Famous for raising a Black Flag, and his passionate defense of the rainbow one. Now, before his Spoken Word tour and guest spot on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ the fiery Henry Rollins grants a rare interview to the gay press
by Steven Foster • Photo by Ben Swinnerton
Steven Foster: Hey, Henry. It’s really great to meet you. Looking forward to your upcoming show. Can you tell me what this Texas audience can expect from you, in the hometown of your buddy George Bush?
Henry Rollins: I will be detailing a lot of the travel I have done since the last time I came to town, as well as things that have been happening in America that I think are relevant. 2009 was, in my opinion, an ugly year of the idiots coming out of the woodwork, their conditions exacerbated by the complexion of our new president. It’s been a drag, to say the least.
You’re from DC, right? It’s the epicenter of government, and you’ve been a particularly visceral critic of right-wing American policy. Did any aspects of your childhood inform the attitudes and political views you have today?
Yes. I was raised around racism, got called all kinds of things for the color of my skin, saw how the public school systems often fail the students, the students often go out and fail society. The basic mechanics of that informed my take on things, and as I grew older, I saw it more and more.
You were raised by your mother, who was a single parent at the time. How did she influence you? What’s she like?
She is a very smart and active person. She has a strong interest in the arts and music, culture and history. My house looks like her place, to a great extent—lots of art, records, and books. I got into music because of her, and a lot of the stuff I heard her play, I still listen to. Coltrane, Miles, Dylan, Hendrix—I heard all this from my mother first.
You were the front man for Black Flag, one of the most influential punk bands of all time. Then you formed Rollins Band. Throughout, your raging stage persona became iconic. How did that come about?
Honestly, I am not all that aware of what I am like onstage. I am in the middle of it. I have seen some video—it’s pretty intense, I guess. I don’t know what to tell you about that, [except] that’s the way it comes out of me. Music tends to unleash me. I am sure it looks a little strange or stupid.
When Black Flag began shifting musical directions, you took a lot of heat for the change. Fans would actually attack you—literally assault you. And sometimes you retaliated with equal violence.
That happened. What the people didn’t understand was that it was Greg Ginn’s songs and his musical movement. Black Flag was Greg Ginn’s band, and he was the songwriter. I wrote a few lyrics, but not many. All the tunes past a certain point were all Greg Ginnn’s. Being the singer, I was often the target of an audience’s discontent. I think it was better that it was directed towards me rather than Greg Ginn, though. He had playing to do and I could keep my eyes on the audience a little better. The result of all this was that I got into a lot of fights. I’m not all that good at it, but I got a lot of experience with it. I would have [preferred to just] play the songs rather than have all the scars on my face and head now, but that’s the way it went.
In the ’80s you famously bulked up, cut your hair, and, in a way, transformed yourself. A lot of music critics opined this was a physical expression of your emotional state. Was that accurate?
I started pushing myself physically with weight training. It was quite separate from the music, but being onstage all the time, they seemed to be co-joined. I trained for tour, but that was more cardio and lower body strength.
What does working out do for you that music or writing doesn’t?
It gives my morale a boost and keeps the stress at bay. I work out about five days a week on tour, which is very helpful. Today, there is too much to do with the press and all the rest, but I’ll hit it tomorrow if I can.
You know your muscled, buff figure propelled you into the eyes of gay men. I mean, here was this really handsome guy who, unlike most rockers of the day, was built like a brick shithouse. When did you first realize that gay guys started looking at you . . . how can I say this . . . differently?
Actually when I was about 16. I worked in Washington, DC—it’s a very gay town. I had men hitting on me all through high school at different jobs I had. It never bothered me. I know how men are—we are always looking to get something going. It was never a big deal. Through the music tours, there were men who hit on me, sent letters, etc., but it was never a thing for me. Homosexuality is not the kind of thing that bothers me.
You’ve been such an outspoken advocate for gay rights, even years before it was, for lack of a better word, “fashionable.” When did you first become so vocal about gay rights?
At an early age. I had a gay boss at work and at one point I met many of his friends, and they told me their stories about getting through school, dealing with their parents, etc. It seemed extremely unfair to be put down for something you can’t help.
Was there any catalyst that triggered your stance?
