If you happened to have seen Black Flag back in the days when the group performed with Henry Rollins as its frontman, you know just how intense the burly dude can be. Often shirtless, Rollins would scream his goddamn lungs out while madly stomping. He’d have a microphone chord wrapped around his arm like it was some kind of leash designed to keep him from attacking the audience. These days, Rollins has simmered down, though he channels his frustration into books, columns and spoken word shows.
“I’m not a tough guy,” he admits via phone from his Los Angeles office where he manages to keep himself busy with a variety of projects (the day of our interview, he had a voiceover session for the History Channel program Ten Things You Don’t Know About and was making plans to head to Europe to work on a film for which he wrote the script. He also writes a weekly column in the L.A. Weekly and a monthly column for Rolling Stone Australia. And he hosts a weekly radio show).
Ironically enough, when he was detained a few years ago after a trip to Syria, he wasn’t the one doing the yelling. “My reception coming back to America was anything but [friendly],” he says. “I was taken into a room and yelled at. I don’t fear that kind of interrogation. I didn’t do anything wrong. My visa was legally obtained. Nothing was hidden. Everyone knew I was there. When they yelled at me, I just smiled at them. I think that irked them. When I know I haven’t done anything wrong, I won’t be convinced that I have. I never snuck into another country. For me, there will not be any sneaking into anywhere. I’m not about it. I do enjoy doing things legally. I won’t be yelled at for being curious. I won’t be taught to fear the world. I will not do it.”
His trip to Syria is one of many topics he’ll address on his current spoken word tour, which brings him out to the Midwest for a few dates. In fact, Rollins is so well-versed in matters regarding the Middle East, he could pass as a pundit. The current situation in Syria has really got his goat, and he speaks about it as if he’s a guest on CNN.
“America just bombed Syria,” he says. “Obviously, we’re out getting bad guys. Technically, we did not ask [Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-]Assad; we just went in. That means [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has to make a statement and he’s aligned with Bashar al-Assad. This all very suddenly becomes very nuanced and incredibly complex. You have half the country whining that the President isn’t moving fast enough. This isn’t Hollywood. This is going to be a tricky, prolonged [event]. This is extremely depressing.”
The point brings him to a much bigger point — and this is something he often tackles during his spoken word shows — about politics in the United States. Rollins, who came into the punk world at a time when many bands were raging against Reagan, says the American media is so controlled by corporate interests (“If you offend General Electric, they’re going to pull their seven-figure ad buy”). For him, American foreign policy is an extension of decades of surreptitious intervention.
“My theory is that the administration is an application that works inside a bigger software that’s the creation of guys like Truman, Churchill and Eisenhower,” he says. “It’s the creation of Israel and Iraq. It’s Operation Ajax that took out the Prime Minister of Iran. Churchill wanted to nationalize the oil. He freaked when he couldn’t get the oil from the Iranians. We’re still in that now. When you mess with these cultural and political ecosystems . . . do you expect something different to happen? That’s why it’s easy to recruit young men. That’s what you’re going to be fighting in Yemen and parts of Turkey and Syria. Who knows where these guys might run? It’s eventual that we’ll have to put infantry in these places. Maybe not in the next two years but soon. When generals are telling the President he can’t do it by airstrikes alone, I believe the generals. I believe someone who does this for a living.”
So how did Rollins, a guy originally known for his ability to scream, become so multi-dimensional (he acts, he writes, he even still finds time to work out at the gym)?
“Just being on the road so much and seeing so much crazy stuff and meeting a lot of fly-by-night people,” he says. “I was 21 or so in America. I was meeting kids who are running away and hobos. I would meet some guy who’s just out of jail who has a swastikas tattooed on his body. At one point, I was inspired by Henry Miller and just writing what I saw. You realize it takes effort to write effortlessly like he did. At least, writing took more effort than I thought. I just bought composition notebooks and started writing in an unguarded way. If you’re broke, there’s not a lot of options. There’s no one to drive you around the town. If you’re a lonely young person, the notebook is a place to bitch and moan.”
An Evening with Henry Rollins, 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, Masonic Auditorium, 3614 Euclid Ave., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $27, grogshop.gs.