Henry Rollins has always been involved in a wide array of projects. From music (Black Flag, Rollins Band) to writing books, from acting (Sons of Anarchy) to his radio show, “I like the work,” he says. “And I have no illusions about where I come from; I’m from the minimum-wage working world. So when someone says, ‘Do you want to be in a film?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’ll try that out. I’m hungry.’ If you can get used to a vigorous lifestyle — one where that’s kind of all you know to do — you kind of forget to be lazy.”
Currently on his Frequent Flyer spoken word tour, Rollins got his start doing spoken word in 1983. “A promoter in Los Angeles put on shows. Twenty people onstage, and everyone would get five minutes each. People would get up there — they had nothing — and they would waste your time for five minutes.
“But quite often it was really good. And one time this promoter fellow said, ‘Henry, why don’t you try it? Give it a shot. We’re paying ten bucks.’ I’m in, ’cause I was broke. So I went onstage, got my ten minutes. I told a story about what had happened at band practice the day before, and I read a thing I had written, and went, ‘Okay, that’s my ten minutes.’ And people said, ‘Do more!’ I said, ‘Nooo, the next guy’s gotta go on.'”
He was hooked. “People came up to me after the show and said, ‘That was really cool. You should do that more often.’ I thought, ‘That’s something I could do.’ I couldn’t wait till I could do it again. I liked it.” In 1985 Rollins did his first coast-to-coast spoken word tour, “drawing stunning crowds of twelve to fifty people.” With understatement, Rollins says that over the years, “the thing has picked up a bit of momentum.”
Dressed in a t-shirt and dark pants, Rollins walks out onto a bare stage each night. There’s a small table with a bottle of water, and a microphone. That’s it. No light show, no sound effects, no props, no notes. He just…talks.
Rollins explains by metaphor. “If we get it down to jazz terms, me and the Coltrane quartet know that we’re doing ‘My Favorite Things.’ But in the solo part, no one knows where Coltrane’s gonna go. Yet when he goes, [vocalizes the song’s signature phrase], the band knows, ‘okay, the solo’s over, so we bring it back up, and here we go on the outro.’
“I know I’m gonna talk about this country I just went to, and that aspect of the trip. But how I get to it, and how I get out of it…well, we’ll see.” Even within a single tour, no two Rollins shows are alike. “The truth of the thing doesn’t change: if I don’t get the girl at the end of the movie, I’m not gonna get her at the end of the movie next week.”
Rollins usually doesn’t touch that water bottle. “I figure, if I stop talking for four whole seconds, I’ll lose the audience.” Pity the poor bartender or washroom attendant at a Rollins gig: people stay in their seats. “You gotta hold ’em. You gotta drill them into their seats. You must be compelling. You must be concise.” Rollins stresses that “I’m not taking myself seriously; I’m taking people’s time seriously. I wish other performers would be like that. I go to some shows, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? You charged me thirty-five bucks and you’re like, waking up?!'”
Believe it or not, the imposing Rollins occasionally has to deal with loud, inattentive audience members. His onstage response: “‘If your goal is to f**k me up, you will succeed. If that’s your goal, you’re about 65% successful so far.’ And that usually shuts them up. ‘You got a beef with me? Great. Talk to me post-show, give me the editorial then. But let me do this.’ If that doesn’t shut them up,” he chuckles, “the people around them usually do.”
He feels the responsibility to be ready: “The first show of a tour, it’s not, ‘Well, it’ll get better next week.” it’s ‘How is this audience gonna survive us?’ If you’re a concertgoer, you don’t want to see the show [on a tour] that got better a week later. You want to see the show that kicked your ass that night. Me, I can’t wait to see the audience every night. I’m born to do this.”
Click HERE for a bonus interview with Rollins.
Photos of Rollins in his self-described “spartan hovel” – credit Maura Lanahan