Commentary, News

Five Questions with Henry Rollins

When Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2 into law in March, huge music acts like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam cancelled shows, boycotting the state to protest the discriminatory law.

Image by Heidi May courtesy of 2.13.61

Image by Heidi May courtesy of 2.13.61

Other acts, like comedian Louis C.K., booked extra shows in the state and donated the money to pro-LGBT groups.

Henry Rollins, the Grammy-winning author, singer, actor and activist had no intention of canceling his three spoken-word shows in North Carolina – Oct. 15 in Asheville, Oct. 16 in Durham and Charlotte on October 18.

And he didn’t wait to hit the stage to air his views on HB2.

In a scathing L.A. Weekly column, the former Black Flag frontman took on McCrory and U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, who defended HB2 and criticized Springsteen’s boycott.

From the piece:

“When North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law, I wonder if he was thinking long-range about what the result might be. I can’t see him and his staff wondering out loud if their thick-skulled, cracker logic might result in Bruce Springsteen not only canceling his upcoming show in Greensboro, depriving the state of revenue and its residents of a Springsteen concert, but inspiring Mr. Boss to issue a press release that more people have read than will ever peruse House Bill 2.

Springsteen’s is a well-written statement that you have probably seen by now. In it, he concludes, “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them.”

House Bill 2 is much more than just the “bathroom bill” that it’s being characterized as. It actually prevents avenues of state government from including LGBT people in previous protections. For private-sector bigots, it is now open season.

It seems like a long way to go to please a handful of hicks, but obviously the governor was losing sleep over all those poor homophobes shaking in their boots as to who is in the stall next to them, and he took action.”

Rollins went on to say that he hopes more acts will choose to come to North Carolina and draw more attention to the fight for LGBT rights here.

“I want North Carolina to reap an LGBT whirlwind. More shows, more light, more heat, more volume — just more.”

We caught up with Rollins last week while he was in South Africa on his current international speaking tour. We talked HB2, social activism and why November’s election is too important to sit out.

Image by Heidi May courtesy of 2.13.61

Image by Heidi May courtesy of 2.13.61

There are a lot of things to be angry about in America today. Why did you choose to write about HB2 for your weekly column? And to your mind, do artists who command so much public attention have an obligation to engage with important social issues like LGBT equality? Are you playing three shows in NC – more than you have on previous tours – for this reason?

I am sick of state governments giving bigotry traction. I don’t think any artist/entertainer type has any obligation to address any social issue. If they want to and can do it well, that’s great. But if it’s not in their vision to do that, that’s okay as well. The shows were booked a long time before HB2. It would never occur to me to do something like that. Shows in NC are great and I will always take as many as I can.

Your friend RuPaul has said that while he’s heartened by the progress LGBT people have made in this country, he watched a country that seemed like it was on the eve of a revolution on these issues in the 1970s slide into social conservatism and homophobia in the 1980s. Is this a generational issue about which we’ll be embarrassed to have been fighting in 20 years, or is this country always in danger of a social slide backward?

I think any Western society is at risk because they are so high minded. The USA with its land of the free / home of the brave stuff. Really? When? When you have such big promises to keep, on your best day it’s hard. So, you really have to want it and know that it takes maintenance and constant vigilance to keep it together.  When you think so highly of yourself, like many people in the USA do, it’s hard to take criticism and allow it to help you improve. If you are critical of the USA, someone will tell you to move to Russia. I think to a certain degree, some of this is generational. None of the people I know are homophobic. Not to my knowledge, at least. Any situation you’re in that’s great is yours to lose.

You were instrumental in securing the release of The West Memphis Three in 2011, releasing an album of Black Flag covers by an array of diverse artists and mounting a tour to raise money for their defense and awareness of the case. What did that long, hands-on experience with activism teach you?

Patience. Going for the long, long long win. I learned a lot working on their behalf. Not easy, totally worth it. There are no Hollywood endings in those situations. Justice moves but it’s at a glacial pace.

Over the course of your career, your books and spoken word work seem to have gone from largely introspective to having a broader outward focus – world travel, politics, cultural criticism. Is that just a function of age and maturity, or were there specific events that refocused your view?

I think it’s a combination of living all over the world and being far less interested in myself than I was when I was younger. The world is huge, I am small, why spend too much time on myself when I can also pull my head out and see so much more. My experience has been that the more I see, the more I want to know. Going to parts of Africa, where you meet people with so much charisma, who have seen so much and live so close to the edge, it is easy to get over yourself quickly.

