Henry Rollins Thinks Punk Rock Will Save Us From Trump
The punk rock legend sounds off on the state of the nation, and discusses a new book about the history of L.A. punk
Henry Rollins is one of punk’s great survivor stories.
Rollins’ searing vocals and formidable presence, as the frontman of Los Angeles hardcore legends Black Flag in the early 1980s, created an indelible impression of both the band and the music they created as trafficking in rage on a level not seen before or since in mainstream music.
But he left it all behind in 1986 for the alternative anthems of the Rollins Band and a career as a spoken-word poet, before giving up music completely 15 years ago for a life as a DJ, punk rock collector and historian, and political and culture columnist, while still touring the world as a spoken-word artist.
Rollins, at 58, is as intense and opinionated as he was in his early punk rock days when The Daily Beast catches up with him, holding forth on Trump, how tolerance will win the day, and how everything you need to live your life can be learned from his beloved punk rock. And with more than a few columns that have made him a flashpoint for the PC brigade, he’s also striving to set the record straight on some of the myths that he feels have dogged him and his band in a wide-ranging Q&A with author (and X bassist) John Doe, in the new book on L.A. punk, More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk, and the excellent, all-star audiobook version, in which Rollins and Doe pick up where they left off in the tome.
Part of the idea behind this second book about L.A. punk was to talk about the legacy, and the seeds that were sown, and how that has grown into something that still exists today in people like Tony Hawk and Shepard Fairey, whereas the first book was more of an origin story. Punk rock is very different nowadays, but, in fact, it’s probably more prevalent than ever in popular culture.
Well, I get accused of being one of punk’s founding fathers. There are lots of multi-platinum bands who meet me and say, “We all met at one of your shows in ‘80-whatever.” And I just go, huh. And the thing is, I can’t even get into Dodger Stadium to see those bands. So I resist all of that just because, you know, there’s always someone who comes before you. And so, I am not one of those people who says, “You young people need to understand…” I just get out of their way. I really am very big on getting out of the way of young people. And so, if people who are going to cool shows here in Los Angeles tonight never give a thought to how, 35 years ago, we created the scene in someone’s basement, where the cops came and people got arrested and beat up and actually did time, so that today they can just walk in and have a great night, well, I’m not one of those people who is going to say, “You owe me.” Because I don’t want to become my Dad.
But I think the legacy is about somehow finding a way, inherently or intrinsically, to pay it back by paying it forward. Like, if you’re someone whose band is doing well? Help another band get signed. Or start a label and you put your own stuff out, but also sign other bands, and produce them and give them a leg up. On X’s More Fun in the New World, they name-checked the Minutemen and me and Black Flag. And that was huge. To hear that name check, like we were all in it together? That kind of camaraderie, I don't know what it did for Black Flag, but it was a real shot in the arm for me. So now I have two radio shows, and I’m always trying to vigorously promote new music that I love. I’ll get letters from bands that say, “Man, people are coming to our shows every night on this tour saying they first heard us on your show. Thank you so much.” Man, that’s the best email I could ever get. Because I’ve done good to keep this thing going without getting my old ass in the way, so they didn’t have to run over me to get up the road. I’m not in the road. I’m on the side waving and handing cups of water as the new bands go by. So if there’s anything on my headstone, it should be, “He got the hell out of the way.”
Your politics at the time of Black Flag were very local, and about your condition, and experiences in L.A.
It was never about an elected official. It was all about us versus the street, and what was happening with the LAPD.
But at the time there was a lot of anti-Reagan music.
It left me cold. To this day, when someone names a president in a song, I’m like, “Oh, sex appeal gone.” I’m tuning out right away. I don’t want to hear about a president or a prime minister. I understand the anger. It’s just that they don’t get to be in my rock and roll.
You weren’t writing about Reagan literally. But there was a lot going on that you were writing about that had to do with what was happening because he was president. The message was sending.
Yeah, exactly. That’s how we related to it.
So now we've got, literally, kids in cages and all this other shit going on.
We live in an age of inevitability from Reagan to now, because, since he was president, there’s been one overriding current in this country: Send the money upstairs, you get less, he gets more. Dumb down the electorate. Really work at it. Because we need dumb people who don’t travel, and who hate and fear whatever’s “out there” so we can throw them into a desert and blow up a country that never did anything to us. And, while we’re at it, make it easier to rob a liquor store, or just make some bad choices, so Johnny can go away for 20 years for three joints in his ass pocket. Because that’s where those guys make their money: through incarceration. These kids in cages that are costing the American taxpayers $750 a day, and yet there’s no budget for toothbrushes? That should tell you everything.
