July 22, 2007|Black Flag was the first hardcore punk band in the United States, spearheading a mad Southern California scene that belched forth this idea that James Taylor was not the voice of a generation in much the same way that the cinema of the '60s rejected that of the '50s. Marked by violence and speed, the band--the brainchild of guitarist Greg Ginn--went through multiple rosters before Henry Rollins, a 20-year-old fan living his dream as a roadie for the band, replaced Dez Cadena (who lost his voice and ambition to front the group at the end of the summer of 1981) as its lead singer. Instantly the spokesman for the group, the heavily-tattooed Rollins, muscular to the point of looking like a bullet with eyes and known for performing shirtless in black shorts (as well as getting into fistfights with audience members), also demonstrated a great deal of verbal agility and improvisational ability. A tireless, stubborn autodidact, he was quick on his feet, and final shows saw the band jumping into jazz-like improvisational bursts with Rollins shouting things as they came to his mind. Think about it for a minute and it has the potential to be retarded; but Rollins, for everything he is and isn't, has an amazingly nimble mind and a pit of outrage that seems bottomless.
He's still doing it, long after Black Flag's disbanding circa 1987, through his The Rollins Band and various film, stage, and television projects. A workaholic at least, he is in control of his intellectual property and, much like the band that launched him, has built his reputation on a tireless work ethic, high-volume product, and high-decibel delivery. Evidence of that arrives in the form of two new DVD releases: one a spoken-word concert taped in New York, the other a 3-disc set encompassing the first season of his IFC talk show. Both are good examples of Rollins's overwhelming bile and rough eloquence, though only the monologue betrays much of Rollins's occasional, deflating puerility. When, in the course of a fairly uproarious travelogue on the ails of the Trans-Siberian railroad, he pauses to recall eating an undigested bit of carrot from a bowl of his own vomit, rather than go to his charming self-deprecation, he goes to his weird survivalist boasting--his inclination to carry the flag for healthy eating and doing push-ups on your fingertips into your fifties. It does beg the question, though, of whether that isn't precisely the kind of braggadocio that represents the most cogent reaction to the Bush II administration: a clenched fist for a clenched fist, the promise of a punch in the face in reaction to a group of men who prize bellicosity over nuance. It's a hell of a thing when "nuance" and "intellectualism" are bad words; how fascinating that Henry Rollins provides for the possibility that intelligence can be married to toned pecs and intimidating guns.
His talk show is quicksilver: it opens with a rant ("Teeing Off") about whatever's on his mind at the moment before seguing into a guest-focused interview segment in which Rollins subsumes his personality for the most part; another scripted rant or "soapbox" sequence wherein talking heads on either side of a divisive issue are allowed to expound to their heart's delight; a musical guest performing on a spare recording-studio set; and finally an epilogue ("End Credits") where Rollins offers more of his roughneck-meets-highbrow philosophy. I admire Rollins's extemporaneous ability, yet I can't help but think he's more arresting when he's forced into a structure that limits his skylarks. (The freewheeling performance artist finding a good editor.) Without that hand at the tiller, as it were, there are potentials for things like the "Wal-Mart" segment of his live DVD, where between rhapsodizing on the heroism and essential decency of the poor, dead-eyed souls who work for big-box marts, he ends up, in the quest for telling a good story, painting a carnival sideshow picture of them instead. It's possible to have it both ways, to see blue-collar America as a collection of freaks and then to observe that it's that very American Gothic brand of freakism that is the heart and soul of this grand old country of ours--but without further refinement, it all comes off as just a good story by a good storyteller. Leave the sober dissection for the post-mortem.
