Rollins believes in the young
As a teenager Henry Rollins would show up with his pal Ian MacKaye on Sunday mornings at Yesterday & Today Records in Rockville, Maryland, ready to buy singles by The Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, The Adverts and other punk bands. Rollins always bought two to MacKaye’s one, having earned more money in his after-school job every week.
“Ian might do five hours of part-time minimum wage work, and I would do 20, just because I’m that guy,” Rollins said in a recent phone interview. “It was cool, the pain of having to do something dull and repetitive to hear seven minutes of freedom.”
His work ethic continues; Rollins often jokes about “putting the ‘punk’ in punctuality.” Though he’s stopped doing music, his schedule as a professional raconteur is packed and is surrounded by a myriad of other projects. During the pandemic, he wrote — his most recent book, Sic, came out in December — hosted an NPR radio show and did voice work for Netflix and Nickelodeon.
“It was challenging, but in a way, not a place I had not been to before,” he said. “Instead of getting all down in the mouth about it, I choose to approach all these things with a sense of humor and let’s see what happens…. I’d rather be the first in line for the new thing rather than dragging my feet.”
Rollins finally got back on the road. His current tour, dubbed Good to See You, is well into its second year. Usually his shows have a recent travel story as the centerpiece, but lockdown prevented that.
“Luckily or unluckily enough, crazy stuff happened in that time, where I was able to get interesting material,” he said, including a mentally unstable stalker from Finland, and the death of his divorced parents.
The show “is pretty well dialed into the front of my brain pan, but a lot of new stuff, as usually is the case, comes in,” Rollins continued. “It’s just basically a big stew pot, and as things develop, or people I know die, I can throw more things in…. By the end of the tour, the material is not necessarily nearly the same as what I started with.”
One constant, though, is an unwavering faith in America’s youth.
“A whole generation will eventually go to rest peacefully, and a younger one will come in its place,” he said. “Keep eating your Wheaties, you might live long enough to see someone like AOC become president…. I’ve never felt more confident or at least more ruggedly optimistic about the future and young people doing the right thing than I am right now.”
For one thing, the old order — “people like me, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney” — is rapidly fading away. “I’m not trying to hasten anyone’s demise, but physiological limits are what they are,” he said. “When the bug is dying, the most furious seconds are right before death. The legs are kicking frantically towards the sky; that’s the white power structure in the United States.”
Moreover, the futility of trying to change a red-hat-wearing senior citizen’s mind runs both ways.
“You’d be hard pressed to convince a 17-year-old who will be of voting age when the next presidential election rolls around that homophobia is a thing they want to accept and use in their lives,” he said. “Racism? There’s no such thing. One more George Floyd, and there’ll be some parts that will be very hard to put back together again. I don’t think the infrastructure is built for too much more turbulence.”
That said, Rollins is quick to point out that his show isn’t some scary TED talk.
“It’s my job to artfully connect some dots and make it kind of funny,” he said. “I make a point of not ending on a bummer, or if I do, offer five ways out of it. I learned that from, of all people, President Clinton. The Dimbleby speech is a great example; he goes, ‘climate change is bad, but here’s how you can start attacking it.’ Here’s the problem and five ways to innovate out of it.”
Hard times like the present require hard lessons, but Rollins tries to avoid pedantry.
“I used to go to this Quaker summer camp where they didn’t teach you not to steal, they just told you the story about when Timmy stole a quarter from his friend’s mom’s house and bought candy with it and the candy didn’t taste good,” he said. “I’d rather point at things rather than point them out.”
He also has no stomach for reliving his punk rock youth.
Rollins leaves no doubt that he’ll keep sharing his own point of view, night after night, for as long as he’s able.
“I’m not one of those who takes to the streets, because the people who are going to meet you have their opinion. They’re going to knock you out; it’s not for me,” he said. Instead, he tries to find common ground, while acknowledging that it’s often elusive. “I think if you can try to get an understanding of where someone’s coming from, you cannot be so immobilized by someone else’s opinion.”
“My job is to sling hash every night,” he said, “but it has to be of the highest nutritional quotient I can generate. I mean well, and I want to do good. I’m at least on second base, and maybe I can steal third and get lucky. This sounds like, ‘Oh, he’s such a nice guy,’ but I’m not all that nice all the time. I’m mainly angry and awake.”
When: Friday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m.
Where: Bank of NH Stage, 16 S. Main St., Concord
Featured photo: Henry Rollins. Courtesy photo.