Interview: Henry Rollins on fame, reinvention and the pink locker rooms

Rollins performs on Saturday, Nov. 15 at the Englert Theatre. Tickets are available online for $30.
Rollins performs on Saturday, Nov. 15 at the Englert Theatre. Tickets are available online for $30.

Ask someone what their association with Henry Rollins is and you might get several different answers. Known to most as the lead singer for the atonal, anti-authoritarian punk band Black Flag, Rollins has also had an expansive career as an actor, activist, essayist, nomadic bad-ass and spoken-word performer.

If you haven’t seen Rollins spoken word performances, they, like the man, are always in a state of change but are characteristically fierce, fast and uncompromising. Rollins will be performing at the Englert on Saturday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Little Village: How do you think your background influenced your artistic sensibilities and work habits?

Henry Rollins: I have no artistic sensibilities. I wish I did. It is probably really cool. I have work habits and work ethic. For me, all the things I do are jobs. I work pretty much every day. I can’t really separate it from life, so I guess the work is my life.

My background is middle class, average city dweller. I lived with a full-time working mother in apartments and for a little while, a small house in the Washington D.C. area. Both parents worked very hard, but neither one of them put that on me. I was never told to “Get up, get out there, get a job.” I was already at three jobs. I always bought my own bike. It was never a thing either parent ever said I had to do. It was what I wanted to do. I think I was very interested in being away from them as much as possible. Employment was great for that.

Was fame something you strove for or was it more a byproduct of things you happened to do? 

I guess I am famous in a way. I would rather consider it recognizable—I think that is more logical. I don’t feel famous. Some people tell me that they like what I do, which is great, of course. The perfect irony and truth is that I need them much more than they need me. As far as being recognized, that happens to me all the time. As far as the pursuit of fame as a goal? I really don’t know how you would go about that.

You recently wrote an article about Robin William’s suicide that you quickly retracted. You’ve never been one to shy away from controversy or apologize for any beliefs you hold. So, I’m wondering if this is the first time you’ve officially retracted a public statement and why you decided to do so. Are there parts of your original statement you still stand behind?

I didn’t retract it. That isn’t possible. Once you say something, it stays said. I apologized to anyone who may have been hurt by what I said, and I really meant it. I am absolutely not interested in hurting anyone, or being mean or insensitive. I am always interested in an opportunity to learn something.

From the letters I got, I learned quite a bit. I’m still quite behind not hanging yourself at your friend’s house so he can walk in and discover you and cut you down. I still find myself to be one of those, “Please don’t jump, let’s go for a walk and talk it out” types. However, a man with an excruciatingly painful condition wrote me and told me that his doctor said that the only cure for what he has is death, and he might want to consider suicide. What do you say to him? I doubt the, “Hey let’s go get some coffee and talk” thing is going to be at all helpful.

Illustration by Jacob Yeates
Illustration by Jacob Yeates

Speaking strictly in terms of artistic prowess, who are three performers or artists that you admire and what do you most admire about them?

David Bowie. His studio output from 1969 to 1980 is to me, freakishly amazing.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Miles Davis. It’s almost impossible to believe that one man is on so many amazing and different records.

Ian MacKaye. He is a good man and a true visionary. I watched him start Dischord Records. We have been best friends for over 40 years.

Reinvention has clearly been a defining feature of your work. Do you have any one recording, performance or song that you feel could be emblematic of your best work?

I don’t have anything like that. Remotely. I just do the work. I don’t ever do it so I can point to it and say, “See! This is what I have done … behold!” I’m not interested in resting on laurels. Doing the work is good to go—hanging around to take the bow holds nothing for me.

Sometimes I see bands touring the “25th Anniversary of _______” and they go out and play the album live. I don’t understand why you want to come back around like that. For me, if I am not, on a regular basis, going for something new, trying something out, trying to make it at a new job, going to a place I have never been, etc., life is flatline boring, sheer existential pantomime. It is getting up and occupying a rut. I have built my life to pursue the new. I don’t have family, don’t know many people and I am usually ready to leave within an hour. I have a house, I try to spend as little time in it as possible. Not always easy on the mind and body, but it’s how I got myself to 80-plus countries. This kind of routine forces one to reinvent and improvise. The older I get, the more important this is to me.

Final thoughts: There is a longstanding tradition at the University of Iowa to have the opponents’ locker room painted pink. Your thoughts?

It seems a bit juvenile and, in my opinion, has sexist/homophobic posture. Not how I would go about things. I would change it because it makes the home team seem lame. If you really want a true confrontation, you treat your opponent with respect, so when they are on the field, it is a true match. The pink locker room thing is just weak bordering on pathetic.

Luke Benson first saw Henry Rollins spoken word when he was 13 and it remains one of the most pivotal shows in his life. Strong endorsement to make it out to this one.