October 30, 2008

'Preaching to the Perverted'

Henry Rollins talks about why John McCain might win next week, and the American perspective

Henry Rollins, born Henry Lawrence Garfield, is a singer-songwriter, spoken-word artist, stand-up comedian, author, actor and publisher. He’ll be appearing at Headliners next Wednesday, the day after one the most important elections in U.S. history, with a spoken-word show.

After joining the short-lived Washington, D.C., band State of Alert in 1980, Rollins fronted the Californian hardcore punk band Black Flag from 1981 until 1986. After the band’s breakup, Rollins established the record label and publishing company 2.13.61 to release his spoken-word albums. He also formed the Rollins Band, which toured with a number of lineups until 2003 and during 2006. 

Since Black Flag, Rollins has embarked on projects covering a variety of media. He has hosted numerous radio shows, such as “The Henry Rollins Show” and “Harmony In My Head,” television shows such as MTV’s “120 Minutes” and “Jackass,” along with roles in several films. Rollins has also campaigned for human rights in the United States, and toured overseas with the United Service Organizations to entertain American troops. LEO Weekly recently caught up with Rollins.

LEO: Your new tour is called on your website a celebration of the end of the Bush Era. Is it a celebration when you hit Louisville the night after the election if McCain steals, wins or bamboozles the election?

Henry Rollins: Well, I think McCain is gonna win fairly. I think America will vote him into office; I’ve been saying this since maybe ’06. I just don’t think America is ready for an African American, and I think Republicans cheat, and that’s why I call it the “Recountdown Tour.” I think every election that we have in this country, major elections for the rest of our lives, will be contested by some.

LEO: So you really feel that McCain is going to come in?

HR: Absolutely. I have no doubt about it. I want to be wrong, but I will not be voting for John McCain, I will be voting for Barack Obama. But I think (McCain) is going to win. It won’t be a landslide, but it will be close. But I think he’s going to win.

LEO: You still think in light of that, we have it pretty good here in the United States?

HR: Sure. 

LEO: Because I’ve seen some of your spoken-word tours, and I admire some of the things you’ve said, like “Go to Rio for two weeks, go to Nairobi for two weeks,” and I agree.

HR: Yeah, we have it great here; I just wish we’d take better care of it. I wish more Americans really understood how good they have it. See, that’s the thing. I think there’s a disconnect, and we don’t always get that.

LEO: How’s that?

HR: Well, ’cause I don’t think we have a really good vantage point to have a juxtaposition. If you had a chance to go kick it in Nairobi or see what I see in parts of the world you go to, to Eastern India for a week, and then come back here you go, “Wow, we’ve got it really good here. We’re blessed.” You know … I’ve been to Africa six or seven times, and every time I’m there I see appalling poverty — 1,200 people, four toilets. Stuff like that, y’know? Sixteen-year-old HIV-positive mothers, and then you come back here, where it would be kind of hard to starve to death in America. You could probably get a meal if you’re broke-ass. And so it’s hard to always understand how good you have it, until you can get right up close to see how other people live. 

When you see it on TV, there is nothing like smelling it and walking through it, and I think if more Americans had that more visceral, up-close experience, they might come back here and go, “Wow, we’ve got to preserve this, we’ve got to take much better care of this gem that we’re living in.” We have a beautiful piece of real estate, y’know? We have very rich soil. Try sticking it out in Africa — the sun beats the hell out of that continent. Planet Earth doesn’t want anything to live in Africa it seems. It just seems to want to kill everything on that continent. It’s just brutal, yet people eke it out. And you see how good we have it here; a very moderate climate. You can grow apples and everything else. So we’ve got it good. I just don’t know if all Americans know how good we have it. I travel a lot, so I have a pretty fair idea. That’s why I’m very concerned with how we take care of this place. The more I travel, the more I love America.

LEO: Is this part of the message you’re using during “Recountdown Tour” to talk about just the ecosystem or the United States?

HR: Sure, because I see America everywhere I go. I mean, I don’t really see the Indian or Pakistani influence on America, but I can see the American influence when I’m in Islamabad, or in Lebanon or in Damascus, Syria. Everyone knows America. So America has left this major print on the planet, for better, for worse, but for the most part, I think for the better. But it should be all for the better.

LEO: Exactly. If you chose, some people might say you have a very confrontational forum and certainly musically …

HR: Let’s hope so.

LEO: Well, if you chose a less confrontational forum or musically more “accessible,” do you think you’d reach a broader audience?

HR: I doubt it.

LEO: Really? Why do you say that?

