Henry Rollins: Opportunism, Straight Up

"Whether we decide to label Rollins as musician, actor, spoken word poet/master, author, DJ, workaholic, or renaissance man, he is an opportunist"

“I’m not going to tell you who to vote for bu-ut…” began Henry Rollins at his Sept. 22 show, set against a New Mexico twilight at Santa Fe Sol. Part of his opening for the Santa Fe stop of his 50-city ‘Capitalism’ tour, his Long March tour will end in his hometown of D.C. on the eve of election day. Somebody not accustomed to the breakneck speed of the man’s thought process and articulation of it in spoken story form might ask, “Who the hell is this guy anyways, not telling me who to vote for so adamantly.”

The truth is, people rarely know exactly what to call Rollins. Even by listing only his job titles, we are slightly confounded. He is a punk-rock icon, for one, but then we cannot ignore the fact that he has authored more than 20 books, has his own publishing company, has acted in more than 20 films and several TV shows, has more than 100 broadcasts on L.A.’s KCRW and travels around the world meeting people and talking about his experiences.

However, whether we decide to label Rollins as musician, actor, spoken word poet/master, author, DJ, workaholic, or as some like to say, renaissance man, his own answer—provided in an email interview— is much more simple: he is an opportunist. “Things come up and I go for them,” he says. “Basically, I just do stuff.”

These seem to be words by which Rollins lives. Riding the comfortable wave of words that continue to roll from his mind and mouth for three solid hours on stage in Santa Fe, Rollins begins to explain himself in terms of his own personal politicization. He describes to the audience his 50th birthday just over a year ago, when he sat down at a diner in New York City and ordered a tuna sandwich.

“So I’m thinking back on the important moments, you know,” he tells us at a breakneck speed, “because you know, this is it.” Partly, all that is it is the tuna fish sandwich that is set down in front of Rollins coincidentally as the clock strikes midnight and he becomes 50. But also, Rollins allows himself at this moment to contemplate the various other moments of his life in which what could have been banal—a sandwich at a diner—actually became an opportunity that he spotted and seized.

He describes his first encounter with racism at his elementary school as the first experience that politicized him. He tells a story about discovering several black kids on the playground listening to music he liked, and wishing that this communal enjoyment of a certain type of music could be enough to be included in this group of kids. Instead they called him ‘cracker’ and refused to be his friends.

At home, Rollins received contrasting ideas about racism from his parents. When he went to his dad’s house for the weekend, getting his dad “stuck with this hyperactive kid—the Ritalin wore off by the time it was the weekend,” Rollins explains—he was exposed to a man who would pull up to a stop light, say, “never trust a chink,” and then look both ways to make sure there was no cop before running the light.

When he got home and told his mom what he had learned over the weekend (“never trust a chink”), she slapped him. In response to his tribulations at school, she said, “Honey, if you smile when you feel like crying then they won’t know you’re actually crying inside.”

Having learned a lesson or two about inclusiveness, it was around this time that Rollins met his good friend Ian McKaye. The two immediately bonded over their bicycles (they both had Schwinns) and their record collections, which were not identical but showed almost identical taste in music. Together, these two went to their first Led Zeppelin show, where they were seated next to a man who was so high on marijuana that, by the time the lead singer made his appearance on stage, he was passed out with his head on his knees.

“This was the moment,” Rollins explains, “when Ian and I both said, OK, I don’t ever want to be that guy.” Indeed, Rollins, who, via email interview, describes what he does as, “making things up to do and executing them to the best of my abilities,” is not one to sleep through his life. He still approaches the stage with the same energy that he displays in a Black Flag interview from the 80’s on YouTube in which he tells the young interviewer, “there’s only one thing I hate more than complacency. It’s uh… complacency.” This was another seminal moment that Rollins recalled as he sat at the diner in New York City on his 50th birthday, also contemplating his tuna fish sandwich.

