Henry Rollins Opens Up About Toxic Masculinity and Abuse: ‘I Hate Men’
The former Black Flag frontman talks to Marlow Stern about his bizarre new film, how American men are broken, and why he’s given up on relationships.
Henry Rollins has been holed up in his home since March, just off Hollywood Blvd., furiously typing away to meet deadlines for his upcoming book. “My life is edit, edit, proofread, write; two trips to the post office a week to pick up mail; and one trip to the grocery store every 10 days. That’s it,” he explains.
The chiseled 59-year-old’s journey to aggro Black Flag frontman is the stuff of punk rock legend: composed fan letters to the band, attended all their shows, was invited up onstage at one chaotic New York gig, landed the job of lead singer. He’s since become a broad cultural figure—hosting TV series, podcasts, and radio shows; appearing in films like Heat, Lost Highway, and Bad Boys II; and touring the country, speaking truth to power.
His latest film is Dreamland. Marking the fourth collaboration between Rollins and Canadian horror director Bruce McDonald (Pontypool), it’s a surrealist fantasy wherein a ruthless, child-trafficking crime lord, Hercules (Rollins), hires a contract killer (Stephen McHattie) to get him the finger of a drug-addicted jazz legend (also McHattie), with the hopes that it’ll gain him entrée into high society. There are also vampires, child brides, and… Juliette Lewis.
It’s a fascinating character to embody for Rollins—one that’s made him reflect on the abuse he suffered at the age of 7, at the hands of his mother’s perverted boyfriend.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Rollins discussed coming to terms with his abuse, toxic masculinity, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and why four more years of Trump may just kill us all.
How are things going for you during the pandemic?
Well, please understand that I’m trying to answer carefully, because it’s easy to sound like a jerk: My life, because I’m self-employed, has not been altered like if I worked at a factory or a coffee place, where I got no work and am trying to get a paycheck. I’m on track for a book I have coming out in December, so I’m at my office, which is in my house; getting workouts in, because I have a gym; and doing my radio show, because I have a studio. All my tour dates went away this year and all my crazy travel plans evaporated, but beyond that, I’m doing what I would be doing this week anyway. So I feel like a lucky bastard compared to the sheer intensity of what other people are lookin’ at.
And it feels like this is mainly the federal government’s fault, since we had months to prepare for this and mitigate the damage yet they did next to nothing.
I think you couldn’t have a worse kind of virus, which is sneaky and very strong, happen to the wrongest country/population. You have people in this country going, “Masks are for sissies!” Really? Your hubris makes you believe you’re tougher than a virus? No mask is a symbol of “tough guy?” And you have a leader who won’t wear a mask? Oh no, so many people are going to get this thing. I’ve been to hundreds of countries in my life. I’m no brainiac, but I’ve seen a few things. There’s no country like America. This is the last place this virus should’ve shown up, because we are not mentally prepared for it. When you bring an AR-15 and nine magazines down to city hall to do… what? What did you just show me? What did I learn? What did you think the governor was going to do? ‘
Right. G.I. Joe cosplaying.
You’re not getting any point across; no one’s impressed. This virus picked the perfect country to go wreak havoc—because you have bad leadership at the top, members of the Senate who are going along with it, and I think they all hitched a ride on the Titanic. Sadly, a lot of good people are going to go down with this. I don’t want anybody dying from this thing. You need to be listening to your doctors and epidemiologists, not some guy going, “We want this country to reopen!” We all want the country to reopen but it can’t right now. I think we’ve walked into a dose of this that’s going to make this summer really awful. And, to be selfish for a moment, I tour for a living, and in my mind, the way of life I’ve had for almost 40 years, I think it’s over. I don’t think I’m ever getting on a tour bus again and doing 16 months. I think we’re in a very dangerous place.
Just prior to the election, you said that Trump voters are going to be “very dangerous losers” and liberals are going to be “whiny and hilarious losers.” How do you feel about that prediction today?
I think I was right. My joke onstage during that tour was, “Two things are going to happen: If Hillary Clinton wins, it’s the five-mile line to Walmart for ammunition and Wild Turkey, or if Donald Trump wins, you’re going to hear the sound of crying and trees being hugged and wildlife preserves being surrounded by people vigilantly guarding ducks.” So, if the liberals lose it would be a wah-fest and wringing of hands, and if these intense guys lose, wow, it could be a really bad time, because these people aren’t going to lose well.
I think the same goes for this time around as well. I think he can win again, and I think if he wins, it’ll be four bad years. If he loses, it’ll be four bad years with little pinprick-diameter beams of light of optimism and solutions. I think four more years of the EPA being more destroyed, more judges who won’t let a woman own her body parts, with someone who has no more to run for and who’s going to get revenge with a pandemic, that should be a Philip K. Dick book, it shouldn’t be our lives. If Trump loses, I think it’s going to get a lot of people killed. It’s going to get a lot more men getting their necks stood on in broad daylight and killed on a city street. America is in for a rough ride because of what’s happened over the last three-something years. This administration has wrecked the government to the point where rebuilding it is going to be a big-ass chore. Making it non-lethal and non-predatory and divisive will take a generation at least.
