Get in the Van: Henry Rollins — musician, spoken-word artist, writer and punk legend — talks about life on the road

Nov 5, 2008 at 4:00 am

Henry Rollins is a workhorse with a considerable legacy. As the vocalist of Black Flag from the early- to mid-'80s, he played a major role in the evolution of American punk rock. With both Black Flag and later the Rollins Band, he was a powerful and dynamic frontman, using his enthusiasm to dredge up raw emotion and induce cathartic explosions of energy in audiences.

Even now, more than two decades later, Rollins is still a captivating performer, although in a slightly different capacity. On his solo spoken-word tours, the 47-year-old tells stories, makes observations and (of course) shares his opinions on current events and politics. Judging by recent reviews, expect an exhaustive, passionate three-hour performance full of Rollins' trademarks: thought-provoking anecdotes and stamina testing rants all presented with a big, contagious smile.

It's a testament to his endless energy and humble nature that although Rollins pushes out hundreds of thousands of words a night, he always makes time to greet his fans post-show. This tireless ambition and attention to detail also feeds his many other occupations: author, columnist, commentator, documentarian, actor, narrator, blogger, radio host, television personality, poet and USO volunteer. We spoke with him about his current tour and found him to be intelligent, inspirational and utterly charming.

Jaime Lees: What else are you doing on tour? I know you have a bunch of things you have to get done, but how are you prioritizing it?

Henry Rollins: Well, deadlines. I'm on deadline for a book so I have to keep kind of pushing that along, and it's quite a ways off from being finished. So I try and work on that when I can. There's always something, and I'm always planning for what's to be done in the next few months. In my line of work you plan well ahead of time — you know, shows, booking, holding down a venue or whatever else. All of a sudden you're already planning the first two quarters of the next year, which I'm already doing, so far as releases, travel [and] work.

What's your day like? You have your show at night, and then do you get on the bus and wake up in a different place?

Yeah, but it takes quite a while to get to sleep post-show. Yesterday I worked out for a long time at the gym, did the show and got off the stage with my legs being fried. And then you get on the bus and you're very tired but unable to sleep, because the mind is still racing. So you find a way to somehow grind your teeth or whatever until you finally wear yourself out.

I just try to get my head down as soon as possible, 'cause there's always the show, the press and the gym waiting for me the next day. So there's a small pocket of time to try to get something done, and I usually fall way below the amount of stuff I want to get done on the tour. I bring a lot of books out with me, they rarely get read all the way.

You also seem really courteous with your fans. After the show you'll stay and talk to them for a long time.

Yeah, and I don't mind it. It's the right thing to do, but it is taxing, because people want to make a connection with you. I understand it. But I don't blow people off. I don't say, "Uh, uh huh, sure. OK, bye." I listen 'cause they're sincere, and I don't dislike them. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Do they ever tell you that they feel as though you're speaking for them?

Yeah, that's [been] said to me all the time for many, many years. I think that's just the nature of the fact that my feelings are not all that unique. My sentiments, whatever I'm coming up with, I've just gotten more access than some people do in the fact that I have a microphone, I've got an audience. So they might want to say "stick it to the man" or something, and they can say it to their friends at work, but I can kind of get it out there, fairly far and wide. So sometimes they'll thank you for that, like, "Hey, thanks for getting that out there." And I'm like, "That's no problem. Glad to do it."

Do you know what you're going to say when you get up there? Do you know topics you're going to hit?

To a great extent, yeah. I go up there every night and try to shoot my entire life though a pinhole in the wall. So I'm fairly front-loaded just coming out here with my big stories and whatever. You know, I have a path I want to go on, there are ideas I know I want to do. How I get to them — basically, I know the riffs and I jam on it on stage verbally.

Do you feel like there's separation between you and your work at all?

No, they're kind of all the same. All smashed together, for better or for worse. It's not always a good thing.

Well, you seem like you take your work very seriously, but at the same time, whenever I've seen you, you're very funny onstage.

The trick is to take the work seriously, but not yourself, you know? That way you can really just get in it and do your work and just be enthralled by your own fumes. 'Cause I think that's what gets in the way, to be thinking about how you're coming off or how you look too much. You should just be really all about what you're trying to say, what you're trying to get across. So that's what I try to do — and that's not unique, either. I'm sure you'll find a lot of people onstage who take the audience to task with a great amount of seriousness, but when they talk about themselves, it's almost dismissive, because they know that the bigger priority is this thing they're trying to do. The person trying to do it is not what it's all about.

Well, at the same time, there's not a lot of people who do what you do, if any. I can't think of anyone whom I would consider your peer at this point.

As far as the talking shows and stuff, yeah. Well, it's a unique thing in a way, but then again not. There's been people onstage kind of ranting and raving since the proverbial soapbox made of marble in Rome. But in coming from the punk-rock thing, doing it in this way, maybe there's a uniqueness there. Again, I really don't give it much thought. I'm just trying to get this thing over the wall every night. And it is a considerable task. It takes a lot out of me. Like, whenever I walk offstage, I'm kind of surprised that I did it.