From punk to pundit
— Submitted photo
Spending time in his Los Angeles office might feel strange for Henry Rollins, given the amount of time the 51-year-old performer spends on the road. “It’s a chance to catch my breath and listen to some music, but mainly, I have work to do,” he said, speaking with The Telegram late last month prior to starting his Canadian tour.
The definition of work is varied and ever-changing for Rollins, who has written and published numerous books, hosted television and radio programs, travelled the world, and appeared in film and television. To many, he is best remembered as an icon of the American hardcore punk movement for the years Rollins spent as the lead singer of Black Flag during the 1980s. He went on to form the rock group Rollins Band.
The 20 Canadian dates for his “The Long March” speaking tour include a pair of Newfoundland shows — one in St. John’s Thursday and another in Corner Brook the following evening. Both performances will take place at the local Arts and Culture centres.
Barring a few weeks off here and there, Rollins has toured constantly since the middle of January. His talks focus on Rollins’ travels to countries impacted by economic uncertainty, political upheaval and war, including North Korea, Mongolia, Bhutan, Vietnam, India, Tibet, Sudan, Uganda, Haiti and Cuba. He’ll share stories, both serious and funny, that offer insight on what life is like in these places.
“You see these populations still emerging from a war that is either decades in the past or a few years in the past, and there’s a lot of similarities in that after a few decades or after a few years, it kind of looks the same. That is to say war has a very lasting effect that we westerners don’t always know about.”
In Vietnam, he notes some children are born showing signs of relatives’ exposure to Agent Orange almost 40 years removed from the end of the Vietnam War. In southern Sudan, he drove around minefields, and Rollins saw remnants of the Soviet war while in Afghanistan.
“It’s different from where I come from,” Rollins said in explaining his reasons for visiting these countries. “It’s impossible in my opinion, not to learn from that experience.”
Among the regions Rollins has most often visited is Africa — at least a dozen times since the late 1990s — and he said it was in Africa that he first experienced life in a place that truely felt unfamiliar.
On his first trip to the continent, he recalled spotting zebras and elephants from his plane before it landed in Kenya. Rollins met a pair of locals shortly after landing, and recalls their laughter upon seeing the tattoos that adorn his arms.
“That was my introduction to the Maasai — these two seven-foot men thinking these fading tattoos on my arms were a laugh riot. And I laughed with them.”
Based on his experience living in America, Rollins feels it’s easier than ever for people to cut themselves off from the rest of the world.
“America, the whole infrastructure is now kind of made for someone with a fourth-grade education to kind of wander through (life), point and laugh, get high, get overweight, and eat for cheap and have a crap job. Nothing more will be really demanded of you.”
No more music
Rollins’ busy schedule no longer includes musical performances. Following his last tour with Rollins Band in 2006, he vowed to quit music due to a lack of new lyrical ideas on his part.
“What was left for me, when not writing something new, would be to perform something old, and that to me is just really not hitting it,” he said. “I hit a certain age, and I just saw some of my peers touring and whipping out these 30-year-old songs, and it just says to me, my life isn’t going anywhere.”
Though there were some warm feelings to be had when Rollins Band first embarked on its 2006 tour, Rollins said in spite of the note-perfect performances, it wasn’t long before he began to remember why the band called it quits a decade earlier.
“Within the first show — I don’t know about the other guys — but I realized why we had broken up. And I now have five weeks to exist in that. It’s like dinner with the ex-girlfriend or boyfriend. Months later you decide to go out for dinner, and partway through the food, you’re like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait for this to be over.’”
While his ability to conjure lyrical ideas may not be what it once was, Rollins creative juices have remained intact through other activities.
“If you were to ask me to write a snarky essay about Mitt Romney, well I can have fun with that. But if you ask me to write a song about getting your heart broken by a woman, it used to happen when I was younger, but now, I’ve kinda wrote all of them, and I don’t feel the need to repeat.”
Rollins admires musicians who continue to latch on to interesting ideas as they age, specifically singling out 62-year-old singer-songwriter Tom Waits for continuing to make music he’s compelled to buy.
“The lyrics are beautiful, and he doesn’t seem to write like some guy who’s past it,” he said. “I don’t want to be on tour being past it and having to fake it on stage.”
Tours like the one he’s currently involved in are the exact opposite of that experience for Rollins.
“With the talking shows, I never have to fake it. I like being up there on every level. It’s poetic in that it’s just me.”
His exploits do not end on the stage. Rollins’ three-part series “Animal Underworld” recently aired on the National Geographic Channel, and a collection of photos and writings called “Occupants” was released last year by Chicago Review Press. He now preparing to publish a collection of recent journal writings.
Rollins also acts (viewers may recognize him from his role as A.J. Weston in Season 2 of the cable series “Sons of Anarchy”), hosts a weekly music radio show on KCRW in Los Angeles, and is a blogger for alternative weekly publication LA Weekly.
“That would make my day a lot more free for walking in the park and getting a dog and throwing it a frisbee,” Rollins says when discussing the notion of focusing his energy on only one of those endeavours. “But since I have that option, I still choose to work like a maniac, so I must want this.”
Rollins said he loved his time on “Sons of Anarchy” and believes he would enjoy having a regular role playing a cop or villain on a TV series.
“They’re all friends after Season 1, and at this point it must be so nice to know that, ‘I’ve got six months of work.’ So for someone with a recurring role like that — in my line of work it’s feast or famine. I don’t have a regular job. I have a bunch of irregular jobs. I have a whole bunch of vines I need to madly swing from. A tour is the only steady employment I get.”
Rollins has never been to Newfoundland and Labrador on past tours. He said it can sometimes take a while to make shows work in certain areas, adding that he rarely turns down opportunities to experience new places.
“It took me quite a while to get to, out of all places in America, the state of Delaware. Thirty years of touring in America, and I only played Delaware two years ago. I have no idea why.”
His tours have come a long way from his days criss-crossing America in a crowded van with Black Flag, performing in front of audiences that often anticipated violent encounters between Rollins and the crowd.
While his speaking tours offer a substantially mellower environment for performances, he still has moments where rage admittedly gets the best of him. The last time Rollins says he punched someone was two years ago.
“This guy, he moved on me — it was after a show in Australia — and so all I remember is all of a sudden I had him on the back of a car, like his body on the rear trunk of the car with his head against the rear windshield with my fingers and thumb firmly wrapped around his larynx, and I said, ‘You should walk away now or I’ll f**king kill you.’ And he nodded.”
Rollins says there remains “a berserko button” inside him that goes out of control when pressed, cautioning he does not consider himself to be a tough guy.
“It’s not a wise thing to do these days. I’m 51. It’s probably pretty easy to kick my ass, and I’m sure there’s several 18-year-olds who could just throw me a beating that would be very, very hard to walk off.”
Tickets are still available for each show at $25 in advance and $30 at the door. They can be purchased by calling the box office (729-3900 in St. John’s and 637-2580 in Corner Brook) or online at artsandculturecentre.com.