Let’s talk about Dreamland. It’s a very surreal and wild film, and you play a demented crime boss/child trafficker.
Bruce McDonald, the director, this is the third thing I’ve done with him. We go back to the ‘90s. So he wrote me, and said, “Hey man, here’s a crazy movie. Look over Hercules and let me know.” I looked at it, talked myself into it, talked myself out of it, and then needed him to talk me into it. I gave him an emo MRI of Hercules, and he said, “I like that!” He said, “You’ve got this, and what you don’t got I’ll get you the rest of the way.” And I said, “I’m in.” Because I don’t get offers, I get auditions. I’m not an actor, I’m just a ham who fears unemployment. So I’ll go for the audition, make a fool of myself, and not get the part. I’ve gotten a handful of offers in my life, and this was one of them.
This movie is like a fever dream, and [my character’s] the worst person I could think of. A pedophile is bad enough. One who helps pedophiles and makes money? That’s as bad, at least. So, I play this horribly offensive person who no one likes, who thinks he’s about to have his big night.
Was it a strange experience for you? Because you have personal experience with this type of abuse, having been molested by an older man as a young boy.
Yes. I’m not trying to be a jerk but there are two people who’ve been in my life who I didn’t exactly base the character on, but just two very cowardly, super-mean people I know. I went, “Oh, Hercules reminds me of this one, and that one.” I remembered some of their knee-jerk reactions to things and what horrible people they are. I’ve been around some pretty awful people in my life.
The #MeToo movement has rightfully exposed a lot of predatory men who’ve sexually assaulted women. But I remember when Terry Crews brought up his assault by a man, and a lot of famous men—50 Cent, etc.—either rolled their eyes or mocked Crews for coming forward.
That’s too bad, because it took more courage than 50 Cent might ever have to ever have. To look like Terry Crews, a big dude, and he had the guts to say that? That was pretty damn extraordinary.
How have you managed to grapple with what happened to you as a child?
What happened to me in my life has given me that almost canine—you know the dog that’s nice to your friends but barks at anything in a uniform and hates the mailman? And they’re like, “We can’t figure him out!” And the dog can’t figure it out but he’ll bite any delivery person? I have that with men. I hate men. I go case-by-case but by and large… and including me. I am part of the reason why the world sucks at times. I don’t think women are starting wars. Men are part of the reason why you don’t get to have nice things. So, I don’t have a lot of male friendships. And I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for the guy who opened his big, fat mouth and had it closed for him at the bar. Hey man, maybe you’ll learn, but probably not. When people are like, “Hey, that woman just destroyed that guy’s career!” If he really did what she’s accused him of? Hey, go get your legs broken, man.
I’m not a fan of men. I’m a big fan of our last president. My best friend is a man, Ian MacKaye of Fugazi. He’s been quite a good influence on me. There are a few men who can have the other half of my sandwich any day. But it has led to a knee-jerk suspicion of men, where I kind of expect them to do bad things as a matter of course. That’s been the long-range effect of what’s been done to me by men. There have also been a lot of self-evaluation and a lot of improvements I’ve had to make. Maturity has been very hard for me to come by. Those are all clap-push-ups. What came to some people from good parenting, good teaching, and good learning, I had to go out there, make some mistakes, and go, “I can’t do that. No.” I’m not a rapist or anything. But I’ve been a jerk. And maybe the last 20 years or so of my life I’ve been OK. The second half of this has to be better than the first. That Jared Yates Sexton book, The Man They Wanted Me to Be, really lit me up. His father and my father were not dissimilar, so a lot of what plagued him plagued me. So with #MeToo, hopefully men listen. And hopefully young men listen.
I heard that you haven’t had a serious romantic relationship since your twenties. Is that true, and why do you think that is?
I’m super-serious-not-good-at-it! This is going to be the comedy part of our interview. [Laughs] I mean, I just suck at it! Not that I’m steeped in infidelity—one relationship is more than I can handle. I fail. I’m a workaholic, and that gets worse when I get older. When an amazing woman says, “What are we doing this weekend?” I’m like, “I’m working.” It’s not their fault. They’re expecting you to be an adult man and be 50 percent of something, and I simply can’t deliver it. For me, it’s not defensible, and there’s nothing I can say that makes me look good. I don’t ever raise my voice and call them mean names, but I just say, “You know what? I really suck at this. I thought I could do it” They’re holding a handful of sand and after two weeks there’s one grain left—and then they’ve lost that one too.
