I interviewed Henry Rollins back in my salad days, and he quite presciently commented, “This is starting to sound like a fanzine interview.” Though the interview was for a high-profile newspaper, I opted to take that as a compliment and, years later, emailed him to ask if I could use this interview in my zine. He wrote back and said, “Sure.”
Here, for the first time, is this interview in e-zine format.
Rollins, of course, was part of the late ’70s/early ’80s hardcore punk community in Washington, D.C. and then was asked to become the new singer of the already-iconic L.A. punk band Black Flag. He did that through ’86 and then started the Rollins Band, which found more mainstream success than Black Flag. Rollins has also acted in a bunch of movies, written books and hosted a television show on IFC.
I started the interview by asking him about his work with USO (United Service Operations) a private, nonprofit organization that provides morale and recreational services to members of the U.S. military worldwide. The following transcript begins with the interview in progress.
Did you have any hesitation about doing the USO tours?
Has supporting enlisted folks been something you’ve been interested in for a long time?
No, I never would have thought of it had they not contacted me. I never really thought about the USO – I mean I knew who they were, obviously, but I never would have called them.
Did you get to walk about Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan unchaperoned, or did they keep you on sort of a leash?
No. There’s a lot of work you do during the day, in that there’s a base to go to, then another base and another base and they keep you very busy, because there’s a lot they want to get done, but between that, yeah, you’re left on your own.
It’s not like a propaganda tour, which I would have been very aware of, and quite honestly was sort of expecting, but I got nothing like that really.
Did you learn anything over there that surprised you or that would surprise people over here – things that you wouldn’t read in the paper?
Well, I learned that there’s a lot of humanitarian aid that’s done in all these countries by allied forces that I was not really aware of until I went to these places.
In Kyrgyzstan they’re building schools and starting a lot of literacy programs – same thing in Afghanistan– and they’re being fairly overrun by people who want to learn to read.
They’re doing a lot of free medical in Afghanistan and in Honduras where I went, and I did not know this stuff, nor have I seen much of that on the news, ‘cause it’s not as dramatic and I guess as newsworthy as injuries and stuff blowing up and casualties, and the soldiers I talked to really liked doing it. They liked doing the humanitarian aid stuff. A lot of guys I met in Afghanistan, at the forward position near thePakistanborder, were working with farmers, helping them with their farms, which they really enjoyed, working with the locals and everything.
Do you think the reason we don’t hear about that stuff is because of bias in the media?
… I wish there was a liberal bias in the news, and if there was some liberal mafia I wish they’d stand up and get going and start kicking some ass and call these cowards out for what they are.
But all this liberal media that people like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity keep yelling about, I sure wish they’d get over here and start doing their job.
I just see the American media, these days, as a bunch of sissies who won’t stand up to Bush and his cronies.
I think since the news is more ratings-driven then content-driven at this point. They’re going for what will make you watch — and buy soap — rather than what’s going on all the time, cause a lot of what goes on at these bases is pretty boring, in that it’s a lot of nine-to-five and human-relations work, you know: that whole hearts-and-minds thing.
In Iraq there’s a lot of full-on frightening engagement, but not all the time, and meanwhile, while there is all that stuff, there’s always the humanity stuff happening too.
I don’t think this is unique — I think this has probably been under-covered in any conflict, any time there’s been media.
Did you think morale was fairly high in Iraq?
Yeah, I think it was, considering what they are there for. I mean, these guys aren’t stupid. The stuff I heard that was more angry was the guys, when they come home they write me. Either I met them in one of these places, or they know that I do meet troops. You know, I’m fairly easy to find with the website and everything. So they write me and they go, “Well, I was there for a year and I still don’t understand why I was there,” or “I was there and I think it was a bunch of bull,” stuff like that.
But in country, like while they’re really there, they’re just keeping their heads down and trying to get through the day. I mean, everything is so vividly in the present tense over there, it’s like hyper-real.
