Tramp The Last Mile: Our Interview With Henry Rollins

CREDIT: Chapman Baehler
The image of brown-eyed, heavily-muscled Henry Rollins as a screaming, glowering malcontent has persevered in the eyes of those who haven't been following his career as closely as they should have. While others who have stood in his rarefied position now lie in a dung heap of spent force, he seems impossibly alive with more to talk about than ever before.

Most things written about his long career are either fawning or unnecessarily critical, further confirming the belief that he provokes powerful responses from those he comes in contact with.

Through the years he's expressed no allegiance to any particular medium, subculture, or movement, preferring instead to move between music, film, TV, radio, publishing, and spoken word concerts with such rapid fire succession that it makes fans prone to whiplash.

On February 13th, Rollins passed the fifty year mark and his current series of spoken word engagements see him taking an unflinching look at life, rage, and age with the same honesty and humor that busts myths, ignites conflicts, and puts the spotlight again on his showmanship.

As soon as you think you've got Henry pegged down. off he goes again. I was bowled over by his winning charisma and immediate likability of the guy. What follows is our conversation on an early weekday morning fueled by four cups of rocket fuel coffee on my end and probably fifteen on his.

Hi Henry, how are you?
I'm good. I want to apologize profusely for running over. The guy before you had great questions and we ran long because some other calls previous to that came in late. One interview after another and we had a domino effect. Now I'm late for this one because I was late doing the last one. It's been a morning of constant beeping through on the phone so thank you for your persistence.

That's okay. Wait... so I was beeping in on call waiting that whole time? How annoying. You know I let it ring for thirteen minutes straight? God, how did you guys hear anything?
Yeah it kept beeping and I kept trying to get the very nice man off the phone but his questions were so cool and I felt bad since I was late for him because the first guy was late so I apologize profusely and I am ready to answer any question you have to the best of my ability!

Why thanks Henry, that's very sporting of you. I'm from New York so I'll talk as fast as I can to get you back on schedule. Rapid fire Q&A.
There you go.

I feel like 50 is a number that I can't even associate with you considering I broke my first bone at a Rollins Band Concert.
Poor thing. I don't feel old but the comedian in me cannot resist having fun with being fifty. Someone actually gave me a cane for a present and my assistant makes me use it around the office all the day. She's like (in crazy lady voice), "Here! Use your cane!" and I walk around with it like "Really?"

CREDIT: Chapman Baehler

Are you talking about Heidi?
Yeah, Heidi's like "The cane's cute. You should use it all the time!" and then the person who sent it to me asked me what I thought of it and I told them I used my walker to get over to the package to open it and ate the paper it was wrapped in for fiber so thanks a lot.

I've got to tell you, I'm a big fan of Heidi (Heidi May, Henry's long time assistant). Every time I watch the videos on the site of you guys interacting I just think "comedic gold". Do you ever consider taking that gal on tour?
Well she sure thinks so. She's making an old man out of me. She's been hectoring and emasculating me for thirteen years now.

Has it really been thirteen years she's been there?! That's a damn good assistant, Henry!
It's been thirteen years but it feels like thirteen ice ages. She'll be clopping down here on her little cloven hooves in about fifteen minutes.

Awww. She's awesome.
Her little head spinning, the smell of garlic...

You better watch it. She's going to go out and do her own spoken word tour just to take the piss out of you.
She's got so much dirt on me that I could be in jail for the rest of my life.

I've seen you do spoken word a few times and I've also seen you sweat-soaked, barefoot and belligerent while on tour with Rollins Band and I've got to say I miss the music. Have you sworn it off for good?
Yeah. And I must say that I miss it every day. I just don't know honestly what I could do with it that's different. I don't know in what other way I could ring that bell in that I rang it very hard and very urgently for many years and at my age now I see my peers, not exactly by name but people loosely around my age, going out and playing thirty-year-old music or trying to maintain some kind of foothold. And it looks a little desperate, a little balding, and a little rotund and I'm neither balding nor rotund. So I just don't want to go, "Hey here's 'Low Self Opinion' again. Come on kids!" It feels like being in year five at the university, like shouldn't you be doing something else? So it sounds like I'm burning this band but I'm not, but about four years ago I saw Van Halen on a night off in Chicago, with David Lee Roth singing and it was men in their fifties playing music they wrote in their twenties. And while the show was competent and they played the songs very well and Dave was leaping about, it was what it was and it was ultimately depressing. It was me and the road manager and we didn't even stay for the encore. We kind of looked at each other and said, "You had enough?" and we were both like, "Yeah, let's skulk out of here."

