Where do you even begin a conversation with Henry Rollins? You hear about people, especially artists and entertainers, wearing multiple hats; but this guy changes hats on an almost daily basis. He’s a screen and voice actor, a fervent writer, a radio broadcaster, a television show host, a publisher, a “spoken word” performer who sells out shows around the world, a documentarian and a globe-trotting explorer. And that’s just what he’s done this year.
Rollins, who grew up as Henry Garfield in the Wisconsin Avenue wilds of Glover Park, started growing his hat collection after joining the short-lived, simmering harDCore punk band State of Alert. From there, he launched into the national consciousness—as the lead singer of the L.A. hardcore punk band Black Flag. He would go on to form and front his own avant-edge punk band the Rollins Band, perform at the first Lollapalooza, win a GRAMMY for his audiobook Get In The Van!, become Monday night football friends with William Shatner, all while touring the world as much as possible.
While on the road in the 1980s, Rollins began writing to pass the time and to record what he experienced in the underground punk world. As he wrote, he started to form his words into a spoken word routine, something akin to stand-up comedy, but with more story and righteous anger. Now his world-famous “talking shows” are an opportunity for Rollins to share his perspective on the world with interested parties. It’s something like storytelling mixed with surgical criticism, heartfelt examinations of the best—and worst—of human nature, with a little comedy to spice the mix.
And that is what brings Rollins back home to DC next week on November 8 to the Lincoln Theater. His 2016-2017 spoken word tour will reach a new fever pitch on election night, and will be a nice change of pace for the usual election night mix of anxiety, blues and aspirin.
On Tap caught up with Rollins by email to talk about the show, his feelings on international travel, and how he keeps his ears to the ground for his hometown.
On Tap: Much of your career has focused around the written and spoken word. How did writing become such an important part of your self-expression?
Henry Rollins: For me, writing, as far as working at it, writing every day, working towards a goal of someone else reading it, came awhile after I started writing. I first started writing while on tour, to alleviate boredom and loneliness. The hours pre-show were pretty still. You would be in a town, you had no money and there wasn’t always a lot to do but at the same time, a lot was happening. So, I started writing about it, writing about how I was feeling. It was a place to go. It still is. Writing is portable, quiet and cheap, it’s a great medium for travel.
OT: Has this election cycle prompted any changes in material?
HR: I always talk about an election when it’s happening during a tour. This time around, I am more interested in the process, how much it is a media play more than a presidential election. It seems to be more a dramatic tragedy than anything else. So, not a change, per se, but I’m definitely talking about it.
OT: How do you “prepare” material for your tours?
HR: A lot of preparation goes into the shows. I think it must be more than merely relaying information derived from being out in the territory. So, I get the information and try to figure out what the story is. That’s what takes the most time. I usually say the stories out loud to myself, which probably sounds strange but actually works for me. I like to be very prepared for shows. I am not all that good at being spontaneous.
OT: So much of your shows revolve around your travels. Are there any moment or stories that stand out from this year of touring that you haven’t talked about in the shows?
HR: A recent visit to a township in Hout Bay, outside of Cape Town, South Africa called Imizamo Yethu, which I go to every time I am there was heavy this time around. It always is but this time, one of the people I always visited with had passed away from HIV and the township itself is having a lot of challenges. I don’t know how to position it yet.
OT: Is it ever hard for you to come back to the U.S. after extended periods of time internationally?
HR: It’s not hard, but the reminder of how harsh the USA can be constantly presents itself. Like coming back from Ecuador a year ago, all that hospitality coming to an end so abruptly was a drag. I live outside of the US on a regular basis, so I am constantly readjusting. That being said, I can’t think of living anywhere besides here.
OT: What musicians out there now—whether they’re from Compton or Kiev—are hitting you hard right now?
HR: A few would be High On Fire, Wand, Ty Segall, Hierophants, Dick Diver, Zig Zags, Savages, Living Eyes, Lowtide, Thee Oh Sees, Brando’s Island, Ausmuteants, Julie Ruin, Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Hiragi Fukuda, Wolf Eyes, Point Juncture WA, Red Red Krovvy, Jonny Telefone, VUM, The Anti-Job, Kikagaku Moyo, the Laurels, True Widow. I am sure I could find more to list. I think there is a great wealth of talent out there if you know where to look. There always is. There will always be great music. When someone says that music isn’t good any more, it doesn’t make sense to me, I have never found that to be true.
OT: Do you keep a finger to the pulse of the DC music scene?
HR: I like the band Cigarette. Olivia Neutron John, Anna is amazing. I saw her play last year and thought she was great. Chris Richards just sent me some new DC music but I have not checked it out yet. I do my best to find out what’s happening in DC music wise.
OT: The Lincoln Theater is such a storied venue in DC, but it was closed for most of your performance career. Does performing in such a landmark of your hometown have any meaning for you?
HR: Not outside of wanting to do a good show. I was there several months ago, which was useful but beyond that, all I can think of is wanting to be as sharp as possible on the night.
OT: You’ve been a musician, author, spoken word performer, stand-up comedian (sort of), radio host, DJ, podcaster, actor, voice actor, globe-trotting traveler. Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you want to do? What stones are there left to turn for Henry Rollins?
HR: I can’t think of anything, as I never really had a plan. There are more destinations I want to reach, more writing I want to do. But as far as another thing to do, hopefully, something interesting presents itself. I wouldn’t mind a little time at the end of this tour to get some vinyl listening done. I have been out for the better part of 10 months.
Henry Rollins will perform his election night spoken word on November 8. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tickets cost $40. The Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincoln.com
Photo by: Heidi May