Right. So, um, where do you stay when you come to Washington?
I stay in my old neighborhood, at a hotel on Wisconsin Avenue. It’s the last neighborhood I lived in before I moved over to Virginia.
A lot of us, when we left home, we all found out very quickly — we really couldn’t afford the rent in a D.C. apartment, so a lot of us became Virginians pretty quick.
So I moved from Northwest D.C. – I moved to behind the Marriott across the Key Bridge, a little building which has now been demolished.
But I used to live in Glover Park before I moved to Virginia, so I tend to stay in that neighborhood, just so I can walk around the old streets and see the old neighborhood.
Does your Mom still live in D.C.?
Yeah, yeah she does.
In that neighborhood?
No, she lives over by the zoo.
How often do you talk to Ian MacKaye?
Fairly often. I see him every time I’m in D.C.
I won’t see him this time, ’cause I believe he’s leaving for Europe today – he and Amy have shows coming up – but I speak to Ian quite often, email pretty often, and see him whenever I’m in town and if he’s in Los Angeles when I’m there he always comes over.
Is there anything you guys argue about?
No, not really.
Pretty much see eye-to-eye?
I don’t know. I really don’t know what he thinks of the USO tours and stuff. We don’t really talk about it. I have no idea where he would be at with something like that. I don’t have any disagreements with how he does stuff, but perhaps…he and I go about things differently, in some ways. I do t-shirts when I’m on tour. He doesn’t. It’s just not what he does, but I don’t think he would be disagreeing with some band or some guy who does t-shirts on tour, he just doesn’t do it. I don’t know exactly what we disagree on. I’m sure we both vote the same.
I wanted to ask you how you would describe yourself politically.
More angry American than anything. I mean, I voted to John Kerry in the last election, never once thinking that he was any bright light. I was more taken with John Edwards than John Kerry. It was the most potent anti-Bush vote I could muster.
I really have a problem with that guy, foreign and domestic policy. He offends me, he angers me, his staff, the people he has around him, they really rattle my cage, to the point of losing sleep.
And I think he’s done a lot to really ruin a lot of great programs and a lot of great things about this country – it’s going to take a lot of years to get going again.
I just don’t think that poor people are on his grid of concern and I think America’s really suffered because of that.
So, I guess you would call me a Democrat.
I don’t exactly know what a liberal is, just ‘cause I see it more used as an epithet, you know on FOX News, to describe someone who seems to be a book-reader, or some other kind of pussy, in the world of Sean Hannity. And he would probably describe me as a liberal, and I would probably go home with one of his ears.
So I don’t know exactly what I am.
I agree more with Democratic programs, you know, more concern with people below the middle-class.
I don’t mind paying taxes. I don’t want a break from tax. Taxing pays for books and roads and people getting a break. There seems to be a fury with conservatives – you go after any of their money and they start howling, because, you know, it’s all going to crack babies somewhere. Me, I guess I’m in support of crack babies or something, because I don’t mind paying taxes. I’m sure Ann Coulter has a few choice words for someone like me.
You mentioned ripping Sean Hannity’s ear off. I was wondering when the last time that you got in a fight was.
Let’s see, about 12 weeks ago I’d say.
I was in Australia and a guy made a move on me so I put him down.
Do you ever talk to the guys in S.O.A. at all?
Mike Hampton every once in a while.
Do they ever try to get you to do a reunion show with them or anything?
No. How old are you son? …
23. Why do you ask?
‘Cause it’s starting to sound like a fanzine interview and you say “um,” before you start every sentence and I wonder if you have any questions prepared or if you’re kinda just shooting questions out. I’m just curious.
(Editor’s note: Ums have been deleted for the sake of brevity & self-aggrandizement)
No, I have questions prepared.
