Inspiration from Anger: An Interview with Henry Rollins

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By Dave Brecheisen

Henry Rollins’s career has been fueled by rage. As a musician he turned his rage into song. As an author he has turned his rage into prose. As a talk show host he has turned his rage into one of the most unique shows of the genre. As a performer he has turned his rage into compelling storytelling. As a human being he has turned his rage into philanthropy. You see, Henry Rollins isn’t the misanthrope that many believe. Really he’s more the Jungian shadow of John Stewart and Bob Hope. His emotion is the direct, unadulterated fits of anger that exist just below the surface of sarcasm; the unbridled frustration that lurks just offstage of compassion, eclipsed by jokes and sympathy.

Last year Henry Rollins finished his first season of The Henry Rollins Show on the Independent Film Channel. Rollins as a talk show host. I can imagine the terror that courses through the veins of anyone who has to sit down and be interviewed by Henry Rollins. I was nervous as hell interviewing him. I imagine the moments right before sitting down to be interviewed by him are a lot like the few seconds in Marathon Man after Hoffman is asked “Is it safe?” for the last time and right before Sir Laurence Olivier goes to work on his molars. Rollins assures me it is otherwise. “Any guest I’ve ever had on the show is someone I’m interested in. So, it’s not like I challenge them and try to do a Sean Hannity, where I want to watch them squirm. I’m interested in that person and I want to know. So often the interviews go way longer than they’re supposed to. Because we just get so engaged.” He later adds, “The interviews are very sympathetic; I’m not getting someone on the show I don’t like.”

“Now, I wouldn’t do that to an artist.” Rollins wants to make sure that it is clearly understood that he hasn’t lost his penchant to go for the jugular. “I would do that to a politician or someone I disagree with, but I would lay that out. I would get the neo-nazi on the show and say, ‘Okay, I don’t like you, let’s go’ ... the guy who wants to wants to bomb the abortion clinic; give me a piece of that guy. But, just because I think your band sucks, I don’t need to tell you that on TV and make you have to defend yourself. I just won’t buy your record,” Rollins concludes.

After this, the first in what would be many diatribes, I took a moment to ask about Sean Hannity, whom he has brought up three times in the first seven minutes of conversation and whom he mentioned more than once in his spoken word performance a few nights prior. Rollins doesn’t hesitate to jump at the chance to lambaste him: “I just think he’s a blowhard, and he’s a coward who beats up on people who are trying to make a point and be articulate. He just shuts them down, probably how Stalin’s guys shut down any free-thinking person in the Soviet Union. And so I would love to be on his show, because I’d come over the desk. I get a handful of him. He wouldn’t know what to do with me. And he could probably beat me up; I really wouldn’t care about that.” I mention this is highly unlikely and that Sean Hannity doesn’t strike me as much of a scrapper. “I don’t know,” responds Rollins, I’m not the toughest guy. But, I don’t care when I die, so I’m always ready to go.” Whoa.

If you didn’t catch the first season of Rollins’s show, guests included Billy Bob Thornton, Penelope Cruz, Don Cheadle, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all of whom he respects greatly. Just because he gets the stars, as viewers of the show will tell you, don’t expect to hear the same innocuous interviews as on Letterman and Leno. “If you do Leno, which I’ve done a bunch of times, you don’t get asked anything intense. David Letterman doesn’t want to know about what you did to get ready for that part, he wants to know who you’re dating and what you did about those shoes you’re wearing, because it’s light. This is the Independent Film Channel, it’s for film buffs. It’s for people that are into more of the minutia, aspiring directors and young authors, so you can get very specific. And the actors and directors really get a chance to talk about this stuff, rather than who they’re dating or what they’re wearing.”

The second season promises to be as strong as and more diverse than the first. Rollins has plans to expand the show beyond actor or director interviews and film reviews, to include anyone interesting he can get his hands on, including musical guests.“What I would like to get is known quantities—people who you would think, ‘Oh yeah I like that guy’—to do something different. To get some cool guy to do a Hank Williams song solo acoustic; something that would make a cool b-side on cool fan club single.”