Highlights from the first season of "The Henry Rollins Show" include a bizarre, rambling conversation with comedian-of-the-moment Patton Oswalt and the homey Jeff Bridges imposing his Dudeness implacably on Rollins, who appears, for maybe the first and last time in the season, star-struck into silence. Werner Herzog drops by to deliver his carefully-rehearsed soundbites before coming to life briefly in his recounting of being shot while doing an interview for the BBC... and refusing to let a simple bullet wound cut the conversation short. (It's interesting to see Rollins confronted with someone who's actually crazier--more macho--than him.) Lowlights include a rambling, surprisingly boring chat with shock-chanteuse Peaches; Kevin Smith recapping the private history of Jason Mewes without Mewes there to give his blessing, thus cementing Smith as a starfucker of the first varietal; and a disappointingly toothless get-together with Bill Maher, on whose shows Rollins has been a frequent guest.
Reducing the number of things I'd like to do before I die, I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Rollins via telephone as he promotes these DVD releases and the second season of his IFC show, currently in production/broadcast. As rambling and impassioned in person as he is "live," Rollins gives the impression that he has a lot of things on his mind--and a lot of information at his beck--but is so wide-reaching and discursive that, at times, the strength of his discourse is watered down by his entertaining non-sequiturs. His secret weapon is charisma: if he were an MMRPG character, that attribute would be through the roof. At one point, and I can't prove this and observed it only in retrospect, Rollins got into an extended discussion of John Woo and the mid-'80s Hong Kong action wonderland that leaves me to wonder whether he was pandering to me (a Chinese guy, remember)? Probably just paranoid--but it did get me thinking about The Killer, which is ultimately not a bad thing. Rollins's tactic is, one surmises, to be erudite in massive quantities, making his reserved, sometimes even declining interview style something of a shock. Henry Rollins is a man of contradictions--and for all his physicality, for all his bluster and aggressive, ardent autodidacticism, it's entirely possible that insecurity is his driving motivator: insecurity about his knowledge, his physical power, his influence.
At the root of it all there's this sense in Rollins of breathlessness and mild overcompensation, but even that dime-store bullshit is undermined by an image from Feast of Rollins wearing Krista Allen's pink sweatpants. The message is great--some of his rants are delightful (I love the bit where he observes that the pained look on Laura Bush's face is one part physical pain, one part trying to blast the taste of that guy's dick out of her mouth)--but for Rollins to be more than a curiosity, he needs to be something he's not: calm, focused, directed. Of course, then he'd be just like every other asshole no one listens to..-Walter Chaw
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: The politics of divisiveness must pain you especially as you spend so much of your talks defending the underrepresented and badly-used.
HENRY ROLLINS: Oh jeez, yeah, man, start with the media: you look at guys like Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly expounding at length about women's reproductive rights--all of a sudden an expert on women's reproductive biology. Experts on the environment--these aren't smart men, they're pundits, the all-knowing, all-seeing eye and voice which is the product of 24-hour news. We have to keep the ball up in the air, right? Quantity over quality programming. And it's the product of a corporate-run media that's ratings-based.
Where does this contempt come from, though--this righteousness?
I think that if you're on the air for long enough that snarkiness starts to emerge--competitiveness with one another and this desire to become the most visible shark in the pond.
It's the only thing that explains Ann Coulter, after all.
(laughs) Especially with this administration, with the stuff that they're doing. It's so crass you have to lie big to cover up so big a sucking chest wound. So the pundits are throwing big giant bricks. The gloves are off, the respect is gone, it's over with and we're all just slugging it out now.
What's the real salve?
I think that in the last several years, I mean you're a film guy, you know better than I, I still have hope for independent films and for guys like you and even a Robert Redford and at least the early days of Sundance...
(laughs) Seriously though, it's up to guys like you to give credence in the popular conversation to guys like David Lynch--the so-called little guys. I think that the worst times create the best art and that's the only thing that can save us from being consumed by all this entertainment-based media onslaught.
Aren't you a pundit? Aren't you a part of that onslaught?