OK. You know, it’s not up to me to tell you what to do. I’m just interested in your pattern of speech and the questions you’re going after. There seems to be really a direct question – you seem to be asking one thing to try and get something else, but maybe that’s just your method of extracting information. Alright, I’m sorry, Tim.
I’ve just listened to a lot of S.O.A. so I was just wondering.
(laughs) You listen to a lot of S.O.A.? All 11 minutes of it?
I listened to that “A Year in 7 Inches” CD a lot in high school.
It’s very spirited music. That was a very fun time of my life. A very innocent time. That scene in Washington was magic.
I feel very fortunate in life, for the most part, and one of the most fortunate parts is getting to be that age, in D.C., and getting to see all that music and be around all of those people and watch all of that. It’s probably some of the fondest memories I have.
Do you play guitar?
No, I don’t play anything.
No interest in ever learning?
No, it would take me the rest of my life to learn the most basic chord structure. I’m not very good at much. Stuff like that, it just never comes to me. I have no skill for it.
OK. You still working on Johnny Ramone’s bio?
Well, I did all I could with the manuscript, per the desire of Linda Ramone and the agent that the book is with, and I turned it over to Alan, the fellow who’s trotting it out to market. I turned it in to him several weeks ago and have not heard from him since. I guess he’s doing his thing with it.
There were just a few things in it that need to be worked on, like you’d see an answer used twice inside the same manuscript, you know, just some copy editing.
It’s a really cool book. Steve Miller, the guy who did the book with Johnny, really was great and got a lot out of Johnny, and Johnny obviously really wanted to do it, because when he’s doing all the interviews with Steve he was in a great deal of pain, a lot of pain, and a lot of discomfort. You can’t tell from the manuscript, but Johnny’s dying and he’s in a lot of pain.
He was a very hard guy, Johnny. A for real tough guy — not like he’s going to walk down the street and crack you one, but he just one of those guys who just doesn’t give in to admitting that he’s in pain.
I was with him a day-and-a-half, two days before he died and he was just kind of grimly hanging in there. It was an interesting experience – very sad.
But he was a tough guy. I would see him here and there for many years and he never smiled, was always really cool and polite, but never made jokes, didn’t seem to really have a sense of humor, was very, very serious all the time.
The rest of the Ramones were way more like you’d expect the Ramones to be: lighter and goofier.
Right. I was listening to “Black Coffee Blues” and “Everything” and I was wondering if you would say you have contempt for most people?
No, because you have to give people a break. You know, they’re all pretty much the same: They’re just doing everything they can to get through.
I think as I’ve have grown older I’ve become less judgmental, ‘cause probably the things I criticized people for I now am. You know: probably a little slower and a little more whatever.
I think some of the things people have done are worthy of scorn, contempt, fury and outrage. And on the other hand people have done really great things too. But there’s some really bad moments in human history.
What really bugs me is: I meet a lot of young people, and there was a time when I was their age, where I’d look into the audience and it was almost a peer experience.
There was like three or four years of that: I was 20-something, they were 20-something and then they kind of stay 20-something, but you move on.
So you’re 30-something, they’re 20-something, you’re late 30-something they’re mid 20-something, late 20-something.
And around then I started to see myself in them, in that I could remember myself at that age, and I could compare how they were and how I was, and I could see a perspective. And I see so many young people wasting time and having very mediocre expectations of themselves.
When I was your age I was, well, kind of like I am now: just working all the time.
I was not exactly ambitious to be the big guy anywhere, but I was furiously intense on what I was doing. You know, writing all the time, in a band all the time, living for it, breathing it, kind of nuts.
You were working full-time too, right?
Well, when I was 23 I was in Black Flag, but I worked at the record company when I wasn’t on the road. We didn’t eat as many meals as we would have liked in those days and didn’t sleep as much as we would have wanted, but we were doing like 30 shows a month on tour.
But when I see the laid-back 20-something I just don’t understand it. I just don’t understand the guy who smokes pot or the guy who’s just all laid-back at that age.
