Talk It Out with Jodi Leib
Via Email, Detroit, MI
September 30, 2014
When I learned that Henry Rollins would be performing at the Royal Oak Music Theater in the metro Detroit area on Friday, October 17th, I knew I had to reach out to him to Talk It Out. I’ve had huge respect for Henry ever since I watched him as an MTV VJ serving up alternative rock music videos and then as he became a solo artist – of course, many of his fans go all the way back to his days as Black Flag’s frontman.
When I think about what makes a great interview – Henry’s got it all. First, he’s a musician so I know right away he’s not afraid to express himself. Second, and more importantly, he has something to say beyond song lyrics. Third, he’s so darn smart that I will be bound to learn something from him! And the beauty of that is I won’t know quite what it is until we get in there and get down to it. But I knew there would be an ah-ha moment and sure enough I got one.
Remember the point of Talk It Out is for fans out there to understand their own lives better through the experiences of their favorite artists. I’d say this one definitely did the trick, so if you’re in Detroit on October 17th, please DO NOT miss the chance to experience Henry Rollins – he is a passionate artist backed by the intelligence of a hard-earned working man.
Jodi Leib: I find you to be one of the most fascinating voices in popular culture – you seem to present an intelligent case for why people should stay true to themselves. What do you think is your life purpose and are you achieving it?
Henry Rollins: I have never once seen myself as having a purpose or even much of a direction beyond forward, going onto the next thing. I just do one thing, then another. When I got out of high school, I went into the minimum wage working world, never thinking that there was anything else out there for me than this kind of work. I grimly set my jaw and headed into it. Things happened. I treat it all the same as those jobs. It’s yours to lose and you have to be honest and give it your all. As far as a purpose, I honestly don’t know what to tell you as to what my purpose is. I achieve the end of a tour, or a film, something like that but beyond that, I don’t know. I think American culture is one of the most distractive on the planet. It seems to be about everything other than what is really happening. It’s very easy to become separated from yourself.
Jodi Leib: When I think about musicians who were part of the punk, post-punk, grunge and even pop scenes, there are not many who have outlasted the business to transcend a level of iconography aside from their music. Was it merely dedication, persistence and self-confidence or were there other personality assets that you tapped into to keep going and make your mark on the world?
Henry Rollins: I am not equipped with any confidence. I think not having that has been an asset. I know I have to try harder and that has made me quite disciplined. I am not skilled, so anything I do, I need to start earlier and stay later than most. One thing I have going for me is that I have no illusions about that. I am curious and that has led me into a lot of different things. Angry and curious, that about sums me up. I know where I come from and that is a help. Someone like me has very little to lose and nothing all that interesting to go back to, so kind of lunging forward is at this point, what I do.
Jodi Leib: You have evolved from a musician into a spoken-word artist. Do you believe talking is an artform? In other words that engaging in intelligent discussion about the world in which we live is difficult and requires talent? Keep in mind this show is called “Talk It Out” so I do – I think it can be really hard to find people that want to think freely and who want to actually communicate what’s on their mind in a way that is productive and not reactive. Is this just a natural aptitude that you have, or do you have to get out there and experience the world to understand it and thus have it impact you enough to want to understand and be understood? Or both? Why do you think at this point in your life you can accomplish more by talking than through music?
Henry Rollins: To be funny, engaging or otherwise impactful can be an artform. I think it does require some talent but also some other important factors. You need to actually have a point of view. That is the foundation on which you will build all the things you are going to say. Unless you are able to see things from another point of view, all you will be is reactive. People are this way anyway and that’s okay but there is a lot going on out there. This is one of the reasons why I travel as far and wide as I can, as often as I can. I want any perception I had that needs to be shattered to be shattered. I live for the truth you find when you go somewhere and see it for yourself. This might give you something that you would want to communicate. I think you need really good source material. Onstage, I am serving stew. It’s mix of ideas, stories, op/eds, etc. I need excellent ingredients. This always has me looking for the story in things.
Jodi Leib: I’m fascinated with intelligent people in Hollywood because when I lived there intelligence seemed so unimportant to people to the point that I got so sick of dumbing myself down that I moved to New York. How has an intelligent man like you survived the meat-factory?
Henry Rollins: I have never really pursued friendships anywhere. Usually the people I meet beyond at a show are people I am working with. Crew, agents, engineers, etc. I am very much the solitary type. I think Hollywood is full of intelligent people, perhaps not hanging out in clubs but some of the people I have met who write, do camera work, create shows, cast, etc. are often quite bright. I know what you mean though, there are a lot of people just making the scene in Hollywood. I don’t get much of that on me because I am not hanging out anywhere unless I am working. Most of the work I do, when not on location shooting something, I am on my own. Los Angeles is full of the self-absorbed and me me me types, perhaps more than a lot of places.
Jodi Leib: I agree. I have had amazing artistic collaborations with lots of people there. That is still my favorite thing about LA - the immense creativity that abounds and how inspiring people can be. It's more the institutional mentality of Hollywood that I can't stand because in my experience I have found people to be so easily threatened. But you are right that there are some wonderful aspects of collaboration and positive energy that I have not found in the same way anywhere else - and I miss that. I live in Detroit now because I missed my family being away for so long following my dreams. My guess is that Detroit is right up your alley – like you, people here can also have an awesome edge. Have you had many experiences in Detroit and what are some you would like to share?
Henry Rollins: The first thing I noticed about Detroit, when I started doing shows there over thirty years ago, was the very noticeable lack of bs in the people I met there. Very straight ahead. Not in a dull or pedestrian way but very direct, look you in the eye. You can also hear it in the music. As far as experiences there, nothing stands out besides a dependably great audience. It was one of the best audiences for Black Flag. We would play there up to twice a year and it was always great. There is an urban awareness of people there, an almost canine street smartness that to me, is very, very cool. It’s an audience I fear failing.
