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Look Back in Anger

Punk legend Henry Rollins talks Trump, COVID-19 and Confederate monuments ahead of his Richmond tour stop.

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“This is not a time to be dismayed. This is punk rock time. This is what Joe Strummer trained you for.”– Henry Rollins on the election of Donald Trump

James Brown was known as the hardest working man in showbusiness, but Henry Rollins may be the hardest working punk. His business card, if he carried one, could feasibly include singer, writer, spoken-word artist, actor, TV and radio show host, columnist and activist.

The punk legend first rose to fame as the electrifying frontman of seminal hardcore band Black Flag. Prowling the stage in nothing but a pair of black shorts, Rollins was often assaulted by fans, and didn’t mind returning the favor.

Ever since, Rollins has been a man on the move, whether it’s hosting TV shows or his radio show on KCRW-FM, authoring books, appearing in movies, touring with the USO, or penning columns for Rolling Stone Australia and LA Weekly. After Black Flag disbanded in 1986, he formed Rollins Band; in 2006, he called it quits with music, telling producer Rick Rubin in a recent interview “I’m done with music. I don’t hate it. I just have no more lyrics. There’s no more toothpaste in the tube.”

While still in Black Flag, Rollins began performing as a spoken-word artist, drawing crowds of equivalent size as his music shows. In 1995, he won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for “Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag,” a recording of him reading his Black Flag tour diary that was published under the same name.

On Wednesday, Rollins comes to the National as part of his “Good to See You” spoken-word tour. Reached by phone mid-February from his home in Los Angeles, the Washington, D.C.-area native spoke at length about the pandemic, former President Donald Trump, Confederate monuments and the importance of punk rock.

The following has been edited for length and clarity:

Style Weekly: I saw that you cancelled your European and Australian tours. Was that because of pandemic concerns, complications, both?

Henry Rollins: By the time the world gets safe enough to travel, I don’t think I’ll be able to get out of a chair. I’m 61.

I’m just reconciling myself that I may not see England or Germany again, two countries that I love very much, or Australia, where I could easily live the rest of my life with no problem. I don’t know if I’m ever getting back to them.

I blame the anti-science crew. I put this completely on them. You know, what am I going to do, go punch them in the nose? I just accept it.

Has the election of former President Donald Trump and the pandemic changed your outlook on the world? I know that I’ve become more of a defender of institutions than I was before.

Are you saying your normally Jeffersonian, yellow-jaundiced eye was somehow whitened by how hard Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and people like that are working to keep you safe because you don’t expect that from the government?

Something like that.

I’m not exactly cynical about government, but I have kind of that Jeffersonian jaundice where I’ve saved for whatever retirement needs. I just don’t believe in Social Security. I believe in it as a concept, I just don’t think there’ll be a dollar for me.

I have saved so aggressively. Live below your means, fly economy, buy a can of soup and save money, because one day, man, something’s gonna break, and there’s no one for you, especially the government. I don’t hate the government. I don’t want to bomb anything.

I don’t hate Donald Trump, just the wrong guy for the job. I liked him when he’d be on Larry King and he’d talk about how much he liked New York, where he was that harmless, useless guy with the weird hair. “New York’s a great city.” I agree! I love your city, man. He’d say really great things after 9/11. “Don’t worry, New York’s coming back.” He was an awful president, in my opinion, but I don’t hate the guy.

He let all the racists come out onto Main Street. He really greenlit racism. All those backroom conversations are now in your face. Good people on both sides? That was like, ding-ding, OK racists, go. Are you kidding? You don’t even know what you let loose.

You let them come topside, and now we reap the whirlwind. I knew America had a lot of racists, and I just chalked it up to naivete. I didn’t know we had that many.

We’re a very course and tough country. We like guns. We’re hot to violence. We think violence solves problems, and that’s the country I live in. COVID really, really brought that out. It exacerbated all of those conditions. Everyone who has an itch, now they’ve got two legs full of poison oak. It’s a combination of a really crushing pandemic [and] a president who should have just put an arm around Fauci and said, “I want you to listen to this guy,” and they would have liked him, instead of thinking he was smarter than an epidemiologist.

