There aren't a lot of middle-of-the-roaders when it comes to Henry Rollins. You love him or you hate him, and he gives you plenty of chances to do either: He hosts a radio show on KCRW (doing remarkable things like following up a Curtis Mayfield cut with a jam by Japanese drone-rockers Boris), he writes books, performs spoken-word sets all over the country, and shows up in movies and TV shows. He even writes for us -- kind of -- penning a column for LA Weekly.
"I don't turn down employment," says Rollins over the phone, discussing his new book of photography and writings, Occupants (Chicago Review Press). The book couples Rollins' sarcastic, violent, and angry prose with photos that range from disturbing to hilarious and span the globe. Rollins and I spoke about the book last week, though in typical Rollins style, the conversation took some unexpected left turns.
Up on the Sun: I really enjoy the new book, and I'm a big fan of the work you do for our sister paper, LA Weekly. . .
Henry Rollins: I'm enjoying that work a lot.
It definitely reads like it.
They give me a lot of room to move. I mean, I've never handed anything in where they're like, "No, no. Are you kidding?" When they edit me, they are always constructive. "That's cool, expand on it." I don't mind if I do. It's always very cool.
I'm a big fan of the radio show, too. My girlfriend lived in California until just a couple months ago when she moved back here, but one of my favorite things to do when I was out there was listen to your show on the radio. I still listen to it online, but I'm kind of a nerd. I like tuning into a physical radio . . .
It's fun. I love terrestrial radio. The idea of Internet radio [is good], and I listen to a lot of things online, too. Like, I'm in a hotel room right now in Seattle, [and] I'll be listening to online radio on and off until I go to sleep tonight. But, the magic of doing terrestrial radio, like KCRW, [is] that [it's] real radio. Someone says, "Well, I have a podcast," and it feels like you're existing inside a jar, a capped jar. There's no air in there, so it's not [real]; you're just kind of doing it alone, to nobody. When you are in real time, with people listening, there's something I got geeked on that as a younger person. It's still a rush for me to be on the radio, and I've done damn near 200 shows at KCRW, and maybe that many at Indie 103, and it's never not new for me. You know, it's still quite exciting.
I feel like that benefits the type of music you play, as well. There's always a sense of "what's going to happen next?" That's harder to achieve in a podcast, because you know that person figured it out at some point.
That's why I think terrestrial radio will always be safe: There will always be radio stations. I like the idea of Internet radio, in that more people could have a radio show. I think it's really cool when a guy from a band has a radio show or when a whole band could have a radio show, if they could keep it together.
A lot of people in bands really love music. I'm sure you've met a lot of band types who are ridiculous music aficionados. They have have sick record collections. They truly love music. Keith Morris, from OFF!, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks . . . that Dude knows so much about music. He should be on KCRW or a station like that. He should have a radio show. That guy is all over the place musically. I've DJ'd with him before; he's incredible.
In Occupants, you cover a lot of thematic ground, but there's one part in there -- the England 2008 entry -- where you talk about the "cut-out records," and how that was "your team." That made me think of your show, that someone like you or Keith Morris is going to bring out stuff that the average Clear Channel guy who's getting his playlist each morning . . . That's not what's going on with you at all.
Those guys are hacks. They don't listen to music at home, quite often. They just present music. And again, it's someone else's playlist. Those are all major-label types; they get told what to play. You can tell. You can tell they are disengaged from the artist they are playing. They're not listening to the whole album. They don't know the [artist's] back catalog. It's not real.
But a lot of people on radio [are] real. They are bringing records from home. At KCRW, everyone is a total music nerd. I work with really wonderful people, and they are all like that. You go to their houses, and it's just walls of records.
Those are the guys I want to listen to.
They are bringing stuff on the radio that they really can't wait for you to hear. I love that. I love bringing a stack of great stuff because I'm really looking forward to you enjoying it. I truly enjoy when I get a letter saying, "Thanks for turning me on to . . . whoever." It makes me want to go get that record out and play it while I'm reading that letter. "Yeah, I know!"
