I first met Henry Rollins in 1985 at the Jockey Club in Newport, KY when he was the front man and lead singer for the seminal LA punk rock band, Black Flag. Throughout the years, he has gone through several incarnations as an author, a spoken word artist, a publisher, a journalist, an actor, a television and radio host, an activist, and an overall social commentator.
A supreme inspirational figure, he is a modern-day Emerson of sorts, who demonstrates that by having a tenacious work ethic and intense passion for life, one can succeed in communicating one’s artistic vision to the world.
Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing him about the current state we find our country in today and our insightful and contagiously optimistic conversation is below.
John Michael Antonio: In your opinion, how do you think that we as a nation ended up with a man like Donald Trump as our President?
Henry Rollins: I think we’re currently in an age of eventualities. Think of the USA, American Democracy, the Constitution, Civil Rights as an ongoing social experiment, a work in progress.
This history of the USA can be laid out as an equation. Slavery + the extinguishing of indigenous people + the Civil War + the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment + Jim Crow, the KKK, the institutionalization of slavery and bigotry + myriad other events and forces. Eventually, you will have to put an “=” sign somewhere, that is to say, “who are we?”
I think we have hopped over the = sign. I think we found ourselves on the other side of the = with the Reagan administration. The War On Drugs, how the USA was pretty much okay with the Iran–Contra scandal, the demonization of LGBTQ people, since there was AIDS to remove them, which to some must have been seen as a sure sign of God. The USA has craved a fake populist since Reagan left office. They have one now. The mission has been accomplished, the slaves now enslave themselves.
JMA: When speaking of the nature of our country you have stated that “America is a miracle.“ Can you expound upon what you mean by that?
HR: The USA has one of the greatest and most enduring documents, the Constitution. It’s as amazing as it gets. The USA survived the Civil War, where the country tore itself in half, hundreds of thousands were killed and yet, the union remains to this day.
The greatness of the USA is currently being tested. For every awful thing that happens, great things happen in their wake. I wish it wouldn’t take catastrophic events to engender great moments, like a shooting at a high school that inspires millions of young people to march, vote, perhaps run for office, and influence the USA going forward.
People bemoan the gun homicide rate in the USA and it is horrible, but when you consider how many guns are in circulation, and how many more will be by the time I finish writing this sentence, it’s a miracle that there aren’t more gun-related deaths. For a country that isn’t all that interested in restraint, our relative decency is often remarkable.
JMA: You also recently stated that “America will survive Trump” and that further, you are “ruggedly optimistic” about her future. What is the basis for your optimism?
HR: The country’s history. The events I mentioned earlier as examples. The USA has been through quite a lot, yet, here “we” are. The current White House resident will be the most transformational president of my time. I thought it would be Obama. Trump is hastening the end of what was. By giving bigots the tremendous platform he has, he’s speeding up change. The irony is, he would probably want to take credit for it.
What I’m getting at is the homophobia, misogyny, and racism that’s been greenlit by Trump is nothing a lot of young citizens, many coming of voting age in 2018, will be taking forward. This is why you see so much anger in these white power groups, they know it’s coming to an end.
JMA: In our current political climate, why do you feel that “one’s decency means more now than ever before”?
HR: Because now that you have the same internet platforms as the president, a universe of information at your fingertips, you are accountable for all of your actions. In a way, we’re living in an age of ultimate transparency. So, it’s all on the line now. Everything matters. You gang up on a kid with your stupid Facebook page and that kid kills himself, you now understand the power of words. You know who really understood the power of one’s words and their ability to have an impact? President Lincoln. You can read his speeches online. Try for that kind of impact.
JMA: How do you personally channel your anger at what is going on in this country right now?
HR: I channel it into positive action. Otherwise, you’re just aiding who and that which attempts to hold you down. If you’re surrounded by bad, whenever possible, do something good. It’s very easy to sink to someone’s level these days. That’s when they win. I think right now is the most trying time in America that I’m aware of.
JMA: One of the things that we both have in common is the fact that we both believe punk rock helped save our lives. How would you define the punk rock ethos to the outside world and how do you think we can apply it now as a personal battle strategy?
HR: From asking and being asked versions of that question, I have concluded that it’s a very personal thing and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. I can speak to how it informed me. I learned from bands like The Clash, that authority is just someone saying so, and it can and should be questioned. I could have also learned that from Jefferson, but he didn’t have a beat behind him.
From punk rock, I learned that it was okay to be myself and that I should not hesitate to do my own thing, like making a record and putting it out. As a personal battle strategy, from punk rock, I learned a lot about self-reliance and persevering no matter what the surroundings are. Certainly, you can get this kind of thing from a lot of other places but for me, it was punk rock.
You mention the word battle. A lot of people don’t see a life plan as such. I do. I live in America. It’s not a nice place. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but it’s no picnic. I live strategically, tactically, and operationally. It’s a place I survive, not live in. Punk rock gave me this awareness.
JMA: Throughout your career, you have always stressed the importance of literacy and of reading in general. If you could recommend three books for someone to read right now to help cope with today’s world what would they be?
HR: “We Were Eight Years In Power” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “The Fiery Trial” by Eric Foner. “All The President’s Men” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
JMA: How important do you think music is to one staying mentally and spiritually strong for the battles in our daily lives and what are some of your go-to songs or bands you listen to when you are feeling down?
HR: Music, for me, at least, is absolutely necessary. I don’t know life without it. The Stooges and Iggy Pop are my primary go-to records. They always seem to work. It’s been that way for decades.
JMA: You are about to embark on a spoken word and slideshow tour across America which will feature several of your photographs and stories from your world travels. Considering your experiences, how essential do you think is it for us as human beings and global citizens to see and appreciate the diversity that is in our world?
HR: As such highly evolved creatures as we are, I think travel is essential to realizing the potential of human thought and action. For the future of any country, the more its citizens travel, the better. There is only so much you can get out of a book or a documentary. Whenever possible, go somewhere you’ve never been before. Curiosity is yours to lose. You need to maintain it.
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Photo credit: Henry Rollins