That's sad.
Well, it was like, "Don't you have anything else to do?" and when I look at Mick Jagger, a man I have nothing but respect for, I mean he's Mick jagger, what are you gonna do? He's the man. But you're sixty five and you are still singing "Satisfaction." That says to me that I don't have the guts to walk out and try my luck in uncharted waters. And I want that and so I left music to see what else is shakin' and there is not a whole lot that you or anyone can tell me about writing songs, recording an album and touring that I don't kind of already know. And on the last tour I did a few years ago, I came back and went "Wow. That was six weeks of knowing exactly what I was getting." So I walked away from the music to see what would happen. I made some very radical changes in how I do things in order to be like a freshman in a new arena at a different university in order to find a deep and cold body of water to just jump into and go "WHAA!" (that's supposed to be an agonized frightened wail) and have to get up early and kind of run after it instead of running to keep it from falling apart, in that I'm maintaining a younger version of myself in the eyes of my audience. So I did that and my manager and my people around me went, "Ooh, don't" because a bit of their cash cow was leaning up. I found very quickly , and it sounds like I'm bragging here but it's true, I found that I was spoiled for choice as far as far as offers coming to me. Like all kinds of things. Like do you want to work with National Geographic and do documentaries? Yes.

You want to write for the L.A. Weekly? Sure. Would you like to be a DJ at KCRW or write for Vanity Fair? Yeah, I can do that. Or what about going to Africa and doing this? Well, get me a plane ticket. So I have been working about eight days a week since I left music and the talk shows keep me challenged because information is rapidly changing. I get travel opportunities and the chance to do fundraising and... Ooh, INCOMING!

What the hell?
Your favorite just walked in.

Is Heidi there?!
Just pulled up the driveway! You'll hear her little rock boots clomping by any second now as she scowls at me. Anyway, Heidi and I are working on me with great fury to keep up with all these things that are coming in. And so I have found that there is a life for me outside of being the rock guy. It's really interesting work. So every day as soon as I can pull myself up, I run at it and really throw myself into it. Whereas if someone said, "You have band practice today," I'd say "Ugh." I did that so hard for so long I really know every bit of furniture in that room. And at fifty to have these people say "Hey you want to try this?" I feel like, "Wow, you give a damn about me. I'm honored. I'm amazed."

I tend to think you underestimate your capabilities because you're pretty pragmatic and matter of fact about what you think your limitations are and yet the offers continue to come in.
Yeah, and I make things happen as well. Making up things and pitching people. I pitched National Geographic the other day because I was at a meeting there after doing some documentaries with them. I pitched them on one of my ideas and I have the photos and the whole big PDF file I sent them and they were wildly enthusiastic. Now I don't know if they'll let me make this thing on their dime but they all said it was a great idea and they loved it. I'd never pitched a documentary before and the boss there said it was well presented. That was encouraging and very empowering.

Let's talk about National Geographic for a minute. You've teamed up on two projects together to my knowledge. There is this snakes documentary. I hate snakes, Henry. I dream they are winding around my legs getting ready to kill me.
They freak a LOT of people out.

The other project for National Geographic, Born To Rage?, had me nailed to my seat, riveted for personal reasons. I have a little ball of rage that lives in our house and the discovery of this "warrior gene" really intrigued me.
You can test him for the gene right now. Actually, it's a simple DNA test. Ask to be tested for the MAOA gene. They wouldn't say "What are you talking about?" because we sent them fifteen or twenty-five DNA samples to test for that only.

I saw that, I went looking for the company you used after watching the entire thing. You were tested. How did you feel about YOUR results?
Oh, I was relieved.

OOH , there it goes! Clippity cloppity!

Remember to tell her I said to mine the comedic gold okay?
Don't give this woman any traction.

Oh stop it.
All you are doing is making my day all that much harder to get through.

It might soften her up?
It's 8:54 and it's already started.

