Henry Rollins lives -- and has always lived -- an extraordinarily unusual life. He may have first come to the world's attention as frontman of one of the greatest hardcore bands in history, Black Flag, but what he's done since has arguably been even more important. His work as a writer and spoken-word performer has seen him travel the globe many times over, offering audiences a combination of Rollins' personal world view and thought-provoking facts, in a way that is both consciousness-raising and immensely entertaining. Over the phone, Rollins talks as much as you'd expect him to. He has a lot he wants to say and requires virtually no prompting to do so (the interview you see below is a mere fraction of our conversation). But Henry Rollins is also extremely funny and surprisingly warm. We caught up with him at the tail end of a year-long tour, in preparation performances at Yoshi's San Francisco this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
You're doing three nights at Yoshi's this week. Your performances are always a combination of the very political and the anecdotal. Are you leaning in any particular direction this time?
It is always a combination of the two. But it's mainly anecdotal. I just figure the audience has moved on and it's not for me to drag them back to yesterday's news, like I'm assuming they don't read. I assume they do. I've been very wise in that I never try to devalue the intellect of my audience -- I reckon they're all smarter than me. So I try to move forward with information. The anecdotal stuff, the travels I've done -- those are ageless stories. You know, I might talk about a place I was in last year, or the year before, like Senegal or Southern Sudan or Uganda, but those stories stand alone. They don't have to be current, because it's life-lesson stuff.
How do you stay this grounded and self-deprecating?
By basically pretending I'm not famous. I buy my own groceries. I answer my mail. When Youth Man writes me, I write him back. When someone says hello to me on the street, I say hello back.
Sometimes people trip me out. You know, 'Sign my arm, Henry', 'Okay', and then you meet that person two years later and they went right down the street and got that autograph tattooed on their arm. Or they show you the tattoo of your face they've had done. Or words you've written. In that situation, all I can say is 'I really hope I never let you down.'
There's a nightly pressure of getting out on stage, but luckily I really like what I do and I really like these people. Basically, I consider myself a service item.
I'm a mop. You pull me out of a bucket, you use me and then when you're done with me, you put me back in a bucket and you roll me into a corner. I also consider myself like a race horse. You only see me at the starting gate, when I do the race, and a few people come around after the race to pat the horse on its nose and say 'Good race' and then they leave. What happens to the racehorse after you leave? You don't know. Someone puts a blanket on it and puts it back in its stall.
It seems like you work an extraordinary amount.
I've been on the road for a whole year. This year started in Manchester, England, Jan. 6: first show. I'm on 174 for the year and it ends at 187 shows on December 2. I mean, 19 countries in 12 months and not a whole lot of time off. I just do my thing and I'm very sincerely into what I'm saying. I believe in what I'm doing and the life I'm living.
I live in a world of high obligation, high expectation and, more to that, deadlines. I turn in a weekly music column, (for our sister paper, LA Weekly), a monthly music column for Rolling Stone Australia, a weekly radio show, and voiceovers for all kinds of things. Right before I jumped on stage last night, I was in the studio all afternoon doing voiceover for the Ultimate Fighting League. I do a lot of different stuff, but left to my own devices I stay by myself.
Why is that?
When I was six, I realized I'm not a people person. I never mixed well with kids at school, I never did all that well in a band environment, and I don't really feel like I'm part of a movement or part of a group. I like punk rock people just because I kind of know where they're coming from; I feel safe around them. And music fans, because I'm a music nut myself.
I'm on stage two and a half hours a night. But after the show is the difficult part of the evening. You walk out of the dressing room and half of the venue's people are in that lobby and everyone wants a moment. I don't hate people. I'm in the 31st year of touring in my life. Without them, I wouldn't be talking to you now. There'd be nothing. My life, as I know it, would not exist. It's an incredible amount of respect I have for these people who have shown up and keep showing up. What comes at me sometimes is extraordinarily intense. You should hear some of the stories. You wouldn't believe some of the challenges that people go through every day.