SINGER, SONGWRITER, spoken-word artist, publisher, radio DJ, actor, globetrotter, TV documentarist and social campaigner; not for nothing has Henry Rollins being described as a ‘post-punk renaissance man’.
Now the one-time Black Flag frontman is coming to Galway on his latest spoken-word tour when he will play The Black Box, for one night only, on Wednesday August 24 at 8pm.
It is now 20 years since Rollins first burst onto the scene as the incendiary frontman of hardcore LA punk outfit Black Flag. His tattooed, muscle-bound, seething stage presence made for an intense live experience which could at times become confrontational - it was not unheard of for Rollins to get involved in fights with members of the audience.
Following Black Flag’s break-up in 1986, Rollins has been relentlessly busy, recording albums with the Rollins Band, writing books and poetry, performing spoken word tours, writing a magazine column in Details, acting in several movies, and appearing on radio programmes and, less frequently, as an MTV VJ.
The Rollins Band’s records are uncompromising, intense, cathartic fusions of hard rock, funk, post-punk noise, and jazz experimentalism, with Rollins shouting angry, biting self-examinations and accusations over the grind.
On his spoken word albums, he is remarkably more relaxed, showcasing a hilariously self-deprecating sense of humour that is often absent in his music. All the while, he has kept his artistic integrity, becoming a kind of father figure for many alternative bands of the 1990s.
Over a morning phone call from his Los Angeles base, Rollins talked about his world travels, his thoughts on the USA and its current wars, his recent and upcoming projects, and what he will be doing in his new show.
Anger and war
While the indelible image of Rollins may still be that angry young man of Black Flag days, in person he is a patient and courteous interviewee, happy to spend time talking about the various topics we touch upon.
Rollins turned 50 earlier this year and I began by asking him whether age has mellowed him or if anger continues to inspire his work as it has so often done in the past.
“Age hasn’t really mellowed me. I think as men get older they tend to get angrier,” he replies. “I still get angry but about different things than when I was younger. When I was younger my anger was all about ‘me, me, me’, I’d be mad at some guy who wrote a bad review about me for example. Now I don’t really care about that.
“My anger these days comes from seeing people being done over by bigger forces. On my travels to other countries I see a lot of unfairness; it’s complicated, there’s a big distribution problem with world resources and supplies. These days I have the kind of anger that inspires me to try and do good stuff.”
Rollins has also campaigned for various political causes in the United States, including promoting gay rights, world hunger relief, and an end to war. He also tours overseas with the United Service Organization to entertain American troops. He shares his impressions of these tours.
“Because of the access I’ve had on these tours I’ve been able to see things and understand them,” he declares. “Going to Iraq is very different to just reading about it. Stress is as big a hazard for the soldiers as being under fire; it destroys people mentally and physically, there’s a lot of troops suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“Barack Obama is basically perpetuating the policies of Bush, we’re still involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and it needs a lot of money to have any hope of finding a solution. These conflicts are basically big corporate endeavours and are ultimately wars about oil; but you need these flesh and blood human beings to exact your policy. I don’t pretend to know what to do about it all.
“The soldiers I have met have all been very nice, none of them are gung-ho pro-war types, that would be like somebody being pro-Russian roulette! A lot of them come from these hard-up backgrounds where joining the military was always seen as a good career option and something positive.”
Rollins expands on his views of Barack Obama and the present state of affairs in the US.
“I think all he is doing is perpetuating the capitalist policies of George W Bush,” he says. “It’s too big a system with too many powerful vested interests to really be able to fight against it. Capitalism is the American way and while I myself don’t agree with it I’m determined I am going to survive under it so I work hard and I do OK. But it’s a system that creates a lot of losers as well those who are lucky enough to be winners. You can’t really rail against it, that’s like getting mad at a crocodile, the system is just doing what it does.
“I actually voted for Obama, but then look at what choices there were! There is no way John McCain would have been able to cope with the huge stress of being US president once the rubber hit the road. It’s already turned Obama’s hair gray after just a couple of years and he’s a young man! He came in and he was handed this broke economy, and two wars with no exit strategy, these were immense challenges. I’m pulling for him still but he’s up against considerable odds.”
Surviving North Korea
Moving on to his current spoken-word tour and imminent visit to Galway, Rollins describes what audiences can look forward to hearing. While the show has been publicised in certain quarters as being a sort of ‘Greatest Hits’ package drawing on Rollins’ long career, he stresses that this is not the case.
“It’s all new writing that has gone into it,” he asserts. “There will be some stories relating to my past but there’s no way I’ve gone and dug up stuff I have done before and am going to be repeating that.
“I’ll be telling stories about my travels in places like Sudan, Uganda, and North Korea. It took me two years to get a visa for North Korea and going there was a surreal experience. You went on these heavily stage-managed propaganda tours where they would be practically telling you Kim Il Sung invented the sun, moon, and stars.
“Then at the end of the day you would go back to this crappy Soviet-era hotel and have the most wretched food imaginable for breakfast, dinner and tea! I’ll also be telling stories about eating rats in south India, visiting Pakistan, and meeting Pentecostal American Christians who speak in tongues.”
Among his recent and upcoming projects, Rollins has made a TV documentary about his trip to Sudan and Uganda with Drop in the Bucket, a US charity group that builds wells and water sanitation systems in sub-Saharan Africa. October also sees the publication of Occupants which features photographs he took on his numerous globe-trotting travels between the years 2003 and 2010.
“That was a really time-intensive chunk of work putting the book together,” he states. “It’s a large-format book with full-colour photographs from everywhere I’ve travelled and each of the photographs are accompanied by an essay.”
While the visceral images in Occupants are sure to make a strong impact on readers when the book appears, in the meantime Galway audiences can anticipate an equally memorable experience listening to Rollins’ words when he hits the Black Box stage on August 24.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie