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Raw Power: The Henry Rollins Interview

2008-02-01 05:44
A stand up guy...
Clearly labelling you as "prolific" only scrapes the surface of what drives you. Does life have any meaning beyond being a workaholic?
Not much for me really. I died in 1991 and have been ghosting ever since.

Is it fair to say the one mission fuelling all of your work is a "documentary" drive? If so, what is it you're trying to capture?
The moment, that's what I'm after.

Someone - I think it was Henry Miller - once said that the best writers only really have one story to tell. And that they tell it over and over again…until they either nail it and die happy or don't and die trying. What's your take?
I think it's interesting. I think that can be said somewhat of Miller. His books are basically Milleresque musing on Milllerism and all things Milleracious. He never really set out to do fiction or poetry and if he really went hard in those directions, I don't know how good the results would have been. I think perhaps many writers have an overall tone or write in a key to use music as an analogy.
Madness and a beautiful fury can be detected all through the writing of Rimbaud and Artaud. The unease I find in Gide is ever present in the work of his I've read thus far. I think a lot of writers write from the same sadness or same emptiness until the void is filled by success or fatigue or whatever else keeps the writer from dealing with eternity or the lack of it when they sit down to write. That was Hemingway, not me. Knut Hamsun, the great Norwegian writer, he operated from a vast sadness and longing that can be found in damn near everything he wrote.

In your lyrics and your novels it's almost like you're obsessed with exorcising your anger by vomiting out the truth. Is this what prompted to you to branch out from music into spoken word/stand up and acting - perhaps to search for some lightness to balance the unbearable heaviness of being?
I started doing music in 1981. I started doing talking shows in 1983, films in 1988. For me, it's just different ways to express myself, stay active and they all feed the other one so it's all good stuff I think. Mainly, I like to work and push myself and getting into other avenues allows me to do that.

Okay, that Kundera riff almost didn't cut it; and that "spoken word/stand up" conflation is bothering me. Maybe I'm just anal, but when you're doing the solo thing do you see yourself as a spoken word artist or a stand up comic?
Neither. I'm just up there telling stories and waxing psychotic. Spoken word sounds really boring to me and I don't have the chops or speed for comedy.

Speaking of which, you've raged against Bush's war on terror, ranted against celebrity culture, dissed drugged up DJ culture - and pulll no punches about your dislike of the liberal chinless left either. Hell, you infamously hate being a consumer and probably don't watch TV! Are you really such a misanthropic bastard or, to appropriate the title from Richard Meltzer's novel simply "A Whore Just Like The Rest?"
I guess the opposite thing to do would be to "rage with" Bush's war on terror? Seeing all the lies that have surfaced, the senseless slaughter and all the pain and misery involve, I can't do that. Celebrity culture is maintained by bottom feeders who make money off them. The celebs are probably just trying to get their work done, I really have no idea.
Hate being a consumer?! Are you kidding? I consume like a motherfucker. I get books and records and food and plane tickets and gasoline and all kinds of shit. I consume every day. What bugs me is when the consumer is taken for a ride and belittled by the seller. I watch some TV, there are some very good programs happening. Great writing, acting and plot lines.

A whore just like the rest?! I never thought of things that way. If Prof. Meltzer's concept holds water, that is to say that we're all whores, that would make your mother a whore. Your mother is a whore. There sir, is your "ah-ha" moment. Remember all the times you saw your home number written on the walls of men's toilets and never understood how it got there? Now you know why. Your dear mother (the whore), well, she's just like the rest of us, good to know. Richard is a skillful writer with some esteem issues and is a much different person when he's drunk where his inner short guy comes out. I don't really think of myself as a whore. I do the work I want and don't do the work I don't want.

What do you say to critics who question your motives for starring in the "B-grade" movies you've been in and hosting shows like Full Metal Challenge? Shit. Let's just call a spade a spade – do you care if critics say you've sold out and are just a media hound who loves to see himself in the spotlight?
I say they should question me about my motives. I'll always tell the truth. My motive is I like to work and I like to cash paychecks. Got a problem with that? If you do, that's for you to worry about. Me? I work for a living. Movies are a blast to be in and you work your ass off and do the best you can. That TV show was a great time. Don't like it? Don't watch it, fuckhead. Want to write something about me? Type away, you fuckin' witness. You're a fuckin' critic, a professional parade watcher, an ant at the picnic, way to ride the big waves. No one gives a f**k what you say. I come from the minimum wage working world and for me, work is a good thing. Time for you to get back to your computer and count your words so you can get paid and get to your side job, the one where all the sailors cum in your mouth. That's basically what I say. Actually, I don't bother. I mean, who cares? You live your life, you take your shot and then that's it. It's really funny to me when someone thinks they have some kind of lock on integrity and no one else can come in.
Right. Any jackass with a passing familiarity with your work knows that you don't give a crap about any "high vs. low" art divide. Do you? Let's get back to some meat and potatoes. Both your writing and spoken word stuff is very "epigrammatic" - filled with ordinary, everyday observations about life, then…wham, you throw in a "punch line" that somehow nails the madness in the mundane. This reminds me of a Charles Bukowski quote: "some people never go mad, what miserable lives they must lead". Was he an influence on your writing? If not, what other authors have been influences?
I enjoyed reading those Bukowski books when I was young. He was a great writer. I think he was a great observer of the human condition. He definitely had something. I don't. I just try to write it how I see it, how I feel it. I am not a good enough writer to emulate a style or a writer but I learned a lot about honesty from Hubert Selby, who was a great friend of mine and a fantastic writer.

