Going there with Henry Rollins

Punk icon-turned-multimedia explorer travels the planet

Mar 7, 2012 at 6:00 am
Going there with Henry Rollins

Henry Lawrence Garfield never could have guessed his life would turn out this way. Born in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 13, 1961, Garfield battled an abusive father, bullying at school and a long stint on Ritalin meant to curb his subsequent acting out. Books and music helped Garfield cope with a lonely childhood. He began weightlifting and singing with punk bands, and changed his name to Henry Rollins as part of his self-reinvention. A friendship with the Los Angeles-based band Black Flag, begun in the pre-Internet style of exchanging letters, led him to move west and join them as their singer in 1981.

Until their 1986 breakup, Black Flag blazed a trail across North America, helping create an underground music network that hadn’t existed before — taking over VFW halls, warehouses, homes, Chinese restaurants and clubs that welcomed the scary, dirty punks no one else wanted. Though the band has influenced many since, they were ultimately less important musically than culturally, building a community that continues to thrive today — locally, from Mag Bar and the late Skull Alley to house shows in the city and suburbs.

In the pre-blog, pre-Twitter world, young punks angry about the president, global issues like terrorism or nuclear destruction, or the tyranny of their own mothers were more prone to expressing themselves through a type of music that still exists, though many — Rollins included — have since found new avenues through which to share their thoughts.

Even before the band split, Rollins had started performing as a spoken-word artist: part storyteller, part comedian, part lecturer. He also began releasing spoken-word albums and authoring books. After Black Flag disbanded, Rollins started his own Rollins Band. The path laid by his generation resulted in the Alternative Nation that made stars of Nirvana and others, and the Rollins Band’s video for “Liar” played often on MTV. He began branching out into more overtly commercial ventures, taking acting roles and voiceovers for ads and video games. His 1994 Black Flag memoir, “Get in the Van,” has become required reading for freshmen rockers.

As his musical career ran out of steam, spoken-word became Rollins’ primary endeavor, though he continues to pursue a wide range of other work. In recent years, he hosted the chat show “The Henry Rollins Show” on cable channel IFC and documentaries for National Geographic, acted in movies and on the series “Sons of Anarchy,” and now writes a column for the LA Weekly and presents a weekly show on the influential public radio station KCRW.

“I just reckon life is short, and I come from minimum-wage work, so I have no illusions about where I come from, or what I’m really suited to do,” he tells LEO. “I hit it with immigrant zeal. So-and-so says, ‘Hey, would you fly to New York for a single day and work on a TV show?’ — ‘Yeah, I’ll do that!’ I’ll fly for no money,” he laughs, “and basically do that thing just to ring the bell, you know?”

His latest book, “Occupants,” released last fall, is yet another new gig for Rollins. It’s a collection of vivid photographs he took over the past decade, in far-flung lands such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Israel. In true Rollins form, the photographs are paired with pissed-off commentary about what he has witnessed on his travels far off the tourist path. Though his younger self documented his own internal struggles, Rollins has matured to document others and their realities.

Last month, Rollins told the Washington City Paper in D.C., “Basically, human compassion inspires a lot of my ire. Just seeing people get the short end of the deal.” One needn’t look far into his personal story to see why he feels compelled to shine a light on injustice.

He tells LEO, “I find the human form to be very beautiful. People are interesting-looking creatures to me … At the risk of sounding like the xenophobic, Rudyard Kipling type ‘All these people are very beautiful. I have five in a box in my backyard.’ I’m not trying to say that,” he clarifies. “With this book, I’m just trying to close the gap between the viewer and these people … I shoot with a wide lens, primarily, which forces me to get a portrait where I’m, like, a foot away from the person. You’ve got to get really up close and personal and engage. Say ‘Hi, can I take your photo?’ You can’t be sneaky and just grab a shot,” says the never-married 51-year-old, who admits he handles big issues better than intimate relationships.

“You’ve got to walk over there and say, ‘I’d like to do this.’ … That’s what the book is basically about. The writing, which is the hard part of the book, it’s very angry, and it’s me trying to stick it to The Man as best I can.”

Today we get our information from a wide variety of sources, all the time, yet from a distance. Rollins has a quenchless thirst for knowledge and has made a career — a life — out of going to the places he’s curious about, touring often with the USO when not going solo. “It definitely gives you a new insight into America, America’s foreign policy, globalization, global climate change … it’s not like what you read in a book — it’s real. You’re walking through it, you’re smelling it, you’re dealing with it,” he says. “I really crave that kind of information, and that kind of reality, so I go to these places. You know, I read a lot of books, or I try. And no matter what book I read on a country, it’s never as vivid or as full of information as actually going to the place and getting my information that way.”

During our interview, Rollins discourses at length without losing focus, sharing his view of international travel like a cross between Anthony Bourdain and Al Gore, with a touch of Bill Maher — preaching a way of life that is out of reach for many, yet articulating his perspective in a way that is both educational and entertaining.

The need to travel …

Henry Rollins: I think all Americans, if they can, should get a passport and travel. I know that’s kind of like liquid cash. It’s not car payments and house payments; at this point, it’d be out of reach for some Americans to go travel, because they’ve got to pay for real-world stuff.

But if it’s at all possible, ideally, Americans should travel. They should get out and see stuff. They should go to India, a part of Africa, or go to southeast Asia to see what the Vietnam War looks like 40-some-years on … it may make you think differently about people, perhaps.

LEO: So, you’re not going to let people off the hook and say it’s an OK substitute to just buy your book or watch you on TV, right?

HR: Oh, no, I wouldn’t let them off the hook by just looking at my book! I just think there’s so much to be gained when you get out of the zone of familiarity. And me, too, that’s why I travel — to force myself out of that which I know. Like, I can go to the grocery store I go to a couple of nights a week, and I buy the same food every time. I can close my eyes, walk through that place and, if nothing’s in my way, I can walk through it like a lab rat and get the biscuit.

I like, personally, to be in situations where you get out of the hotel or wherever you’re at, like, “OK, this is all pretty confusing …” You just need to start using your mind. It makes me feel alive again! I realize how on autopilot I can get. Even in a different American city, just because it’s all so familiar. My eyes have brain-mapped the color of a Starbucks logo so I can see half of one of the letters two blocks away from the corner of my eye. And so can you. You might not even want to go in there, but you know what you’re looking at, even if you’re not looking at it.

From Darfur to Dasani …

HR: I think people are done a disservice when — you are living in a global ecological setting; if there’s a water shortage over there, at some point that water shortage — or that water “inconvenience” — will be reaching you. I got a letter today from an agency I work with that drills water wells, and they said, “OK, this part of, basically the Darfur area, they lost 500 kids to malaria last month because of bad water.” These people now walking several miles to get water, it’s muddy water, they’re getting sick from it, and the water situation is so bad now, monkeys are attacking women carrying buckets of water and taking the water. Anything like that, by the time it gets to the Western world, it just means your Dasani water is 7 cents more per bottle ... you’ll never notice. The end of the lash that cuts open, that’s western Sudan, where it kills 500 kids.

That happens every time with every resource, from oil to water, and I’m not saying you should lose sleep and feel guilty all the time because you’re a big fat American and you suck. I’m not trying to put that across at all. I’m just trying to say that if you get out in real life and see this, it perhaps might make you think differently about your meditational shower, your swimming pool, your 4 gallons of water to shave because you leave the water on because you’re too lazy to turn it off while you shaved your face, and you don’t need the water that’s going down the drain — things like that. That’s one of the reasons I travel.

LEO: Is it fair to say that you still feel optimistic about humanity?

HR: Yeah! Absolutely. More than ever! I mean, you see these people bearing up under circumstances that — you wonder how you would do. Because it’s so seemingly inhuman … yet the kids seem to be happy. The adults seem to be buoyant and resilient, and they don’t want your pity. They wonder, at least in my opinion, what you’re looking at. When you’re going, “Awww,” they’re going, “What are you saying ‘Awww’ for?” They blow by you, like, “Well, good luck with your pity, but we’re busy living.” So I look at these situations in all these different ways. It’s certainly mind-blowing for me.

Humans will persevere …

HR: One day, I was walking down the streets of Madagascar, in Antananarivo. The city center has a lot of flies, a lot of food that could probably make you real sick, and I thought, “Can I do this? Pretend I don’t have the Antananarivo Hilton to walk back to and eat in? Can I walk into any of these stalls and eat this food?” There’s flies covering everything, it’s kind of nightmarish. I’m, like, “Damn, man, I wonder, how many days can I hack it here?” And you see everyone else … you’re just kind of in the way. They’re just getting on with it. So, humans will persevere through anything. Even a nuclear holocaust, there’ll still be a few crawling around afterwards. Somehow they’ll get by, they’ll figure it out … It makes you realize how tough you’re not. These people who think they’re tough guys, they got a tattoo and an attitude and a big car or whatever — I think of parts of India I’ve seen, where the pollution and the filth is so monumental, you’ve really got to be careful what you walk in, walk on, and make contact with.

A city of garbage …

HR: I’ve been to India a few times. I was there early this year shooting a documentary with National Geographic and, to get to one point, we had to get through another, and the place we had to get through was literally a city of garbage. It’s where garbage companies go to dump their garbage, where it’s processed and burned and gone through. It’s these clouds of smoke, and just, literally, kilometers of mountains of trash. And it blows everywhere. So the streets are covered with trash, there’s trash floating in the water, these people are picking plastic out of it and burning parts of it — you see what deregulation looks like. So, let’s take Ron Paul over there and really see what this looks like. We can take all those great Southern Bloc senators who apparently love Ayn Rand and want to get rid of the EPA and go, “Here’s what it looks like … You want to put that in your backyard? Have all your kids come out with four eyes? OK! You go ahead with that.”

That’s what I learned from traveling, and that’s the anger that moves me when I see these photos.