Radio will never go away because of that enthusiasm. You'll always be able to find someone who has good taste in music and will bring on a lot of great stuff. That's never going to stop.
So, about the book, it's called Occupants, and I guess I can't help but draw the line between the title and the Occupy movement. I'm sure you've been following the news . . .
Yeah, I've been to Occupy D.C., Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy Chicago.
What is it like out there?
Well, I'm reading the signs, and I'm talking with people, and their beef, and I'm not trying to distance myself from them by saying "their thing," but, finally, real issues are being addressed: campaign finance reform, the destruction of Glass-Steagall, bank deregulation, loopholes, the wacky high jinks of credit-default swaps, and all of that -- where America got taken to the cleaners, [as did] other good people of the world. A lot of people -- say, 99 percent or so -- who say, "Screw this." Finally.
I think this might be a bit of a broad brush, but the president should be most upset about this. This was on his watch. He dropped the ball, in my opinion. I like the guy. I voted for him, and I'd like to vote for him again, but he dropped the ball on this, and the American people picked it up. If anyone should be losing sleep over this, it should be Barack Obama. He's not a stupid man, by any degree, so I think he is probably like, "Yeah, I should have been on this."
What do I mean by that? He should have been calling out -- by name -- some of these bank people. He gives a lot of bad people a pass, in my opinion. That's the frustration a lot of people have with Barack Obama. They like the guy, but he doesn't bring his foot down. You're like, "Really? Not even on this one?" He won't get in there and throw his shoulder against any door. You know, you arrest 700 kids on the Brooklyn Bridge, but no bankers have gone to jail for defrauding millions of people? That's a little odd.
So the good part is, people are addressing real issues. The [bad] part -- and I want to be wrong about this, but it makes me dismayed -- is that, thanks to Fox News and the press and lots of outlets, this protest has been ghettoized and marginalized and turned into a "lefty, left-wing, hippie, patchouli, liberal, progressive thang," when in my opinion, this is a non-partisan concern. It's about as partisan as baseball and beer, you know what I mean?
Everyone can get this to a certain degree. So I was talking to some people at Occupy Wall Street, [and] I said, "If we're really getting down to technicalities, [with] what's being brought up, shouldn't there be a bunch of Tea Party people here?" 'Cause, they're not there, [but] their apparent grievances are kind of the same. Like, you know, "You ripped me off," [to] these banks. What's up with that? But Fox News says, "No, no, these are dirty hippies. The Tea Partiers -- they were great, and now some real grassroots movement; George Soros is financing Occupy Wall Street. And . . . no. There's no one I saw, at any of the Occupy protests I've been at, where I saw swastikas, people carrying guns -- aside from cops -- or signs with pictures of Barack Obama with a bone through his nose. That's a Tea Party event. Not an Occupy event.
Someone asked me, "What do you think?" But, to make this thing really rock, it should be shoulder to shoulder, no room to move, to Midtown. It should be 4 million people, to where Bloomberg can not leave his building. Not for fear of bodily harm, but just because of the humanity on the street. Literally, he can't get the door open. To where no cars can drive in lower Manhattan. Where's there's not enough cops to arrest them, there's not enough flex ties to cart these people off.
The cops, in my opinion, they've been breaking the rules. They've been violating the First Amendment. People do have the right to peaceably assemble . . . The cops' job is to protect and maintain the general welfare of the people, not arrest them . . . But they are taking orders; they are just kind of the infantry. I'm hoping in 2012, when the snow melts, this thing goes 10 times.
A lot of lines have been drawn between this and the Arab Spring, and a good chunk of your book takes place abroad. I don't think we're there yet. This isn't the Arab Spring . . .
No, and I don't think it's going to get that way. American law enforcement is not going to fire on protesters, and protesters aren't going to be firing Kalashnikovs at law enforcement. It's not going to come to that. I think you're going to see some serious tear gas next summer, but someone is going to lose some temper, and something is going to boil over. I think this is really going to rock next year. The snow is going to melt, and everyone is going to bring a friend.