America has been this equation: Slavery plus genocide plus industrial revolution plus the failure of reconstruction – this is not in chronological order – plus the failure of civil rights, plus, plus, plus. What does it equal?

In the last few years, we have hopped over the equals sign, and now we are on the other side of the equation with diminishing resources, with the failure of reconstruction and Jim Crow as an institutionalized [part of our system]. Crime is monetized. You fill prisons. You fill battlefields, and you supply the bad guys with weapons where they fire them at you, you can go have a fake war, and that’s what we equal.

He recalls his friend, the artist Shepard Fairey who created the “Hope” poster, visiting President Barack Obama in the Oval Office the day after Trump’s election. Obama was in good spirits.

[Fairey] said, “Mr. President, how can you be happy,” or “How can you be upbeat? Trump just got elected.” And he said, “Yup, we’re gonna get there. All the stuff we put into place, there’s a million ways to get in. You just have to find a different door. It’s going to be fine. You’ve got to keep voting. You’ve got to keep showing up.” And he pointed to Fairey’s two lovely daughters and said, “One day, they’re going to vote. We’re going to be fine.” That was a real lifeline [for me].

During the Iraq thing, I was on [former President George W.] Bush like a cheap suit, writing editorials and getting death threats and all of that. Trump really took the wind out of my sails. It was hard to stay angry — positive anger. Trump plus COVID really winded me, I must be honest. I lost my mojo, got it back.

Rollins digs through his massive home library of records. - HEIDI MAY
  • Heidi May
  • Rollins digs through his massive home library of records.

When things got tough these past few years, I thought a lot about your Joe Strummer line.

Thanks. I never questioned authority until I heard the first Clash album. I was raised by an authoritarian dad and went to an authoritarian prep school. I just said ‘yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and sat down and kept my tie straight and never stood up to my father. Just terrified of him. Never once. Joe Strummer made me question everything. I got to tell him that. He was a real gent. He wore it well. He was great.

But [Minor Threat and Fugazi frontman] Ian MacKaye also told me that. Ian MacKaye never once kowtowed to anybody. I should have learned more from my best friend since I was 12.

It was punk rock that gave me the guitars and the volume to stand up and go, yeah. Ian’s always been like that. I’ve always been the suck-up, the follower.

On the wing-eating interview show “Hot Ones,” you were asked about the definition of punk rock, and you said there were a million different versions, depending on who is asked. What’s your own definition?

Again, a million different versions, and I think that’s great because it is such a personal thing. For me, it’s having the courage to declare yourself. And that just sounds so written by some staff writer. Just stand up and say, “Hey, I’m gay,” if you are, or “I think all this sucks and I can’t take this anymore. I quit, because I can’t be with a bunch of liars.” Just to stand up and say, “You know, life’s too short for this.”

My dad would try to inculcate me into his woman-hating, gay-hating, non-white-person-hating ideology. I never fell for it, thankfully. My mom helped neutralize that.

I never stood up to him. I was terrified … I never stood up to any of my teachers. One time, I stood up to a guy in school; one time, after getting teased mercilessly for a whole lot of years. I just didn’t have any backbone.

My whole life up to punk rock was one long inhalation, the bowstring getting pulled back, and it got pulled back like 300 miles. And then I heard the Clash, and then I heard the Sex Pistols album. I’d never heard anyone yell and scream like that. They were mad like me. We probably weren’t mad at the same things. I don’t hate the queen or anything. I was just a young man being angry at whatever there was. But to hear someone let it out like that, the bowstring, and then the rest of my life was the exhale. That was Black Flag, Rollins Band, all the writing, and probably a lot of things I probably should have thought about before I unleashed it, and apologies later. Never anything racist, just being a dick.

I heard punk rock and said, “Well, I’m never talking to my dad again.” I failed at that. He invaded the first ever Rollins Band show in D.C. I’m talking to Ian, and he goes “Don’t look now, but over your left shoulder, Paul just walked into the 9:30 Club.” And I hadn’t seen him since, you know, Carter was president. I just talked to him for a minute. He was drunk, and I’ve never seen him again. I have no idea where he is, and he was just trying to talk to me.

