Henry Rollins is a one of a kind. A fearless performer of many stages, Rollins just likes to work. He’s done it all.Here’s how it all started.
Rollins, a music fanatic, was scooping ice cream in 1981 when he went to see his favorite band, Black Flag, play a show. After singing a few songs with the band on stage, he was called in to audition for the lead singer spot a short time later. He got the gig and a whirlwind life experience hasn’t stopped since. After playing in that band and many others, Rollins took acting gigs in movies such as The Chase, Bad Boys II and in recent years, Sons of Anarchy. Throughout it all, Rollins has found his true calling. Spoken Word tours. You may have seen him ride through town at The Pageant in the Loop.
What are spoken word tours? Rollins gets on the stage, wraps the microphone chord around his hand like a fighter wraps his hand in gauze, and unleashes a rant on the audience. Politics, music, travel, experiences of all kind and reflection are passed out like mere conversation. An intimate experience. I’ve seen Rollins four times and felt the need to reach out for an interview as he sets up for a European tour in 2016.
You joined Black Flag in 1981 in that memorable audition in NY but your Spoken Word tours are where I feel you really show audiences your true voice. When did you find your voice? As a kid, teenager or somewhere else along the line?
Henry Rollins-I just have one voice. With the music or whatever, it’s just me. I don’t know what else to tell you. I do think that with age and experience, I am able to bring things to the talking shows that is hopefully worthwhile.
You said once that you don’t have talent but instead have tenacity, focus and discipline. Can you elaborate on that? I found it quite honestly one of the most honest things I’ve ever heard.
Rollins-I have never thought of talent. I only think of the objective. Realizing it. Getting the work done. Getting the idea together and then putting in the time. This is the same for music, acting, writing, whatever. You see, as best as you can, what the ‘it’ is and go. I don’t understand talent. I understand a lot of work to get something done. That’s all this stuff has ever been—a lot of work. I am not trying to make it sound like it’s drudgery but it is about time spent. You work on a book and realize that two years from now, you will still be working on this book. If you can handle that, then perhaps you can get something done. Having talent, I have no idea what that means. I have no idea if I have any.
You’ve traveled the world and taken photos and met all kinds of people. What have been some of your memorable experiences on the road?
Rollins-Not to broad-brush it but a lot of the time, you meet people all over the world who live a very, very tough existence. Every day is a miles of walking for water, etc. Things are done manually. Life is lived one minute at a time. There is no thought of the future. There is now and maybe the next day. There isn’t “when I’m 65, I’ll . . . “ When you meet people who live this way, it is an eye opener. When you meet people whose whole lives are spent in food and water insecurity and they are some of the kindest and most generous, it has made me have to re-think what the species is capable of.
One of the things you have constantly said throughout the years is “Book it and I’m there.” Is that your strength? The ability to show up, keep your promise and deliver a show to people who spend their money to come see you?
Rollins-I think you will find almost any performer type values all that. They do want to show up and do a great show and they do understand that the audience is most of, if not the only reason they get to do all this cool stuff. The audience has proven themselves by showing up. The rest sits squarely on your shoulders. I would rather chop a finger off than betray that trust. A performer owes the audience everything. They showed up. They have trusted you with time they will never get back. Anything less than 110% is not good to go. It’s simple. You never phone it in and you always hit it as hard as you can. If you can’t, then just quit.
What keeps you going these years? Most voices would just feel okay staying in a radio booth and doing podcasts yet you continue to travel and do shows. What drives you?
Rollins-I don’t like sitting around. I don’t like environments that are stable, fixed, safe and predictable. When I am off the road, I live in a nice house. It’s cool but it’s boring. It just sits there while the rest of the world is outside. That’s where I want to be most of the time.
You’ve just wrapped the North American part of your tour and are heading to the UK, right? Any differences in the audiences in the states and the ones abroad?
Rollins-The 2016 European dates are the start of the tour, which will go on and off until the end of 2016. European audiences are usually exceedingly polite, very sharp and listen intently. I don’t know what I would do differently there besides stay off topics that are so inside America, that some members of the audience might feel left out. I can’t really see much difference besides perhaps the elevated politeness.
Lastly, any advice you want to dish out to the hard working scrappy creative souls who don’t want to chain themselves to the 9 to 5 life? You broke out of that quite well. What advice would you give someone who’s 20 years old and working in an ice cream shop or dead end job?
Rollins-If you have absolutely no fear of failure and are ready to get it done or die trying, then you might get somewhere. Anything less than that, stay with the deadend job. If you’re really going to do anything that breaks out, you won’t bother asking for advice.
What makes Henry Rollins special is his versatility and the ability to transcend what a performance really means. His tours aren’t comedy shows or concerts. They are more confessional than humorous. He gets on a stage and tells the audience how it is outside. He once called himself an “Americanist” because he survived America and its torments. What keeps Henry sane is his work, whether it’s on a radio show in Los Angeles or at a place in Germany. His show keep him on the edge, where he needs to be. While most do it for the money and the relevance, my belief is Henry just does it because he hates the quiet that a house brings.
The next time Rollins rolls through town, go see him. You will laugh with him, feel challenged by his words and feel empowered all at once. He’s one of my heroes because he will say what hits his minds and elaborate on it instead of retreating behind a punch line. Rollins deserves your respect and time.