Henry Rollins doesn’t mess around. His conviction is intimidating, yet admirable. He’s not afraid to speak truth to power, so he does.
“For better than a quarter century,” his 2011 press biography ‘Knowledge Through Miles’ reads, “Rollins has toured the world as a spoken word artist, as frontman for both Rollins Band and Black Flag and — without a microphone — as a solitary traveler with insatiable curiosity, bypassing the resorts in favor of places like Siberia and Senegal, or Burma and Bangladesh.”
The 51-year-old Washington, D.C. native is currently in the midst of a lengthy Canadian speaking tour that lands him on the island this week for shows in St. John’s on Thursday and Corner Brook on Friday.
The Canadian stint is part of Rollins’ ‘The Long March’ world tour in support of his 20th book, ‘Occupants’, a collection of photos and essays from his extensive world travels.
The Washington Post has called the Grammy Award-winning artist a “diatribist, confessor, provocateur, humorist, even motivational speaker,” with his “enthusiastic and engaging chatter.”
Rollins never stops. He’s constantly at work as an actor, radio DJ, author and journalist. He runs his own publishing company and record label, ‘2.13.61’, hosts a weekly radio show in Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for LA Weekly.
TV Guide called him a “Renaissance Man” and Entertainment Weekly asked, “Is there anything this guy can’t do?”
Of all the titles attributed to him though, Rollins much prefers “workaholic”.
But what’s behind this tenacious work ethic of his? Why and how does he continuously take on such enormous matters as global politics, inequality, economics, warfare? Why does he go on United Service Organization (USO) tours to visit American troops who are fighting in wars he opposes? And how does he cope with the harsh realities he confronts when he travels to places like North Korea, Sudan, Iran and Syria?
The Independent spoke with Rollins on the phone last week as he reached the midway point of his Canadian tour in Ottawa. Here’s how the conversation went:
You’ve been all over the world, to Tibet, North Korea, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, Sudan. Your 2010 ‘Frequent Flyer Tour’ obviously centered around material related to your travels, but I found it interesting the tour slogan was ‘Knowledge without miles equals bullshit.’ Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
I think you could read all the books you want, but until you really go somewhere you really don’t know anything. You really gotta get your feet on the ground and check a place out, and then you can have an opinion. I prefer to actually go to places and put the miles on and get my own take on it.
Was there a moment or experience in your life, would you say, that kind of changed you, or the way you understood yourself or people in general?
I think it was a series of things, like whole laps around the track. I was a touring musician since I was 20. You start living out in the world and you’re out of your comfort zone and, more importantly, your zone of familiarity. So more and more, on a more consistent basis, you find yourself in these environments which are different, and you have to deal with that. By and large you find yourself having to deal with someone else’s beliefs and deal with other cultures…and from that comes (an ability) to handle new ideas and things that are potentially strange to you.
Since you’ve been to so many places, met loads of people and have just had tons of different cultural experiences and so forth, I want to ask about your beliefs on a few things. That cool?
The first thing is ‘humanity’ and ‘human nature’. I find even with communication technology and stuff there’s still a lot of insularity with ideas and stuff — about how people ‘are’ in different parts of the world, for instance. We seem to attribute a lot of the big problems in the world to difference, so I’m wondering what statements you believe to be true about humanity and human nature?
Well, I reckon, what I’ve found from (traveling) the globe as frequently as I have, some of the results are not all that uplifting. I have found that unless you put humans in a great degree of comfort, they will very often discriminate, stick with their own, go tribal, and get very, very mean, very, very fast, unless everyone has like a large amount of water, a large amount of food (and) shelter. When someone is deprived of that it’s very hard for them to retain any decency or any real moral rectitude or, you know, backbone.
“We are easy to fill with fear, we get dehydrated really fast, and when you make us desperate, we’ll do some pretty incredible things.” – Henry Rollins
I have (also) seen that stood on its head when you go to parts of Africa that are very depleted of resources. Even if these people are suffering, they might be friendly but they’re not going to tell you they’re having a great day. They’re telling you, it’s tough out here because we don’t have any water. Where they’ll often not complain enough they’re so used to it, but you can see that it’s very hard on them, and then you’ll find out there has been turbulence in that area. Like, another tribe has done something, or someone inside their population has done something, or that they’re having a problem with rape, or that there’s a problem with prostitution and that the people providing the services are at an absurdly young age. And there is a resultant violence and overall brutality.
Like I said, I have found that ignorance and, you know, lack of education, makes people make incredibly bad choices more often than not. And these are the things I’ve found, and it’s really disappointing. It’s also a real impetus to make things better, knowing that humans are fairly complex but fairly easy to gauge. In Thailand or in France or in Canada, or wherever, we’re all sort of the same. We are easy to fill with fear, we get dehydrated really fast, and when you make us desperate, we’ll do some pretty incredible things.