(laughs) Maybe so. But you have to fight fire with fire. Like guys like Tarantino that start out on the fringe, now when he makes a movie everybody buys a houseboat. Taking chances, innovation, if there are enough people appreciating stuff--like John Woo's Hong Kong action films taking the determinate stance and being what might be the most influential factor in all action movies[,] a familiarity with Hard-Boiled. We're very slow in a way, we Americans, on the uptake. It has to have blue eyes and blond hair--it has to be Cameron Diaz--for us to absorb it, you know, but Woo is so soluble. If it's straight out of Hong Kong--if it has subtitles--it's relegated, so I applaud the indie film thing because it gives young people to show what they got. And the technology to make a movie at a fraction of the cost...and I come at this through music, you know, this amazing thing where you find out that you can do things on the cheap. You can cut drums on your software, you can produce shit on your laptop. I was at the Maryland Film Festival and people are handing me these cool DVD-Rs of their stuff--and it's viral, man, this spread of art. It doesn't take a whole lot of money. Hell man, you might be the next whatever--the next Tarantino.
Thing with independent film, though, and John Woo is a good example of this, like the indie music scene that you were so much a part of in the early-Eighties, doesn't that co-option breed--well, co-option?
Sure, sure--as soon as there's money... Yeah, I was in this little band, Black Flag, and Warner Bros. came around and said, "Hüsker Dü! We'll take that one, and that one, and that one," and suddenly all these little bands are called up to the big leagues, signed to some silly contract they most likely regretted later. But there goes Nirvana and all these bands and then, there goes Henry! You look around and, you know anything about me and all, here I am in an office with all these guys in suits and I'm like, this is the label I'm signed to? Holy shit and uh-oh. And so for a while, basically all these labels wanted R.E.M....fifty billion units later, so who can blame them? But you see that analog in film, right, where you find one thing that works and then you try to make everyone else fit into that round hole. Then there was Nirvana--and we all had our major label moment, myself included.
Well the hope is that some hot up-and-comer gets that tap on the shoulder and they say, "Hey, you know what, fuck you man and your dumptruck full of money." It'd be great to see interesting people holding onto their intellectual properties and getting off the farm. You're seeing it in music--Sony, Virgin--closing entire floors of their gleaming towers because people aren't buying their stuff like they used to.
Doesn't that have a lot to do with digital downloads, though?
I think that there are a lot of factors, but the main one is that the music they're producing, for the most part, is this machine-processed crap. The really good stuff, by and large, is being done by people who have a revelation that they don't have to chop cotton for the man--that you can buy your own farm. Mike Patton...
Faith No More?
Yeah! He has his own record label, the guy is in four separate bands at once, releases his own records and other people's records in a very fair and equitable way. He doesn't take any grief from anybody and the label does just fine on their own terms.
You have your own company, too.
It's true. I'm fully staffed, we sell all our own stuff--it can be done on your own terms.
That's partly why I was so jazzed to see Ani DiFranco on your show--there's the epitome of a stupid-talented person who told the majors to go fuck themselves.
Exactly right--there's the blueprint. I mean, come on, she's sold billions of records on Righteous Babe, she takes no shit from anybody, she's her own boss. More than that, she's a ridiculous artist, just amazing and she's super smart and she's an amazingly nice person on top of all of that. She never once, unlike myself and a lot of others, signed up with Sony, signed up with I.R.S. or Warner--she just said, "Ahhh, I don't think so... I'm way too smart for that."
Tell me about your time on the plantation.
I signed to DreamWorks and Mo Austin, good guy, he was after Ian MacKaye of Fugazi in DC and met with him and gave him a blank check. He said to him, literally, just to fill out the check with any amount he wanted and the deal is done. But Ian says to him that he has his own label already but Mo dangles all the things Ian can do--but no, Ian's happy with his own label, right, no we do just fine. He just was never interested. Same thing with Ani DiFranco. For me it's like slavery and chopping cotton--I always equate it with that--and at a certain point we all come to the realization that these people, who are a lot smarter than me, are right and that there's never any need to mortgage your soul.
Why the analogy to slavery?
The deal is that they present it as a life support system: the deal is that if I sign you to my label, we basically give you an advance which is a loan. You make the art, I own it, and you owe me the money so basically you get nothing. Go to the bank and get the advance, pay back the loan and own your own intellectual property. Otherwise you're selling yourself to the company store and how big do you have to be to buy out your own contract? If you go corporate all the way, you're in bed with people who crunch numbers all day--who love numbers more than they love art and so all they want from you is to make commodity for them all day long and tell you that they're doing you some kind of favour. The money will get loved and the art will all look like McDonald's food tastes.
