Arts Desk

“America Is Getting a Huge Civics Lesson”: Talking “Capitalism” with Henry Rollins

Renaissance man Henry Rollins is a musician, author, actor, and TV and radio host, but his first, best destiny is as a stage storyteller, a calling he's followed for nearly three decades. Like everything else in America, his two-to-three-hour monologues have become increasingly political since the presidency of George W. Bush. As he did in 2008, Rollins is performing here in D.C.—well, actually he played the Birchmere in Alexandria then, but still—the night before the presidential election, at the 9:30 Club.

I reached him on tour in Vermont nine days ago to talk about the election,  the craft of holding an audience's attention over a long period of time, and the responsibility of clearly distinguishing fact from fiction.

This tour is called "Capitalism." Are you focusing, like the presidential race, primarily on economic issues this time?

Oh, no. This leg of the tour is all of the capital cities in the United States. And then the last day is on the election eve in D.C. But I’ve been in cities I’ve never been to before: Juno, Alaska. Pierre, South Dakota. That was my agent’s idea. I was going to be on tour in America in the autumn of this year anyway. I thought it was probably going to be generic major cities, secondary, tertiary cities—anything I could get. So he said, “Here’s a way to do it,” and he threw this at me in April of last year.

The D.C. show was the first one we went after. You want to make that one really specific. We figured [the 9:30 Club] would probably be the hardest venue to get. It’s a very problematic tour to book, because you’re going after specific cities, not just what’s available. Because a guy like me—I get what I get. Thankfully I’ll take anything. But when you’re going for specific cities, the routing becomes difficult. We’ve had some really long drives.

I feel dumb for not noticing the tour itinerary was all capital cities, now that you point it out.

Some of the capitals are not close to anything. They’re not close to any other city in the state sometimes, and they’re not nearly the biggest city in many states.  So it’s been interesting: I’m playing in cities where there’s a beautiful capital building, but the whole neighborhood rolls up by 6 p.m. There’s no food, there’s no nothing. The streets are empty. It’s been really weird.

I just listened to the recording of your show at the Birchmere the night before Election Day 2008—I was there, but I wanted to refresh my memory. The optimistic atmosphere that I remember from that show is palpable even on the recording. Despite the trauma of the fiscal meltdown, people seemed to be feeling good that night. I would guess the majority of the crowd were supporters of President Obama. Now that we have the reality of a record to contend with, there’s less enthusiasm for President Obama. Of course, the Republicans aren’t all that excited about their guy, either. Where do you think we’re at?

I think America is getting a huge civics lesson. If you didn’t get it in high school, you’re getting it now. Congress runs America. A president can do only what he—and one day, she—Congress allows them to. The president has put across a lot of good stuff, and Congress has basically said no. In September, the Veterans Job Corps Act died in the Senate with 58 of the needed 60 votes. Republicans couldn’t justify spending a billion dollars to help returning soldiers. They’ll borrow billions to send them in, but they don’t want to help them when they come back.

So the president has gotten done an amazing amount of work despite Congress, and despite a bunch a people who only want to defeat him. They have no interest in working together for the American people. All of this has only made me like the guy even more.

Do you think President Obama will be re-elected?

If Americans really do show up to vote, I think you’ll get Barack Obama in office. If they don’t show up, and I think you’ll get what happened in 2010, with all these Tea Party people running in because people stayed home. They didn’t vote, because they were confident, or relaxed, or something. Jefferson taught you to be vigilant, and to stay on it. You see what happens when you don’t: You get maniacs in office who seem to forget that Roe v. Wade passed in 1973. The hatred for women in this country the last couple years is just incredible; the snarling fear of the vag. It’s unbelievable.

Yeah, it’s bizarre that we're talking about this in 2012.

I think it’s a fundraiser. But they think there’s no Roe v. Wade. It’s just not in their conversation; not in their reality. All these new definitions of rape—it’s incredible. These are adults. They’re in office. Someone put them there. It wasn’t Martians, it was us. So I beg people to vote. I wouldn’t have the temerity to tell them who to vote for. I just hope that they do, and that they really look at who is saying what.

It’s fascinating to me that there could be such a thing as an undecided voter at this point. I haven’t had any undecided moments in my life. But when one candidate says repeatedly that he wants to defund Planned Parenthood, that’s all I need to know about that guy.

If you could assign every American voter a reading list to be completed before they go to the polls, what would you tell them to read?

I would tell them to read the Constitution. At least remind themselves of the first, fourth and 14th amendments, on which a lot of this hot-button topic stuff seems to spin. Same-sex marriage. Right to privacy. Reproductive healthcare for women. The first, fourth, and 14th covers all this stuff adequately and perfectly. You don’t ever need to discuss any of it ever again. Perhaps that would be a place to start.

There’s an interesting book I read a while ago by Eric Foner, an American historian, called The Fiery Trial. It's about Lincoln and the evolution of his views on slavery and abolition. It really makes you understand what a tinderbox America was when Lincoln became president. It might give you some perspective on how far America hasn’t come since 1865. We seem to be going backwards towards this [idea that] women should stay home and breed obsequiously and men are bred to fight. And slavery—we have it. We have corporate slavery. We have people working for an appalling wage, with bosses who would rather pay them less.

You often bring a notebook on stage, but I’ve never seen you look at it.And it’s typical for your talking shows to run in the two-and-half-hour range. Do you outline? Is there a setlist of stories you want to tell each night?