And so, I have decided that I’m really good at two or three things: I can really work. I can really sit alone for days at a time and write, edit, make a radio show. I can go to crazy parts of the world by myself with a backpack, get out the other end with all 10 fingers. Turn me loose in North Korea and Central Asia? I’ve done ‘em both, and here I am. Showing up for dinner on time? I really want to be, but I’ve just figured out I’m not good at it. It’s probably a combination of emotional arrested development and some kind of thing on the spectrum. It all hits a certain part of the adult relationship where I got no game, and I’m, “Madam, I’m wasting your time.” It’s cool when you’re 15 to be a young idiot. You should, so you can learn not to be one later. At 59? There’s no excuse, because you’re dating a real human adult person in the world who has more life behind them than in front of them, if you’re dating age-appropriately, and they don’t want to waste any time with someone who shows up one day and is like, “Hi, I’m 17 and I’m gonna go on eBay to win this thing”—which I’m so going to do this weekend. I’m not really a part of the adult world.
So… I suck. And I wish I didn’t, because I think women are the most amazing thing. I’ve had girlfriends over the years and it all gently fades away, and one day I show up and I say, “Hi. I’m not really attending class, am I?” and they say, “No, you’re really not.” And I say, “Ow. OK.” That’s way too much information. [Laughs] But it’s happened enough times where, as an adult, you figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. There was an amazing woman who’s married to one of the most amazing men in American music. She’s passed away, but she would invite me to her birthday parties. I can’t tell you how nerve-wracking it was showing up, finding a corner, and standing in it for two hours. All her friends are there like voulez-vous and I’m standing there like the Ritalin kid at school—which I was. I’m good at being onstage in front of people. With people? Not so much. As I got older, this has become more profound: I am a kook.
There’s this hilariously stupid refrain you hear from young conservatives: conservatism is the new punk rock.
And not true. But let them have it.
What do you think about the state of punk? And music in general that’s taking on the current administration?
Marlow, how about this: You are willing to widen your lens and let punk be rock-and-roll, poetry readings, spoken-word shows, passionate op-eds, passionate anything. If you can allow youth and passion and intensity to be punk rock, then a whole bunch of things get to be punk rock. The great Ty Segall, is he punk rock? I don’t know. I don’t require him to be punk rock for me to like it. I like things that are real, and fun, and passionate. There are a whole bunch of bands where, if there was a gig I’d go to it. Most of them are a fraction of my age. I don’t look at the classification. But to answer your question more directly: I don’t think it is the responsibility of any punk rock musician, or any musician, to write a song that addresses a political situation. If you want to be Jello Biafra, who is amazing and does it very well, do it.
Find the political lyrics in my horribly-written body of work. I come from a band called Black Flag—that’s my heritage, if you will. Our politics? The song “Police Story.” That’s our waking reality—that the LAPD knows us by name and hates our guts. Political? A cop calling me a name to see if I’ll do something so he can beat me up. That’s my politics. I got Daryl Gates, chief of the LAPD. My politics are more sewn to my emotion. No song stopped a war, otherwise Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Neil Young would’ve stopped them all in their lifetimes. Music didn’t stop Vietnam.
I think music helped shape public opinion around Vietnam though.
Could be. Depends on who’s putting it out there, and who’s showing up to listen. What I’m saying is: I don’t think any singer or anybody in a band has to be the next member of Congress. If they want to sing about girls and cars, OK. I might not be showing up for it, but I just don’t think it’s the responsibility of punk rock [to be political]. I think that was a thing assigned after Thatcher and Reagan, where so many bands did go after those two that that seemed to be what punk rock was supposed to do going forward. I never thought that ever. Never mentioned Reagan when he was in office. Wasn’t in my wheelhouse. All my politics were real local, like what was happening on the corner. So when someone goes, “Punk-rockers aren’t doing their job,” I don’t think there’s necessarily a job.
When someone says, “Conservatism is the new punk rock,” I’ll say, OK, I’ve met some assholes in punk rock, but I think that’s tremendously misguided and probably said by someone who doesn’t listen to punk rock. What I became annoyed with was, by Day 2 of punk rock, how many rules were in punk rock. By the mid-‘80s I was like, “Damn, man! You can’t have your hair this way? You can’t wear those shoes?” And then you’d go to a heavy-metal concert and everyone’s just hangin’ out and seems to be having a lot of fun. Back at my thing I’ve got guys Sieg-Heiling me and waiting to beat me up after the show as I’m loading the drums into the truck. I became annoyed by all the strictures, so that’s why you may have seen some photos of me in Black Flag with hair down to my shoulders. It’s because one guy in ’82, we had gotten Mardi Gras beads the night before and were wearing them the next night, and one guy’s like, “What are you, hippies?” And I’m like, “Yeah!” I didn’t cut my hair until 1987 because one guy called me a hippie. I’m like, “Yeah, I got your hippie right here.” Shut up. Don’t tell me how it’s going to be, man. I resist anything that tries to put a straitjacket on anything that tries to be creative and free.