Music

Stop Look and Listen: An Interview with Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins is embarking on tour, but this time it's more than music: this time out, Henry Rollins is talking about the joys of capitalism, and why we need to remember how important it is leading up to the election. He tells PopMatters all about his venture ...

As a guy that's riffed on everything from the endless joy he gets from 7-11 convenience stores to walking down a sketchy street in Pakistan, these days Henry Rollins is exactly what he claims to be: a human delivery system. Rollins delivers facts and stats, cites the Constitution, and tells about his extensive world travels with sharp wit and a focused vitriol.

While some might peg Rollins as an artist of some ambiguous fashion, he denies possessing any sort of legitimate talent.

"I'm a truck driver with all of this stuff," he said.

While there is honor in it, no doubt, it is possible Rollins is just being humble. Having been a member of the seminal hardcore punk group Black Flag, authored over 15 books, landed acting work in film and television, and hosted his own talk and performance-based show on IFC, Rollins is arguably one of pop culture's most diversely prolific characters. In the end, though, he's still a cult figure of sorts.

Yet, over the past 25 years Rollins says he has "shed the armor of a snare drum and a loud guitar" for a more singular life in the world and on stage. Focused now on writing books about traveling the globe and retelling his experiences through his spoken word tours, Rollins can almost be seen as a truth-oriented torchbearer, quite possibly a version of Bill Hicks-lite.

With it being an election year, Rollins is headed out on the road with a more politically minded set of tangents to riff on this time around. Scheduled to hit all 50 state capitals leading up America's big day on November 6, Rollins wasn't being straightforwardly ironic when he dubbed his current trek across America "Capitalism".

"I love capitalism," said Rollins frankly. "It rewards me for being brave -- it awards me for being innovative and thinking out of the box."

Yet, for as much as Rollins has reaped the benefits of our system, he sees the disparities and inequalities inherent within. Namely, it's the illusion of a fair market.

"It's not really that competitive. It's some guy and his eight rich friends competing," said Rollins. "If more people understood how that works, you'd have real competition. If you say you like it so much, let the games begin."

For Rollins, letting "the games begin" equals making education more accessible to the working and lower classes. He's quick to point out America's slipping position on the educational ladder in relation to other countries, quickly pointing out that we currently rank 46th in literacy.

"Americans have been dumbed down to the point where more people watching American Idol than listen to the state of the union address. And that's too bad," said Rollins. "I'm not trying to take any bread out of the mouth of Simon Cowell, but if the president is speaking to the people of the United States and people are going to watch American Idol, that's sad."

It's also not a matter of freedom, said Rollins -- it's more of a matter of equality.

"We've got freedom by the bucket load. You're free to paint yourself green and swing from one foot," he said. "They'll probably give you a reality show for it. But equality? We had a chance in 1865 during Reconstruction America. That was the time we really should have gotten on it, but we didn't. So now we're still trying to get that motorbike to start."

All of Rollins' political musings aren't far off what he developed as a shirtless, gym-shorts-wearing punk in his early-20s. Black Flag championed the poor, the underprivileged, and the marginalized and -- since evolving into a stand up performer -- Rollins' more contemporary material evokes those same sentiments.

"I never had some odd summer of conservatism or two summers of Neo-Nazism," he said proudly.

There is little doubt that Rollins would get pegged as a liberal in today's divisive left or right mentality. But that isn't the point for Rollins -- he'd rather cite the Constitution and refer to history and hard facts to inform and back up his positions. Unsurprisingly, these social and political issues will be somewhat of a focal point for his current tour.

"I think this particular presidential election is going to be very intense," said Rollins. "They're all interesting -- some are more interesting than others. I think there will be a lot of lessons America can learn."

So, Rollins is hitting the road to mix stories of his world travels with his insights into the American political system. It's all a humble attempt at serving as a faithful reporter, chiseling down his experiences with a very clear and precise goal: "exactitude, clarity, impact."

Seeing his life's work as a modern version of age-old tradition of story telling, Rolllins sees no difference between playing the role of a punk rock vocalist to what he's doing now.

"I'm a raconteur," said Rollins as he likened his current trade to elders sitting around a fire. "If I'm not blowing air into that microphone nothing's happening."

Rest assured, Rollins will be blowing plenty of air as he treks across the country and expounds upon his experiences in the context of the American culture and abroad.


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