“I’ve had a lot of human input—I get peopled a lot, but I’m not a people person,” said Henry Rollins, the punk philosopher who’s been attracting fans with his brand of unabashedly loud and clear-eyed bluntness since his days as the lead singer of Black Flag.
The 54-year-old has spent three and a half decades filtering his perspective on the human experience through a varied career as a musician, spoken word artist, radio host, TV host, globetrotter, activist, columnist, and actor. He’s been “peopled” so much, as he puts it, that fans tend to see him as the confessor of their sins.
“People have confessed murders to me,” he told The Daily Beast on a recent morning in Los Angeles, hours after hopping a plane from New York City. “They’ve confessed war crimes to me. I have it in writing. You’re like, ‘OK….’ I don’t know what to say. I’m not a doctor.”
Maybe its Rollins’s frankness, his everyman openness, the impassioned sense of curiosity he clearly has for the world and its inhabitants. His is a measured inquisitiveness that comes through in his radio shows, in his politically-leaning LA Weekly column (“Let’s invade Canada!” he suggested in a recent piece), in the explorer’s spirit on display as the host of several National Geographic documentaries.
He tapped into that innate sense of connectedness in his latest movie, which also marks his first star turn as a leading man. In the indie horror-comedy He Never Died, Rollins plays Jack, a gruff introvert living with a curse: He’s been doomed to live for eternity while hungering only for the taste of other humans. And as if hearing the screams of thousands of years of human atrocities isn’t enough to keep him up at night, Jack’s miserable routine is interrupted when the daughter he never knew shows up on his doorstep.
Director Jason Krawczyk wrote the role of the irascible immortal cannibal antihero with Rollins in mind before sending the gory dark comedy to the actor. Luckily, Rollins connected to the part of a cynical loner tortured by the weight of history’s wrongs who’d really just prefer to be left alone most of the time.
“I don’t want anyone to die, but I don’t go to bars,” he said. “I go to a party and I’m nervous. I can’t wait to leave. I’m not good around people.”
“I’m the guy who’ll just sit all weekend and write or listen to music, alone,” he shrugged. “I’m not looking to go on dates or go to parties. I’ve never been that guy. I’m quite the solitary type. Yet, people will come up and clap their hand on my shoulder, which is so jarring. The other day at the airport I came out of the men’s room and someone says, ‘Henry!’ And I’m like, ‘What?!’”
“I took a lot of that into Jack, who lives alone as I do, kind of moping around as I do when I’m alone at the house, cursing the darkness,” he laughed. “I’ve also seen human violence. I’ve been in violent episodes. I’ve seen humans human out. So has Jack. At times it’s made me very world-weary and somewhat cynical, as is our lot as Homo sapiens on the planet. I fight cynicism with everything in me… but sometimes, you know, when I’m on the 101 and I can’t move I’m like, ‘You all should die.’”
The jaded Jack has been exhausted by humanity, and Rollins doesn’t blame him. “Humans, as dynamic as we are, are a one-note animal,” he mused. “War, peace for a little while, war, peace for a little while. We invent some drugs. We all hang around here way too long. And we’re killing the planet off, from the Industrial Revolution to now, to the point that we’re way past rescuing it. We can slow down the demise but we’re kind of done. Not in our lifetime, but Homo sapiens will probably kill everything on the planet—except for rats, roaches, and lawyers.”
Playing a cannibal has given Rollins cause to ponder the moral line of eating people in real life. “Can you imagine? The Donner Party trying to get to California died, and on some of the fossils they found human teeth marks on the bones,” he exclaimed. He brought up the bizarre and horrific true story of Daniel Rakowitz, noted East Village murderer, weed dealer, and cannibal, who killed his girlfriend in 1989 and fed a stew made of her remains to homeless people in Tompkins Square Park.
“Debbie Harry of Blondie used to always say hello to him,” he remembered. “She was interviewed and said, ‘I’d always see him in the park and wave…’ So, people eat people. It happens, either for survival or because they’re sick in the head. Humans draw lines in interesting places.”
He paused, registering his official stance on cannibalism for the record: “I think it’s wonderful that we don’t eat each other all the time.”
Offscreen, Rollins’ outspoken views and activism work have made him one of punk’s most political alumni, a streak he traces back to his childhood in Washington, D.C. Raised by a single mother (“She was a Democrat and a leftie, and I took after her”) in a predominantly white neighborhood, Rollins recalls becoming aware of the city’s sharp racial divide on the schoolyards and streets as a kid.
“I grew up in an environment of really hardcore racism,” he said. “Washington, D.C. is better now but in the ’60s and ’70s when I was a youth, it was a racial environment—in that I lived in a white neighborhood. There wasn’t a fence around it. That was just working-class, middle-class white people. We never went hungry but we lived in small apartments.”
His father, who he’d see on weekends, made a different kind of impression. “My father was racist,” said Rollins. “To the right of him is Sean Hannity and an assault rifle. He would call black people ‘spades’ which I didn’t understand until I saw it on a card years later. He said, ‘Your mom is a spade lover so you don’t have to listen to what she says—but she’s your mother, so I want you to respect her.’ I’m like, nine. That is the weirdest, most oblique mixed message! Meanwhile, I’m getting called names. I was in public school in the early days and I’d be so scared to go to school, my nose would bleed.”