Henry Rollins’s spoken word performance is a sort of rally for the young and eager and yuppies who want to forget they arrived in a Volkswagen or BMW. He inhabits the room and allows the audience to question themselves freely and maybe have a beer and a couple of laughs while they do it. As the interview shifts to discussing the show and his preparation we quickly digress into questions of politics, American culture and the state of the union. When he discusses these things his brogue becomes metered and calculated, yet full of passion—a strange hybrid of Tyler Durden and Bill Hicks. Rollins is well-read and has formulated opinions on nearly every topic imaginable. He is an American genuinely concerned for the future. He’s also a great, sympathetic storyteller and a compassionate person who has the ability to translate his concern and views into a wickedly entertaining evening.

I wonder though, why it is someone who has had such a long a history in music and cares for it so deeply would choose this route. “Because,” begins Rollins, slightly hesitating as if he’s unsure how best to continue, “I like writing songs and I’m currently working on another record, but the spoken word thing allows me to make comment on something that just happened and I don’t have to worry about when the chorus is coming. And I don’t have to bore a rock audience with a point of view I would like to get across between songs.

“I like doing both.” He continues, “The talking thing ... I love being a storyteller. I love telling stories. You were at the show the other night. It’s a lot of story telling. And I can’t do that with a lyric, I can’t do a 20-minute song about taking the Trans-Siberian Express.”

During his show, Rollins recounts the Trans-Siberian Express story about across Russia’s most barren landscape. Get this: For fun. The tale marks a high point in his show that is rich in language, imagery, and themes. His spoken words sound not unlike someone reading prose directly from a novel. The imagery he recounts is full of metaphors about the road to self-awakening. It never occurs to most people to take a 10-day train ride across the most desolate stretch of land in the world. It occurred to Henry Rollins. Why? Personal Growth.

“To learn things that are not easily learned it’s hard. Change is hard, but change is good. And so all of this stuff, you want it and it’s hard to get, it’s going to cost you. These are the only things that I value at this point: that which is hard to obtain, that which takes a trial to get. If it’s easy and within reach, it doesn’t have much value to me. Because if it’s within reach to me, than it’s within reach to a lot of people and I’m personally more interested in the road less traveled. And something you have to burn a few calories to get a hold of.

“I take it to an extreme, but I also like to make fun of myself on stage with it. I’m not prescribing it—walking around with a warped sense of values. But, for me the trips I’ve made to Africa, the trips I’ve made to the Middle East, the fact that I actually go after these locations—it is hard travel—The hardest trip I’ve done is in Africa. Getting in and out of Madagascar, or dealing with Nairobi, Kenya. Johannesburg is a great place to get cut up. And I willfully go to these places. Because I’m curious and I want to see something different, and I want a trip that I really have to depend on my wits (or lack there of) and my guts to get through. And how else do you grow except to get out there into what Mark Twain called ‘The Territory’? You don’t get it by going to Disneyland in France. Those are very nice places. I want some places that bite back.”

In Rollin’s opinion, a necessary condition of growth is pain and absolute vulnerability. It was at this point of his show and the interview that the whispers of Mr. Durden became the most audible, “Congratulations, you are one step closer to hitting bottom.” Though, he may not outwardly prescribe everyone adopting his “warped sense of values”, he clearly thinks everyone needs a little more perspective.

“I think we have always been the winner and that disaster doesn’t happen to us. Kashmir floods, not America. Pakistan has earthquakes, not America. And we’re always the best, and we are the best. But, you have to also be responsible for that. I think a lot of Americans have never been all that hungry. They’ve never had war on their shore and they’ve never suffered the way other cultures have suffered. I’m not saying we should go suffer. Not at all. I’m saying we should be more aware of how other cultures exist. I think young people should travel and travel often to other countries ... like I do. They should go see Israel, they should go see the Middle East, and they should go see Africa. They should go to a third world country and see people who will be dead by next Christmas of either starvation or AIDS. They should go see this. They should smell it. Then they would come home and see their America a little differently. They might approach food and water a little differently. When I see someone leaving the water on, from the tap—it’s hard for me to stomach that when I’ve been places there’s drought. It’s hard for me to leave my plate anything less than clean after having been to Calcutta, India and seen people starving. Or having gone to Madagascar where I’m sure most of those little kids are dead now.”

