More Than One Story Out There: Popmatters Interview with Henry Rollins

This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.

When talking with Henry Rollins, anything is fair game and you better be ready to keep up. The former Black Flag frontman has made a living out of continually reinventing himself. He’s overcome a challenging childhood, was a driving force for one of hardcore punk rock’s seminal bands, and later evolved into a prolific spoken word artist/author while simultaneously starting the Rollins Band. He has recently added hosting IFC’s The Henry Rollins Show to an already long resume and Rollins doesn’t show any signs of slowing down any time soon.

In the span of a very quick 26-minute phone call we managed to cover some extensive cultural real estate as we had a blitzkrieg discussion about his recent trip to Iran, US media coverage of the Iraq war, youth worship, and how much his worldview has changed since his days in Black Flag. The conversation got real interesting when Rollins proposed a few prophetic ideas about combining executions with Super Bowl half-time shows and Tiger Woods’s birthday.

So how was your recent trip to Iran?
Well, I had gone to Iraq with the USO and that was very…[hesitates]…interesting, then I took a trip on my own to Iran just to look around and that was a really good time. It’s a lot more peaceful in Iran than in Iraq in the present time. I met a lot of interesting people and I was able to walk around the city without feeling like I was in any kind of danger. That was really cool. I went because all I hear in the US media about Iran is that they’re going to kill us all and our lives are all in grave danger. And that may be true but I’d like to think there is more than one story out there. So that’s why I went.

Were there any misconceptions challenged by what you saw or heard during you trip?
I think the Bush Administration really wants a war with Iran or something that ends ultimately with us against them and with America’s safety at stake. And the media seems to be going along with that. It very well may be true that Iran has a plan for us all to die. I’m not a fan of [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president], but I know that usually the government is one way and the people are another and the last time Bush said a country—Iraq—was a threat, it turned out not to be true. Now when he says another country with oil that is right next to Iraq is a grave danger, I just can’t go along with that so willingly, so easily. So that’s why I went to check it out. I went just as a tourist on the street. I have no great intelligence or in-depth knowledge of a classified nature. But I saw a bunch of people with their kids and I met a lot of people who like America very much but are also scared of America and its president. And I hope I get a chance to go back there.

But again—it’s always the same thing. You meet these great people in these places and you wonder if there can be an alternative to speaking about people in other countries with such ignorance and to creating a sense of fear because you don’t know anything about the culture. And this administration is really putting this country—well, at least the media seems to cave into this—and its people on an interesting perception of other countries that is really not very healthy. I just don’t think we know the whole story and end up being very insulting, and for America that is very dangerous.

Since you went as a tourist, did anyone know your background?
The guy who got me my visa understood who I was and what I’ve done. When you’re an American you need a tour guide and you have to pay for it, but if you’re from Holland or France you can just go to Iran. But as an American you need a government tour guide. Basically the guy just keeps his eye on you and the guy who got me the visa said, “Look, I know who you are and that’s fine, but you cannot tell the tour guide what you do, that you’ve written books, have a TV show, do movies and music, ‘cause he’ll ask you too many questions. So as far as he’s concerned, just be a very boring American tourist. And the less questions the better…and don’t say you’re going to meet anybody in their homes because he’s going to want to investigate them too. Just say you’re going to visit places and go back to your room and you’ll see him tomorrow.”

And that’s basically what I did. I would do a couple of hours looking at a palace or a museum and then I would say, “Okay, I’m really tired and gotta go.” Then I would go and visit these people whose addresses I got from someone I know in America. Visiting with those people, I got some interesting home-cooked food and conversation. And that’s where I got to really talk with Iranians about Iran and what they think about America and our involvement in Iraq. It was interesting to hear it from them and not from the news.

Is it really as hard as Americans seem to make it when it comes to understanding another culture or what is really going on in the Middle East?
It doesn’t have to be. It’s how much an administration or a president or the media wants to allow you to know. They can give you full disclosure. You can get a film crew into Iran. There’s a lot that can be told if the media and the current administration chooses to let the country do so. That’s all it really takes. You can get a film crew into almost any country and if you can get a film crew into North Korea you can get into anywhere else.

