////HENRY ROLLINS////DECEMBER 2009////
Man, if I had this entire magazine to write about the virtues and achievements of one Henry Rollins, I still don’t think there’d be enough room to truly justify his existence and the effect his presence has had on so many people from different walks of life across the globe. The associated press with his forth coming ‘Frequent Flyer’ Spoken Word tour asks “If Henry Rollins were a question on a multiple-choice quiz, the correct answer would be ‘D. All of the above’.” For me, this is the perfect encapsulation of his being – it’s just a real shame I didn’t think of it myself. We are talking about the front man of legendary punk rock band Black Flag & more recently his own Rollins Band, the actor who has starred alongside both De Niro and Pacino in classic movie ‘Heat’, not to mention appearing in a whole spectrum of other films such as ‘The Chase’, ‘The Lost Highway’ and ‘Bad Boys II’, a guy who owns his own publishing company, a spoken word performer, a regular columnist and both a TV and Radio Presenter. More recently, he’s been trying his hand as a documentary maker and travel author. Always outspoken, but never outgunned, this living icon checks in with Outline to keep us up to speed on his recent whereabouts and plans for 2010…
Ok, so first things first, it’s the 22nd of December today, so it seems only right to ask how you are planning on spending the festive season?
Well Christmas is Friday. Erm, none of that stuff really means anything to me. I’m not the anti-Christmas guy; I just don’t care about any of those sanctions or ideas. My girlfriend asked ‘so what are we doing for Christmas then?’ I was like…’I dunno? You’re going to make some food right?’ She said ‘sure’…so that’ll be Christmas for me. Then on Sunday I leave for Africa. So I’ll be doing New Year’s in Senegal, in Dakar and then I’ll be going to Mali from there, then up the Niger for a couple of days to Timbuktu for the Desert Festival. Then it’s on to Dublin to get the tour going. I quite often spend both Christmas and New Year’s Eve in a foreign land. If you are not a drinking ‘wahey’ type of guy – which I’m not – it doesn’t mean a whole lot…
From following your blog, I believe you’ve spent the last few months away in the likes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal & China. Was this work or pleasure?
For me it’s work. I wasn’t sitting in the sun. I was getting up everyday no matter how much the blisters on my feet were telling me not to and going out and taking photos and meeting people, walking through as many places as I could find. Saudi Arabia is very difficult for an American to get into without a work visa or a religious visa, and I can get neither. But I do have a friend who is a diplomat and he hooked me up and I got to go to Riyadh and Dammam. So I went there with my camera, but you can’t take photos so much over there. When I was seen with my camera people we kind of bummed out. They scowl at you like ‘don’t take my photo’. There weren’t many white people in the neighborhoods I was going to (and I’m not trying to make a racial statement by saying that). I was going to small neighborhoods where you wouldn’t find the royal family, or the wealthy people, so it’s you and the locals – and they weren’t loving me and my camera. You can feel it. You pull it out and they walk hurriedly away. I’m not the guy who gets in someone’s face with my camera, so there was not a whole lot to take photos of there. But everything else; it’s the humanity… like say in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or India, it’s just so alive in these places, so everywhere you go, it’s fantastic for a wide lens. Mainly my purpose was to hopefully have interesting times so I can go on stage and say ‘Hey I got something you should listen to…’ I had amazing luck as far as weird things happening to me. I saw a lot and got some really interesting photos, and some great stories. And I got out of it with all ten fingers and the rest of me intact – well, apart from a few blisters. For all those places, that’s not so bad, considering you can eat in the wrong place and be on your back for two days turning colours. So I got through it pretty well. Africa will be the finishing touch. After two weeks in Africa I’ll be ready for the tour. I go to Africa every year just to check in with the continent…
Have you considered publishing a book of your travel pictures?
Yeah we’re doing a photo book, which will be my 50th Birthday present to myself. I’m going to put it out and it’s going to be called ‘What I See’. We stop the photography part of it in May 2010 and then we go into production mode. When you open the book the page on the left will be a small picture with some writing and then the opposing page will be a full image. So there’s going to be a lot of writing, which I’ve already started upon. It will span from 2004 – 2010. We will give it until around October to finish the master copy and then we go to print hopefully in America and not in Hong Kong. You see, photo books are usually done in Singapore or Hong Kong and if they run the exposure of the images too dark then you are sitting on a truck load of books you can’t use. So I have to go to the book company and basically mother over the pages and go ‘No, no start again’, just because I can’t really afford to have it go wrong. So I don’t really want to have to babysit in Hong Kong, I’d rather do that in America, so we are hopefully going to find a place where we can make it domestically… keep the money at home. I mean, I like going to Singapore, but not to babysit a book. It seems a waste of time when I could be doing other things.