To clarify: “I don’t think that Americans are bad or take things for granted. They take the information at hand. There’s always a lot of food. There are always a lot of advertisements for food. They can go to a fast food place and get outrageously fed for a little bit of money. The quality of the food is abysmal, what it does to your body is negative, but it’s in abundance. The car ads always show a car going above the speed limit. The ads for Humvees are always smirking. It’s always a smirking woman or guy, like gas grows on trees and these are affordable, real transportation possibilities. To me it’s irresponsible to drive one in the city. You don’t need to drive over logs. What are you doing with a Humvee? Those are for soldiers. And they just waste gas. So someone there is under the impression nothing is going to run out. Is it because they’re bad people? No. It’s because no one has shown them something else.”

Recently, Rollins has spent much of his time engrossed in doing work for the USO. He has traveled all over the globe, to support the men and women of the armed forces. Despite his obvious disdain for the war and the current president (whom Rollins believes is both a “pussy” and a “coward”), Rollins is filled absolutely with compassion and concern for our Nation’s soldiers. “It’s personal now, they’re my guys and I love them. So, any opportunity to make them laugh or tell them a story or buck them up in any way, I’m the first in line. I’m happy to come back from this tour and leave the next day for Afghanistan.”

In addition to his work overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan with the USO, Rollins has done tours of Navy Medical and Walter Reed hospitals to visit the injured, returning from war. As viewers of the war, it is the number of casualties that strikes us the most. Rollins, however, sees it differently. The trips have illuminated for him that those injured in war are often worse off than the dead. It is tragic. He has watched mothers holding the hands of their sons and daughters and thought, “No parent should have to be this strong.” The tragedy of hospitals like these goes beyond the patients. It is that the American population is unaware of the numbers and the atrocity of these injuries. According to Rollins (and many others), the press has failed to illuminate the war in such a way that personalizes it for the American people.

“There was one great feature length article in Time Magazine, where they show a lot of amputated limbs. But you know, as well as I do, we’re talking thousands of injuries.” Rollins’s tone changes ever so slightly when he talks about this. He becomes slightly more patient in his speech as though he is measuring just how much of this he wants to impart. It’s easy to tell that this is a line of thought he’s followed many times and many times it leads to a dark place—one he isn’t sure he should share. His tone changes back to its measured cadence and he begins again, “You realize when you go to Walter Reed, that you are just on one floor of one ward in one building. And [there is] building after building, floor after floor of heads gone, guts gone, faces gone ... the saddest most catastrophic injuries—men with no noses; women with no faces. This is War 101, Vietnam, WW I, WW II. Amazing injuries, like, ‘A human is still alive after that?’ After that much of their body has been removed, no way. I’m amazed they’re eating. There are thousands of them in a two-year period from this war. The insurgents are very good with those improvised explosive devices. And I think the US Press Corps or the President or the administration put the kibosh on this information less anyone come to their senses and realize this war was a really fucking bad idea. And I think it’s the cowardice of the press corps—I don’t know what their fear of the Bush administration is. I don’t fear them; I wonder why they do.”

Just so you don’t think Henry Rollins has gone soft, it isn’t his undying love for the human race that fuels his philanthropy. It is anger and rage that inspires him. It is a strange paradox; at least that was my initial reaction when I began to ask, “Isn’t that sort of a contradic—

“No, it’s not a contradiction at all.” Rollins jumps in as if he saw the question coming 20 minutes ago when we began talking. “I’m angry at the situation and I fix it. When I do USO work, I’m cleaning up after the disaster of the George Bush [administration]. When I give money to an orphanage, I’m cleaning up after irresponsible parents. I’m mad at them. They fucked up. They had kids they couldn’t handle. It’s not the kid’s fault he got born, but I’m picking up the slack. I love kids, but I give the money out of anger of the irresponsibility of the parents. I take responsibility for these kids who I’m never going to meet. They are Americans, they’re defenseless, and someone has to stand up for them. I’m not saying I’m a martyr; I’m one of many people giving donations. One of thousands, there’s nothing unique about me. But that’s what inspires me to do it. I get mad and then I take action ... I don’t drink myself to oblivion or beat my woman.”

Through his rage, Henry Rollins has found inspiration to take action. In all of his incarnations, be it musician, television host, author, or performer, he inspires others to do the same. As I write this sitting in a bar in Georgetown, only a couple of doors down from Rollins’s former employer—in the same town where he and Ian MacKaye set out to change the world—I am slightly conflicted. Do I go outside and kick a Georgetowner in the shins and spit on a Porsche, or do I go feed one of the homeless? I’m not sure which it will be just yet, but I know I have no business wasting away an afternoon in a bar, doing nothing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/rollins-henry-051207/