I'm telling you she's a nugget of wisdom. Keep a hold of that gem.
You know I've learned more from her than she's ever learned from me, that's the truth.

So you do fully understand what she brings to your life. Good. I've read all about your far flung travels around the world for various causes but I was intrigued by the work you've been doing for the USO. I was up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (it's up the street) delivering something and I came out afterward wanting to punch my clueless ungrateful self in the face. I found myself struggling to find something meaningful and not frivolous to talk to these guys about. What did you say to them when you went there to visit?
You know, just "Thank you for your service" or even just "Hello, it's nice to meet you." These guys are grateful for the visit and happy someone acknowledges them because quite often, people don't. And as you probably saw, you and I have nothing to complain about. You're not twenty-two with your legs gone and other parts of your body torn away from you while you are married with two kids. There are a lot of heartbreaking stories inch by inch in that place. I've been, I don't know how many times to Walter Reed or Bethesda medical, I've lost count. Every single time I walk out of there just like "Whoa." It's a lot. It's an overload. You see these nurses and doctors kicking so much ass and working so hard. They just love these people and they give everything to it. You see what a war looks like later on. All that tough talk, you see ultimately to where it can lead. To a young person's body body being torn up like in some kind of movie. It looks like some kind of special effect. It gives you a lot to think about. If there was a way more people could walk through that place and not inconvenience doctors and patients doing work or recovery, I think it would be very effective for having people rethink all of this stuff because it's a hell of a thing when you are close up on it.

You seem to be in your element when you are on the radio. Now you're on KCRW but you used to be on 103.1 in L.A.
Yeah, indie was a little looser.

You had some meticulous playlists you kept that are documented in the book Fanatic, are you a list maker in everyday life?
Oh yeah. Because I have so many records and so many alternate versions of things and it's all very interesting, those lists. I'm not going to get into an argument over who's the greatest sax player of all time, if it's John Coltrane for you and if it's Sonny Rollins for another guy, I think we can all get along but I do kind of covet all my different pressings of different records and look at them over and over again and listen to them all the time. Yeah, I'm into all that.

CREDIT: Chapman Baehler
Okay, it's time for the Culture Brats Three. Thriller or Purple Rain?
I prefer the Jackson 5 and a lot of Michael Jackson's stuff over a LOT of music in that it was pretty genius. But I also find a lot of Michael Jackson's solo stuff not to my liking compared to a lot of Prince records. Those are neither a favorite from either guy for me. I like both artists, but not those records as much as I like something like Lovesexy or Against The Wall.

Wow. That might be the best thought out answer to that question I've ever had.
I have neither of those records but I have records of both artists.

Pretty In Pink or 16 Candles?

You don't even know what they are, do you?
No, no, I know. One was a John Hughes film or both? Believe it or not I've never seen either.

Ugh! Really?
How about we just say I prefer Berlin Alexanderplatz by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Is that okay?

I guess if you're into 15 hours in a German prison it's fine. Do you still feel homicidal towards Edie Brickell?
I would never ruffle so much as a hair on her head but I found that music to be kind of the beginning of the end of college radio and she was the proponent of it. I'm sure she's a very nice person and she's married now to a man who could be her father [Paul Simon] and I hope they're both deliriously happy. So I harbor no aggression or rage towards this person. I guess I'm just happy that she did read that letter I wrote her because she stopped making music. Letter writing is effective and I've just proven it.

Now I'm sorry I missed your birthday show at National Geographic a few weeks ago.
Oh man, that's too bad. It was a great time.

Well this leg of the tour, I've got a ticket to see you at Rams Head Live in Annapolis in March, which I had to kill someone for since everything is sold out.

Good luck, bring your walker and try to take a vacation at some point.
I go from one thing to the next so probably not. Perhaps I'll meet you at the show and I'll see you soon.

Thanks for talking to us, Henry. Take care.
Thank you and again thank you for persevering on the phone I really appreciate it.

And yes people the very last of the Culture Brats 3 was left off because I could not bring my chicken ass to inquire if Rollins preferred Tiffany or Debbie Gibson. I know now that this was a huge mistake as I bet the answer would have changed the world but at the time the clock was ticking and I had so much more to ask.

So perhaps I will flag him down after his Annapolis show, introduce myself, and give him one last chance to make a choice.

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