I also noticed on your blog you said ‘I don’t know what the hassle factor will be for me getting back into USA’. Is this a regular problem for you?
It’s because of the places you go. There are some places that are just little red flags for immigration. It’s surprising what ticks them off and then sometimes what doesn’t. For instance, this time my entry visa said Saudi Arabia on it. I figured that’s going to make them want to have a talk with me, but they waived me right through. But coming back from Iran – we had a little talk, then coming back from Syria… a BIG talk. Like, ‘Go down the hall, do not talk, do not pass go, you’ll get your passport back when we’re done talking to you’. They look through your note books and go ‘What does this mean? What is that word?’, like they are really going through my stuff. ‘Why do you have a map in your back pack?’ I mean it’s really intense…
And this is in the US right?
Yeah. I ask what it’s about and they are like ‘It’s just random.’ I mean come on…
But surely they are aware of who you are and what you do?
I think if you show up on some list at some point… so this has happened to me a couple of times, where thy pat you down, show you that extra special love, then they pull everything out of your backpacks and go through your note books. I don’t care, but they opened up one of my smaller note books and said what does ‘Cám ơn anh mean’ and I’m like, ‘I think it means thank you in Vietnamese’. Then they are asking why would you have that written down?’ Erm, because I want to be polite when I’m in Vietnam; I have nothing to hide and I think people who are looking for bad guys can tell when you are not one. So they basically waved me on, but this has been happening for the last few years, especially since I’ve been starting to get ‘The Islamic Republic of…’ visas in my passport and I have quite a few of them now. So I think I may be on some sort of list now. I’m not trying to impress you and make out like I’m a dangerous guy on any level, but I think that kind of travel makes someone or something at Homelands security curious. I was behind Cat Stevens the year before last going through security and boy they pulled that guy to one side and gave him two body searches. It was amazing to watch how they were going over him, like with a fine tooth comb. He had the most passive look on his face, like ‘I’m so used to this’. But they were going over him like they were going to find chest hair with a tiny piece of dope on it. It was intense and nobody in line recognized him except me…
Did you say anything at the time?
No I wanted to, like ‘Hey man, thanks for all the good music’, but then security would be like, ‘Why do you know this guy?’ I mean, never mind the fact he’s sold over 15 million records…
You’ll be over here in Norwich doing a spoken word show. I’m interested to know how one would prepare for that kind of a tour, regarding both subject matter and your performance?
Well I make a lot of notes. But the important thing is that I want to give you, the audience member, a story that makes you sit on the edge of your seat, because it makes me stand on the edge of the stage, because I’m so excited to tell it to you. Hopefully the reaction from you is ‘Wow, this is great’. So I go out in search of these stories, kind of like an instrument, hoping for something cool to happen. Like, that street looks kinda weird and narrow and dark… I’d better go down it. I’m not looking for danger or trying to push it to the edge, but I am curious, so I try and get into all of that. So that’s how I source material. Now the tricky part, or where the artistry comes in, is what’s the story? Or now turn it into a story… or else why did you tell it to me? Is there a moral? Is there a lesson? Is there a point to all of this blabber? Otherwise you are just recounting, here’s how it was. If there’s no humour involved, or you can’t imitate the people you are talking about in a way that makes people know that you are kidding – if it’s not compelling, then it won’t hold any water. So I’ll see something happening, and it’ll effect me or move me. Then that evening at dinner I’ll take tons of notes – eat with one hand and write with the other. Then I’ll ask, ‘Why did that move me?’ Was it the way that woman looked at me when she was picking through the garbage? And what does that make me think? Globalisation – she was picking Pepsi cans out of the garbage, so where can I go with this? So I think about it day after day, and I write about it and then I’ll take it to the stage. By Thursday I’ll talk about it, then by Friday the truth of it hasn’t changed but maybe the emphasis has changed, and then by the end of the tour, I’ll tell what I thought was that story, it was the manouche…and you do that by taking it out on the stage and letting it evolve. I’m not saying that the people at the beginning of the tour get the demo, but these things are fluid, the facts don’t change; two and two still equals four and you still don’t get the girl…the end. But you can come in through the side door of the story rather than the front door, so er, that’s what I do. I