“Work is how I identify myself. It’s how and where I find myself. It’s how I get through time. I don’t enjoy life. I do life. I am an Americanist. Every moment I am alive is because I have not been murdered by the America … The tasks I set out for myself are what I do to beat the perfect pointlessness of life.”
Growing up in Northeast Ohio as an awkward teenager, I found myself at odds with my high school contemporaries. Filled with angst and nowwhere to belong, many teenagers try to escape their lives through legal and illegal activities. My escape was skateboarding and punk rock. I was first introduced to Henry Rollins by a close friend, who handed me a stack of CD’s, everything from Minor Threat to Black Flag to Tiger Army and Refused … After listening to those albums, culturally, politically, aesthetically, morally, things changed for me. It was my aha moment; in that instant I felt that I belonged. Ten years later, as I added a bit more “mileage” and life experience, the words of my childhood heroes became clear. Since my youth, I have actively followed Henry’s work across many art forms; music, film, spoken word, and literature. Henry is a true legend, an individual who exemplifies my belief in living a full life without limits or boundaries, it is a great honor and pleasure to have had the opportunity to interview him. Paradigm Magazine would like to thank Glen E. Friedman for the use of his photograph and Shepard Fairey for the use of his art. Their generosity of spirit continues to inspire.
Introduction & Interview by Theo Constantinou
Thoreau was quoted saying, “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Henry, I have heard you speak many times on solidarity and loneliness can you delve deeper into your own personal reasons for being a ‘solitary man’.
A lot of my work requires that I be alone. I don’t do much collaborative work and usually only find myself involved in it for employment purposes. I was raised as an only child. I worked after school most of the time. I knew a few people in my neighborhood, like Ian MacKaye, who has been my best friend since I was twelve or thirteen. I like people but they are painful and not easy for me to understand. I like them in person but I like them better on records, on film or in photos. I travel all over the world on my own for months at a time and don’t really get lonely. I don’t “miss” anyone. I have never thought of getting married and don’t want a girlfriend. I just want to work and go as far and as wide as I can. Companionship doesn’t matter to me. I am thankful for the few people I know but they are enough, actually, probably more than I can handle.
Henry, you have been making music, performing spoken word, doing radio shows, hosting television programs, basically constantly working since your teenage years. I read this quote by Joseph Conrad that says, “I don’t like work… but I like what is in work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – which no other man can ever know.” Can you talk more about how you’ve found yourself by working for the past 25 years?
Work is how I identify myself. It’s how and where I find myself. It’s how I get through time. I don’t enjoy life. I do life. I am an Americanist. Every moment I am alive is because I have not been murdered by the America. Work and an appreciation of art, be it music or painting, or whatever other form you want to mention—are what makes life possible for me. Otherwise, it’s a flat line. The tasks I set out for myself are what I do to beat the perfect pointlessness of life. I build my own wheel and run on it.
When Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Peace Prize he sent a speech to be read in his absence … Here is an excerpt, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” … Do you find this to be true as a performer and do you find yourself facing eternity each day, alone?
Well, he did read it. I have a recording of him reading it. He had very unique phrasing.
I usually find myself facing the lack of it. I live in a very immediate environment. I have a daily schedule that is very coordinated, very stacked. I don’t think much past a few hours until things have settled down and then when I can, I think about what’s coming up, a tour or a trip I am about to leave on. Past that, I don’t think about ten years later. Well, sometimes I do, when I am trying to do some time management. I reckon I have a few years left to be able to get something of worth from the books I want to read. That window closes a little every day. I am trying to get a lot done.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with Todd Carmichael, co-founder and owner of La Colombe, we were talking about one single question about life & knowing oneself. Who are you? So I ask, who is Henry Rollins?
I am my itinerary. I am the next thing I plan for myself; the next trip, book project, tour—the next opportunity to actualize an idea. That’s all I am.
There was this interview you did with this kid from Michigan and he was completely unprepared … He asked you if you ever got the feeling that LA was dead and you said that it’s not as dead as some peoples’ minds. In today’s world with real-time updates from Facebook, Twitter & the Blogosphere, it feels like people have lost their desire for mind expansion and thought provoking material. Even the questions people ask in interviews are completely useless and mind-numbing. And I’ll quote you from that interview but why in today’s society or just in general do people become completely ‘complacent’. Can you speak a bit more on your early days in Black Flag and what it truly meant to be DIY punk band, and the idea that if you weren’t on the road performing, you weren’t eating?