A lot of preparation goes into it. I don’t want spontaneity onstage. I want to know where every piece of furniture in the room is so I can run through it blindfolded. If there’s a new idea I want to put into the set, I demo it. I’ll tell it to myself, sometimes out loud, sometimes just in my head. It’s one reason I go to a gym almost every day. On the treadmill I work through ideas and start preparing the show. That’s been a ritual for a long time. It’s very effective.

Most of my afternoon is spent prepping for 8 p.m. By around 6:30, I’ll be pacing a hallway at the venue, or in my room, saying things out loud to myself. There are things I’ll say over and over again to prepare my mind: quotes, parts of the Constitution that I like to say out loud after having typed and memorized them. So when I go onstage I know exactly where I want to take you.

It continually surprises me how important it is to practice saying things out loud instead of just in your head.

Well, your brain uploads information from more than one access point. When you write something down, you take it in one way. When you write down someone else’s words, you upload it a different way. One of the most effective ways is to hear your own voice say it. When I hear my voice say it, it feels like something I now own, and I can access it easily because I already know how it’s going to sound coming out of my mouth.

What I do onstage isn’t written; it’s meant to be heard. So if I’ve already demoed the idea sonically then I can control the words and the tone and the tempo. All of that is of great importance up there on stage.

Do you know who Mike Daisey is?

No.

Well, he’s a spoken-word performer who got into trouble because he made up a few pieces of a hit nonfiction show he had about the working conditions in the Chinese factories where Apple products are made. I wanted to ask your feelings on that, because you use a lot of hyperbole and exaggeration onstage. What you and Daisey do is not exactly the same, but you’re someone who, like him, takes trips to places he knows much of his audience has not seen and comes back and talks about what he experienced there. You both seem to want your audiences to be more conscious of America’s place in the world. I understand that oral storytelling is a format where it’s more difficult to cite things than it is in writing, but is that something you think about—when it’s okay to exaggerate and when it isn’t?

Of course. When I use hyperbole, which is every second, I try to make it exceedingly obvious. When you’re drilling down on the real hardcore facts, I take that very seriously, and I expect someone to go and fact-check it. I’m not trying to pull the wool. I’m someone under a fair deal of scrutiny. But when you’re yelling and making people laugh, obviously you’re putting it on. That’s what you do. It’s fun.

I’ve been telling stories about when I did a bunch of documentaries for National Geographic last year. In one of them, I jump on the back of an alligator in southern Florida. This cameraman and I used to bug each other all day just to kind of get through the day. In the story, I have him saying, “Get him, get him!”  That didn’t happen; he was busy filming me. But I think it’s fairly obvious he wasn’t yelling at the alligator to bite me in the head.

Other places, I don’t have any need to do anything like that. When you go to see some of these places, the truth is just fine. Also, I usually have a camera with me, so I’m taking photos of it. Later in my notes, when I’m trying to describe the place, I go back to the photos and try to get a good, accurate description.

You’ve always had a mix of funny stories and sobering, tragic stories in your performances. How do you determine where in the set to put the heavy stuff? After telling stories on stage for more than 25 years now, is that pacing still something you have to work through consciously?

Hell yeah. It’s incredibly important. Sometimes you can get into a very heavy rut late in the night and it’s been like two-and-a-half hours. You’ve got to let these people go. Last year I did some shows after I’d just come back from Uganda and Sudan and spent time with children who’d been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. I was in the Lira Province, at a school for war-afflicted children. These kids are just destroyed. When you get into that near the end of the night, it’s bleak. You can’t go, “Well, those kids started holes right through me and barely spoke. Good night!” [Laughs.] You can’t do that.  I have to be very careful with that.

Lately I’ve been talking about a trip I took to Cuba and Haiti. Cuba was cool. But Haiti—Port au Prince looks like a rocket hit it. It's really sad. And this is almost two years after the earthquake. When you see the lack of construction going on, and people literally living in ruins, there’re no laughs in that. The only way to bring a smile to any of that is to talk about some of the kids I played with in the orphanages.

I’ve learned a bit from watching Robert Fisk, the great British journalist, speak. Because all he sees is dead bodies and demonstrations. His books are incredible. He’s done most of his work in the Middle East, and he’s seen everything. Somehow he’s able to find—not humor, but moments that allow the listener to breathe just a little.

Are you your own editor when you’re working out how to talk about the things you see? Do you have anyone who can run stuff by who will give you notes?

Every once in a while I’ll be in the office and I’ll say to my assistant, “Let me flex this idea at you.” I’ll talk it at her for like 10 minutes. She’ll say, “You lost me here, here, and here. “ She’s incredibly insightful. It’s a good way to demo it, because you can get very high on your own fumes. You need to be open to opinion.  A lot of people write me, and it isn’t always complimentary. So I get my chops busted fairly often.

How much of your day is spent answering email?

As much time as I want to put into it. I’ll wake up in the morning and another 40 will have accumulated. There are well over 300 unanswered emails on the site right now. I want to get them all answered. In a touring cycle, there’s a lot of input; people come home from the show and they want to write you. Even if you spoke to them after the show, you’ll get a “Hey, I just met you…” and it’s like, “Really? We’re talking more?”

It’s challenging, because I’ve got stuff to do, and I want to sit still now and again, and here come all these people tapping you on the shoulder. But if you’re going to incite a reaction, or some kind of line of communication, then you have to be responsible for it. Quite often these letters get answered like three weeks after I get back from a tour. I’ll say, “I’m sorry it took me so long, but I’m one guy.” No one’s ever angry. It’s not like they needed me to pick up their kid from school.  Eventually I get them all answered.

Henry Rollins speaks at the 9:30 Club tonight at 7 p.m.  The show is sold out.

Photo by Heidi May

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