Posted October 6, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Henry Rollins: The voice of choice

Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins

On a recent radio broadcast, punk rocker Henry Rollins played a wild mix of music that included everything from Ornette Coleman and Jimi Hendrix to Minutemen and the Buzzcocks, showing off his incredible depth when it comes to popular music. In his spoken word shows, he talks about both politics and punk rock. And he still finds time to hit the gym. Rollins recently phoned from his L.A. office to talk a bit about his polymath tendencies and his latest goings on.

Talk about the various projects with which you’re currently involved and what a typical day is like. You’ve become a real Renaissance Man.
Today, I have the last voiceover session for the History Channel program Ten Things You Don’t Know About. We started shooting that in April and today we wrap. Then, after that show, I have shows coming up. From there, I’m going to go to Europe to work in a film that I wrote the script for. I’m in it as an actor. I come back from all of that and I just have a few more talking shows in November. Most of this year was taken up with the Ten Things show. I put out a new book and that took a lot of time to do the final edit and get it off to the print. I have a weekly column in the L.A. Weekly, a monthly column in Rolling Stone Australia and a weekly radio show. Then, there’s the day-to-day office stuff. We’re always looking at new manuscripts. I pound away at it steadily. I don’t work in a frenetic way. I work constantly so I don’t get too jammed up.

You keep office hours?
I do nine to five, Monday through Friday at the office when I’m off the road. I usually hit the gym and when I get out there’s time to be creative. I like to go out and have movement.

I go to a coffee place. I try to write meaningfully for two to two-and-a-half hours. That’s my goal. It’s quite the ritual. The office is for editing and maybe column writing. Outside the office is the creative space where you’re working on music writing or whatever else.

How did you become a writer?
Just being on the road so much and seeing so much crazy stuff and meeting a lot of fly-by-night people. I was 21 or so in America. I was meeting kids who are running away and hobos. I would meet some guy who’s just out of jail who has a swastikas tattooed on his body. At one point, I was inspired by Henry Miller and just writing what I saw. You realize it takes effort to write effortlessly like he did. At least, writing took more effort than I thought. I just bought composition notebooks and started writing in an unguarded way. If you’re broke, there’s not a lot of options. There’s no one to drive you around the town. If you’re a lonely young person, the notebook is a place to bitch and moan. In the mid ‘80s, I would get writing jobs. Then I started publishing my own writings through my own company.

It started organically out of a need to express myself — basically a need to complain.

What about your interest in politics?
I was raised in Washington D.C. and my mom worked in the government her entire career. She was decidedly Democrat. My father was decidedly opposite. I would see him on the weekends and he would bark at me and I would ask my mom what he meant. She would give me something else to think about. Also, when you’re growing up in the ‘60s in America and the racial tension is so pronounced, being political is inescapable. I went to a school where kids were coming from other neighborhoods and I was getting called Cracker and Bama. It never made me harbor racist sentiments but it made me aware. Then, you go from that into the punk rock world and everyone is complaining about Ronald Reagan. Police are coming up to you and saying, “We don’t like you. We know who you are.” It can make you a pretty political person. Americans by nature of our amazing democracy, get to vote and weigh in. Whoever you vote for, you’re flexing an opinion. That makes any one of us political. And doing a lot of USO work I go far and wide; there’s not one continent that escapes me. Seeing how America manifests itself in other countries and what the perception is has made me someone who is politically minded. Not overtly. I’m not on a soapbox. I don’t need you to agree with me. If we disagree on things politically, that doesn’t matter to me. I’m not out to convince you of anything. I just hope you do go out and vote so we can keep democracy finely tuned and transparent. We do that by having as many people possible vote.