There are a lot of Americans – and unfortunately, a lot of young Americans- who say they don’t intend to vote in November. What  would you say to them?

If it weren’t so important, I would tell them to do what they thought was right and hopefully they would learn the lesson by the next time around. At this point, I would tell them that as offensive as he or she might find the candidates, and I totally get that, they share a country with me. For better or for worse, we are in this together. That being the case, we need the most transparent democracy possible. When they don’t vote, they muddy the windshield, making it hard not only for them to see but for me to see. It is about more than just your dissatisfaction. I am up to here with it myself but I will always vote. What they do, obviously, is up to them.

A timeline of Henry Rollins’ career 

(with illustrations by  Nelle Dunlap)

Born Henry Garfield in Washington, D.C. His parents, Iris and Paul, divorced early. He credits his mother, who worked in education at the federal level, with encouraging his interests in music and the arts. He recalls his father as an angry racist and homophobe who terrorized him.

Henry graduates from The Bullis School, a then-all-male private prep school where he was sent after behavioral problems and a hyperactivity diagnosis at an early age. After a semester at American University, he drops out and devotes himself to minimum wage jobs and the burgeoning D.C. punk scene.2punk

With best friend Ian MacKaye (later of influential bands Minor Threat and Fugazi), Henry immerses himself in punk rock. He would write and record one album with D.C. hardcore band State of Alert.3icecream

After jumping on stage to sing a song with L.A. punk band Black Flag, Henry is asked to join the band. He quits his job at a Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop and moves to California. He would write, record and tour with the legendary band until 1986, producing albums that would influence generations of musicians as diverse as The Beastie Boys to Kurt Cobain.

Henry makes $10 to tell a day-in-the-life-of-Black Flag story during a spoken word show. The audience clamors for more and spoken word – or “talking shows” – become a regular part of his life, providing inspiration to write and supplemental income.5book1984
Henry founds 2.13.61, a book company through which he will self-publish books of poetry, essays and journals. The company goes on to release books and spoken word recordings by fellow musicians and counter-culture figures like Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Requiem for a Dream)>

Henry releases his first spoken word album, Short Walk on a Long Pier. He also begins writing for SPIN magazine.

In the wake of Black Flag’s breakup, Rollins releases two solo record and forms the first iteration of The Rollins Band. He continues touring and releasing records and doing solo talking shows around the country and abroad.

The Rollins Band is the first act to play at the inaugural Lollapalooza festival, the success of which is instrumental in the mainstreaming of alternative rock. The same year Rollins and his friend Joe Cole were robbed at gunpoint. Cole was murdered. The assailants shot at and missed Rollins, who managed to escape.

Rollins releases the book “Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag,” remembrances of his touring years with the band. The next year Rollins would win a Grammy for the audiobook version and The Rollins band would be nominated for Best Metal performance for the song “Liar” the same year and perform at the ceremony.

The Rollins band breaks up. Henry concentrates more heavily on writing, spoken word, acting and voice-over work.

Henry reconstitutes The Rollins Band with members of the L.A. Band Mother Superior. They release several albums and tour internationally.

Rollins becomes aware of The West Memphis Three, three young men who were convicted of child murders in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1994. The lack of actual evidence made the case infamous in social justice circles and created a movement for their release. Rollins organizes the recording of an album and tour to benefit the three young men’s defense fund, which helped lead to DNA evidence that secured their release in 2010.

Though an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, Rollins is contacted by the United Service Organizations to tour and entertain troops when they repeatedly request him as a performer. Rollins does eight USO tours, entertaining U.S. service members in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Kuwait, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Honduras, Japan, Korea and the United Arab Emirates.

Henry hosts two seasons of The Henry Rollins Show on the Independent Film Channel. The show blends political  and social commentary, interviews and musical performances.

Henry hosts Henry Rollins Uncut on IFC, a series wherein he travels the nationally and internationally, often to troubled areas like post-Katrina New Orleans, Israel, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Henry releases “Occupants” – a book of photographs and essays from his travels around the world. 2012: Henry hosts Animal Underworld for National Geographic, traveling everywhere from North Carolina to Vietnam to look at extreme animal consumption from road kill and snake blood to bear bile.


After smaller parts in dozens of movies from David Lynch’s Lost Highway to Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II, Henry films He Never Died – his first starring role in a feature film. He plays an immortal cannibal exhausted by life and annoyed at having humanity thrust upon him again after countless years of solipsism.

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