Where would you like to take a film crew in the future?
I’d like to go to North Korea. I pretty much like to go anywhere and travel to places I haven’t been before. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved to travel. I’ve never lost interest in exploring my curiosity about new places.

During one of your show’s commentaries you spoke very passionately about the democratic power of the Internet. Do you think most people use it in more of a positive or negative way?
There’s good and bad with the Internet. Part of the good is that you can get to certain places that you might not be able to access. Someone who might not like to pull down a big moldy book off a library shelf won’t be turned away from educating themselves when they’re just a point and click away from the information and learn a thing or two in the comfort of their own bedroom. The accessibility is the good part.

The downside is that it allows you to be a voyeur, or possibly, a liar. If you’re a 41 year-old man being a 15 year-old boy trolling for teenage girls to meet at shopping malls, then it’s a whole other nightmare. With any kind of freedom comes responsibility. It allows people to not investigate that much and to draw conclusions at only a cursory glance. There are [online] polls like, “Should Paris Hilton go to jail?” Why do you want to waste your time online with that? There’s tons of junk food for your mind on the Internet. You can sit there for three or 10 or 20 hours a day getting in online arguments with other people who also choose to waste their time. You really have to pick and choose.

You seem to be able to stay focused on a wide array of topics and still produce work on a consistent basis. When you’re online, what helps you sift through the all the information on the Internet?
I try to stay case-specific. If I’m interviewing a guest [for the IFC show], I get background information and move on. I try to stay up on what’s going on with American and foreign policy. I don’t surf around to see what’s going on; I just don’t have the time. I use as it as a tool and as efficiently as possible. I get what I need and then I get offline and go do something else.

What’s been feeding your inspiration for spoken word lately?
Most of what we’ve been talking about so far. For the talking shows, it’s mostly all current events. The last few nights I’ve been on stages, I’ve been talking about the trip to Iran and stuff that has been recent for me. I don’t go too far back into to the way-back machine. I try to keep it current and hopefully what is interesting to me works for others and the audience comes along for the ride.

Do you keep your eye on other kind of controversial issues like, say, immigration?
Usually anything that’s happening I keep my eye on. And certainly with the 2008 elections coming up, immigration is going to be a very important topic. It’s probably something I wouldn’t bring to the stage because I’m more interested in what the President is going to do about undocumented workers, their rights, and policy more than what I think about. I want to actually see what gets done.

So you keep more of an eye on what’s going on in Congress and legislation?
Yeah, I like to watch the people who “move the rocks around”, as they say.

How important is music today when it comes to activism?
There are a lot of benefits happening. A lot more musicians are weighing in on the war in Iraq. And a lot times they’re quickly dismissed by the right-wing media who say, “Oh, he’s just a guy with a guitar, what can he think?” The same thing happens to people in Hollywood. If Barbara Streisand has an opinion, all of a sudden she’s an idiot and you need not listen. These are people who get in front of microphones anyway and this is America and this is a democracy. Barbara Streisand is very happy to get in front of 30,000 people to talk about her beautiful voice, but when you throw something like the Iraq war on the table, priorities change no matter who you are.

In some of your spoken word you take the self-effacing perspective and show an ability to laugh about getting old. Any thoughts on the youth worship in our culture?
There’s nothing much I can do about being 46 [laughs]. I’m not trying to be 22. But what I think happened was that a long time ago the clothing marketers were trying to figure out who was buying their stuff and asked themselves, “Who’s the audience?” And I think they figured out the demographic that has the most liquid cash, the person who says, “I’m going to buy something I don’t need at the mall this weekend”. That’s the person you want if you’re selling blue jeans. Because, let’s face it: You don’t need blue jeans because you’re already wearing something to the store when you buy them. You already have clothes. So you don’t really need another new pair of blue jeans. And it’s not usually the parents buying; it’s the kids who have an allowance or a part-time job but are still living at home, Generation X, Y, Z, or whatever they’re calling it these days. And once the marketers figured that out, that’s who they aimed all the marketing at. And if you walk down the streets of New York and look at all the ads, it’s all boys and girls who weigh about 90 pounds in clothes. There’s nothing being marketed to me. At least with spam, I get ads for mortgage loans and Cialis.

