The Anger of Human Kindness: A Conversation With Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins has fronted bands like Black Flag and written books like Get in the Van and acted in movies like Lost Highway and TV shows like Sons of Anarchy. But to many of us who count ourselves among his admirers, the autobiographical monologues he’s performed for more than 25 years are the Rollins project we most prize. (He and I spoke at length a couple years back about the craft of oral storytelling.) On Sunday, he’ll reach his 50th birthday, an occasion he’ll observe with two spoken-word performances at National Geographic, where presumably you will have the option to purchase this awesome poster.
I called up Rollins at his Los Angeles office in late January to talk about aging, anger, teaching manners to hipsters, the consciousness-expanding effects of a passport properly used, and why he makes for a lousy boyfriend.
Your named your publishing company, 2.13.61, after your birthday, so your age was public knowledge even before everyone’s age was. You’ve never been guarded about it.
I don’t think there’s anything to guard. If you don’t get hit by a car or something, you’re going to hit 50 at some point. I guess maybe in the entertainment world, the more I go around that grotty track, the more I see that a lot of people conceal their ages for survival. At a certain age, some of these people turn into pumpkins. Like, you can’t be a beautiful woman and be 45 in a Hollywood film. So maybe to get a couple more films or one more season, you fudge the numbers a little so no tabloid can print your age in big letters and have you lose your deal at Fox or something.
Those of us who allow the lines to go deeply into our faces, people like myself—we don’t have those concerns.
Well, you’ve more or less invented your own profession. It’s not like being a movie star, where there’re always another one of you coming up behind you.
Yeah, I’ve managed to carve out my own dubious niche in the world.
So what about turning 50 warrants a show?
I think there’s just too much comedic value there; I can’t not touch it. It’s apparently one of those landmark years. I think the next one is at 80. So I’ve got 30 more years to get ready to do this kind of thing again.
On the subject of generational disconnect, I want to ask you about a clip I saw on Gawker that I believe, just going from the subtitles on it, originated on German television. You and the Iranian artist Shirin Nichat are in a record store in Manhattan, and you’re pointing out some records that you like to her. Then a woman who looks like she might be in her early 20s shouts out “Get in the Van!”—the title of your book about your years on the road with Black Flag—and you charge over to her.
There may have been much more happening in that situation than was apparent from a little video clip on the Web, but it looked very confrontational.
The woman I was with, Shirin Nichat, is much more than an artist. She’s an exile. She was pushed out of Iran for standing up for civil rights for women at great risk to herself. Her photography is great. Her writing is great. She turns out to be this amazing director. Because of her, I went to Iran and met her mother and her sister and her whole family. We called her from Tehran. I took photos and sent them to her, and she was extremely happy to have those because I don’t she’ll ever be going back there.
So there’s this TV show—I think it’s called Night in the City; it is a German show, I believe—where they take two people who’ve never met and they film you walking around. [The show’s producers] asked me to send them a list of who I’d be interested in doing that with, and my two choices were Miriam Makeba and Al Green. Makeba wanted like $10,000, and Al Green apparently just couldn’t get his head around it. So they said, “Have you ever heard of Shirin Nichat?” I said no. But I looked her up, and I recognized her photos—they’re quite well known, I just hadn’t known who shot ‘em. All her veiled Muslim women photos I was familiar with. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll meet her.” She was absolutely wonderful.
So we were near where she lives in New York, and the producers said, “We’re gonna put you in a record store!” And I went, “Ehhh, really? OK.” So we went in and the local hipster kids were there, and I guess we were kind of on their hallowed ground. And I just think that kind of contempt, mild though it may have been—there was just no way I was gonna let that go.
Well, again, you probably saw and/or heard more than we did. But just looking at that clip, it wasn’t clear the girl who called out your name and the name of your book meant any disrespect. She might’ve just been remarking upon the presence of someone whose work she knew being there in the store.
Then that’s part you weren’t there for. What you saw was the third or fourth thing being hurled by a gaggle of gals sitting on some couch by the front. And looking back at it, I remember walking in and going, “We shouldn’t do this.” It was all worked out in advance with the owner of the record store, who is quite nice. But I knew there would probably be some snark coming to the fore, and there was.
Another, more recent appearance of Rollins on TV in a non-fictitious role was the December National Geographic Explorer episode you hosted called “Born to Rage,” which examined the recent discovery of the so-called Warrior Gene. In that one, we’re treated to the almost comically unlikely scene of a bunch of bikers sitting around with you discussing their feelings, specifically their anger, quite openly. Do you think they did that because they related to you as a peer in some way? Or because you just persuaded them you were genuinely curious?
Well, a lot of people stereotype bikers as these heavy, angry dudes. So we went and found some, thinking that maybe this was a ripe picking ground for people with the warrior gene. We interviewed six of them, who were very camera-ready, as many Americans are. They were very cool. What you saw was an edit of a longer interview, but there was nothing that you didn’t see that would’ve lead you to another conclusion. We got stories from any of these guys who felt like relating. One guy, Paul—a guy whose left arm had been mostly blown off, a guy who has been shot and who has done some shooting—his story was pretty epic. And he’s a heavy-looking dude, with tattoos on his head and stuff.
I interviewed the other five, and yeah, some of them have anger issues. One fellow said it’s kind of always with him. He’s always on a low boil, which I can relate to. So we got how these ordinary men process their anger—how they fit it in to their day-to-day. Because these are tax-paying Americans who have to go buy groceries at some point. They have to assimilate on a daily basis, whether it be in traffic or at home or with a customer. So they were all tested for the warrior gene and on that day, after we got their testimonials, I gave them their results.
