The notorious Henry Rollins is a lot of things but don’t call him an artist. Since fronting the nonconformist punk band Black Flag, he’s transformed a random collection of exploits into a distinguished assemblage of creative triumphs; actor, author, radio host, poet, historian, motivational speaker and punk rock legend. For Rollins, it’s just what he does, not who he is.
“For me, it’s work, whatever I am up to at the time. I am not an artist on any level. I just do stuff,” he says. “Whatever I am doing at the moment is the preferred medium. I am about 50 shows into a 150 show run. So, that’s what I’m all about until the shows are over.
Rollins brings his “talking show” to Jacksonville with a Sept. 9 appearance at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall (www.pvconcerthall.com). He talked to EU Jacksonville about the current political climate and the importance of telling stories.
On this tour, fans can expect Rollins to riff on state of the union with anecdotes on his latest L.A. experiences to the perspective gained from his global travels. His live talking shows have developed a reputation as energetic, witty and often angry and humorous commentary. Having performed countless shows around the world over the last 35 years, this tour marks Rollins’ first US spoken word tour since 2012.
Rollins says he was drawn to spoken word as an outlet for storytelling and a method to disseminate information to a large volume of people at a time. He is a vocal proponent of various social issues and Rollins uses his stage time to editorialize on those he finds the most challenging ranging from education, healthcare and immigration. He also shares stories of life on the road and his experiences travelling abroad.
“Living on the road gave me a lot of stories and things I learned from being out there. The talking shows are a perfect environment to work with this information. I talk about whatever I encounter out there that I think should be brought up. It’s mostly that which impacts me. Poverty, the effects of climate change, wars, water shortages,” Rollins says. “Religion doesn’t play much into my world. I spend a lot of time in countries where it is a big deal, like Muslim countries, but it’s not an interesting topic to me.”
Rollins never subscribed to one set of ideologies. After he punched a hole in the hardcore punk scene, he moved on in 1986, leaving the scene behind in his wake and carving his initial into a myriad of television and film roles, hosting gigs and voice over work. His voice, once guttural barks and shrieks from the stage, is eloquently transferred to the pages of his books, columns and contributions to publications like LA Weekly and Rolling Stone Australia.
The aggressive, jungle cat presence Rollins cultivated on stage with Black Flag should be a contradiction to the tidy man with graying sideburns waxing poetic on healthcare reform but strangely, it’s not. Rollins is just as intense as he’s always been. It’s just a different way to report to an audience. I have been doing those shows since 1983. I have not done music in a long time, so it’s my main outlet at this point. I have a couple of radio shows. I buy records and go to shows. That’s about it. I would rather do all that than be in a band.”
“I can relate to someone who has a natural fear of law enforcement. I do. I can’t help it. I can’t unknow what I know.”
Subjects like the current political climate and police brutality draw ire from Rollins. He boils down the race to the White House as “the result of decade of dumbing down the American electorate and a lack of will to improve. Trump and Clinton are what you get from a country that has run out of ideas. American democracy doesn’t work. Clinton and Trump are just two of many examples.”
He once described the hassle he endured from the LAPD because of his involvement with Black Flag and the hardcore punk scene. Rollins says he relates to the current concerns of involving law enforcement and police brutality on a superficial level and is empathetic to a demographic that is hunted because of the color of their skin.
“I can relate to someone who has a natural fear of law enforcement. I do. I can’t help it. I can’t unknow what I know. I have never thought that it would be open season on me like it is on African American males. So, there is a disconnect there. That’s why I listen carefully and don’t say stupid things like ‘all lives matter’,” he says.
Rollins also had a contentious and often physically violent relationship with his fans. He says elements like social media would muddy the waters for bands like Black Flag to exist as a band today. “I think you would be able to see what happened at the shows immediately online,” he says. “If the police ever had a question as to who started things, they could easily use the internet to get their answers. I think there would be a lot of litigation.”
Where punk rock appealed to his aggressive, animalistic nature, the other mediums speak to Rollin’s discipline, focus, preparation and desire “to do something really well.” He has weathered the lion’s share of negative experiences, including childhood abuse and the murder of his best friend on his own doorstep for which he was briefly a suspect. These events helped him honor the value in traumatic experiences and informed his approach to his work.
“Negative experiences have opened me up in ways that only they can,” he said. “I wish these things had not happened to me but they did. They can teach you huge lessons. You can be helpful to others if you use them well.”
Despite his disassociation with the music industry, Rollins acknowledges that traveling to see Black Flag in 1981 was the singular event that altered the trajectory of his life. Had he never attended that show, he wouldn’t have jumped on stage. He wouldn’t have been asked to audition days later or accepted the invitation to join the band. Rollins would be telling the stories of a very different life, “perhaps in a straight job, frustrated,” he says. “I was lucky to be spared a life in the real world. It never was a place I felt I belonged.”