Rollins in 1981 (left), as captured by photographer Glen E. Friedman; Rollins today
|"I don't want anyone to die or get a baseball bat to their head. Most of the time what people need is an Al Green record. I don't know how I reconcile it."|
You open your "Film Corner" show with the sentiment that everyone hates a critic. Why does everyone hate a critic?
I think that a critic often comes off like he or she holds some kind of innate superiority and that you're in class when they talk. And I've always had a problem with critics because basically they get paid to be an ant at the picnic--they're professional parade-watchers. While I may or may not like someone's films, I know that Britney Spears works very hard on her records that I don't buy.
(laughs) Well, maybe bad example, but every artist works hard on whatever it is and that has to be respected. I think that when the critic starts becoming too much the personality, then that's the real danger. Ralph J. Gleason for instance, this old jazz critic, when you look at the jazz criticism of the '50s and '60s you see real astute, deep, personal writing. Nowadays, in all disciplines and mediums, you see these critics that are personalities that put their own cuteness and catchphrases in front of the art. It's more about them than what they're reviewing. The cheeky press that builds a band up to tear them down, like the UK's NEW MUSIC EXPRESS magazine--it's more about them than the bands that wander through their pages. Often the reaction is, "Oh, fuck you," and you hear a lot of people saying that because a film gets bad reviews is good enough reason for them to go see it.
So your argument is more with the state of modern criticism than with criticism itself.
Yeah. The critic is bad when the critic becomes The Man.
A guy like John Waters though, takes all that blurb criticism and turns it against itself.
Absolutely! John is such a sweet, smart man, and you're right, he took the worst possible reviews you can ever think of and uses it to advertise his movies. He's a visionary.
And now he's in the mainstream.
I know! Isn't it amazing! He did shit that was a good way to get your ass kicked and now look at him! I was going to the dentist the other day and Hairspray is advertised on the side of a fucking building. I mean, jeez, how more "arrived" can you be? He franchised out this thing and wow, what a genius. Adam Shankman is directing it...
Really nice guy.
But I say to John, "John, I think you're here now." What an amazing thing for an openly gay man to achieve in the United States. It's interesting to see how critics regard themselves more than how they regard the art sometimes.
I'd say all the time. I'd say, too, that it's not just in jazz criticism but film criticism had a golden age from the Sixties-into-the-Seventies, where it was as much art--like Manny Farber--as it was snark, like Pauline Kael.
Absolutely. You can tell. You can read something and learn something from the critic is when you know that someone really cared. Even if he didn't like the film, if he really burned some lean tissue in tearing it apart, it's a sign of respect to do that. You see people who are catty for a living you know, catchphrase criticism and catering to broader audience. The kind of trouble that I know you get into in particular, I know, is good trouble to be in, healthy trouble--that's good trouble when someone tells you that you have a big mouth. I mean, people come at you with that kind of intolerance and aggression, you say, "Hey pal, I'm a fucking American." I didn't want Don Imus thrown off the air--I don't agree with a thing he did that day, but I don't think it should get him fired. It should have gotten him roundly ignored.
Yeah--but it's not why he got fired.
No, you're right, it's that enough people said that they were pulling their soap ads. And nobody knows this better than Imus--nobody's more a corporate guy than him and he's smart, you know, really smart, and I'll bet you that when they gave him the pink slip, he knew exactly why and a part of him agreed with it. He's said way worse, right, but this one lost him Palmolive. It's not the content.
I mean, really, how does a guy like Rush Limbaugh repeatedly characterize Barack Obama as a "halfrican" and keep his job?
Yep, it's because his sponsors endorse that kind of hate. Michael Savage...
He's one of our nuts.
Yeah, and I think he's regarded in the correct way. He's a lunatic, he's a maniac, of course I don't listen to him and long may he wave. Freedom is a very heavy burden, right, and you look at an organization like the ACLU that protects the right of the Klan to march.