Authors that I admire include Kharms, Kapuscinski, Fitzgerald, Wolfe (Thomas), Camus, Breton, Jarry, Leautreamont, Baudelaire, Proust, Abe, Vian, Mikal Gilmore, Elroy, Naomi Klein, Chalmers Johnson, Vidal, Coetzee, Celine, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Gogol, Algren, Fante, Robert Baer, Greg Palast, Miller, Thurber and a lot of others. All of them had / have something special. I just bang it out as best I can. I own my own publishing company, that's why I have a lot of books out. In the real world of publishing, I wouldn't get published much probably. My books are what they call "vanity pressings," that they're in many different languages and have sold hundreds of thousands of copies is truly beside the point.

Echoes of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks can be heard in your stand up. What is it about these comedians that you connect with?
I think they were brave men who told the truth. They were people of their time and they knew it. I have only met one person like that so far.

Staying with stand-up – which after all, is why you're in South Africa - are you going to tailor your set towards an SA audience? Have you been researching African issues? Have you heard the one about ANC president Jacob Zuma taking a shower? What can SA audiences who might not be familiar you're your stand-up show expect?
No. I would not tailor the show for an SA audience. That would require supposition on my part and it would be patronizing, disingenuous and insulting. That's really not what I am about. I don't know a great deal about South Africa. I'm going to tell stories about what I saw, where I went, etc. It's story telling that I do mainly.

You once said that "Nobody but Ozzy and Sinatra and Mick Jagger get to go lifelong in this". You're about to turn 47. Do you have another Rollins Band record left in you? Is Henry Rollins going to cash in his performance pension and retire anytime soon? While we're on rock retirement…you're a self-confessed Iggy fan. What did you think of the Stooges reunion? And The Weirdness?
I don't think I will be doing another band album. I don't know if there is a point. I don't really think of retirement as I don't really think I have a career. I'm just working away at things and seeing how it goes, trying to stay interested in things and life in general. I don't know what I would do as a "retired" person. I think the longevity of some of these people, besides the fact that they're very talented is that they rely on back catalog to keep themselves going. Jagger with "Satisfaction" every single night, Iggy playing nearly 40 year-old music, Ozzy having to do "Paranoid" every night. I don't want to do that. I don't want to be fifty and rely on what I did in my 20's like Van Halen. I'm not putting them down but it's just not what I want to do. I guess it would be fun and you would make money but for me, that would be artistically restrained. Not that anyone's going to call me an artist any time soon, least of all me but still, I don't want to go out there every night and brush off some 25 year old song and do it over and over. If it makes them happy, then it's cool. I have seen the Stooges 6 times in the last two years and it's really cool because they are really great but when you hear them in the present tense, as with The Weirdness album, it's not all that great.

You don't drink, drug or smoke. Is it true you turned down a million bucks to do a whisky advert for a Japanese liquor company because of your straight edge beliefs? Does it frustrate you that some 50 years since Elvis first shook his pelvis rock 'n roll is still being sold by the media with that "sex and drugs" stereotype attached?
I don't have straight edge anything. I don't do that stuff because I think it's not good battle strategy. How are you going to nail it down, night after night when you're high? I don't do a show a month. I work every day. Find a day in the week I'm fucking around. I didn't want to be an alcohol ad because I don't drink. I don't give a fuck about what the perception is about anything, that's for the critics, jump for the biscuit.

Legend has it that you're a hardcore vinyl record collector. Do you have an iPod? If so, what's currently on your play list? If not, what's burning up your stylus?
I have a lot of vinyl and a few iPods. They are very good for travel. I only listen to vinyl rarely these days as I am not off the road too much and won't be for awhile. I have been listening to some good post punk vinyl when I have had the chance, Mud Hutters, Desperate Bicycles, Family Fodder. Those bands sound great on vinyl. As far as the iPod goes, I loaded up a lot of German music the last time I was off the road. Amon Duul, Cluster, Neu!, Harmonia, Ash Ra Tempel, Can, La Düsseldorf, Cosmic Jokers.

Oh, by the way there's some great vinyl stores in SA where you'll pick up stuff like Miles Davis for $10. Send us a list of your Top 10 wants and we'll put the word out.
Excellent. How are the whore houses?

Henry Rollins performs at the Bassline in Joburg on February 8 and the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town on February 10. Watch: Live video clip for a taste of what to expect.

- Miles Keylock

He’s a hardcore punk rock icon. He’s a Grammy award-winning author. He’s a radio and TV talk show host. He’s an actor. He’s a human rights activist. He’s a stand up comedian. He’s Henry Rollins. And he’s performing in South Africa this week. In an attempt to sidestep the usual 'Renaissance Man' hype, we cut the crap and invited Black Flag's legendary front man to give us a piece of his mind.

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