I think what you’re seeing now is a consumer culture that is aimed at young people; after a certain age, you’re suppose to still look young with face creams, use Botox, dye your hair, and have cosmetic surgery. I just remember 10 years ago not seeing it so much. Take Vanity Fair—I read it sometimes for the feature articles—it’s full of ads with young people but the magazine is not read by people who are 18 and 20. Or there’s the interview with a young starlet and everyone seems to be so enamored with someone of such a young age. And at the end of the day it appears to be what sells.

So you think the marketers have refined the intensity towards that demographic?
Absolutely! You’re not going to sell my mom an iPod—and I like my iPod very much. But go to any middle-class neighborhood where there’s a high school and say there’s 800 kids. How many of them do you think have cell phones? Probably about 500. And how many of them really need cell phones if they live six blocks from home? What is the substance of their conversation? They’re texting each other from their classrooms. It’s not like they need the cell phone because they lost their leg and need help.

What do you think those same kids who text each other might learn from someone like yourself?
I have no idea. As a young person I was on the road playing music, so I was getting new environments shoved in my face whether I wanted them or not. I don’t know what young people want these days. You have to take it case by case. Young people I meet at my shows and via email are very curious and ask me what they should expect as they go on a backpacking trip across Europe. I think that’s great! They’re going to learn a few things about other cultures and bring that back to their neighborhood. That’s the kind of young person who might find me of any interest.

In the brief time I’ve been on this planet, I just have never seen the youth market be so micro-targeted to buy stuff and to adopt a lifestyle given to them by corporations, advertisers, and people who are older than them who are trying to sell them something. And I know that it’s been done for years. The heads at Capitol who sold the Beatles to that generation of youth were older men. And today they go to the youth market for the soft touch and easy money.

iTunes—which is also marketed to youth—is a great example of the good and bad side of technology we mentioned earlier. It’s marketed to youth. And it’s good and bad. You can mention a song and, bam, download it instantly but the downside is that you might not check out the whole album. And that might discourage bands from making albums in the future and make only a few songs which might lower their stamina for songwriting, causing the whole music industry start to atrophy and lose muscle.

With Black Flag you went to extremes to express your dissatisfaction with what the culture back then was feeding you. Do you get any kind of sense that the youth culture today is using music to express the same sort of feelings you did with Black Flag?
When I was in that band we were at odds with contemporary culture. We had religious groups protesting the shows and sometimes the city legislature would come down to do a press op and tell the Channel Seven News why this person was bravely closing down the show for the good of the city. And then the news guy would have the club owner say, “Oh, I’m the mucky muck in Wherever, Ohio, and I’m closing this show down.” He’d then point to us and our gear and that would mean for us to get the hell out. That kind of thing would happen up to a day a week.

And so now I see what I was doing back then—and getting a great amount of grief for it—on a T-shirt that you can buy at an extraordinarily high price being consumed by 15,000 people a night at the Megadome. So times do change. What does change is when the major industries smell a buck on the same thing that was once wrong and make it okay. And that is the bottom line. Anything in this culture that stands still long enough eventually becomes okay if a person can derive an income from it. Eventually pay-per-view public execution will happen and it will be half-time entertainment. We’ll take the next Timothy McVeigh and [broadcast] his execution during the Super Bowl or an inauguration or some other major event or maybe Tiger Woods’s birthday—some other kinds of National Day of Concern or Importance.

What’s the biggest change in how you viewed the world back then to how you view the world now?
I see it as a smaller place now because I’ve been across more of it. As young person not getting fed all the time I was concerned with the next meal, the next show, meeting a girl if I could—the basic young man’s concerns in a starving, hard-working music band. Now as an older guy who’s sailed the seas, I kind of look around at everything in a perspective of places being seven to 30 hours away from me. I view it as I can get to Calcutta in 30 hours. All the travel and study of other cultures has made the world much smaller and my role in it much smaller as well, which has given rise to a feeling of civic responsibility, an idea of doing something for someone other than yourself. That never would have really occurred to me when I was broke or to a young person who is missing meals. When I was young it was “me me me” and as an older person it’s become “us us us”.

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