HR: Because you can’t be what you ain’t. And you can put me with a nice band and teach me how to sing, and I just don’t think it would work.

LEO: Well, I’m sorry to hear that, because I think your message is needed.

HR: Well, thank you. I get out to who I get out to, but I do the best I can do to communicate. But I wouldn’t want to compromise anything I do to reach a broader audience. That’s a sacrifice I couldn’t make — no way.

LEO: Do you feel like you’re just preaching to the choir night after night?

HR: Just like Hitler, yeah. I call it preaching to the perverted. The only time I think I’m breaking through is the hate mail I get.

LEO: I believe it.

HR: “If you love the Taliban so much, why don’t you join ’em?” I love the Taliban? Or they’ll say, “Why don’t you move to Russia, you whore?” Uh, OK. Why don’t you move out of Arkansas? Um, so that’s impact. I know judging from the mail I get that I’ve inspired some people. Like when a kid writes, “Man, because of you I got a passport, and next year I’m gonna go backpacking across Europe.” I’m like, well, damn. Look at you, on an adventure, learning about something. And so I get a lot of nice encouraging mail like that where people are like, “Hey, man, you got me off drugs. I used to take drugs, but your books really make me know I can beat this.” Well, yeah, you can, man. And please live long. And so that has had an impact, but I don’t profess to be any knower of big things, I just go to these places and come back to get in front of you two hours a year with a story. And tell you here’s where I went, here’s what I saw and maybe it does some good.

LEO: Well, I hope so. One of the things I greatly admire and respect about you is your sobriety.

HR: I mean, I don’t work at it. I mean, I have no interest. It’s not like I’ve had a history of insobriety. I got drunk like four times in my life as a teenager. I mean, I never liked it. It just depressed me, so it’s never like one day at a time for me. I just never think about doing alcohol. It never occurs to me.

LEO: Do you address American audiences with regard to self-abuse, self-respect?

HR: Well, I beg people to take care of themselves, but it’s nothing I would preach too much. People know where they’re going. It’s kind of hard when you tell people what to do. They’re like, “Oh yeah, well how about shut up.” They don’t want to hear it all the time. I don’t want to tell people what to do. I’d rather lead by example. Like, “What do you drink?” “I don’t drink.” “Well are you saying I shouldn’t drink?” “No. I’m saying that I don’t drink because you asked me.” After that, you’ll find out that I don’t like drugs by seeing a PSA I do for some anti-drug group or something. Like the Partnership for Drug Free America. I did their last crystal meth ad. They asked me to.

LEO: Moving on to the spoken-word shows — what freedoms does that offer you versus a band?

HR: I don’t have to speak in verse chorus. I don’t have to wait for the drum solo or for the guitar player to get off his trapeze and for the motorcycles displayed I’m with. I can sit there and turn on a dime. Here’s what happened on the news today, boom! Here’s where it was last week. So it allows me a lot of latitude, I can just move on it.

LEO: You have a radio show, “Harmony In My Head.” Where can we hear it?

HR: It’s on Indie 103.1 a small station in L.A., and I was on Tuesday nights from 8 to 10, but I think they are now moving me to Saturday nights 8 to 10, and I don’t know if that’s an upgrade or what, but they said, “Can you move?” and I said, “Well yeah, sure.” I just think that they’re moving out the weeknight specialty shows and just going for more normal programming. But you can also listen online at www.Indie1031.fm and, also, if you type in “Rollins” and “archives” into Google, you will come upon a website that apparently has all the shows archived, and you can download them for free. And people use that website quite a bit. It’s not my site, but a fan apparently has erected this site.

LEO: Do you mind that it is linked of that site?

HR: Well, it’s not up to me, y’know? It’s not exactly legal in that these bands aren’t being paid a royalty for you to put their music into your iPod. I bet none of them would really lose any sleep over it. But that’s why it’s not my website, I couldn’t do it legally and just put The Clash on my website and say, here, download this! I think Sony might want to have a word with me. So that’s not how I ought to spend my day. Litigation sucks.

LEO: Your website, www.21361.com, has a navigation bar that goes to a description of your program “Harmony In My Head,” and it has talked about Shepherd Fairey, who has done your tour poster for this tour?

HR: Yeah, he’s a buddy of mine.

LEO: And also, Tony Alva, skate legend. Can you tell us a little about the arts and sports and how it fits in to Los Angeles music scene or music scene in general?

