The self-described “aging alternative icon” on politics, punk rock, and Papa Hemingway.
For some people, “change” is still the worst c-word.
“Change” could be Henry Rollins’s middle name. More than three decades into a career that he began by fronting hardcore punk band Black Flag, and one that has included everything from acting alongside Al Pacino to hosting a National Geographic show to blogging for L.A. Weekly, it’s clear that there’s little the dude isn’t up for. He seems perplexed that other people don’t share his openness, and his frustration colours even his relief over the results of the recent election. “[Mitt Romney] still lost by like a couple million, but he got pretty far. It doesn’t tell you much about Mitt Romney, because he’s a guy with, like, zero substance,” he says. “So it’s a hatred—not only of Obama, but of the idea of change. When I go across America, a lot of the time I think that we’re not going to make it. Like, [Obama’s] acceptance speech was so amazing [that] even Fox news people were smiling. And I would like to believe my president, because I’m a fan. But sometimes I look at my fellow Americans and I don’t think we’re gonna get through this. Not, like, we shall perish from the earth, but that 10 years from now we’ll still be arguing over health care.”
He’s the punk-rock Bob Hope.
In 2003, Rollins did his first USO tour—he “entertained” troops in the Middle East with his particular brand of caustic commentary. The experience clearly left a big impression. Though he remained a staunch critic of President Bush, he went back six more times. He continues to raise awareness of how being opposed to imperialist military force doesn’t necessarily mean being opposed to supporting the people who are on the ground fighting, which he does by recounting stories of soldiers and vets. He even became a board member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Vets of America. “I talk about the soldier suicide rate and the failure of the American government to take care of these guys,” he says. “Republicans don’t want to spend a billion bucks to rehabilitate these men and women, but they will spend damn near a trillion to go into a country and blow it up.”
If he had a talk-radio show it’d be called “These other American lives.”
This year, Rollins will rack up another 187 dates of spoken word performances. His shows are part editorial, part autobiography, and part journalism—the latter not unlike the kinds of stories you’d hear on Ira Glass’s public-radio show This American Life. Rollins’s anecdotes, however, tend to be a bit more jarring, whether they’re about the teenage girl who’s so insecure she emails him photos and asks if her body’s good enough, or the soldier who survived an explosion and then picked his own arm up off the ground. “When someone tells you something that extraordinary, you can’t sit on it and just keep it to yourself,” he says. “People tell me stories that would peel the paint off your car. You feel lucky that you got the story, and the way to make good on it is to move it along. Otherwise, what good are you?”
He respects his elders, like Black Flag and Ernest Hemingway.
At 51, Rollins hasn’t eased up on his touring schedule and he certainly isn’t looking to retire. “I had this manager years ago who asked, ‘Why don’t you take it easy this year?’ If I even look in that direction, my knees will give out.” A large part of this work ethic comes from his roots in DIY touring with Black Flag, where he was given a warning: If only two people show up to your gig, it’s not their fault no one else came, so you better play your ass off to them. But he also takes cues from more highbrow sources: “Hemingway said that the greatest destruction for a writer is success, because he loses his loneliness. As he gets successful, he gets famous, and that thing that got him up at the typewriter at six in the morning in a freezing room in France dissipates, because now it’s a warm room and a bunch of people asking, ‘What would you like to eat?’” (FYI: Rollins doesn’t have a rider for his shows. He even brings his own bottled water.)
Henry Rollins rants onstage at the Glenn Gould Studio (250 Front St. W.) from Nov. 19–21. 416-703-6371, cbc.ca/glenngould.