look for the big story inside the small story, where I can say, talk to a guy from Preston, or a guy Indiana, or a guy from Tokyo and say here’s what happened and have all three say ‘Gotcha, you move me because you tell a human story’, or the inescapable truth of something that effects everyone’s economic strata and that’s how you are inclusive and where everyone is right with you. It’s the nature of story telling and imparting information. So over the years I’ve learnt how to process information into imagery, catalogue the voices and put it into an arrangement where the whole evening of me on stage is just this journey, which sometimes leads back to where we started or it leads back into an interesting conclusion. In the last couple of years, its been like, ‘look, we’ve got to clean the planet up and stop these senseless wars where we are hemorrhaging money and blood or the locals…and here’s like five suggestions how we can help to stop doing that in this town, and then good night’. That leaves everyone something to talk about on the way home. Maybe they’ll go visit that website when they go home …and that is really the nature of what I do. Over the years I’ve kind of refined that mission to make this thing, where there’s no warm up on stage. I really admire people like Don Rickles or George Carlin. Although they are comedians and I’m not, but when they go out there and hit it, they get you within the first sentence. One time I saw Tony Bennett singing at this festival (I thought ‘I’ll go and see Tony Bennett, why not?’) and he had the whole audience (including me) within about fifteen seconds. He just had something about him. I thought ‘Wow, there’s a lesson there’. I try and do that with my audience, because when you sell someone a ticket, a) it’s a promise, b) it’s a contract, and c) it’s a vote… a vote of confidence. They are taking their Saturday night and throwing it on the bonfire and hoping you are worth it. Don’t screw ‘em around, don’t ramble and draw blood in the first few seconds.
You’ve made four TV documentaries recently, ‘Un-cut’, which are due to be shown over here in 2010; one on N. Ireland, one on Israel, another on New Orleans and finally S. Africa. Can you tell us a little about the programmes and the why these specific locations?
Erm, I chose some and the independent film channel chose some. It was their money. Israel and South Africa – that was me. New Orleans was IFC and Belfast was the producers. All four turned out to be extremely compelling. I don’t know what this makes me, but I thought the Northern Ireland one would be kind of a sleeper, but it ended up being so incredibly intense. I mean ex-IRA guys and Sinn Fein people – boy was it intense and I was just an observer. And it’s still going on. It’s not just an ember in the ash, it’s still very hot. It was frighteningly intense. We were having to meet guys and constantly change locations because they didn’t want to be followed. We were in Armagh interviewing a Protestant guy and we knew we were being watched. The IRA dudes were rolling up on us and scowling until we left. All four programmes were fascinating. I ended up going to Mandela’s old prison as well, on Robben Island, off Cape Town – lots of revelation and lots of interesting stuff.
Are there more programmes in the pipeline for this series?
Nope, only because they were a lot of money… money I don’t have and the IFC have chosen not to do any more which is a shame, because I liked it in those places. If you gave me a budget right now, I’d get a film crew together and go right to Palestine to the West Bank. I know we’ve heard the other side of the story, but what’s your side? I’m not an anti-semite, but I know in my country it’s a one way conversation. I don’t hate anyone, I just want to hear the other side of it. So that’s where I would go right now if I had one of those IFC green lights.
Moving on, Barack Obama has just celebrated his first year in office…how do you think he’s been doing?
He walked into a wrecked room or a house that had been hit by a cyclone. So if after a year, people are saying the place is still a wreck – well look what he’s been working with. I’m not in agreement with his troop insertion to Afghanistan and I wish he’d be a bit tougher and realise that the Republicans are never going to be his friend and play a little harder ball – except with Healthcare. They are never going to like him. They are always going to protect the big insurance companies. But, I think the man is amazing. I think he’s doing the best he can and I’ll vote for him again. He’s really trying to reach across the aisle and shake hands. And he keeps losing fingers to these guys, but I think he’s done amazing things thus far.
It has been well and openly documented that you were opposed to both the war on Afghanistan and Iraq, but you’ve done a number of tours in these areas for the United Service Organisations entertaining the troops. Surely you were in a kind of juxtaposition, did you find yourself in uncomfortable situations with the US servicemen and women out there who clearly believe these wars are a just cause?