You talk a lot about how while the cliche is for men to mellow with age, you’ve grown angrier.
The farther I go, the more of an understanding—warped though it may be—I have about things. You want to understand globalization, go explore the globe. You’ll see what it looks like. You’ll see the other end of the whip of globalization. Thomas Friedman holds the handle of the lash. You’ll see it in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh. Countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. I get information from going to these places that I’d never be able to get from a book. When you have your feet on the ground and you’re walking through it and smelling it, that experience is far more instructive and informative than any book or documentary.
As an elective, I go to these places in search of that information. What has happened in trips I’ve made everywhere from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Damascus to Kabul—you name it, I try to go—is I see elements of how humanity works, how governments work, how multinational corporations really shape and determine who gets what. And that has made me a pretty angry person. Because I come back to my country and I read opinions by big, strong adults who get millions of dollars per year, but they’re not going to these places. Their information is not necessarily untrue, but their ideas and their opinions are really half-baked, because they don’t go. I’m not saying I’m any kind of expert on anything. How can you go to Afghanistan a couple of times for a week at a time and say that you’re any kind of an authority on a country that has centuries and centuries of history? You can’t.
Basically, human compassion inspires a lot of my ire. Just seeing people get the short end of the deal. They just make a life of it. When you go to some of these places, people don’t stand around and complain, saying “Oh, I’m poor.” They see the hotel I get to go back to and compare it to what they’re going home to. That happens to me all the time. I’ll be walking through some Bangladeshi slum that I can see from the window my hotel. And they can see the big tower that I’m returning to. The look at its lights every night. And I look at their pool of darkness, because there’s no electricity there. All the lights of the city are around it, encircling this huge maw of darkness. It’s a lot to get your head around if you’re any kind of a conscientious person. So that has made me angry, in a kind of lovey-dovey, can’t-we-all-get-along sort of way.
There was a Times of London profile of you last year that said you and Liza Richardson, your colleague at KCRW in Santa Monica, where you both host radio shows, were dating. I was surprised by your willingness to discuss that relationship publicly, since that’s always been one of the elements of your life we haven’t heard much about.
The only thing you really hear about is that somehow I’m gay, though we can’t find any of these hot men I’ve apparently spirited away into the night. So, yes: I’m a heterosexual male who doesn’t necessarily go and broadcast the fact that I’ve had girlfriends. I’m kind of low-key, which has led some people to speculate, “Oh, he must be gay!” Why, because I’m not crass like you, having my photo taken all the time?
Liza and I went out for almost a year. We don’t go out anymore. But we work with each other. She’s great. I just wasn’t a very good boyfriend. I’m not around. There was no infidelity, of course; I’m just everywhere else. Eventually, the work creeps in, or storms in, and historically, with me, the work always takes priority. I’m a workaholic. Nine, ten months out of the year, I’m gone. So I’m a real drag for a boyfriend.
I don’t how [the author of the Times story] got on that topic. I don’t think I would have brought it up. But yeah, I went out with Liza. She’s very cool.
And that is the Rollins we know; the workaholic who feels taunted by every book he hasn’t read and every country he hasn’t visited. I’m not suggesting that’s a character that you play, but I am interested in the idea that you put yourself out there as that person when you’re 24 or 25, and at 50, you’re still a version of that. You’ve evolved, but—
Well, I’ve evolved somewhat, but I don’t think people really change that much. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the sad occasion of trying to give your adult junkie friend a pep talk? Don’t waste your time. Adults are gonna do what they’re gonna do. They can’t be changed. The few adult heroin abusers who I routinely, every four to seven months when they fall off again—I could just pull a string in my chest. I’ve been giving the same rap to this one individual since 1986: “You’re better than this, ra-ra-ra, stay clean!” And they don’t. I guess dope must be really good.
So adults, by and large, don’t change. But one can make oneself available to information and learn from that. This has been the case with me. My worldview has been expanded by physically and geographically ripping it wider. But one’s proclivities and tendencies intensify as one gets older. One defines onself more and more. I like what I like; if you don’t like that, I can’t change for you. Here is my face, deeply lined like a folding man-sack across my skull. If you don’t like how it looks at this point, bite me. It’s only going to get more rumpled as life goes on.
What’s happened with me is I’ve become more and more curious about things: History. Why things are the way they are. Why borders are drawn where they are. How counties get along. Our foreign policy, and why we don’t like this or that country. Why do we have a thing with racism? And guns?
It sends one to the bookstore, and on the Internet. I assign myself little assignments, and I go do them. At three o’ clock this morning, Pacific Standard Time, there I was trying to be more conversant in the Dred Scott decision, the Missouri Compromise, and the Louisiana Purchase, because I’ve been reading the words of Abraham Lincoln almost every single night. I’m sure you’ve read Lincoln. Not only was he cool and calm under a great deal of pressure; he also never lost his sense of humor. Really a funny guy. So every night I do my little assignment and try to learn a thing or two. A lot of the year, I’m in school. At age 20, I don’t know if I would’ve had the discipline to apply myself. As far as reading, I was more of a literature guy. Now I hardly read any fiction at all.
Henry Rollins performs at National Geographic's Grosvenor Auditiorium, 1600 M St. NW, Sunday at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.. Tickets are long gone; try Craigslist.