Jodi Leib: What are some things about traveling the world and meeting people from all walks of life that makes you a more fulfilled person? What would you say to people who rarely leave their home towns and stick to the same beliefs they grew up with and see on TV?
Henry Rollins: When you meet people whose day to day is so challenging, so insecure, be it a shortage of food, water, peace—people whose future is always uncertain, and to be met with such kindness, curiosity and generosity, it takes you aback. I feel very lucky that I have been in many situations in many countries where I have had to check myself. Travel has been a very good, eye opening, myth dispelling thing for me. I would suggest that anyone who can, get out into the world and see things for yourself. You might see how the news says one thing but your experiences might tell you something quite different. This has happened to me over and over.
Jodi Leib: You are obviously well-spoken and well-read. Did you go through the public school system? Were you self-taught and more motivated than the average kid? Why? What motivates you to this day?
Henry Rollins: Well, I try to be. I went to public school for grades 1 to 3. From then on, a prep school. All boys, uniform, out in the suburbs in Maryland. Math was not interesting. History was taught by instructors who were seemingly not interested in the material. Science was more interesting. English, Spanish and Latin were far more interesting. I was the introspective type, so I did a lot of reading. I have always been pretty much self-taught in the things that capture my interest. In my years at school, I had multiple after school and on the weekend jobs. I didn’t want an allowance. I wanted to make my own money. I thought the working world, the idea of pulling your own weight, to be the best possible thing. I never had to be told to get a job. I went for that all the time. I am motivated by several things in present day. Anger, curiosity, desire to out do my parents, all the people I grew up with, even if I like them, all the people I was in bands with. This is a huge motivator for me. It’s not money. It is to kick ass. Sometimes the ass is mine.
Jodi Leib: What are your views on education in America relative to the rest of the world? Are there other factors that Americans face than just lack of funding for school programs? I find that to be symptom of an underlying systemic and more pervasive problem of people being either too busy to care or in a grave sense of denial. Are kids (and adults once they get into the working world) set up to fail from the word “go” and if so how could we start to change that? Or alternatively, do kids have more resources today than ever before because of the internet and technology? If so, how do we direct them towards good and not destructive outlets – i.e. bullying, terrorism, etc.?
Henry Rollins: A lot of countries are teaching their young people to be dynamic, intuitive and intellectual adults. They are ready for this century. More and more, America is being passed by on this front. There is no denying it. Meanwhile, America seems to be running backwards into the past. Why would that be? It’s a good way to stymie all those who seek equality, it makes incarceration more of a possibility and funnels more young people onto the next battlefield. There is, with some people, a perceived softness to intellectuals. Real men shoot guns and love Jesus. They are not gay, or smart or in the case of the president, black and smart. Intellectuals sympathize with our enemies, want to take your guns and make America’s southern border completely porous. Young people have incredible access but if they don’t have the aptitude or interest to seek something more than Facebook, then they will only go so far. Meanwhile, they can vote, shoot, breed, etc. Young people are not necessarily set up to fail as much as they are set up to be consumers with a less than perfect credit rating. Autonomous enough to feel “free” but the freedom doesn’t extend all that far past their monthly cell phone plan. Meanwhile, vast swatches of the world are moving quickly. The end of this century will be far different than its beginning.
Jodi Leib: I think you and I share a similar passion for political causes – what is the most important one to you and what makes you so invigorated about it?
Henry Rollins: Equality. The Fourteenth Amendment. It is America’s collective failure that we don’t strive for this “in order to form a more perfect union” as it were. Why was there a need for a “Civil Rights Movement” when it’s all in the Constitution? Why would any state have Jim Crow Laws? Why is the most advanced nation in the world still in this dumb ass sandbox? It is this that makes me angry and on the move.
Jodi Leib: I feel the same way - Equality and justice work hand in hand and are fundamental to any relationship or culture. I am extremely passionate about leveling the balance of abusive power wherever I see it. If people could do that in their own lives we would see a huge decline in violence within our micro and macrocosmic realities.
What age is your audience and are you finding a younger generation of fans that are interested in what you have to say? Does it take a special kind of person to understand you? Do you get frustrated sometimes with being misunderstood? What role models do kids have today and is the Disney Channel producing enough intelligent content for today’s youth to develop critical thinking skills? Or is that simply not Disney’s job and if so then how do we get kids thinking about stuff that matters?
Henry Rollins: My audience, if I am to evaluate from the letters I get and the people I meet, seem to be from about 14 to 65. Perhaps from the different things I do. I don’t think it takes a special person, curious, perhaps. If I am misunderstood, it’s only because I was not being clear enough. I take it upon myself to be better, to think things through better, to formulate my ideas more completely. Honestly, I don’t know what kids listen to or watch. I don’t have a television set nor children.
Jodi Leib: This is the bonus question – do you have any fun activities planned while you’re in Royal Oak or Detroit?
Henry Rollins: I don’t. The show is all I am thinking about, really. Everything else comes after that. Thanks.
Jodi Leib: I hope you have a great show in Royal Oak and all along your tour!!! I wish you all the success in the world and I am so grateful we had the opportunity to Talk It Out!!!
So what was my ah-ha moment? What's really resonating with me right now is what Henry said about having a point of view. I sometimes fear where that will lead me because I have some strong opinions at times that can be controversial but it is really important for me to stick to it and trust that my perspective is worthy and I am strong enough to handle other people's resistance. I'm really talking about the Monday’s Child screenplay that I've been writing for years about reproductive rights. But that's a whole other conversation - lol. It's just good to hear Henry and recharge my creative battery.