Rollins’ formative years in D.C. were spent venturing outside of his white hood with pal Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi in search of the music that influenced the city’s vibrant punk scene. “I would go to edgy parts of downtown to go to DJ stores to buy records you couldn’t get at record stores in my part of town. There was a lot of great funk music in DC, go-go music, but you couldn’t get Trouble Funk, the big band in those days, in a normal record store.”
“So Ian and I would go downtown and we would walk in and every conversation would stop. We’d have our lists, ‘We’d like a copy of Hot Cold Sweat - Meet Me At the Go-Go, actually, three copies because my chickenshit friends won’t come down here.’ And they would make jokes with us. ‘The sun’s setting, white boy—you’d better run!’”
Those early days in D.C. also informed Rollins’s political awakening. “I watched D.C. catch on fire. I remember riots. My mom’s little VW had a dent in its hood from a mace canister. You could look out of your window and see smoke, you could smell mace in the air, I watched hippies roll cars as I waited for my school bus,” he recalled. The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Rollins learned the word “assassination” while watching the news. “I memorized it and walked into my mom’s room and said, ‘Martin Luther King has been assassinated,’ and she got up crying. I thought that I had done something wrong. She loved Martin Luther King, and she went apeshit. She was just in grief.”
These days Rollins’ pet causes include LGBT rights, and while he’s thrown his support behind Bernie Sanders he’s actually skeptical that America will ever feel the Bern.
“Oh, he’ll never get elected,” laughed Rollins. “I like him, because I think he’s a straight shooter. I love his progressive ideas about health care, election campaign reform, and foreign policy. I’ve always liked him because he’s honest to a fault. He’s a true statesman.”
“Obviously you can’t sell him to the Midwest or the South. But I just think he’s the best guy running. His concepts are way too radical for America in terms of health care and all that, but I don’t think any of his ideas are threatening. I don’t think any of them would be bad. I don’t think he wants the next war.”
Rollins recently branded GOP presdiential candidate Donald Trump a “sad Joke,” but that “sad joke” hasn’t lagged in popularity despite running his campaign by waging ugly wars on an increasing list of targets, from Mexicans to women to Muslims. “I’m not a Trump fan at all, but he will say what’s on his mind. Like, ‘No more Muslims!’” Rollins snorted, amused. “You just said that. And of course in this country, a lot of people agree. Trump, one day he held up his cellphone and said, ‘Here’s Lindsey Graham’s number!’ I could not not laugh. That was FUNNY. He would be a disastrous president, but at the same time I don’t think he wants to be president. I think he’s a bored rich guy just being crass.”
America, Rollins assessed, is “sick” of Washington. Trump simply feels like an antidote to all the politicking.
“I think it speaks of an America that is sick of Washington, D.C. They voted and lost, and they voted and won and everyone’s mad,” he said, praising President Obama. “I think he’s an amazing man and he’s got more cool than 10 James Bonds. I would have lost my dignity long ago, and he gets called a lot of names. But I think there are a lot of people who voted for him who have great remorse—‘You didn’t do this, you didn’t do that’—but he doesn’t have a Congress that’s jumping up and helping, hence the success of the Tea Party. Hence the fact that Donald Trump can be so obnoxious and crass and racist and xenophobic.”
“During the age of Reagan you could not go on the ballot box and say what he’s saying and not have other Republicans go, ‘Get him out of here—that’s not us,’” he continued. “Now, that is a version of the GOP. That says, America’s done, we’re all cynical about Washington on the left and right. You guys are all one-trick ponies. You all suck.”
For what it’s worth, Rollins says he would not consider running for office himself, even if he has some perspective and ideas on how to fix America.
“[Trump] bespeaks of an America that’s sick of war, sick of a crap economy, sick of the richest economy in the world with poverty, and nobody on either side of the aisle seems to want to fix it—otherwise we would have. It’s not that big of a deal: you fill up the schools and empty the prisons. Takes you a hundred years but you can do it.”
“Want a clearer sky? More solar panels, thanks! Next time you’re in Australia, look down when you land in any city—every roof, solar panels. They’re having trouble with fresh water, but they’re trying to be cleaner. This country, our heels are dug in in the past, we’re prehistoric. And that’s where Trump is getting off. There are people who do think the president is coming for their guns. They are afraid of Muslims. They are afraid of Latinos. ‘They’re taking our jobs!’ Dude, you don’t want to sell oranges under the 101… Donald Trump says those are the bad ones. Really? I think they’re the salt of the Earth. You should shut up.”
As for 2016, Rollins may be vocal, and he may be a Bernie backer, but he’s not optimistic.
“Bernie is not a factor. He’s not going to go anywhere,” Rollins sighed. “It very well could be Hillary, who I think will be astonishingly mediocre. I think she’s a brilliant woman, she’s just kind of status quo and we won’t get anywhere. That sucks.”
“I want the Hollywood ending for my country,” he continued. “I want us to be clean and cool and respectful of each other. No homophobia. Bill and Tom can get married and nobody cares unless they can’t get some free cake!” “But we’re not there,” Rollins lamented, “because we don’t want to be.”