Interview by Jack Raffin / Photography by Ross Halfin
What can be said about Henry Rollins that hasn’t been said already? Well, he is prompt to respond—how about that? And having just turned 60 last month, he ain’t slowing down anytime soon. Truly the man must live by our Golem philosophy: ‘Do not delay, please enjoy’.
We had a quick chat to see what he’s been up to recently. Many may know Henry from the ‘80s punk band Black Flag, where he, perhaps famously now, left his job at an ice cream shop and joined the band as vocalist at the age of 19. It was probably their 1984 album Family Man, where we started getting Henry as the relentless spoken wordsmith, a talent and skill that he would pursue for the next three decades; travelling the world and speaking to audiences about everything from politics, to punk music, to a mixture of both (such as suggesting a mutual love of the Ramones can save the world in some sense—which I will have to sort of agree on here). Perhaps you know him from Sons of Anarchy, or the other bunch of movie and TV jobs he’s taken on over the years. He has also worked with countless other musical acts, as a vocalist and producer, as well as having written a variety of books on a wide scope of topics, and then there’s his photography, and his columns for the Australian Rolling Stone, as well as hosting his own radio shows—but maybe you already knew that. Well, now here he is on Golem.
Jack Raffin: You once mentioned that you had stopped making music when you stopped writing lyrics; that, if you feel you can’t bring anything new to the stage, you don’t want to be on it. I find this particularly interesting because it was a theme that came up a lot in our previous issue, the importance of consistently making work that moves you forward. In the arts, there’s a feeling that once you become comfortable with what you’re doing, you sort of begin to “die”, stuck in a rut, the beginning of the end—if you stay that way. What currently drives you in your more recent work, be it writing, radio, or speaking?
Henry Rollins: I think it’s good to be motivated when you’re trying to do something artistic or creative as often it’s going to require a lot of energy over a prolonged period. That something is driving you, even when it causes pain or puts you at odds with some people, while it might be self-destructive, if it felt like the right thing to do at the time, then the time wasn’t wasted. I’d rather have a reason to get up in the morning than anything. If I have a reason, then I can withstand quite a bit. Without something to be inspired by, life for me at least, is mere existence. As soon as what I’ve been doing no longer obsesses me, then I have to go find something else to do that does. So far, I’ve been able to stay motivated. I am, at this point, in the last 25% of my life. I reckon I’ve got a few more years of being useful/operational. I think music is the single best thing humans ever came up with, so being able to have a radio show, to be able to bring music to people and being under the impression that being a good thing, that’s what keeps me at it. Writing continues to keep me in its grip. If I could stop, I would. That seems to get more intense the older I get. I think it might be the feeling of running out of time, which isn’t the worst motivator. It sure is real, that’s for sure. The same goes for speaking. I am still convinced I have “something to say.” I reckon that will end at some point but until then, off I go. Also, please know that at no time in my life have I ever considered myself an artist. I’ve been around artists and I’m absolutely sure I’m not one. I process and report. Once there is nothing to report, or if I become unable to do it, I’ll have to adjust. I’m not looking forward to this, but I think an end point is inevitable. The idea of nothing to do, I don’t know how I will deal with that but I’m guessing that I would go into full service mode, volunteer where I could do some good, and in that, find purpose.
With the idea of ‘moving forward’, I think your travels around the world are interesting. For pretty much anyone, travelling can be a life-changing experience. Things are pretty different for now, but still, roaming around unknown territories can change a person in a way that when you come back home (if there is a home), there’s a different mindset, a different viewpoint. Tell us a bit about how travelling has affected your work and the desire behind sharing your experiences with others.
Travel, for me, has been the biggest influencer over the last three decades. Mark Twain said, and I’m paraphrasing, that travel was the death of bigotry. I agree. I don’t think anyone from what is known as the western world, can travel to the African continent, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, etc., and not be profoundly inspired, upset, shook up and ultimately moved to a more humanitarian posture. Homo sapiens is a beautiful and heartbreaking species. One must reconcile the very good and the totally awful when assessing the human state. To experience generosity from those who have so little, kindness while standing on bullet casings that litter the ground like cigarette butts from decades of war and so on, have instructed and informed me in ways I cannot deviate from even if I wanted to. I am of the opinion that no writing or documentary can inform you in the same way as you actually being in the place. The photographs I’ve shown to people, the travel books I’ve written, the stories I’ve told, those are mere inducements to hopefully inspire others to “get out there” and see environments that are different than their own.
And so, what’s the creative process behind your work, be it spoken word, written word, or otherwise? I like how you once said that creative people shouldn’t aspire or ask for advice so much as just let out what’s already inside them.
I need an idea. The rest, for the most part, is mechanical and refinement. I’ve been writing a series of books on music, records, rare music items, as I find all that interesting. The work is, I’ve come to find, what someone would contribute to a fanzine. It took me about two years of writing and tossing it before I got to what I was after. I was sure it was there and that the concept was solid, but I was probably going to get there by finding all the wrong paths first, which has happened to me quite a bit. Once I had the idea somewhat defined, it became a vehicle I could get in and drive. Writing, the sheer act of it, is nowhere near as hard as coming up with the reason to start. It has never occurred to me to ask for advice. Please don’t think that it’s because I know better than anyone as I don’t think I do. I just would rather find my own way and let the mistakes and all the rest be part of the process.
To continue reading this article, purchase the Summer 2021 issue of Golem Quarterly Review.