So Trump is just the natural evolution of the modern Republican party and brand?
Some people in this country have been thirsting for a corny, pseudo-populist like Reagan since those days, and now they’ve got it. He’s president now. And I think it’s very likely he’ll get a second term. And so what does it do, or what’s the rendering, artistically? I think it’s going to blow up in their faces. Because what’s happening now is young people are saying, “Oh, part of my job today, besides being a gorgeous 17-year-old young person, is to not hate gay people, is to not be racist, is to not call someone a ‘fag’ or anyone a ‘bitch.’ I’m not going to be a misogynist like my weird uncle who spouts off at Thanksgiving dinner. Like, that’s one of my jobs, is to not repeat this.” And so I think a lot of that American bigotry—you know, “What? Your grandfather’s a funny guy!”—that’s coming to an end. And I think what Trump and these guys don’t realize, is that they are hastening their demise.
And, literally, their demographic is dying. My neighborhood used to be a post-World War II, Russian, German, Jewish population. But the young, Supreme crowd is coming in. You drive down the block now, and where it used to be four-foot two-inch-tall people who’d survived the war, and now it’s a bunch of graceful, gazelle-like young people with $900 shoes. It’s a different time, and what I think you’re going to see is not necessarily rock against Reagan, or get out the vote concerts, as much as you’re going to see “our prom queen this year is my friend Cedric and he got a unanimous vote and the teachers are so pissed.” That’s what’s going to happen. I think there’s going to be a huge rejection of this really antiquated bigotry. And so I think what you’re seeing right now is the old guard kicking and screaming as it’s dying off. And that, to me, is 2019 punk rock.
But that's a little contradictory, because you started by saying that you think Trump’s going to get re-elected, but you’re also saying you see a lot of movement in the right direction. Do you think they’ve rigged the system?
Yes. That’s how it works. I think he will squeak by in the Electoral College while losing by a million or more in the popular vote. So they’ll maintain control because of the way the Electoral College is set up, and the way congressional districts are gerrymandered, and how the Democratic candidates are just no match for a guy who plays in an eighth-grade sandbox for a living. You know, I was live on stage when the news broke. I stupidly booked a show in D.C. on the night of the election. And instead of everyone listening to me trying to be funny, they were watching their phones. I did that show as the Titanic hit the iceberg. It was the weirdest show I have ever done in my life. Hillary lost while I was on stage!
But I was the only one I knew who did not think Hillary had it in the bag. And when I see how much McConnell is getting in the way of trying to throw more money at election security, when you have Mueller telling the world the Russians are going to do it all again, and are, in fact, doing it right now, well, obviously McConnell and company see that as an upside. And Trump, when he wagged his finger at Putin, “You stop meddling, hyuck hyuck hyuck?” The fix is in! And I think America’s in for a really rough time. I think four more years of this will be very hard on the environment, and very hard on women people and gay people. And so what comes into the breach? Art. Tolerance. And young people going, “That’s just never going to be me.”
So one of the things I am going to talk about on my next tour is, “You, young people, you should stop listening to people like me and really figure out that you’ve got to take the wheel away from people who don’t want to give it up, because the old folks, their money’s invested in coal, oil, bad ideas, and restrictive ideas as to what women can do, what gay people can do, what brown people can do. So stop listening to me and start taking control of the future right now. Grab it! Because to me, punk rock ties into all this far more than rock and roll in 2019. Punk rock and rap music is to me where you’re going to find the lyrics that do you a favor when you listen. And the gigs where you might learn something. And finding your own stripe of people at the shows. So if there’s a legacy to the punk rock that I come from, it’s that we made it for ourselves. And we have to remain super open. More open than we ever thought was possible.
Whenever someone says, “Oh, you’re being politically correct,” I’m like, no, I’m just not OK with you when you refer to black people as, “Oh yeah, the brothers.” Like, yeah, I guess you’re not a racist, but that’s really stupid, what you just said. Just evolve. Like when Clint Eastwood said, “Well, that wasn’t racist when I was young.” When you were young, Clint, they hadn’t defined gravity yet. It was pre-penicillin. So realize your time has passed and get out of the way because we have to keep evolving. But don’t look for that in government. You know, thankfully, Obama really pushed things along, and that was cool, but don’t look for evolution from any politician. Look for that from the arts.