So what are you looking toward in terms of identifying root causes of the inequality that’s in the world, and the reason why—
—Oh, I think that’s easy to nail down. I think it’s deregulated capitalism. I think it’s a crass and gross disregard for natural resources, and for making a more sustainable planet. Instead of going for solar panels people still have this idea that we have to keep drilling into the ground for resources. A long time ago (big) companies started very quietly taking over major water reserves, and they are in fact able to play God — because he who has the water rules the day. Without water, it doesn’t matter how blonde your hair is or how blue your eyes are, you’re going to die.
“…there’s gonna be winners and losers in this century, and there will be far fewer winners and far more losers with the present paradigm.” – Henry Rollins
And so I think there’s been a very strong and quiet push to acquire water rights. A book called ‘The End of Food’ was very instructive to me, where I learned about Nestle, maybe one of the biggest food providers in the world, and how they control a lot of water. So I think capitalism—I have 10 ‘x’ but 20 would be better. Now I have 50 ‘x’, now I need 1,000 ‘x’. But when you live on one ‘x’ a century how come you need all the rest? Because I want it. And that kind of mindset — it doesn’t always lead to things that are good for people. And so there’s gonna be winners and losers in this century, and there will be far fewer winners and far more losers with the present paradigm.
I mean, if people are satisfied with how this is going—if this is OK for them—this is the result you’re going to get. And you can call that whatever you want. You can say, ‘What, you’re a socialist?’ Well, I don’t know, I like capitalism quite a bit actually, because it rewards me for thinking outside of the box. It rewards me for working hard, which is what I like to do. But when it has no rules and when the corporations can dictate the politics, there’s no level playing field and there’s gonna be, like I said, a few winners and a whole lotta losers. And a lot of the losers are global, you know. Africa — the continent will probably be the number one loser.
The second thing I want to ask you about, after humanity and human nature, is ‘warfare’. Given more and more people are waking up to the reality that we have more in common with each other than we do in difference, but that by ‘othering’ people and groups we’re still justifying warfare and kind of alleviating ourselves of the accountability for others, based on concepts like nationality and religion and ethnicity and gender and so forth: How is it that warfare is still believed to be acceptable, or an inevitability, in your mind?
Because there’s a profit margin. In my country it’s how we make money. It’s like our number one export, weapon delivery systems and the ordinance itself. I mean, that’s why we have a military presence in over 153 countries and, you know, black bases in probably others — it’s what we do. That’s our big business. You’ll see, American politicians are very quick to cut teachers’ jobs, but you talk about cutting the military budget and you’ll have a bunch of Republicans screaming in your face, about Jihad and the Cold War and Russia, and (that) the entire Middle East will come over here. Ask Dick Cheney, he’ll tell you right now. And that’s what we do.
There’s some books by Chalmers Johnson, who goes into great detail about everything from Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ to the present military industrial complex. I can’t speak for Canada, but for America, we are constantly investing in the next conflict. The next Republican president—it might very well be Mitt Romney—I guarantee you within 20 months will be at ‘war’ with Iran. Because Iran has to go. They have oil, and they somehow will not submit, and so of course they need ‘democracy’, which is going to be at the end of a bayonet. That’s what America does — we push people around and we wonder why things like 9/11 happen. I don’t wonder. I don’t think America deserved it by any stretch, but you push these countries and these people around, you’re going to get what the CIA terms ‘blowback’.
Why do you go on USO tours and visit American troops in countries the U.S. is occupying and killing people?
Because if you have any grip on American politics and how American government works you’d know that Congress starts wars, not soldiers. Soldiers don’t start wars, they don’t dictate policy — they take the orders. So getting mad at a soldier about a war is like getting mad at the lady behind the counter at the airport because your flight is late. It’s not the right person to yell at. So, the infantry, they just take their orders and go.
You go into these theaters (and) you’ll see that it’s a very apolitical situation you’re in, in that the politics doesn’t matter at the base at this point. You’re just going to leave the base that day and go on a mission, or go on some operation, and your primary objective is to come home in one piece to the dining facility at day’s end. Republican or Democrat, it no longer matters. You know, getting blown up is getting blown up — it doesn’t matter how you vote at that point.
And so, I wanted to meet soldiers, I wanted to go to these places and, you know, get my feet on the ground and see it and not just watch the news. So what I found is just a bunch of young people who took this job never really thinking that Iraq or Afghanistan or Kyrgyzstan or Kuwait was going to be their destination. And it was, and they did the best they could. It’s an awful thing, all of this. But it’s really not the military’s—they’re not the one who started this. Maybe some people at the top perhaps egged on the President because maybe that’s where they’re at, but it’s really not key to yell at infantry.