I went to an all-boys school and saw how one particular gay fellow was treated. It made me very angry. He had a miserable time in that place.
Your stance on gay rights caused a lot of speculation on your own sexuality. I get it that pundits and some of the public would speculate, but did you ever get any flack from your own world? Musicians? Artists? Did any of your friends ask, “Henry, is there something you want to tell us?”
Not really. I think in the mid ’90s some guy “outed” me at some club in New York. That lead to some questions, but I have always been “straight” and it was never much of an issue. If I were gay, I would have said so. Someone’s sexuality is really not an issue to me. Too bad it seems to be so threatening to so many with the “God hates fags” thing and all the rest.
Going back to your look. You can appear so angry, and I think a lot
of people who aren’t familiar with your work don’t realize how funny you are. Your spoken-word performances can have a real stand-up vibe to them. Do you find comedy more and more essential to your stage work?
Comedy finds its way into the show. I really don’t try for it. If I did, I don’t think I could pull it off. Sometimes things are funny, sometimes not so much. I trust it to occur when it needs to.
I was one of the four people who saw Johnny Mnemonic. I have to say I saw it because I’m a huge fan of Robert Longo [the acclaimed artist who directed the film]. It was one of your first acting roles. How did you come to acting?
I was offered parts. That’s all there was to it. I like to work, I like to eat, and coming from the minimum-wage working world, I don’t say no to work. I don’t take myself seriously in acting, but I take the work itself very seriously.
What were your impressions of Longo? Did you know his work before you worked on the film?
I was aware of him. He is an immensely talented guy. He’s also really funny. We f–ked with each other the entire time. He gave me some artwork of his after the shoot was over. It’s on my wall now.
You had a recurring role in Sons of Anarchy. Your character was a monster. Was it difficult to play such a part? Or was it more, I don’t
know . . . cathartic?
It was neither. It was a part. I located the character, dialed in, and went for it. As soon as the day was over, I walked back to my car and went back to the pad. Nothing more really.
Kurt Sutter [creator of The Shield and Anarchy] sought you out for the role, didn’t he?
Yes, and that in itself is a great compliment. He’s an amazing guy.
You’re friends with Janeane Garofalo, another artist gays and lesbians love. How did you two meet?
She wanted me to do a back-cover blurb for a friend’s book, and we became friends.
Did you two ever date?
No, but we hang out now and then. She’s a very busy person and doesn’t live close to me. She’s very cool, extremely funny, of course, and very smart.
Are you in a relationship now?
Yes. I have been going out with a woman for several months now.
Your IFC show [Henry’s Film Corner, which became The Henry Rollins Show] was fantastic, by the way. How did that come about, and did IFC give you free rein?
We pitched them, they liked the idea and gave us the funding. They gave us total freedom—it was a great experience. I am sorry it came to an end.
Every episode you had an incredible guest list. Joan Jett, John Waters, Arianna Huffington. You were like an acid Charlie Rose. Who were some of your favorite interviews?
Werner Herzog, Samuel Jackson, Gore Vidal—but they were all interesting.
Oscar season’s coming up, and the first incarnation of your IFC show was entirely devoted to film. What’s your vote for Best Picture?
I didn’t see many films this year. Most films are not interesting to me. Robert Greenwald’s Rethink Afghanistan documentary is worth seeing.
You’ve performed for the troops all over the world, which is an incredible gift to those men and women. Did you feel “monitored” by the powers that be? Did you have to adjust your material?
I have never once been told to cool it, or what to say or not say, believe it or not. I was quite surprised.
Amazing. You’re going to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Tell us how you got involved with that.
RuPaul asked me to. I have known him for many years. He’s great.
What’s the challenge that you’re judging?
The lady boys dance and lip synch, and they are judged by how well they do all that.
You’ve donned Superman drag. And you recorded under the name Henrietta Collins. Have you ever done drag drag?
Did you think you’d make a pretty girl?
In a horror film, perhaps.
Last super gay question: where’s your Grammy?
I gave it away a few days after I got it. I am not sure where it is now.
Henry Rollins’ Spoken Word tour hits Houston February 23 at the House of Blues. For tickets, go to www.houseofblues.com.
Steven Foster profiled Cheyenne Jackson in the January issue of OutSmart magazine.