HR: Well, for me, Tony Alva was kind of an iconic, larger-than-life, extremely charismatic dude. And I used to check him out in Skateboarder magazine as a kid. And then as an older kid, I actually met him in 1980 and see him occasionally. So it’s like, “Whoa! Tony Alva the man!” So I enjoyed the fact that he goes, “Hey, Henry!” and he remembered me, that’s really cool. And also, I really liked his spirit, the fact that the guy just really gets in and skates every day, and he’s like 50-something and he skates and surfs, he’s just so full on that — I admire him, and he’s inspiring to me. To me, he’s a cultural icon because I think he changed the way people think of skateboarding, and he’s one of those guys that took it somewhere.

LEO: How about Shepherd, the visual artist?

HR: Well, Shepherd, he’s kind of our generation’s Andy Warhol. He has a very interesting method to his madness. And I just wrote the introduction to his opening in New York. I guess it’s in the brochure when you walk in right now to his big-ass opening. He asked me to write it — “Would you write the big intro for my thing in New York?” I kind of gulped and went, “Yeah! I have no idea of what I’m going to do.” But I can’t say no, so I did it, and apparently it was OK, it passed muster, he likes it, the gallery loved it, so they’re using it. I did it because he asked me to, I admire him, and I’m a fan.

I think that the reason he does this stuff is just as interesting as what he does. And if you read the beginning of his book “Supply and Demand,” his kind of big art book, he lays it down. It’s very, very fascinating when he talks about phenomenology, which is, I forget who it is, which philosopher, said basically it’s the process of things manifesting themselves. And he just kind of tapped into urban dissonance. Where these billboards, all things that are impactful, you read the Calvin Klein ad at the red light. All of a sudden Calvin Klein is a part of your life. So you said, well, why not me? Why don’t I add to that noise? I put my Andre the Giant sticker over Kate Moss’ face. And the guy has been arrested; he did 17 hours locked up at the Democratic National Convention for putting up a poster.

He wrote me the other day, I was in Scotland, and I wrote, “We’re clear on the writing for that thing; I want to make sure we’re signed off?” And he said, “Yeah, I just got back from the DNC and did overnight in prison.” And I said, “Again? Because you’ve been locked up before for stickering and for flyering?” He’s a very interesting guy, but I think, culturally in America, he’s a very interesting dude, and I think he’s way more than just a guy making poster art. There’s a politics behind it, there’s a mischievous, a bit of chaos behind it, and I’m a huge fan and consider myself a fan and ally of the guy. And I have quite a bit of his artwork.

LEO: I hope everybody checks him out who reads this. Do you still perform for the U.S. troops?

HR: Yeah, when I’m given a chance. I think in the USO, they use you until you’ve kind of made the rounds, and since it’s a lot of the same soldiers, after a while, they don’t want to have too many familiar faces, they want to keep changing it up. So I basically did shows in every possible place, pretty much where they put USO. So last year I asked, “Hey did you need me?” because I had done, like, three Christmases with the USO. Y’know, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Djibouti and last year I called them and they go, “Nah, we’ve got entertainment, we’re out of money,” because at the end of the year, their budget is kind of tapped. And they said, “We’re good.” And so since then, I’ve only done hospital visits.

LEO: In the U.S.?

HR: At Walter Reed and Bethesda Medical, which are heavy. But I have not been abroad with them for like over a year.

LEO: Do you think any of that is related to your comment about the vice president?

HR: Which one, I’ve made so many?

LEO: You told them that your C.O. wouldn’t lie to you; you wouldn’t lie to them; that was the vice president’s job.

HR: Oh yeah. I don’t lie, that’s the vice president’s job. And a mild chuckle went across the room. But no, that was like the second or third time I did the USO thing. I did USO for years after that.

LEO: Is dissent high among the troops?

HR: Well, I can only speak for the ones I speak to. I mean, I’m not an expert on 150,000 enlisted men and women, but I talk to a lot of people who have had different takes on the war, enlisted people from, “I like what I’m doing” or “I like what I’m doing, but I don’t like why I’m doing it,” or “I like being a soldier but I don’t believe in this conflict,” to “I think we’re doing the right thing and Bush is my guy and thanks for supporting us.” OK. There are lots of opinions, it’s a democracy, y’know? And I think the military is great, I just don’t agree with the mission they’ve been tasked with. I think they’re doing a great job doing what they’re doing, and they do their assignment well. I just don’t dig the assignment.

LEO: In 25 years, where do you see yourself?

HR: Uh, I don’t know. I don’t really think that far ahead. I’d be like almost 70. I don’t know if I’ll be alive.

Henry Rollins
The Recountdown Tour
Wednesday, Nov. 5
Headliners Music Hall
1386 Lexington Road
584-8088
$20; 8 p.m.