I was just furious in those days. And so sometimes my contempt comes with – well, anybody 18 and over in this country who didn’t vote in the last election because they couldn’t be bothered to have an opinion, that gets my complete contempt.
Do you think the world’s getting better or worse?
I think the world’s getting better. I think it’s sometimes hard to see outside the fishbowl of the Bush Administration, cause in five years they’ve done a lot to change the world, and you can say the world is worse off because of terrorism and depleting resources and stuff, but I wouldn’t want to be mired in that …
… I think it’s getting better in that we’re becoming more aware of “Hey, there’s some people in the world that don’t like us,” “Resources are diminishing,” so, “Let’s change the way we do things. Maybe it’s time to change our role in the Middle East, maybe it’s time to change this, maybe it’s time to change that, maybe it’s time to become more aware of these people over here in Africa,” stuff like that, and perhaps things will change, and with that change comes different results, which may lead to a better situation.
And so I’m on the side of that, I’d rather be working towards that, than saying, “It’s getting worse, it’s getting worse.”
I’d rather say, “It looks pretty fucked up right now, so let’s get up and go. Let’s not let this be our epitaph.”
I heard that Bernie from the Black Cat was in the Rollins Band. Is there any truth to that?
Well, he was on a record I made in 1986.
Yeah, he’s on a record called “Hot Animal Machine.”
Yeah, he’s a great guy. I saw him the other day.
I was at the last Q and Not U show a few Fridays ago in D.C. and I saw Bernie. He’s looking really good, good shape. He’s a great guy.
Did you come out here just for that show?
No, I came out for a few different reasons. I came out to see a little bit of the protest, came out to see Q and Not U, and came out for some other family stuff.
Why do you choose to live in L.A. over D.C.?
‘Cause it’s where the work is, basically. You know, I moved out to L.A. primarily to be in Black Flag, that’s where the band was, and by ’86 that’s kind of where my two milk-crates of crap was and I was touring so much I really didn’t see fit to move. I just kept ending up there, and then my book company started getting more ambitious and the office was in L.A., the staff was in L.A., and then all of a sudden I’m halfway through the ’90s and I’ve got property in L.A.
But I’m not there all the time. I’m in Orlando, Florida, on a tour bus right now, sitting here, so I’m not there all that often. It’s not a place I like.
Right, that’s why I was wondering.
Right. I’m not a California person, although parts of the state are beautiful, and I’m definitely not an L.A. person at all – it’s a young person’s place.
And Hollywood – it’s not the kind of people that I hang out with.
So I’m there at this point ’cause I have business and I do a lot of work there: a lot of voice-over stuff, radio stuff, T.V. stuff, movie stuff and production stuff, so for now I have a lot of stuff going on there. But I’m making my way – slowly extracting myself from the jaws.
Why do you describe yourself as an anti-man?
It’s an idea. You’re making reference to the back cover of the book “Solipsist,” yeah?
It was in the press-kit that I got.
Yeah, it was part of a book I wrote, it just was kind of the spirit of going after every human frailty and everything that’s human and just going after it and just exploring it, blasting it, and dissecting it.
You dissect everything until there’s just a bunch of – when you over-dissect the corpse in biology class, you just cut it to pieces and it’s unrecognizable. That was the concept. That’s what I did in that one book. Tried to, at least.
Is that a book of fiction?
Yeah, basically it’s just taking situations and putting them under such an intense degree of scrutiny that it becomes distorted, like Xeroxing a Xerox – it’s the image, but it becomes distorted, and from that you get a different view – where all of a sudden a Xerox of a potato now looks like a face. By doing that with writing I was trying to achieve some kind of different look at something. I think I succeeded in some parts. It was a three-year idea, and I don’t know whether I knocked it out of the park or not, but I definitely wore myself out trying.
What’s the future of the Rollins band?
