Author, actor, musician, modern-day sage: It’s hard to express in words just how influential Henry Rollins has been to American culture in the almost 40 years since he roared out of Washington, D.C. as the fourth and finest singer for the seminal LA punk band Black Flag. It was in that capacity that he first appeared in Northeast Florida, plowing through the legendary Milk Bar on Jan. 29, 1986. Three decades on, he’s back in one of his periodic visits, escorting 2018 in with a spoken-word show at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall on New Year’s Day.
For the last few years, Rollins has hosted the Henry & Heidi podcast, and written a column for LA Weekly—he abruptly ended that activity a few weeks ago in solidarity with staff members (including former Folio Weekly scribe Gwynedd Stuart) who were summarily fired by its new owners. All the while, he’s continued running his 2.13.61 Inc. publishing company, popping up regularly on screens large and small. He’s appeared on 41 albums, published about 40 books and performed in dozens of films, but his artistry finds its truest essence when it’s just the man on stage, alone with a microphone.
Always an ardent traveler (arguably Anthony Bourdain’s predecessor), Rollins has taken his camera everywhere with him, in the process becoming a skilled photographer. In this current tour, he narrates a slideshow of key moments en route to anywhere, in classic Rollins fashion, diverging and digressing into tales of a life spent on the road. As he approaches his 57th birthday, Rollins’ eyes still burn with an intensity that can be intimidating even from the relative safety of cyberspace. He’s a kinder, gentler, more cuddly Rollins now, a guy who goofs around with kids and eats chicken wings in internet videos, but there’s no reason to believe the man with the “Search and Destroy” tattoo on his back is not fully capable of doing just that, if need be. To say he’s an icon is an understatement; it’s also a cliché, and that doesn’t fly with him.
Rollins gamely exchanged emails with Folio Weekly in a lengthy correspondence, which is presented here, in slightly edited form. (A few readers’ questions were also added, for flavor.)
Folio Weekly: You’ve been writing a column in recent years. Was that process different, mentally, than writing you’ve done in the past? Did you enjoy doing that kind of work?
Henry Rollins: I liked having a deadline and an obligation to send in 1,000 words every week. I think it helped me become a better writer. The process was more disciplined than what I usually do, which has no real deadline and no one I have to prove my material to.
How did you find out about the LA Weekly firings? Does it make any sense to you?
I was told about the firings when I got two emails from my bosses there, telling me they had just been fired. It makes sense that if you’re a new group of owners that seem to have a much different political view than the overall posture of the paper, then you’ll be asking a lot of people to clear out their desks. The new owners asked me to stay on but I left. I miss my job for sure but there was no way I could stay after so many good people had been let go.
Do you plan on taking the column to another publication?
Actually, I have not given it all that much thought. I have been getting some offers, which was surprising, but I started that column years ago only when some people who worked at LA Weekly asked me to. I don’t consider it something that I can do anything with. I wrote 359 columns for LA Weekly. Then I left. I don’t think it’s anything that anyone’s going to miss.
What was your favorite thing you ate in 2017?
I honestly don’t notice food. I just eat it quickly and get back to what I was doing before.
What do you think of net neutrality? How does it affect independent artists like you?
I’m surprised that the internet has been as open and [accessible] as it has been for this long. You would figure someone would try to break it into pieces and own it. I don’t think, for as much as America talks about it, that we’re that much into freedom. I can’t think that a change to what’s been the norm will have an effect on me or what I do. My worry is that companies will be able to influence and limit people’s access to information, which is what they’re after. Ultimately, they want to be able to sell to you what they want. The pro-net neutrality people say it’s all about freedom and choice. When I hear that, I know it’s a scam.
Do you remember a band called Hetchy Hetchy that was on Texas Hotel Records? (Ian Chase says hello!)
Hetch Hetchy. I remember … Michael Stipe’s sister Lynda was in it. I have a tape of the sessions for the Make Djibouti record Michael sent me when they made it. I haven’t played it in many years, but remembered thinking they were good.
Is there any way to buy any of the old Rollins Band albums on Texas Hotel Records?
I think most of those records are long out of print. It’s not my label, so I don’t know what happened to it.
How often have fans asked you to play The Punisher on TV or in film? Does it bother you?
I’ve been asked that at least five times in my life. That’s not the kind of thing that would ever bother me.
Are there any circumstances under which you would consider a return to music, even temporarily?