The third thing I wanted to ask your beliefs on is the ‘ecological crisis’ and ‘climate change’. It seems the planet—the biotic whole, we could say—may be something that could bring people around the world together. Because regardless of our beliefs and perceived differences and all that, we all need a healthy environment to survive, like you alluded to with water. And now the very thing that gives us life is under attack by none other than us, in terms of destruction through oil exploration, mining, and these kinds of things.
When you say ‘us’, it’s kind of a misnomer. Because it’s not really us — it’s not you and me. It’s a few multinational corporations and the governments which fund them. In America, Chevron and these massive oil companies — they get money from the U.S. government. Why these gajillionnaires need American funding, I don’t understand — why we’ve gotta fire teachers and give money to oil companies so they’ll drill. Like, if you pay them, they’ll drill — are you kidding? They’ll drill anywhere there’s oil. It’s not your subsidy that’s turning them on, it’s what’s under their feet. That’s what they’re after.
And so, we are not attacking the natural resources, in that someone like you, someone like me, we’re here to protect and sustain. So it’s a handful of people.
And we’re seeing the big uprisings, of course, around the world. And there are a lot of place-specific things that characterize the different—like the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. In your mind is there a common thread running through all these uprisings?
What is it?
It’s the hard and rough elbows of capitalism. It’s the wrath of capitalism coming home to roost.
You were once a punk musician and had a great outlet for the anger and frustration that comes with taking an honest look, I guess, at the world, and the injustices, and trying to communicate that. And anger and frustration obviously still show in your talks, and it certainly shows in the streets where people are protesting. But what we’re seeing with mass protests now, like with Occupy and the G8 and G20 meetings — anger is being met with brute force and it’s being used to justify the enhanced suppression of dissent, I guess you could say. Yet anger channeled into peaceful civil disobedience, which has been happening more and more, is not silenceable and seems to be having a powerful effect worldwide. So I guess, just sum up your thoughts on the way we channel the anger we feel as we begin to awaken to some of the realities of the world.
I think that is the way to go, the Martin Luther King, Mohandas Ghandi route. It’s hard to silence a peaceful protest where, when the cops try and shut that one down, they look really bad, really fast. But when you start throwing rocks at cops’ heads you give them a license to do whatever they want, and it becomes a turf war. It doesn’t turn into legislation, it doesn’t turn into the next chapter — it just turns into a bloodbath, and the cops are always going to win that one. They come ready to play that game.
“…all around the world, we’re seeing people stand up to what they are saying is an intolerable situation.” – Henry Rollins
And so, all around the world, we’re seeing people stand up to what they are saying is an intolerable situation. I agree. And it’s a situation that doesn’t have to be. There’s just a few people at the top making it miserable for a lot of people at the bottom, and this is being addressed by Occupy, it’s being addressed by uprisings in Syria, in Yemen, in Egypt. And I’ve been to Occupy (protests) in Germany. I’ve seen Occupy all over America, and (visited) five or six Occupy sites late last year.
We had the last one. It was just shut down last month. It was the last one in North America, here in St. John’s. It went right throughout the winter — people camped out. And the City of St. John’s shut it down last month.
And it comes down to, at least in America — a bunch of mayors got together and had a meeting. They said, OK, this is over, and they trampled on Americans’ First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully for a redress of grievances, which is what all these things are. They’re protected in the First Amendment. Well, you see how little these people care for the constitution, and how ready they are to just run right over it. Still, one must be persistent and keep your eye on the prize. And I think that’s where we’re at now.
So, whatever’s happening—whether it’s a strategy or just a natural (response) of people waking up, but at the same time transforming the anger into what they’re seeing I think will work better, which is just like compassion and empathy and these things—
—Well, those are hard to do. It’s hard to keep your anger in check because you have in fact been wronged, you know, very egregiously. So, it will be up to the patience of those people on the street, and it’s a tough thing to do, protest peacefully. Because chances are you want to lash out, but you’ve got to keep yourself in check and take the higher moral ground, which is hard to do when you’re being attacked by those who cheat, by those who use lobbyists — they really do cheat. And they cheat in your face, and it’s hard to let them get away with it because they are in fact bastards and they do deserve a very brutal end. But, you know, if we’re going to be part of something that’s sustainable, you can’t go down that road.
So what role do your shows play for you, in terms of being able to express yourself, the anger and frustration you feel, express yourself creatively and stuff?
That’s what it does. It allows me to address all of that and take it to the stage. That’s what I do.
Henry Rollins performs Thursday at the St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre and Friday at the Corner Brook Arts & Culture Centre. Showtime is 8 p.m. both nights. Tickets, $25 in advance (including taxes and fees) and $30 at the door, are available at the Arts & Culture Centre box offices, by phone (729-3900 in St. John’s, 637-2580 in Corner Brook) or online at www.artsandculturecentre.com.