After fronting the California hardcore punk band Black Flag from 1981 until its collapse in 1986, Henry Rollins began a new career as a spoken-word artist and human rights activist. He toured briefly on several occasions with The Rollins Band, but he has been most consistently on the road as a spoken word artist.
In 1995, he won a Grammy Award for his spoken word album Get in the Van – a memoir about his time with Black Flag. He’s been a very outspoken gay rights activist and released an album in 2002 with The Rollins Band to benefit the West Memphis 3. This weekend, I had the chance to speak with Rollins about his touring history and life as a activist.
What first made you decide to go on the road with a spoken word tour?
I have been doing these tours for 23 years. I am, therefore I tour, it’s really not a decision.
What’s the biggest difference between going on the road now, by yourself with the spoken word tour, and when you were on the road with Black Flag?
I travel a lot better, the venues are better, the audiences are bigger, I am older and things in the world are vastly different than when I was on the road with that band. That was over 20 years ago so a lot of it is in the hazy rear view.
Any similarities? Mainly because of the social/political statements made years ago with Black Flag and what you talk about now?
I think there is an acknowledgment of the danger of power being a corruptive element. That’s playing out in front of us on the world stage. I think back in those days, my worldview was smaller. Things were all arms’ reach away. I would think about getting fed and what would happen at the show that night, as they were often quite eventful. From those days to now, I have always felt varying degrees of resistance or going against the grain as it were. Less now than then. I think things are changing.
What/who gives you the best material now and why? Besides President Bush?
Travel gives me my best material. Bush is an intellectual coward, there’s no need to spend too much time on him. He’s really not the problem. The problem is, unfortunately, much, much bigger than he is. When I go places, I get perspectives that allow me to see America differently and it gives me a lot of material. If all I did was talk about a politician all night, I think it would be quite boring for us all. Basically, not to sound too new age or something, life and experience gives me my best gear. I work at getting myself into situations that force me to deal with things out of what is normal for me. This is great for source material and what life is all about for me.
You’ve been doing USO shows for the American troops and traveling to parts of the Middle East – what has that given you as an opinionated artist and as a person (particularly an American)?
It is tough to see such a young country like America go into these thousand year old cultures and tell them that they are going to save them and that savior ends up being the region losing its natural resources and getting McDonalds for all their pain and misery. I understand why there’s so much resentment. In my country, critical thinking seems to be on the endangered list. I have learned a lot from those tours. I traveled to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Pakistan on my own last year and those were really amazing trips.
At what point in your life did you become a human rights activist? What fuels the fire that keeps it going?
I think if you care at all about human life, you are a human rights activist. If you look at a scene like what’s happening like in Darfur and care about that, then you are a human rights activist. What made me get visibly active with things in that regard was money. Having enough to take care of myself allowed me to have the space to look out for others. Also it’s just a sense of right and wrong. That’s what gets me so angry at homophobia. It’s as insane and awful to me as racism.