ruining this person's childhood. And so they have jumped out of the way and the parents aren't listening. Your kid is performing an amazing bit of societal jujitsu and trying to survive an environment that we have created for this kid. And I don't know exactly what I've done that has contributed to this toxicity. But I cannot divorce myself from thinking I'm part of a problem. And I desperately don't want to be that. So what can I do? And so those kinds of things might come out during the show. But it's not like, “hey adults, here's how you need to live your life” because I'm the last person you want a life lesson from. And I'm the first person who knows that. But these are the things that I've been thinking about a lot. As I've grown older, I just watch how adults deal with each other… like in a supermarket, like, they let you drive like you're the rudest person I see this month. It's incredible what adults can get up to. And they ruin things. And I just don't want to be a part of that as someone who does it. And I just want things to be better. And that never would have occurred to me as a 20-something who was just so busy being a young…you know…a thick skull mouth breather, thinking everything is against me too. You know, as an older person, I'm just trying to see things differently. Because I would hate to be 61 and someone's saying: “well, you haven't changed”.
Nick How old were you when you when you got into Black Flag?
Henry Rollins 20. I got out of high school at age 18. And about two years later, I went from wearing a prep boy school uniform with a blue and gold striped tie to being the shirtless maniac on stage with Black Flag living in a van with a bunch of other feral young men. And so my life went from, minimum wage work (and you know) that kind of institutionalized, private, all boys prep school from sixth grade to graduation. I'm absurdly middle class. I mean, I never missed a meal. But you know, I never talked about the hardships I endured as a young person. As far as starvation it was Spaghetti O’s to near damn death as a young person. Both my parents were insanely hard working very smart people. I had a bed, I had a roof that didn't leak, et cetera. And so I went out into the world as a minimum wage work guy with no plan whatsoever. And I got swept up into the whole music thing, which kind of took me everywhere else. And here we are now. But I kind of went into things like… what's the craziest whitewater river you can jump into? Well put your raft into this one… and that was Black Flag. And so I went from zero-to-insane in one phone call when I got asked to audition for Black Flag.
Nick I can't imagine how terrifying that must have been… and exhilarating
Henry Rollins …and exhilarating! Because, you know, I was never one with a big opinion of himself. And so I jumped on stage and sang a song with them one night, I kind of knew them. And then the next day, they called me at my job… I was scooping ice cream. They said, “Hey, you want to, you know, come back up to New York where they were and audition because the singer wants to move to rhythm guitar”. And I'm looking at the rest of my life in the minimum wage working world. Like, “well, I could have this forever. And it's going to be this every single day a different version of dull, repetitive work that will destroy your ankles, and ruin your back. And your any ambition you might have. Or I could go humiliate myself and fail in front of Black Flag”. And so I decided, well, I'll just go up to New York and humiliate myself in front of my favorite band. And I went up there and they played every song they knew. And I, you know, there were no records at the time. So I just kind of improvised 90 minutes of howling and jumping around like an idiot. And they said, “Okay, you're in”. And I went back to Washington, D.C. on a train, quit my job, and gave my stuff away. My friend Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat drove me to the bus station… and I still have the bus ticket! And I went overnight from Washington D.C. to Detroit with a duffel bag of clothes and six $20 bills. And two weeks later… I'm living in a punk rock squat, catching fleas off a carpet in Hollywood, California. And I just went forward from there. And you know, it reads like a screenplay. But all of that happened. And this in that kind of life, I saw a lot of people who I started my young life with are dead now you know, drugs, suicide, misadventure. And from that… I don't want to be some jaded old person who will tell you everything sucks and everyone will rip you off. Because that's simply not true. Some people will, absolutely, but not all of them. And so, as an older guy, I'm just trying to inhale all of that. And maybe there's some value for having survived all of that, when not everyone around me did. And/or they went into repetition where they keep trying to be 20 every year. They keep dyeing their hair and doing something weird with their face. And living in Hollywood for so many years, you see people like “what have you done to your forehead”? Oh, that's Botox. Like, dude, you look so weird. You look like a Vulcan. And you just you just see people not dealing with the fact that you change. And I think some things don't have to change, like you can remain honest. You can remain forthright; you can keep showing up on time. You don't have to become curious with age. My mom was curious her entire life. Like the older she got, she just kind of became more curious. I think that's kind of a choice. You can choose to be jaded and you know, bemoan everything or you can just go well…no. I go to shows, and I'm often the oldest person of the gig. I go see, you know, Ty Segall or Thee Oh Sees or some English band, which is kind of the wheelhouse I like, and I stand way out of the way. I don't want to get run into because the bones are softening or they're turning more brittle. I don't want to get my pelvis broke by some 19-year-old running by me. So I just find a neutral corner and surveil the gig from relative darkness. And, I leave and go back to my car (which is older than the damn building itself) and I still like to go out and do stuff. I just don't pretend that I'm hanging out with all the kids, I don't know their experience. I forgotten what it's like to be young. So I stay the hell out of their way.
Nick I am so happy to hear you say that. Because I actually just saw Thee Oh Sees with the two drummers and I stood on the side. And I'm like,” I have to be home after this and be up in the morning, to go to work the next day. I can't risk a broken rib right now. But I still want to see this show”. I did go into pit a while back at a Descendents show and got my ass kicked. And you know, regretted it for days, and it was a good show. But it was still like, ah, I never thought that could hurt so much. And so I'm just really happy to hear that from the singer of black flag…. That It's okay.
Henry Rollins I just think all of that should be embraced. It's like trying to deny the direction the rivers going. You can go with it, you can fight it, but eventually you will tire, and you'll end up at the end of the river anyway. So I reckon for myself, I choose to go with it. That’s why I don't pretend I identify with young people. I don't remember what it was like to be all bent out of shape, because the girl told me to go take a hike. I'm just not that in that emotional part of my life. That's like 30 years ago. And so I try to be me, wherever that me is at age 61. And I don't look for… I don't try and find out what other old men are doing to do. I just try and keep it real. And you know…the humor. You gotta keep laughing.