How would you characterize the Bush administration as a corporate sponsor?
(laughs) Listen, one of the reasons I'm mad at this administration is how much they've allowed the Christian Right to penetrate and infiltrate the highest levels of the government. They've allowed it to happen. Look at the new Surgeon General--one of many in this administration installed by our leader--and this guy, this guy who thinks you can un-gay people, this anti-abortion guy, this Christian zealot [is] installed in a position of power. You could write a thick book on the number of motherfuckers that this asshole has put in positions of great power.
There's Dr. David Hager.
Yes, in the FDA--the Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health of all things for this psycho. Type the name in any vaguely middle-of-the-road website and watch your screen melt. This guy, his wife accused him of anally raping her years ago and he claims he just missed. The guy's a gynaecologist. This guy writes books infusing Christian theology into medical theory, this guy affects public policy.
That's pretty scary, right? I mean, even only a really small percentage of the wackos actually want God as their insurance provider.
This is what happens when these people get power and access, more than they should have. It's why freedom is so hard. You have to be fair. The inclination is to be fair. When you're not fair, there're so many people caught out there because you don't expect it. I'm one of those guys, I'm really naïve. You can always fool me. I expect people to do the right thing. Hey--where are you from?
Colorado. Still live here.
Wow, man, I get a lot of misguided, unsigned hate mail from Colorado.
Hey, me, too. I get some of it to my face.
(laughs heartily) Thing that gets me is that here you are, I'm guessing, a child of immigrants who probably loves this great land of ours...
No question. More so than most, I'd say.
And the first thing that they say to a guy like you or even a guy like me is why do you hate America?
So how do you walk the line between loving Middle America and pissing on their taste and values?
Well, they're your fellow Americans and you try to make them understand that you're not disrespecting them, that they can have half my sandwich any day because they're my countrymen. I don't want anyone to die or get a baseball bat to their head. Most of the time what people need is an Al Green record. I don't know how I reconcile it. I say that I disagree with what they said and that I think that their information might be flawed and, you know, usually that's how it is. When you really get into it with these befuddled people, dig into their mindset and how it got that way, you look at the access to their information and where they're getting information from, they're quite uninformed and, making it worse, they're intellectually incurious.
Like our President.
Just like. They also, like our President, work in bumper-sticker dogma and do their best not to get too deep in anything. Often they'll have this contempt and fear of people who read books. That's why on Fox News the scientist gets slaughtered because they try to flesh out an idea and that's more than the eighteen seconds you get to hammer home a point. Discussion is shut down by "you hate America"--you criticize the war in Iraq and people drop the "why do you hate the troops?"
You with your USO tours.
Right, I've done seven, I've visited VA hospitals--tell me how I hate the troops, again? It's an eight-year-old's argument. But these guys, these Hannitys and O'Reillys, they know better. They know that if they actually allow a debate about their positions that they're going to get clobbered, so they don't allow any kind of discourse. You open a topic and then you scream at someone that they're wrong, that they're anti-American, that they're probably terrorists, and then on to the next talking point.
Why is there this resistance to information? Not talking about the pundits now, but our actual leadership.
The Bush Administration... Look, there are smart guys sprinkled in there, guys that know their history, right, but they feel immune to the lessons of history. Either that or they're wilfully ignorant of it so that they can excuse, somehow, their stumbling headlong into repeating every single one of the mistakes of our past. They know that they're building an empire, they're just arrogant enough to believe that it won't end up the way all the other empires have ended up. Maybe what's worse is that they know it's all going to go to hell, but that they will have salted away enough ducats before then that it won't matter to them. If you read a Gore Vidal or a Morris Berman, you know, people who really have a grip on history all the way back [from] Tiberius to the present and show you the similarities: Hitler to Stalin to Bush. They are the same. To the British and the French to the Americans. We're in the Dark Ages--Berman writes about the similarities and it's fascinating and alarming. The militarization of toys in America, the fast fashion, the disposable culture--chuck your Barbie every two years. It teaches you to de-personalize, to transpose your consciousness onto Hasbro who, in turn, is getting your kid ready to be a soldier.