I just said, “You still call Black people [a racially insensitive word]?” That’s the only thing I said to him, and he went off on some tangent about how America’s colorblind. And I went, “Uh-huh.” I just walked away. Punk rock helped me do that. If it wouldn’t have been for punk rock, I just would have gone [makes cartoonish noises], just a blubbery, little tearful mass of jelly.

Have you spent much time in Richmond? We just took down most of our Confederate monuments.

That’s great. I’m only in Richmond like I’m only in Chicago. I come for the show. I go to the record store or the gym, probably both. I do the show, I limp out of town. I know America like one spoon of ice cream at a time, not the whole cone, so I can’t tell you much about any city.

I’m not at all conflicted about the statues, but I’ll say something that you might disagree with, and that’s fair enough. I think they should be taken down, because none of them were put up after the Civil War, it was like decades later, correct? That was manipulation. But as part of American history, I would rather they not be sledgehammered or melted down, in that they can be put in a museum, or in some outdoor area corralled together like some weird art thing like those cars that stick out of the desert floor, wherever that is.

You go through parts of Berlin. They left stuff up. Learn, so we don’t repeat. So, you take them down, good! Put a statue of Iggy Pop up instead. That would make my day. Don’t melt them down, because those big-ass monuments are teachable moments.

Our local Valentine Museum has expressed interest in displaying the Jefferson Davis Monument as it looked after it was taken down by protestors: on the ground, covered in paint and graffiti.

That’s bitchin’.

What should people look forward to with your show?

I have really good material, it’s just not so travel-based [this time]. It’s super positive without being corny, cloying or cheesy. Because my optimism is always sort of armor plated. And I’ve got a monster centerpiece story. It’s great, and it cost me a ton of money, just because of what happened, and it was an utter catastrophe.

It sounds corny, but I love being in front of an audience. They give me a reason to exist. I love these people. I’m obsessed with them. They show up. They trust me. It’s never been about the money or fame. I’ve never had a ton of either. Who cares about any of that? They trust you!

I don’t care about dying. I fear failing my audience. I fear it like anyone has feared anything, and that is a great guardrail, to fear failure, to fear letting your audience down. Man, that will get your ass up in the morning.

I’ve never done all that well in Richmond. Black Flag did OK there, Rollins Band did OK there, but me on my own, I’ve always done OK. What am I at, the National? It’ll be like my third or fourth time there. I’ve done OK there twice, and truly stunk it out once like in 2006. I bombed so hard. Like 180 people showed up. It was so lonely out there.

What other projects are you currently working on?

I have a book at the printer, which – the first show is near Ann Arbor, [and] our all-female run printer, which we’ve been using for years, McNaughton & Gunn, they’re there. So, we’re actually going to be putting the new book on the tour bus and sell the first run at shows. That book is hopefully in production. I’m finishing a book that’s called “Beatings” for now, and that will be out in December. Heidi [May], my manager, she’s my editor. We’re going to start wailing on that manuscript in June when I get back from tour. There’s two other books I’m writing and another book I’m editing.

I have this tour. I have my radio show. I have ongoing [voice-over] commitments to animation features. “Masters of the Universe” is the only one I can talk about, because Kevin Smith did the press release, and my episodes have aired, but he told me I’m back in. The other ones aren’t out yet, so I can’t talk about them, because you sign those crazy NDA things.

And I have a super huge monster project that is going to take all of my money, and money I’m hopefully going to borrow, and that is the biggest thing I’ll ever try to pull off in my entire life. It’s going to make everything else I’ve ever attempted seem miniscule. I’ve got the right people in place, and I’m not going to put the cart before the horse, but remember this conversation, because I guarantee you, I’m going to get this done, and it’s going to be super bad-ass, and I guarantee you, you will want to see it.

As Donald Trump says, “People say it’s really great. Everyone says.”

Henry Rollins’ Good To See You Tour comes to the National, 708 E. Broad St., on March 30. For more information, visit thenationalva.com.