Henry Rollins’ spoken-word shows have a lean intensity carried forward from his days as a punk-rock singer. Rollins is performing in all 50 state capitals in the run up to the election, and Thursday he’ll be in Springfield at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Brian Mackey spoke with Rollins about his unique performance style, American politics, and his relationship with Springfield’s most famous citizen.
You’re sitting in a theater, waiting for a show. There’s a bare stage – just a microphone stand. The lights go down, and Rollins walks out. There’s no “turn off your cell phones” announcement, no “ladies and gentlemen please welcome Henry Rollins.” Just the man himself, black T-shirt, dark pants.
Rollins in performance is a force of nature: no music, no notes, no water. And shows can last more than two-and-a-half hours.
So it’s just one long bullet train of thought where hopefully the listener can see every face of every person on that train that flies by. And then it’s over. No intermission, no encore, no nothing.
Rollins’ lean, mean, spoken-word style can be traced to his first gig in entertainment in the early 1980s, as the frontman for the punk band Black Flag.
Rollins’ shows are funny, but he’s not a comedian. He’s a storyteller, with a pace and style well-suited for generation ADD. Here’s a sample from one of his shows:
Rollins alternates an intense touring schedule with an intense travel schedule.
Basically, I live to tour. Either one year I’m doing it, or one year I’m preparing for it.
He’s been to South Africa, North Korea, Europe, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Tibet, Sudan and many other corners of the world. His M.O. is to basically show up, see what happens …
And hopefully it’ll be eventful. You have to kind of cross your fingers, or you have to just make it eventful.
From a minimum-wage guy to a punk singer with a reputation for brawling with concertgoers, Rollins knows anger. And yet his wide-ranging travels and view of the world suggest he’s also a humanist.
His show delves deeply into American politics and the economic uncertainty that’s plaguing so many of his fellow citizens.
The money is moving away from these people, and the thing that Roosevelt and a lot of other people worked very hard to get – the backbone of this country, the middle class – has taken quite a beating. And the middle class represents the American dream: that you can go out and work hard and have something to show for it, and have a home, and a life that doesn’t need to be so damn stressful.
And when you go into a Walmart, as I did at 2:30 in the morning a few days ago, and see a woman who’s balding she’s so old, and with that Walmart smock on. It’s like, ‘My dear, what are you doing at 2:30 in the morning working here? Why aren’t you at home sleeping? Why are you back in the workforce?’
Basically people are angry, and their anger is real. And in my opinion, at times somewhat misguided, in that I think sometimes some Americans protect their captors and shoot at the liberators.
Rollins is angry too. But unlike the Tea Partiers on the right or the Occupy protesters on the left, he’s taken his anger and channeled it into rational analysis of the issues.
I would rather go at these issues calmly, as Lincoln instructed me to. He said, ‘Passion has worked very well for us, but it will cease to do so, and will in the future be our enemy. Reason – cold, calculated, unimpassioned reason – must furnish the materials for our future security and defense.’ He said that in 1838. It was a really beautiful part of the speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum.
Abraham Lincoln. Rollins feels a special kinship with Springfield’s first citizen.
I have adopted Lincoln as my surrogate father. Not being the biggest fan of my own, poetically it works out. And while I’m sure he was a flawed man – as you and I are, as any man is, to a certain degree – I think he was a true statesman. I think he was really trying to be the president for all of the people.
Though he reads widely, Rollins like to point out that his for academic career ended with high school. He has the respect of one self-educated man for another.
He was one of those self-taught people, famously walking miles to another town to borrow a law book. And a great president.
The only guy I hate in American history is John Wilkes Booth, because he kind of screwed me out of a another Lincoln administration.
It could very well be argued that America would be a different place had Lincoln had four or eight more years of a presidency during Reconstruction-era America.
America might be very different. Because I think we lost the plot during the Reconstruction era. Everyone got freedom, but we didn’t get equality in the software, and we’re still suffering from that now.
I’m a high school graduate with low attention span, so I have to get these books and really pour myself into them. And I’ve tried to do the hard work, and this is the conclusion I’ve come to: It was 1865 when we had the shot, and due to greed and plot loss and anger, we didn’t do the work. And maybe the American government and the American people didn’t understand the awesome burden it was going to be to rehabilitate millions of people who’d been brought up in the idea of slavery as slaves.
Maybe no one could have seen what that was going to be size-wise, monetarily, and years of rehab – of like reconfiguring and retuning and recalibrating America. And that’s what I’ve come to conclude; that that’s why the Civil Rights movement kind of, sort of failed, in my opinion, because we didn’t enough oomph or sincerity to go up to it in the late ’50 or ’60s and go, ‘OK, here’s what needs to be done.’ The racism was still there. The corporate greed was still there.
Despite all that, Rollins doesn’t seem to think we’ve entirely lost the thread. As he sees it, there is still hope.
I think it’s very clear what needs to be done. It just depends on how much you and I, the American people, want to do it. Every country gets the leaders they deserve. I’m convinced of that.
And so you make change, or you go along with the plan and you suffer.
In the past month, Rollins’ state-capital tour has taken him from Boise to Austin to Bismark and Pierre — that’s of the Dakotas, North and South. Springfield is stop 29. He’ll wrap up the night before Election Day, with a performance in Washington, D.C.
— Brian Mackey
[Photos by Heidi May.]