Well, that does beg the question: There are artists out there, like Morrissey, for instance, spouting off all the time, saying absolutely horrible stuff. There are artists out there that I love who say some really stupid shit. Can you separate the art from the artist when they're a stupid racist but you dig the art?
Yes and no. When someone says, “Oh, I met so-and-so at the airport at 6 a.m. and he growled at me,” just dig the records, but don’t go talk to them, because you might get a human response. That’s different from the otherwise funny comedian who has eight minutes of “fag jokes.” Personally, I can’t separate that. If I like your records, but you say, “Yeah, but you know, what’s up with those Jew bastards?” It’s always, “Oh, no, oh, no, I shouldn’t have met you, because I really liked that record, and now they all have to go to Amoeba.” [Laughs] For me, that is a deal-breaker. I’m the very definition of super-fan, but I try to get out of meeting bands, because I don’t want to have that “oh, you talk too much” moment. I like to live in the illusion that you’re as cool as your music. But maybe we should know more about the people who are serving that up. Because I think artists should be held to a very high standard, because if you’re going to make a record that I let into my heart, then hopefully you’re not a homophobe or a racist, because that, to me, is a deal-breaker. Because people are people. You can hurt them real easy.
I was raised by a DJ mom going to protest the Vietnam War. So I kind of sidestepped all that… intolerance. But if you play back every interview I ever did, there might be something in there. And I don’t know what to say about that except, “Sorry, the 58-year-old me wouldn’t say that.” It’s an interesting thing now that people in the, you know, artists, comedians, actors, whatever, live so publicly. But I don’t even know how Facebook works. Our company has one, so we can announce tours and book releases. But I’ve never been on it. I tweet once a week. “Here’s my radio show notes.” I mean, I didn’t even know that you’re supposed to read what people write back to you. And then one day I did. And it was like, “Fuck you, you suck!” I’m like, “Oh, well. I’m not doing that again.”
I wrote a book review of a book about toxic masculinity, in the LA Times, and the comments were, like, “You fucking faggot! You’re destroying America and turning us into a bunch of pussies!” Oh! OK. That’s the feedback? So, social media, huh? I’m not above criticism, of course, but that did not turn me into a better writer. It didn’t inspire me. I love the First Amendment. The guy can say whatever he wants. But nothing good came of it. So it’s an interesting time where we’re at, where no one who lives in the real world was surprised when there were so many women saying, “Oh, yeah, are you kidding? I’ve gotten my ass grabbed 80 million times.” Because I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been treated that way, where, if that had been me, I’d probably be in jail right now, because I would have ripped your throat out. Men have no idea. They wouldn’t be able to handle what women put up with every single day. Like, “Hey baby?” You say that to a man, he’ll pay to park, come downstairs, and beat you to death. He’ll come across town on foot to beat you up.
But I think, overall, we’re evolving. But you know, I come from the Washington, D.C., area where you’d never say that that band has a girl in it. We never had that. I came out here and women were like chew toys. The scene was so misogynistic. It wasn’t like, “I hate women.” It was more, “Of course she’s here to get groped. Like, why is she wearing that torn-up T-shirt?” Really? You’re going to court with that as your talking point? She was asking for it? “Well, look at the skirt.” Like, oh, man, I used to really like you. I’m not Mr. PC, but even as a 21-year-old I was like, “No, that doesn’t translate into ‘I’m asking for it.’ No.” And I encountered so much of that in the punk rock scene when I came out here. Because testosterone, it’s a hell of a drug. It’s blinding. That book The Man They Wanted Me to Be by Jared Yates Sexton, he really nails it. And I think a lot of men in this culture are going to have to re-learn or re-wire how they voulez-vous with women and deal with gay people, and how they handle their heterosexuality and their testosterone. And you’re not going to get that from a politician, but you might learn a thing or two at a punk rock show. Because of all the genres of music I’ve encountered—and I love many of them—it’s punk rock where I go for the wisdom and for the innovation and the, “Wow, how’d you do that?” And so the wisdom is not to get proprietary with your entrance, because once you’re inside, you’ve got to be mega, completely inclusive.