Radio Free Rollins

Santa Fe Reporter | March 9, 2005
by jonanna widner

Henry Rollins is, uh, a bit of a talker. That’s not too hugely shocking since he makes his living as, among other things, a spoken-word artist. But what is surprising, even after all these years of reading his written work, seeing clips of him on TV, hearing him in interviews, is how frank and articulate he is. I’ll admit, considering Rollins muscularity and the size of his neck, I still pre-judged him as a big dumb guy. But, as we chatted for around 40 minutes over the phone, I quickly realized, stupid he ain’t. And damn, he’s a talker (editing down this interview proved a Herculean task). But he’s got a lot to say. Find out for yourself what it is when he rolls up to the Lensic, 7:30 pm, Saturday, March 12. Tickets are $22-$27.

SFR: Hey, so am I in big trouble, ’cause I’m a music writer and I know you’re not a big fan of that genre of writing?

HR: Oh, if only most of you had any grip on what your job is. A lot of music writers to me, they’re not very conversant in a wide range of music, so when they rip you a new one, you’re like, ‘yeah, let’s talk about music, let’s see what you know.’ Ooh, I love getting in a room with someone like that. The sport to me is, you know, it’s just kind of funny making your living off jel-packs that come in the mail that you write the minimum amount of words about. That’s shootin’ kinda low…if you love what you do and you’re inspired, well then hopefully you’re doing a good thing. There’s some great music writing and then there’s that crop of too-cool-for-school who can’t talk to you about Leadbelly or Bartok, but they have attitude.

SFR: Where do you think that came from? Because it seems like enthusiasm for music has been replaced by enthusiasm for appearing ironic or cool or wearing a John Deere cap.

HR: Ha! I think what happened is the basic quality of music went away. Where, if you’re Lester Bangs and you’re reviewing Metal Machine Music or you’re hanging out with the Ramones or whatever, it’s a time and a place and you know it is something. But can you really talk to the guys in Creed and think that this is gonna be something you’re gonna remember past the last paycheck?

SFR: It seems to me like that type of ‘time and the place’ hasn’t happened, God, in years…

HR: Well, here’s my theory as to why: I think with the advent of MTV’s surge in popularity several years ago where music became a medium that we viewed visually, we looked at it as much as we listened to it, the need of labels became different, the need for musicians who look good, rather than ones who play well. When I was a young man, none of us knew what Gladys Knight looked like—beautiful lady, but we all loved her voice. You didn’t care, it was all about that thing coming through the speaker. That to me is how you get good art. It was like, ‘who cares if the singer’s got bad skin, he’s got a lotta soul, give him a job.’ So now that has been kind of uprooted to a certain degree by pert young people and here’s why this happens: If it’s gonna be a visual medium, you need stuff that looks good. Now, what’s great for the major label industries is that pretty people are easy to find, every corner. Talented people? Find me another Nat King Cole.

And so what you do is you start hiring pretty people to play music, well you find out a lotta them can’t play. Well, then we develop software—ProTools, pitch-correction and the like to fix that so that’s no longer a problem. Everyone knows Jennifer Lopez can’t sing, everyone knows Ashlee Simpson can’t sing and everyone knows that these people sing on tape live and no one cares anymore because it’s all about ‘I was there and it was a great show.’

Now, when you have so much overhead making these records and making a million-dollar video, the record has to perform, so even going gold is kind of a letdown. If it sells 200,000, you’re probably dropped, where if I sell 200,000, we pinch ourselves and go ‘Oh boy!’

So now the major labels have set themselves up as Menudo—you’re in, you’re out—there will not be a third Ashlee Simpson record and you know that. In that environment, you’re not gonna get Ella Fitzgerald. You’re not gonna get Carly Simon, who needs three albums to get warmed up and a label who’se gonna stay with her for 20 years.

SFR: Is there any hope that the moment can happen again?

HR: Of course. People can say it’s shitty, music sucks and that’s true if you shop at strip malls for your music. The fact is, there’s great music by tons of labels every day and every town has good music, so as long as there’s people with blood coursing through their veins, there’s gonna be great music. Washington, DC’s Dischord Label, lots of good music coming out on that. Mike Patton’s label Ipecac, great music coming out there, Touch ’n’ Go—fantastic. Matador, there’s just all kinds of labels, little labels, medium-sized labels, there’s all kinds of cool bands all the time.

SFR: Those little scenes are small moments that happen every day, which are, of course, hugely important and inspiring. But I’m curious about the moment of the CBGB scene or the moment of the DC scene like when you were first starting out, things that changed the world.

HR: Things like that come out of vacuums. There’s no longer a vacuum. All is known and all has been shown. Everyone has kinda done their thing on the catwalk. In all these earlier moments, CB’s and all that, it was a time when there was like fifty people at the show. I saw it in DC where it would be the Teen Idols, Ian McKay’s first outing as a bass player before Minor Threat, opening for the Bad Brains and there’s, I don’t know, maybe 100 people at the show and it’s hippies and punk rockers and weirdos and gay guys and no one cares what your hair looked like, you’re just the fellow misfit who ended up at the gig and you must be cool if you ended up in here. And I miss those days cause I don’t care if anyone’s gay or black or whatever, if you’re into the music, then we’re cool. That was a wonderful time, relatively naïve, and then you know these bands got a little notice in the newspaper—or, in a case like the Bad Brains they’re just so, so good, word gets around—other kids your age see them and go ‘oh’ and they run out to the suburbs and they get their friends and the scene in one year goes from 50-100 people you know at a show to 700. And all of a sudden the mohawk guys don’t like the skinhead guys, your boots aren’t cool, we don’t talk to you…That happened in New York, Boston, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, to where it just kind of opened up, the suburbs came in, the Ramones came through town or the Dead Kennedys came through town or Black Flag came through town and all of a sudden the place was packed.