Black Flag’s world was very small. Small rooms, small vans, small backstage areas, close proximity to each other, small plans, etc. Food, shows, women, sleep, money to get to the next place and to keep the band happening, that’s about all there was in our world. It kept me very in-the-moment as they say. If you see a dog looking for scraps, the dog is very awake, processing each inhalation, every movement had intent behind it, that was what being in that band was all about. We were very hungry, angry and hopeless. In short, unstoppable. Normal people seemed somewhat not all the way plugged in, or perhaps insulated from life.
Do you really believe that if you ever let anyone close to you that there truly wouldn’t be anything there?
With me, there’s just ideas, schedules, strategy, tactic and objective. That’s really not what your girlfriend wants to hear about. Another thing not to do is almost forget she’s there, it’s unbecoming. It is, at this point, impossible for me to be with a woman and connect on any level beyond platonic, intellectual or physical. Past that, I am a room sparsely outfitted with broken items.
In the ‘Man Test’ video you did, you spoke about the one time in your life when you were in love and how it was one of the most two most powerful experiences of your life. What was the second experience? And did that love last and if not, can you speak on the pain of loss and dealing with that pain? When things ended with my last girlfriend, I asked my father for some advice and he told me to read this poem, Walls by Constantine Cavafy. It was funny that the poem was named ‘Walls” because for the first time in ages I had let my walls down and it made me realize how I had built a different kind of blind love wall around the world I was living in … Do you feel like you have built walls around your own-self knowingly or do you feel walls are created from life’s experience and the power they offer oneself in psychological protection?
I have loved a few women in my life. It never lasted. Either I couldn’t hold on or they saw that I was distant and I wasn’t going to get closer than I was at that moment, which probably wasn’t close, and they would split. A woman I was going out with about ten years ago got killed when I was on tour. That slowed me down and pushed me further away from all that.
Capt. Willard’s quote from Apocalypse Now captures how I feel about all that very well:
“I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.“
The other powerful experience would be when my friend Joe Cole was killed next to me. The guy shot at me twice and missed. I don’t know why I am still here. One bullet went into the door jamb next to my left side, heart level. A few inches over and things would have perhaps concluded much differently than they did. The next morning, I cleaned up the parts of my friend off the lawn that the city didn’t take. I don’t know if you come back all the way from something like that. It changes you.
I just did an interview with a good friend of mine mine, Mikael Kennedy … He said, “Death is always on my mind, I recently learned of the Trappists Monks of Algeria, who have a vow of silence other than when they pass each other during the day, they are only allowed to say “Remember death”. To be aware of the end makes every moment up to it so much more important. All things comes to an end, it is what gives them their value.” Are you always remembering death and do you believe that the temporary nature of every moment truly gives those moments their value?
I don’t think of death in an obsessive way, I don’t think I do. I am more interested in what I am doing and what I want to do. I don’t see the value of partitioning your hard drive to accommodate a constant awareness of death. It’s the one, single thing that is going to happen to you, so while I wouldn’t suggest running in front of speeding trains, I would not lose too much sleep on the one thing that is unavoidable. I think about time spent well more than anything.
Henry you once said, “I am an optimist because I want to change things for the better and I know that blood has to be spilled and disharmony and cruelty are necessary to do that.” … When I read this it immediately triggered thoughts on today Occupy movement. Do you think today’s youth are being effective for bringing change for the better with their peaceful protests or do you really think disharmony needs to be created for them.
It’s not necessarily mean that I am looking to spill someone’s blood. Who is injuring whom at Occupy sites? It’s the police who are suppressing people’s First Amendment rights by beating on them, spraying them. That’s what cops do. Unfortunately for these cops, all they do is create more Occupy people. Like when Marines shoot Taliban and Al Qaeda, they just make more. Same with Israelis shooting Palestinians. You better kill them all because you are making more, all over the world. The chickens of unregulated capitalism have come home to roost and there will be some changes. Some people are not going to like what they get. What the Occupy people need to do now is get onto the next phase. All they are doing now is getting their heads caved in to maintain a tent. Now they have to get some legislation moving. They need an MLK type, an objective and a strategy to get it across. I suggest that they get the money out of elections. A billion dollars to be president is pathetic. They now know they have people’s ear, these people want something else than what they’re getting. They have to reach for it. The camping thing was a good start but it can’t end there. They have forced the cops to act like cowards. The Occupy people have won. Now that they have the infantry, they need to march them somewhere.