“I come from the minimum-wage working world with a high school education. So I went from an ice cream store job paying four or five bucks an hour…to being in a band where I was all of a sudden completely broke all the time [Black Flag], and little by little, one thing led to another, and I can pay my rent now. Knowing where I come from gives me a lot of backbone, because I got a break.”
Good spoken word performances are few and far between. Where Jello Biafra overloads your brain with enough damning historical/political facts to make your head explode, Henry Rollins tends for the most part to keep things on the lighter side. Self-effacing stories about the time he knocked himself out seconds into a Rollins Band gig or stories about his youthful misadventures are the type of fare you can expect. If you sit through an entire Rollins spoken-word show and don’t laugh your ass off at least once, chances are you were probably weaned on an iceberg.
Like the late Johnny Cash, Rollins has been literally everywhere the past 25 years. Best known for his years singing for the punk band Black Flag, Rollins, through his own grit and will, has built up a body of work whose breadth is larger than most professional “entertainers” could ever dream of. Rollins, while continuing his musical career in the Rollins Band, has established a career as writer/poet, actor, voice-over talent, publisher, hovercraft captain, and a spoken-word entertainer without peer. Late in 2003, Rollins embarked on his first USO/Armed Forces Entertainment tour. The “meet and greet” took him to military bases in Afghanistan, Qatar, and Kurdistan.
Rolling toward Cleveland the day after his forty-third birthday, a rather reserved Henry Rollins discussed just what keeps his pilot light lit after all these years and the impression the USO tour left on him. “It was an eye-opener, and I met a lot of really good people. It gives you a sense of just how stupid wars are. They’re just stupid, you know. There’s just no sense to it. It’s almost like being in a movie. It’s surreal, because if everyone just put the guns down, there would be no war. It’s all you would have to do, and all of a sudden, it’s a different day.”
While Rollins let it be known that he doesn’t agree policy-wise with the Middle Eastern conflicts, he jumped at this chance and plans for a second USO tour in April. “I think the war in Iraq and the thing in Afghanistan is about something else. I don’t think it’s about ‘We feel so bad for Iraq.’ I don’t think our president feels that bad about an evil dictator. While I don’t agree there, I do see the predicament of these young people, and I can understand their loneliness and their isolation and their displacement, and that’s what I respond to.”
In his interaction with the military personnel, Rollins found out later, through their correspondence to him, the gravity of discontent among some of the men and women stationed overseas. “It’s not in person, but it’s the letters that you get later where they say things like, ‘Oh, I’ve been in Baghdad for like four months, and I still don’t get it. I don’t know why we’re here, or this is bullshit.’ They will say things like that.”
That USO tour all but closed out what was another endless working year for Rollins. Starting roughly on January 6 through December 15, his typical year will take him on the road for musical and spoken-word tours upwards of 180 days a year. When not on tour, Rollins uses his “downtime” to get caught up on his other projects.
“Between tours, it’s usually steady office work, which is editing a book, working on releases at the label (2.13.61), voice-over work, auditions, or a movie or TV thing. When I’m home, I work through the weekends. I get a lot of work done during the weekends, writing-type stuff, just because the office is quiet, and I can do a lot of typing, a lot of research on stuff.”
So with a schedule so bogged down with tours and “downtime,” what exactly does he do to fend off burnout? “I just basically switch mediums, and it kind of gets me out of one thing and into another. I get burnt on one thing, and I just go to the next.”
Despite changing up his schedule, Rollins’ career leaves room for very little else; in fact, there are aspects of his career that are not so pleasant. “There’s an element of vigorous work ethic, but I can’t overstress the unflattering aspects of it, which is, like I said, I don’t have a whole lot else going on, to the exclusion of probably a lot of things that I could be checking out. The girls at the office say I’m shallow.”
Whether Rollins is truly shallow is frankly irrelevant, for he remains driven by his own philosophic ideas of what the artist work ethic is. “This sounds really strange, but I really thought, and still do, that the real paradigm of the artist-type is vigorous work.”
Rollins bases this ethic on the lives of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Henry Miller. While he does not equate his life with his heroes, their lifestyles have left a big mark on how Rollins carries himself professionally today. “They just worked all the time. They were; therefore, they worked. They were their work, and their work was them, and they were happy with that.”
One can also dig deeper into Rollins’ past to find the seeds of what drives his engine. “I come from the minimum-wage working world with a high school education. So I went from an ice cream store job paying four or five bucks an hour…to being in a band where I was all of a sudden completely broke all the time [Black Flag], and little by little, one thing led to another, and I can pay my rent now. Knowing where I come from gives me a lot of backbone, because I got a break.”
So after 24 years on the road, what accomplishment stands out as the one thing of which he is the most proud? “Pride is a weird word. The thing that I am the happiest about is not any single release or anything; it’s the fact that, after 24 years of touring, I’m still touring, still releasing stuff, and people are still showing up. Like anybody else in my situation, I’m very grateful.”
One can give up the love to Henry Rollins as he hits town March 6 at the Pageant.