Musician-cum-spoken-word-artist Henry Rollins can be intimidating. His muscleman’s physique is plastered in tats. His brow appears to be stuck in a perpetual mixture of frown and confusion while each hair on his head stands at attention in a buzz cut. His fierce appearance matches his opinions, which can be as subtle as a paper cut.
Yet his soft-spoken and articulate voice betrays everything you think you know about Rollins. The interview is early for an entertainer. But even in the pre-coffee hour of our talk, Rollins’ mind is running error-free through various multi-level interwoven conversations. Seven syllable words flow without pomp.
Henry “Hank” Rollins may be best known as the kick-ass mega-kinetic front man of legendary punk band Black Flag. But since those days he’s gone on to become a topical spoken-word artist.
any image of Rollins in paisley and beret, sipping a grande latte from
bone china — pinky up — out of your mind. He’s a fierce
poet of the monologue.
without pomp Hank said the shows always sell out, and he believes he
understands the draw. “I go into that dangerous territory of being
self-congratulatory. And I go places with a no-BS, unvarnished take
on things.” Understating his appeal he added, “I’m
Rollins said he’s worked hard at perfecting his monologue delivery. He has managed to infuse his controversial and visceral opinions with a thin line of humor, even when the subject matter is far from Comedy Central-lite.
“When people get a point across to me, and it’s infused with humor, it’s like the spoon full of sugar that makes the napalm go down,” Rollins explained. “I talk about some pretty heavy things because I see some pretty heavy things. I can’t go to [the army medical hospital] Walter Reed and see kids with their faces blown off and not tell you about it.
“And, obviously, that’s not something that’s humorous, so you have to get it across in such a way that people don’t shut down and rope-a-dope. There has to be a way to get that across. Because otherwise you’re not having any impact.
“Rather than some guy booming stentorian from the mount — no matter what his take is — people are going to be like, ‘Oh come on! Please…’’
He added that he felt someone who can use humor to get a point across makes you realize they are working at a higher level. They use humor to open you up to hearing what they say.
Rollins is an animated intellectual original. “If I have an opinion, I am informing it with some very hard information. I’m not just throwing stuff out.”
Mimicking a drunken frat boy, Rollins accents his point. “‘Bush is a moron, man!’ That’s not going to come out of my mouth. I might say, ‘Bush is intellectually incurious,’ though. Then even his biggest fans go, ‘Well, yeah, yeah… we know.’
“But stupid? No. He’s a great politician. I just don’t think he cares that much about the stuff he’s talking about. And I think you’d find a lot of Republicans that agree.”
Rollins pooh-poohed his talents as unique, though. He said his technique “is something any communicator or performer on stage would take into heavy consideration.”
the intellectual bad-boy façade is a savvy entrepreneur. Rollins
is a Swiss Army knife of entertainment mediums. He owns a publishing
company, a recording label, tours with his self-titled band almost yearly,
maintains a weekly L.A.-based radio show, hosts a weekly uncensored
talk show on IFC and is an accomplished short-story author.
Rollins’ rapid-fire pointing-out-the-obvious delivery is much cleverer than the armchair politicians who spew opinions about like last year’s Halloween Skittles.
And his theories on communication don’t mean he’s dumbing down his act for anyone. Audience members will need to take a refresher course on world geography pre-show.
His opinions are so informed that even people who fundamentally disagree with him send passive-aggressive hate mail. He said they will say things like, “‘Some of the stuff you say it’s not how I am voting. But I respect you and you’re a good guy.’ I like that.”
On his last state-side tour, Rollins talked about his recent travels to Iran, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The monologue included far-off lands and long, difficult names of leaders that have to be phonetically spelled out for evening news anchors.
“You can’t walk around through Damascus without seeing Bashar al-Asad’s smiling face every 10 feet and not come out of that without an opinion.”
Wandering through the alcoves, he was once again struck with how similar young people everywhere he goes are. “The 20-somethings were all hanging out with their electronics at the pizza shop, dressed in the latest, trying to look cool. They were all receptive of me, and actually positive about America, but they all had something to say about our boy Bush.”
His friends insist he is crazy for traveling where he does. Ironically, he met no ill-meaning anyones until he returned home. Hank was asked to “step down the hall” and was grilled by three U.S. Customs guards.
“They wanted to know what I went there for. They were like ‘You shouldn’t go there.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK dad. Bite me. How long is this going to take? Do this or turn me loose. I have a flight to catch.’”
At which point they said he could go. Rollins’ voice echoed the lasting annoyance as he continued, “They were cool with it once they noticed I was giddy with anticipation at what they’d ask next. I told them, ‘I have been flying for 25 hours… I need something to keep me awake. Don’t get all wussy on me now!’”
And don’t get him started about next year’s elections. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a fair election. Because of the Diebold machines I don’t think there’s been a fair presidential election in a long time. If it’s got stank on it? I bet I know which side it favors.
“If you saw that documentary on HBO, ‘Hacking Into Democracy,’ you know it can be done with no traceable record. I was almost in tears watching that. I thought, ‘Well, there goes my democracy!’
“We can lose those things we have in America to bullshit. That is of great concern to me because I want a fair fight. I want the right man or woman to win. And not because one was sneakier.”
Rollins is pro-personal activism. “The last six years of Bush has made me very active. The president doesn’t care about the pigsty on my corner. But neither does my mayor or my senator or my governor. And if I don’t care it’s not going to change. When you start seeing yourself as the vehicle of change, then we get it going.”
said he can have a healthy disagreement with a Republican or conservative
about taxation or health care. “I can see where they are coming
from. I don’t agree, but I got it. We can walk away ‘OK,
agree to disagree. Let’s eat.’
Rollins’ 26-plus years of playing the punk whirling dervish of political oration has been lucrative. And he believes in micro-managing where his government falls short. Literally putting his wallet where his mouth is, Rollins contributes a “great deal of money” to a local Los Angeles orphanage.
He doesn’t do it for the E! News bragging rights. It is something he can see makes an immediate difference. “I know what it’s going for; the kids are getting three squares and a coloring book or whatever.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center receives a check from Hank bi-yearly, too. “It’s just what you do.” He feels all Americans are very generous people and “that has been stepped upon recently.”
“These are your countrymen,” he said, changing the focus from himself. “You’ll see people who are living right on the poverty line sending out two rumpled twenties to the people in Louisiana because they look at that and say, ‘Man if that were me, I would be really hoping someone would give a damn.’”
With our time up, he seems to take his first breath since we started.
He admitted he is amazed by the opportunities and longevity he’s had. “The people I ran with in ’80 or ’81 are either no longer doing it or no longer with us. Not doing drugs helped.
“I am so glad I don’t have that Britney Spears celebrity thing where you’re gonna be out there in three years saying, ‘Man remember back when I…’ You know? When that place doesn’t buy you a beer anymore? Or worse, shouping it on VH1.”
There are still plenty of rounds of beers in his future. Rollins is an ever-changing landscape of ideas and he is content with the seasons of his popularity.
“I’d rather be small of fame. The farthest I’ve ever fallen is from my curb-high precipice; my little tiny perch of ebbs and flows. When, and if, people stop saying ‘yah!’ Then I’ll have to go get a real job.”
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