Soon after this big concert experience, Rollins discovered the punk scene that would later become a huge part of his life. Rollins and McKaye made a habit of attending cramped ‘garage band’ shows at local bars where the audience stood six inches to six feet away from the band. This affected Rollins in two major ways: first, he was totally taken with the immensity of the energy of seeing the close-up performance of Lux Interior, The Cramps’ lead singer (not to mention experiencing the literal run-off of sweat from Lux’s naked body, or the sweatiness of his pants, which Rollins ended up with after one show); and second, Rollins discovered community.

“At those shows,” he explained at his Santa Fe show, “everybody who was there was cool just because they were there.” His childhood dream of being able to enjoy people’s company just because they felt and enjoyed the same music as him was realized in the punk-rock scene.

Rollins had found a home, of sorts, in the inclusiveness of the punk-rock community. This was a political moment in his life, Rollins explains, because it was when he realized the stark contrast of that world to the isolating individualist society that capitalism has carved out of America.

“America is not only a place you live in,” Rollins describes in a Big Think interview, “it’s a video game that you survive. I survive America, in spite of what it wants to do to people like me.” As an adolescent, the punk rock scene was Rollins’ means of survival in such an environment.

Rollins speaks decisively about the “one decision that changed [his] life forever,” when he drove five hours after getting off work as a Haagen Daz manager in Washington D.C. to see his favorite band Black Flag play in New York. There, he sang a song with them, drove back to D.C. because he had work the next day, only to receive a call from the band inviting him to audition to be their new lead singer. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any second moment in which he changed from punk rocker into politically opinionated renaissance man or, as he puts it, "opportunist."

The decision was the same one that he made on that day when the band told him to meet them on tour because he was the new lead singer. “Basically,” Rollins explains, “it’s a story of a lot of luck.” This moment was his lucky strike, but from that moment forward, he hasn’t stopped. It is also, he continues, a story of “taking advantage of every opportunity, working really danm hard, knowing there was no choice for me but to work really hard.”

The only part of Rollins’ story that is unique, he says, is the fact that, “I got to be in my favorite band.” The rest was him keeping in mind that he was not especially talented, but that he is tenacious, disciplined, focused and that “I have to show up early because I’ll probably get lost on the way to the venue.”

All of the projects that Rollins has taken on from that decisive moment forward, have been a result of his proactive attitude and his searing knowledge, “without illusion,” of “where [he] comes from and what [he has] to go back to.” In the ‘80s when Hollywood directors started approaching him saying, “hey, you’re crazy, can you act?” he says that his response was, “yeah, I’m starving, can you pay?”

His projects, which eventually ceased to include being a part of any band, were a culmination of “one thing leading to another, one work opportunity leading to another, etc. I just plug my general enthusiasm into the sockets that present themselves,” Rollins explains in an email, “that's all I have ever done really. I am not good at any of it, just willing to go for it.” 

That and the fact that punk rockers, unlike country singers, do not age well, according to Rollins, who joked explicitly in his show about the horrifying image of a saggy punk rock revival band touring the country.

Essentially, Rollins is the same man he has always been, taking on the world in the same way he always has since he discovered punk rock as a means to survival: however he can. He is essentially still the same scruffy kid in his 20s  who said, “I’m an army of one, I’m the lord of my church, I wrote the book, I’m the cross, I’m the boss, and I believe, Amen,” who now traipses around the world telling people who ask why he is there that, “I am here to meet you!” and then traveling around the U.S. talking about it to an audience who he feels he has a contract with, one word at a time, in three-hour chunks.

It is the same Henry Rollins who gave up the standing life of costumer service to tour the country performing 300 gigs a year, as the man who wrote me an email saying, “Life is short. That’s my motto. All of a sudden you’re 50. If it's going to go that quickly, you might as well make it eventful. To do this takes some guts. I do the best I can to keep throwing myself into it. It's the only thing I know at this point.”

Rollins took a bite out of that first tuna fish sandwich of his 51st year and hasn’t stopped throwing himself into life since, the only way he knows how to make it worthwhile.