Are we the most bellicose society on the planet?
By far. I travel a lot and I feel comfortable making that statement because in all of my travels, no one, no one is more ready to throw down at the drop of hat than an American.
(laughs) Close, but no. Even in joking, you know, you're in Canada and someone tells you to take it easy--and nothing's more innocuous and non-threatening than a Canadian, right? And I felt this rage boil up in me before I was like, Hey, right, that's the American in me wanting to kick this guy's ass for no particular reason. I had this Scandinavian drunk come up to me doing this Dick Van Dyke drunk walk at two in the morning once in Finland and he's getting in my face and I say to him that I'm an American and that I might kill him and he, through his drunken haze, has the sense to walk away from this grey-haired, dignified old man standing here. It's who we are and we have to mind that. Everywhere we go, we have a five-foot perimeter around us.
That's right. Pakistanis are foreigners in Pakistan to us, and don't think that attitude doesn't come through loud and clear to the rest of the world. You can't take us anywhere. And we're starting to reap what we sow here. You read Gore Vidal and he says stuff like we traded in number-one Super Power status years ago, it's China now, and let's hope that they don't treat us anywhere near as shitty as we treated them.
What happened to that gap post-9/11 that we squandered? Can we get it back?
It wasn't squandered. Those chits were never cashed in. So if Pearl Harbor was a set-up in WWII--put our guard down there so the Japanese would bring us in... Listen, I don't think that the President was in on 9/11, but I do think that we stood down knowing that whatever happened, it would give us entrée into Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia--the basing posture in that region is way too sexy for us ever to give it up. We're going to have a military base forever, man. It's not a quagmire, it's going according to plan. This is how we do things. We've been making money on war forever. The profit margin on war is staggering.
You interviewed Stephen Gaghan about some of this.
That's right, and I asked him what he learned. Well, he learned that it's all about oil and that as soon as one war ends, it's good business to start another. Napoleon, The Crusades, Alexander, the Weimar Republic, the Marshall Plan--map the cycle. You don't have to be a scholar to get this shit, it's just business. Vidal, again, he just keeps nailing it on the head over and over: you never have to get past the business section of the NEW YORK TIMES to see where the next war is going to be. Follow the money.
Thirty years on, people looking back, they'll point to Vidal--who else? Who else has their finger to the pulse right now in the thick of it?
That's a great question.
Even in music--you had guys like Archie Shepp and "Magic of Juju" speaking out about Civil Rights...
I love that record! I've never had anyone mention that record to me before--you're absolutely right about that. Thirty years on, who're the Archie Shepps? I'd hate to think that there's no one... There's new stuff that's great all the time, great films...a movement? A group of people? I don't know. Maybe I'll need the thirty-years perspective before I can tell--maybe things need to shake out more for me. Things going on now, I wonder if we're not still waiting for that ultimate voice that emerges from this rubble. Generally: I'm gonna offer people who said "no" from the start, no matter what they were called or the hell they went through--the Cindy Sheehans, maybe, the people who called "foul" from the very beginning about Florida and Enron and Darfur, about phony wars and bad accounting and Haliburton, KBR and on and on--all those kids who threw rocks at the WTO meetings. Maybe it's them. Maybe that's where the really great art is going to come from.
You can only hope.
You can only hope.
...UNCUT FROM NYC - Image B Sound A Extras D+
...SEASON ONE - Image A Sound A
Rollins's live DVD contains a special feature of elided moments from his performance seemingly edited for the sake of time--they are neither more nor less discursive than the rest of the piece. Season One of the IFC show, packaged in a normal-width keepcase with a swingtray flap housing all three platters, boasts of no supplementary material. Shot conventionally in fullscreen on high-grade video, there's nothing much to say about the program's A/V quality save that it's absolutely fine for what it is, while the concert's 1.78:1 presentation is acceptable despite lacking anamorphic enhancement.