There was a time in every major city, small ones too, before the lights came on and it became a trademark and kind of got swept into the thing that

happens, it all of a sudden becomes normalized. When you can go to Macy’s and buy grunge wear, then grunge is dead for sure. As soon as it has a name, it’s over.

SFR: Let’s switch gears real quick. I want to to talk about the USO stuff that you’ve done. It sounds pretty grueling.

HR: Not as grueling as the soldiers you’re in front of, it’s more grueling for them. I’ve done four USO tours out of America and one day of hospital visits in the Washington, DC area. I’ve been to Iraq and Kuwait and Afghanistan twice. I was in a mortar attack in Baghdad which is more thrill than you really want. You see a lot of things you don’t see on the news, for better or worse. What a lot of Americans don’t know is all the humanitarian efforts that go on in these places daily. Irrigation, literacy programs, dental, medical, unceasingly administered by people who are really into it.

Another thing that people don’t see is the appalling amount of casualties that are coming back from our conflict in Iraq. Not so much in Afghanistan, we get missing legs and stuff, but in Iraq we’re having people coming home by the planeload. And a war injury is not like the injuries we sustain here like scraped knees, or your ass hurts one day or something. And I’ve seen a bit of it first-hand in that I’ve visited these young men in these hospitals, and you know, I’m 44 so it’s hard on me to see a 22-year-old boy who, arguably I could be his dad, to see a young man with his life ahead of him with both legs gone above the knee, his forehead has been grafted onto his nose, one eye only sees light and dark and he’s holding a picture of his girlfriend and you know in his mind, he knows the girl’s gone. ’Cause she’s like 19—would you want her to hang around with her boyfriend in a fucking wheelchair?

And then you meet the moms, and the moms are in there with their boy who they brought into this world only to have the kid’s arm come off and you see these moms trying to be brave, and it is the most…You feel bad for the guys, you feel horrible for the moms. You know the moms would pay any price to hack their legs off and give their legs to the boy. But that’s one thing Americans are not hearing about.

So when I see the president do that kind of weird half-smile, hyper-breathing thing he does, like, ‘We’re spreading freedom’—motherfucker, you’re blowing kids’ legs off so some guy can stand in line and vote? That’s not working out for me as something that’s worthwhile. And so, I’ve got a beef with the president, it’s my right to have one—I’m an American, I’ll beef with anybody I want.

SFR: You should go on the Bill O’Reilly Show.

HR: I’d like to go on Bill O’Reilly. I’d like to go on Bill O’Reilly and come away with one of his ears, my friend. I’ve written him letters. I write him all the time: I write him and Sean Hannity. Oh yeah, ‘Dear Fuckface,’ that’s how I start the letters.

SFR: What else are you up to?

HR: Well, I’m always on tour. This is just kind of a handful of dates that just came up ’cause we’re still finishing off this last tour that we started about a year ago. I’m using a lot of the same material, it’s kind of like the gaggle of stories that I’m telling with a few new ones just ’cause things happen, but basically the bulk is this stuff that I put together for these shows. So, we just finished Europe, that was the other day. Australia’s in May. In the meantime, there’s like your Santa Fes and these places I didn’t get to, you know the odd University that pops up here and there. And this 10-day off-Broadway theater run which manager-boy said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ and I said, ‘Well, actually it’s me doing it, Richard, it’s you just sitting around getting paid while I work.’

And I’m also doing copy-editing and overhauling someone else’s autobiography which just kind of got put into my lap, it followed me home and I said ‘Mom, can I keep it?’ It’s Johnny Ramone’s autobiography which he was working on ’til he died and so, Linda Ramone asked me to kind of babysit it and get it ready for primetime. And I just am not gonna say no to Linda and it’s a great read ’cause Johnny was brutally honest. I mean here’s a guy who listened to Rush Limbaugh every day, he and I probably could have argued but, I mean, not in the shape he was in. His memory is like a steel trap, so his book is a complete memory of early Ramones, seeing the Stooges and the Dolls. I mean just a fascinating look at New York in the ’60s and ’70s. His take on the Ramones is so brutal.

SFR: Did you read Dee Dee’s autobiography?

HR: Yeah, and I helped Dee Dee with that actually. I worked on the early draft of it. The drag with Dee Dee’s thing is Dee Dee lied a lot.

SFR: You could tell in his book.

HR: He said a bunch of untrue stuff about Monty [one of the Ramones’ entourage]. In Johnny’s book Monty talks about him confronting Dee Dee and Dee Dee just laughing, going, ‘Yeah, but it was funny.’ Of all the guys in the band, Johnny was kind of the business man, head screwed on straight. Dee Dee was nuts. I helped Dee Dee with early drafts of that book in the summer of ’93. I would go over to the Chelsea and work with him on it, just for free ’cause, you know, he’s Dee Dee Ramone and you know he’s one of the forefathers. And that’s why I’m doing this for Linda because I like Linda, she’s a nice lady and Johnny was a good guy and not around to work on it anymore.

SFR: When was the last time you saw him before he died?

HR: A few days. I saw him a couple days before he died and we actually watched the final edit of End of the Century together. The last time he saw it was the first time I saw it. Yeah, and we sat next to each other. It was crazy watching the CBs footage of Johnny—you know he was 20-something—you look at the screen then I look to my left and I’m sitting next to Johnny, he’s in his easy chair that he eventually died in a couple days later, and he’s watching himself and I’ll never forget watching this guy with a grey crew cut with yellow-gray skin watching himself. This gray, sallow man with a colostomy bag.

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