No – if you make the trip all the way out there, they don’t care. You can walk in with an Obama headband and they don’t care, it’s like, ‘Thanks for coming’. Due to the fact that you’ve gone the whole way to Afghanistan or Kuwait, they are just so glad to see you. With all the political thing, no one gives a damn. It’s like you came out here supporting us… right on. I never talk about any politics when I’m out there. When I’m at home I can talk about this stuff, but when you are in Baghdad you are with soldiers who do not have the luxury of watching BBC World News or Fox. Their job is to go out for twelve hours and not get blown up or to come back to the dining facility without their brains all over their pants. And what you think about Donald Rumsfeld or whoever is really irrelevant to them, their wives, their kids or their buddies. Rarely does anything political come up there because it’s about hopefully that pile of rubbish in the road over there not blowing up. So I never bring it up because it’s really not that appropriate and it could be distracting. I’m there to crack them up. If they want to see me when they are back in America and I’m on tour and have that debate as to how great they think George Bush was, I will kick their ass with my point of view, but not in theatre – only when they are in a safe place. So it made it very easy for me to go and entertain the troupes in a war I completely opposed on every conceivable level.
You must be aware of the X Factor and Rage Against the Machine battle that has been going on over here for the last few weeks. We found out yesterday that Rage won… with your Black Flag & punk history I wondered if have you any thoughts on this?
I don’t care. I mean, I don’t care about Simon Cowell and I think RATM is a great band. But as far as Simon Cowell not getting his Number One… I’ve never watched X Factor or American Idol except for little moments where they show you here and there; I have no interest. To me, it’s really not much to talk about…
You’ve been a radio presenter for the last few years, recently doing a Saturday night show for LA based station KCRW. It seems like you really enjoy doing it?
It’s the favorite job I have because it’s so low stress…
Are we able to here it in the UK?
Yeah at www.kcrw.com You can listen to it live or by archive in stunning MP3 quality (laughs). I’ve been told if you type Rollins and archive into your browser you go to a site which is called the Rollins Archive and you can listen to six years of my shows for free download. It works very well and people fill their iPods full of free music… and that’s how you find me very easily (laughs).
OK, so with the Rollins Band, things seem to have been really quiet since 2006 – is there anything planned for this year?
No nothing. No band, no personnel, no plans. If you pretend that R’n’R or music is a bell, you would have to admit that I rang the bell extremely often and very hard over the years. You might not have liked it but you’d have to say he sure burned a lot of calories. So at this point – age 48 – there’s not a lot for me to do in music; what I haven’t done before that I wouldn’t be able to do as well again. If you said go and make an album with your band and go on tour on say, Jan 1st, I’d start, and if I’m lucky maybe six to ten weeks to write an album, if that, maybe more, then I’d have to record it and then wait for it to come out and then I’d have to do the tour. At the end of all of that you are looking at 12 to 17 months to do a thing that I know every single part of the process so well, that you could take a drop of my blood and crack it on the floor it would turn into an essay on how to write, record and tour. Or instead of this I can do something like a photo book, or travel to this country, or debate this guy, or do this worthy cause. I’m not putting down music or touring but it’s just, I’ve been there and done that and I do not want to give a year and a half of my life as I will now be in my fifties. Instead I could be like starting at the white belt level of doing something, I can be working in the mail room of photography, or working my way up the ranks of something else. As a musician I’d have a bunch of 26 year olds saying look at that old dude…I dunno who he is, but my Dad loved him. That doesn’t interest me. But with a guy like Neil Young who is full of life, and very vital, along with Dylan who are both still making great records – and I can understand why the Rolling Stones still want to go out and do their thing, because if I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ I might be out singing it every night too – but for me to keep my version of integrity, I’m trying to walk away from that and do what I can get paid for which is fairly easy. I also don’t want to take nine months of my life to go and play twenty year old songs, or ten year old songs or five year old songs… it’s just not what I want to do. I’m trying to be more brave and walk away into what could be failure rather than sure thing with a head of grey hair. I do really miss it sometimes but I truly think I’m doing the brave thing by going elsewhere.
On a lighter note, have you been back to William Shatner’s house for Monday Night Football?
Oh yes I go every year. Although I only went three or four times this year because I’ve been away. If I’m in town and Bill has Monday Night Football, then yes. I’ve been going there now for six years. He’s a really nice guy. Bill and his wife Elizabeth are both just so nice to me; I always have a great time. So I’ve been a few times this year, but by now I think the Shatners are probably on a sunny island somewhere. If I’m in town I always get the invite from his assistant – he only lives like ten minutes from me…
Finally Norwich, do you remember performing here?
No. It’s not because your town is non-descript or in anyway awful, but after twenty nine hundred shows something would have had to caught on fire for me to go ‘Oh well yes of course, my time in Norwich…’, or ‘Oh yes, the great Molasses flood of 2007’. I don’t really remember, besides, nothing hit me in the head and they let me come back again, which I’m pretty happy about…