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Happy 50th, Henry Rollins

A conversation with Henry Rollins, who is turning 50 this February. He discusses what it's like to get older as a celebrity, his radio show and his upcoming tour.

“Compromise was not in his vocabulary. He was a fanatic from childhood, a person who had to go the whole hog or die. In this lies his purity, his innocence.”

-- Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins, 1946

“As-Salamu Alaykum Fanatics.” With this signature greeting Henry Rollins begins his weekly 120-minute hymn to the world’s lost, forgotten and overlooked music. At 50, the energy of his younger days doesn’t seem to have diminished, only sharpened to a knifepoint. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles he said, “That’s why I was brought into KCRW [the LA public radio station that broadcasts his show]. I was told, ‘we need someone like you here otherwise we’re in danger of everyone sounding the same.’”

There’s little danger of Henry Rollins sounding like anyone else. Referring to his listeners as “Fanatics” he invites them to become as obsessed with music as he is, even to the point of invoking a musical holy war in the introduction he uses for every show: “My name is Henry Rollins and it is 6pm here at 89.9 KCRW. I am firmly ensconced inside the KCRW rock mosque staring into the beady eyes of my brother in sonic jihad Engineer X and tonight Fanatics we have a wonderful show for you.”

Rollins has been on the radio in LA for over six years, having moved to KCRW in 2009 when the commercial radio station he had been at went off the air. Despite the longevity of his radio presence, each week the off-the-cuff, anarchic nature of the show keeps it fresh. Plus, despite his rage filled, punk rock image, Rollins has developed a sidesplitting sense of humor. Sometimes the music seems like it’s just an excuse to hear him talk. Rollins is a throwback to an earlier era of the DJ as part entertainer, part high musical priest. It’s become fashionable in music-focused radio to minimize the DJ’s personality, and on Internet radio to eliminate it. In contrast Rollins’ personality is what his listeners come back for.

But for Henry the emphasis is on the music. “I play whatever I want. What I try to do with the show is play a whole bunch of different kinds of music that hopefully keeps the listener leaning in and somewhat off balance. And, maybe turns a young person on to some music they’ve never heard before which they might end up really liking.” The demographic of the typical listener is almost impossible to pin down. The show counts as its fans everyone from young high-school age punk rock kids to Sorbonne-educated music historians. They tune in from all over the world. In a very real sense Henry Rollins’ weekly show is a Mecca for the serious music listener. Knowing this, and with nearly any option at their disposal, the band Deerhoof recently chose his show to debut their newest album. It’s a place for the sonically faithful to gather and bask in the warm glow of the event horizon of auditory experience.

In this age of the Internet-fueled demise of radio as the primary source of new music, it’s not an exaggeration to say that if you haven’t listened to Rollins’ show at least once it would be difficult to call yourself an aficionado. And you can’t use not being in Los Angeles as an excuse. His show streams live every Saturday via the KCRW website. When you listen for the first time you’ll be struck by a strange feeling. It’s like he’s trying to reach out through the radio and get a hand around your neck, to choke you until you care as much about music as he does. With signature self-deprecation he says that the best thing he gets from the show is, “young people writing me saying because of your show I bought a John Coltrane record or because of you I now listen to Sun Ra. And when you turn a young person on to a certain kind of music if you’re responsible for that it’s not a bad thing to have done.”

Despite his movie and television appearances, the DIY spirit of punk still flows through his veins. He says, “I love being kind of a foothold for some band to get over the wall, and at least get a tour out of it. That’s one of my responsibilities as an older guy having done a whole lot of music, because no one really did that for me and I figure a way a way to pay the success back is to do it for someone else.” He does that by playing the music that he loves. “I’m a big fan of a lot of really, really small independent labels and bands and to get them on the air is a big deal for them. The best compliment I get every year is that a band will write me and say, ‘We were just on tour and we had people coming to our show saying they had never heard us before they heard us on your show.’ That is what it is all about. That is so cool, that we helped get someone in that venue for that band. That’s as good as it gets.”

With the massive economic troubles of the past two years public radio is seeing a bleak future when it comes to funding. KCRW and most other stations are relying more and more on their listeners to keep the doors open. It’s one of the few ways that someone interested in donating to a cause can see a simple, direct result of their contribution: the music keeps playing. Henry puts it succinctly, “if people enjoy music they should contribute and keep KCRW alive so we can keep doing it to them every year [sic]. The only way to sustain that is to contribute. And listeners outside of LA can contribute to the same way they listen, on the website. I think we do a great service for music listeners. There’s really no other source like it out there for music. I’m extremely happy to be part of it.”

Another significant part of Rollins’ life is his solo, talking performances that are part stand-up comedy, part rant, and part memoir. They’re not unlike the old-time performances that Mark Twain and other authors would give when they’d canvas the country talking about their lives, reading parts of their books, and waxing both philosophically and humorously. In honor of his 50th Birthday this February his new tour is called simply “50” with dates worldwide. What does an icon of youthful rage think about being over the hill? He says, “When you are young there is so much ahead of you it’s like the Saharan desert. You can’t even see across it. Now, at 50, I can see the borders. In ten years from now I’ll be 60. 60 qualifies as old. For me there’s more urgency, and more inclination to do stuff. You gotta do it and now’s the time.”

The latest press photos of him dressed in his costume from the Liar music video reveal that yes, it is possible to age gracefully in this era of botox and plastic surgery. His reaction to aging? “There’s nothing bad about it. And with the rest you just have to have some humor. Your hair is grey and there are lines on your face. You look at women and say, ‘Wow.’ But wait, they’re half my age. There are all these things that you have to say to yourself, ‘that’s not an option anymore.’ And you have to laugh at it and say, ‘rumble young man, rumble,’” quoting Muhammad Ali.

He continues, “And so if anything turning 50 has been good in that it gets me up and gets me down the road with way more urgency than I had when I was 20. When I was 20 you couldn’t tell me anything. I said, ‘I’m 20 and I need nothing. I can live on nothing and the world is my oyster.’ Now I’m older and I have more of a grip. There is something at stake and I have a few more laps around the track and then I’m out. So, I might as well make as much trouble as I can before I go. And for me that’s all the motivation I need.”

Henry Rollins has always naturally subverted what would be considered the mores of his time. In a world defined by spin and excuses he is a welcome breath of fresh, truthful air. Political correctness is not part of his makeup, and we can do nothing but thank him for that. He doesn’t get high, doesn’t get drunk, doesn’t get written about on for his latest antics. He keeps a rigorous schedule, waking before the sun rises to work, and is obsessively positive. It is difficult to get him to say something negative about anything but Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and corporations who he describes as, “angry machines built to take your shit".

The world is better for Henry Rollins being in it. He is a link between the modern, mainstream media world and the working class, DIY, punk ethic of the pre-Internet age. He is also an example of what an obsessive faith in yourself coupled with a strong work ethic can achieve. If he were in the business world he’d be the obsessively logical operations manager of a massive corporation. If he were a normal every day guy he’d be the idiosyncratic manager of a video store who knows everything about every movie ever made. Fortunately for us he’s an entertainer, and it’s his job to keep talking.

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