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Henry Rollins: Rule of the exception

Henry Rollins may no longer be making music but his spoken word shows retain the intensity of his hardcore gigs. He speaks to Ricky Stack ahead of his Friday night healing slot at Rebellion Festival.

“The stage is the truest place I’ve ever been,” says Henry Rollins. “Lots of people, logistics, effort and planning go into a single two hour show. To be in that, it’s such a rarefied moment, I feel so fortunate to be there.”

Despite the credit Rollins gives to everyone involved, the only person on the stage when he headlines Friday night at Rebellion Festival this summer in Blackpool will be him.

Born in Washington DC in 1961, Rollins was an angry young man mad at the world. He found an outlet for his frustrations early in adolescence, in the late 1970s, in the emerging American hardcore punk scene. That led him to relocate to California to front the already notorious underground band Black Flag.

Sporting just a pair of black shorts on stage, and with his intimidating physique, Rollins would rasp out his poetic lyrics, taking Black Flag’s once jovial, humorous content to a heightened new intensity. Often connecting songs with monologues, Rollins now performs through a different medium – spoken word. He may be older and wiser but he is still just as frustrated – and just as intense.

“I’m concerned with the same old things. They just don’t seem to be getting better,” he says ahead of his UK dates that begin in Liverpool on 25 March. “Racism, homophobia and misogyny enrage me and in the USA these problems seem to get worse and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Nevertheless, Rollins has a lot to say about the problems, and audiences have been enthralled by his insights during spoken word tours since the 1980s. The pandemic delayed this tour by a year but otherwise he has toured consistently, with new material to fit the country he’s in and the events of the time.

“The shows outside the USA are slightly different as there’s not nearly the same amount of American-orientated material. There are some parts that rotate in and out throughout the tour, and material that pertains to the exact location – such as something that perhaps happened to me there many years ago.”

Currently touring over 50 dates across Europe alone, he maintains his reputation as a workaholic.
“With any tour, I try to get as many shows in as many places, with the least nights off as possible. I really like being in the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia, but I’m glad to be anywhere on tour. It’s never lost its attraction for me,” says Rollins, who announced his retirement from music in the mid-2000s.

“I reckon the USA is circling the drain,” he says gloomily. “It was good on paper but probably doomed to fail.

“To be able to give something to the audience, that itself is the gift. In the future I’d like to host live listening gatherings. Nice seats, good playback, and just listen to some rare records with a brief introduction about each one.”

Rollins’ love for music came from record shopping every weekend with his mother. His musical discovery took him from the expected heavier music of Black Sabbath and the Stooges to the softer, more soulful grooves of Isaac Hayes and South African jazz singer Miriam Makeba – far removed from the raw, distorted sound he was once performing to fans across the globe.

“I still go to record stores, bid for them on auction sites, and listen to them almost every day when I am home,” he says. “Life is short, and records are the best way to go.” Touring his spoken word shows is not Rollins’ only job. He’s been cropping up in small film roles since the mid-1990s and had a recurring role in TV series Sons of Anarchy. He’s a sometime journalist and a regular podcaster and radio host. He’s written memoirs and scores of novels – most successfully the Black Coffee Blues trilogy. He’s done voice acting work for audiobooks and video games, and was even a playable character in EA Games’ Def Jam: Fight for NY series.

Rollins doesn’t really have downtime – instead filling time between projects with activism. He has been a fierce advocate for civil rights movements throughout the decades, campaigned to legalise gay marriage and cannabis, and is active in the campaign to free the West Memphis Three – who he believes were wrongly convicted of murder as teenagers in 1994 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

But despite his apparent tirelessness and a harrowing personal encounter with it, Rollins appears weary about one topic.

“Gun control – what are you going to control? I think it’s too late for that. Anyone who wants a gun in the USA can get one, legally or otherwise. The will to restrict guns simply isn’t there.”

Rollins lost his best friend and roadie, Joe Cole, in an armed robbery in 1991. On returning to their Venice Beach house one night, Rollins and Cole were forced to hand over their cash to two armed men outside their front door. After being made at gunpoint to enter the house and retrieve more money, Rollins heard a gunshot go off and hastily escaped out the back door to alert the police. Cole was shot in the head in Rollins’ own front yard.

Cole’s memory lives on through Rollins, who has since released a collection of his friend’s writings and journals entitled Planet Joe, published by his own company, 2.13.61. But Rollins feels powerless to change a culture that sadly seems as American as apple pie.

“I think it’s obvious at this point that no amount of kids getting killed at schools or people dying and suffering injuries in ‘mass casualty events’ will change anything. These catastrophes are simply absorbed and drop out of the headlines with greater speed.

“The USA has officially normalised this and the media, instead of keeping it in the headlines, minimise it by simply covering it up with other news.”Watching the country he has always appeared proud of respond to Trump and Covid was “disappointing” to Rollins.

“I reckon the USA is circling the drain,” he says gloomily. “It was good on paper but probably doomed to fail. How do we pull out of that? Is it possible? I wonder if it’s too late.”

Though the picture is particularly bleak at the moment, Rollins, who is extremely knowledgable about the history and politics of his country, believes that the country has never been undivided – tracing its scars back to the American Civil War and saying that slavery only really ended then in name.

“I think those in power understood the real win was to go after the poor and treat them all like slaves,” he says. “It’s now called minimum wage. I don’t think things have changed nearly enough since 1865.”

It’s already been proven, he says, that if you want to make sure nothing gets done, get into politics. It’s one area of work he has never tried his hand at.

“I think for a lot of these politicians it’s just a career. If it wasn’t, things would be different now.”

Rollins is inclined instead to collect disciples on the road. Despite belonging to that currently maligned group – middle aged white man in a position of influence – he has managed to continue to share his world view without cancellation. When he talks, people tend to listen. Perhaps it’s his calm demeanour and his measured takes. Undoubtedly it has something to do with his outward-looking world view and extensive time spent travelling the world – he has been to over 100 countries including North Korea and Antarctica.

That’s not to say he pleases everyone. When he tells us that “eventually, slavery and the purposeful genocide of Native Americans will be gone from history books used in schools”, he follows up with the prediction that “just this quote alone will get me hate mail and death threats”. But Rollins appears unfazed.

Consistent in these times of political and social turmoil for Rollins is his first love – music. On his weekly radio show at KCRW, a National Public Radio station that broadcasts from Santa Monica college campus, he introduces listeners to music from his youth and new music alike.

“For me, the music I pay attention to would probably be in the ‘small of fame’ category. If it’s winning some big award, there’s a good chance I’ve never heard of it.”

He has an affinity with DIY artists, having come up through an underground scene and self-published his work. He never garnered accolades for his music, although his biographical audiobook Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, did earn him a Grammy for best spoken word album.

“Independent music has never been better. I think one of the reasons for this is the bands are making their own labels, recording their own music and taking far more control than before. I think they’re doing a great job. They’re taking the means of production and controlling their artistic output more than I’ve noticed before. I think the more of this, the better.”

Henry Rollins performs headlines Rebellion Festival at Blackpool Opera House, Friday 4th August (rebellionfestivals.com). This article originally appeared in Big Issue North magazine

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