We’re slowly working on some music. I’ve been very busy, as of late, so it’s not anything I’ve been working on, like, without something else.
Is this with a new band, then?
No, actually I’ve been doing some songwriting with Chris Haskett from the older lineup. He lives in New York and for the last year or so since we’ve been talking about this I’ve been living everywhere. I mean, I’ve been around the world three times in the past year. And about 75 shows into the tour with another 40 to go.
So I’ll be back in time for Thanksgiving to work at the company for our end-of-the-year orders.
How many employees does the company have?
Two, besides me.
Yeah, they’re there full-time. It’s a very small company.
Are those the people who set up this interview?
No, that’s a press company, they do P.R.
Have to ever been to the Birchmere before?
A different version of it. Apparently they’ve moved buildings, but I was at the old Birchmere like 1990 or 1991, I think.
You spoke there?
How come you’re doing two performances in D.C.?
Well, ‘cause Sunday was a day off, and I said, “Screw a day off. Let’s do something, let’s see if we can do a benefit,” so we got on the phone with Dante and said, “Hey, can we use your room on that Sunday and do a benefit show?”
You know, give something back to D.C., and better than a day off, do something good, and he said “Yeah,” and I said, “Well, do you have an organization in town you’d like to give some money to?”
And he said, “Yeah, let’s do it with E-Sharp,” so I’m going with Dante’s recommendation on that.
You must have known Dante for a long time, huh?
Yeah, I’ve known Dante for quite a long time. At least 25 years, 24 years or so.
Were you guys friends?
Yeah, you know, he was in the neighborhood, he was a Dischord kind of guy, and he was always around. Yeah, I’ve known Dante at least since 1980 or ’81.
Does it piss you off to get asked about the GAP ad you did?
No, no one ever hassles me about ‘em. You wanna hassle me about ‘em, Tim?
I don’t wanna hassle you about it, but I was curious as to why you did it.
Oh, to get in Rolling Stone.
To get in Rolling Stone.
Yeah, because they were gonna put the picture in Rolling Stone, and we kept doing albums and Rolling Stone would never review ‘em. They’ll talk about Mariah Carey breaking a nail, but our records don’t exist in the world of Rolling Stone and that really pissed me off. I knew that photo would go, and there’s nothing Jenn Wenner could do about it. And that’s why I said yes to that.
That’s a very good answer.
I’m glad you liked it. I’m glad I’m measuring up for you, Tim.
Yeah, you’re doing very well.
Oh, that’s good. Fed-Ex me a biscuit.
I’ll see what I can do. Who’s the best director you’ve worked with?
Well, not like any directors could get any good work out of me, but the funnest was working with David Lynch, because he’s just such an individual.
Are there any actors or directors that you’d like to work with?
Anyone who will hire me. I mean, I’m not an actor. I’m always in search of gainful employment between tours, and that’s all the movies are for me.
I take it seriously; I don’t take myself seriously in it – you know what I mean?
I’m not trying to be an actor; I’m trying to be paid between tours. I want a job. And where I live, inHollywood, those jobs are around. You got an agent, you can go in and audition for movie parts, and most of the time I don’t get ‘em, but every once in a while I do.
And that’s me in movies: it’s just between tour employment. I never go to the premier; I never see the movie.
If someone goes “Hey, I saw you in that movie! The movie sucked!”
I’m like, “yeah, but I was funny.”
They go, “yeah.”
I go, “Right. Well, success for me! I pulled it off and the check cleared.”
For me, L.A. is survival. I have no backup. I’m not expecting Social Security to be there for me. I’m not going to rely on my family, so my back account is my security, so if there’s employment to be had, I’ll take it.
Other than walking around your old neighborhood, what do you like to do when you’re in D.C.?
I like to visit with people, see my old friends. A lot of them have kids now – I like to play with their kids.
Do you want kids?
No, I think I’m a little old for that now. I don’t think anyone should be in high school and have a parent that’s 60.