Perhaps if there was someone I really wanted to work with, who wanted to work with me but, really, it’s not anything I think about. For me, music was a thing I did until I didn’t. At no time have I ever considered myself an artist or a musician. Also, for me, it was about how hard I could hit it. If I can’t hit it harder than I did before, I have no interest in going back to it. The last thing I want to do is play old songs. That would be too sad.
With the current wave of news about sexual harassment/assault by public figures, what are some steps men can take to be better, to correct not just their behavior but their way of thinking in general and, more specifically, in the sphere of music and performing arts?
It’s not a current wave. It’s something that’s been happening without cessation in any place where there is power. There is no wave, to say all of a sudden there’s all this harassment going on. What’s different is more women are speaking out. Women have been suffering appalling treatment in every place you can imagine for centuries.
I think things need to evolve. First, men need to see there are consequences for their actions. That jobs will be lost and reputations will be destroyed. After that, men start learning that harassment/assault is just not something you do. All this will take a long time and there will always be men doing this kind of thing. The “current wave” aspect of all this is brave women standing up. Of course, they’re getting death threats and whatever else, but they’re standing up nonetheless.
You’ve done so much over the years, in so many creative fields. Are there any specific paths and projects you’re interested in pursuing in the future?
Actually, I’ve never really thought about it all that much. I’ve never had a big plan. I’m just an opportunist. That is to say, I look for opportunities to do interesting things. I do make small plans, places I’d like to go, writing projects I’d like to execute and complete, things like that. I wish I had a better answer but honestly, I’ve kind of been wandering for the last few decades.
For me, it’s all work. Right now, I’m working on a film in Luxembourg. Before that, I was in Vancouver working on a pilot; after the end of December, I’ll be on tour. I’m just doing stuff, trying to stay active. In a few years, I’ll be dead, so it’s a little too late to start a career.
If the Henry Rollins of today were to magically meet the Rollins of, say, 1981, how do you think that interaction would play out? Are there any burning questions you had about yourself then that you’ve subsequently found answers to? What advice, if any, would you give your younger self?
When I was younger, I didn’t understand how faulty my brain was and how many short circuits dominated my overall thought process. When I was younger, I was continually frustrated by how words would just blurt out of me, seemingly with no control, and how no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to fit in or do what other people did. If I were to advise my younger self, I would tell him that he was in for a very hard and often infuriating and humiliating time and to get ready to work very hard and have little to show for it.
How do you find your voice when you’ve been programmed to believe you don’t have one? (from Christina Boykin)
I understand that you can feel that you have no voice. Humans are easy to shut down, especially when you’re young. It happens all the time. I used to be like that when I was young. Punk rock turned all that around for me. When I heard Joe Strummer, I lost a lot of fear. All those years were basically a loaded slingshot being drawn back. When I freed myself, all of those years turned into a propellant, which I’m still in now. It’s easy to say that all you need to do is stop being afraid, stand up, etc. Not easy to do. However, you absolutely can and you must. You’ll be fine.
What is your favorite King Crimson song? (from Jay Stamper)
“21st Century Schizoid Man”
Is punk dead? (from Robert Miller)
I think as long as people keep playing the records and going to shows, it’s alive and well.
Where is your favorite library? (Emily Rose Egersdorf)
My favorite would be the one at Wisconsin and R Street in Washington, D.C. I used to spend hours there. It never ceased to amaze me that I was allowed to be in this big building with all those books. In the summer, before I was working all the time, I would go there a few days a week and read. Besides that library, I have one of my own that I like very much.
What is the next country you plan to visit that you haven’t yet visited? (from Nick Wagner)
That’s a good question. I was in Peru, Manila in the Philippines and Taipei in Taiwan this year. As to where to go next, I would like to go back to Mongolia. I’m in Luxembourg at the moment and if I didn’t have a tour to prepare for, I would’ve gone to Iceland from here to check it out. I would like to get to New Guinea. I would like to go back to Antarctica.
How do you feel about misinformation in today’s media? (from Logan Taylor)
I think when you have ratings-based media and a free-for-all blogger media, a lot of non-facts can get pulled into the mix. If you have to lie to get somewhere, it’s too bad for all the people who fall in with you. The news is now often mere content, sometimes bordering on “for entertainment purposes only.” Thankfully, there’s a lot of good journalists out there, but you have to be careful with what you consume.