I think it’s difficult to understand the issues because of the way the news is presented.
A lot of American news is corporately controlled. If you offend General Electric, they’re going to pull their seven-figure ad buy, so a lot of American news is tame. It makes for a country that goes to war very easily. In times of war, Americans become knee jerk primitive. “We have to go get them!” Who? Where? How? “The President isn’t moving fast enough!” America just bombed Syria. Obviously, we’re out getting bad guys. Technically, we did not ask [Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-]Assad; we just went in. That means [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has to make a statement and he’s aligned with Bashar al-Assad. This all very suddenly becomes very nuanced and incredibly complex. You have half the country whining that the President isn’t moving fast enough. This isn’t Hollywood. You don’t get a 45-minute ending. Where are the bad guys? They’re not wearing uniforms. They’re not lining up getting ready for an engagement. They’re like mist. This is going to be a tricky, prolonged [event]. This is extremely depressing. We’ll be battling this into the next administration. Approaching this, you have to be very careful. If you want to defeat these people with drones and guns and all of that, you have to get a coalition. If Americans had more information, it wouldn’t necessarily stop them from wanting to beat up on bad guys — I want to get these guy myself, but it might make us question our foreign policy and how we do business. No administration is able to get away from the beat of war drums. My theory is that the administration is an application that works inside a bigger software that’s the creation of guys like Truman, Churchill and Eisenhower. It’s the creation of Israel and Iraq.  It’s Operation Ajax that took out the Prime Minister of Iran. Churchill wanted to nationalize the oil. He freaked when he couldn’t get the oil from the Iranians. We’re still in that now. When you mess with these cultural and political ecosystems . . . do you expect something different to happen? The outcome you hope for is for millions and millions of men to go, “Okay. You beat us.” That’s why it’s easy to recruit young men. You can look at the West and tell them, “You’re broke because of them.” I don’t necessarily agree with that but you can make the case to a group of impressionable, angry, young, broke men. That’s how the white power movement started. It’s how Hitler harvested enough people to do what he did. That’s what you’re going to be fighting in Yemen and parts of Turkey and Syria. Who knows where these guys might run? It’s eventual that we’ll have to put infantry in these places. Maybe not in the next two years but soon. When generals are telling the President he can’t do it by airstrikes alone, I believe the generals. I believe someone who does this for a living.

It is depressing because it doesn’t matter what party is in office?
It’s bigger than Democrat or Republican. It’s bigger than an administration. It’s dealing with two of the biggest economic forces in the world— oil and arms. Those are two economies that America benefits from. No president is working for peace that much because the bottom line is that Boeing and all these other companies will be saying, “Let’s get to work.” That’s where your tax dollars will be going. If that money were diverted back into America, imagine what it would be like in 20 years.  You would have something that might start looking like equality or it might start looking like Johnson’s Great Society.

What do you discuss in the current show?
What I always do. The last several months of life or tying something in from my past. Syria is quite a topic. As an American and tourist, you’re probably not going to go there. I went there a few years ago. I’ll probably bring that up. It was beautiful and people were insanely friendly. My reception coming back to America was anything but. I was taken into a room and yelled at. I don’t fear that kind of interrogation. I didn’t do anything wrong. My visa was legally obtained. Nothing was hidden. Everyone knew I was there. When they yelled at me, I just smiled at them. I think that irked them.

I’m sure you encountered worse when you were in Black Flag.
I’m a person of the world. I’m not a tough guy. I’ve seen a bit. When I know I haven’t done anything wrong, I won’t be convinced that I have. I never snuck into another country. For me, there will not be any sneaking into anywhere. I’m not about it. I do enjoy doing things legally. I won’t be yelled at for being curious.

I won’t be taught to fear the world. I will not do it.

What’s it like to do the radio show?
I try to make the radio show very eclectic. My imagined audience that’s in my head — it could be complete BS — but I’m making it for an 18- to 30-year-old person. My objective is to turn them on to the old and the new, everything from Sun Ra to John Coltrane, to the Stooges, to The Velvet Underground to Ty Segall, who just made an amazing album called Manipulator. In the middle of that, there’s Stravinsky and Hank Williams. What I’m trying to inspire is the idea that your parents in their time could have seen Hendrix or the MC5. They might have some stories and there might be some records in their collection. Your parents’ music wasn’t necessarily Benny Goodman. It could have been DEVO. My mom’s collection was pitch perfect. She would go to the record store up to three nights a week. We listened to Hendrix, The Doors, Streisand, Strauss, Chopin, Monk and Mingus. I have those records now. No Streisand, but I respect her. It’s not my thing but the woman can sing her ass off. So, I do that as well as sermonize from my particular mount, which is punk rock. You’ll be bumping into The Clash and other bands.

 How’d you discover go-go music?
I would hear it on the public bus. You heard this amazing beat. I wanted to go back there and ask, “What is that?” In those days, you wouldn’t do that. I used to see their flyers but told them I was scared to go to shows. To this day, I don’t believe I could have rolled those dice at that time. Racism was such that it was a bit of trepidation even going to the record store to buy those records. Those were independent labels, owned by the bands. They were not on sale in corporate stores. You had to go to DJ stores downtown. We would walk in and conversations would stop. We were gleaming white. We heard the music on AM radio. They would be like, “Alright, you guys are cool.” I told the guys in Trouble Funk about the records I had and they were kind of impressed. I’ve had this conversation with musicians over the years and it’s interesting how it stayed so localized. When you hear it, you wonder why it couldn’t be everywhere.

Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates







National Museum of Natural History – Washington, DC

Royal Oak Music Theatre – Royal Oak, MI

Cleveland Masonic Auditorium – Cleveland, OH

Drake University-Sheslow Auditorium – Des Moines, IA

Englert Theatre – Iowa City, IA

Stoughton Opera House – Stoughton, WI


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].