I think, around July or August -- out of the heat or sheer proximity -- the cops are going to act out somewhere, and there will be a massive macing. Or, they might bring out some of that new technology. There's a new article in Harper's -- five or seven months ago -- about the new technology for crowd dispersal. You know, microwaving people . . . It doesn't kill you, but like all the sudden you feel like you are cooking alive, and you will go home. These piercing tones -- you lose your balance you fall on the ground, you piss your pants. All this is available right now. Made in America.
One thing about this book: You really delve into the mindset of "the other side." On both the right and the left, there's an unwillingness to do that. "Do or die; it's your country, right or wrong."
I do that a lot. It's an interesting exercise, and you get a lot of truth out of it. I like debating the other side's point of view. I like debating the death penalty, but be on the pro-death penalty side. I think that the death penalty is this awful, brutal, obscene thing, but I can easily understand the logic of some people [who say], "Look, the guy, with a surveillance camera on, hacked a woman to pieces. So let's take him out in the backyard and put a bullet through his head and save the guy's last meal. He's not worth it." I completely understand where that person is coming from.
But you can't be the United States of America and tell other countries how to do shit when you would do that. You lose the right to go to other countries and say, "Hey, wait a minute now" when you have public executions. Sanctioned murder. I try and understand other people's frustration.
A lot of it just comes from a lack of complete information. People like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh -- they operate on some of the facts and through cherry-picked information and they edit and take things out of context. It's incredible what some of these agencies do. You just can't believe adults would do that. Like, "No way? Really?"
Open up your eyes, sweetheart. It's how these guys play. It took me years to fully believe that. I saw it for myself, when you listen to some of these shows, and you read their statistics. It's like, "Wow, you're okay with lying . . ." It blew my mind. Now? I don't even flinch.
With a lot of the book, you put yourself in other people's shoes. There are some haunting pictures, man. The kid with the Bin Laden shirt . . .
Yeah . . . Bin Laden merch. Who would have thought? These were places I traveled to. I didn't take all these just for [the] book. This is how I travel. What makes it a little different is that the last several years, I take better equipment with me.
I remember bringing cameras with me all over the world for years, but the resolution was low, and it's not very good photos. But there's nothing new about me with a camera. In the last five years, I've really upped the gear level, as far as resolution, and I've worked pretty hard as far as learning how to take a decent photograph.
Beyond just taking photos, you really experience these places. I mean, seeing a bootleg Black Flag shirt hanging up in Indonesia. That's literally looking at this going, "Whoa, I'm a part of this."
Yeah, it's interesting to see how America washes up on other shores. This is globalization. It's not always pretty.
The McDonalds photo is not pretty.
No, it's obscene. When I saw that, it was a damn eyesore. And I wrote that angry piece of writing where the woman is cleaning up under the McDonald's that basically says, "Screw you. You lost. We took your culture. We took your lunch, and now we're charging you for it. Kiss your culture goodbye; now you've got this stupid clown, and you're wearing this ridiculous uniform and you look like a dog with sunglasses on and a hat, with pot smoke in your face at a dorm at a party. We gotcha."
I'm angry at the people who did that to the people of Thailand. The editor at the book company saw that and said, "Why are you being so mean to this woman?" I said, that's not me! He was like, "Ohhh." I said, "You'll find that a lot in this manuscript." I want to show you how these people are.
It's easy to wash our hands of it and just not look at it.
Yeah, but also, some people say Americans don't get out, that Americans are ignorant. No, I don't agree, necessarily. I think Americans are poorly served by their media, and I think we should demand more. I think we are not all that well served by our elected officials, in that they do not reflect their constituency, and so Americans are sometimes poorly served.
I don't think Americans are bad people; we don't get what we deserve. [But] sometimes we do, and that's why we need to elect better people. We should vote differently. But a lot times, you'll see other people in the world who are so against it.
That's what deregulation looks like. I kept saying that over and over. I was just in India shooting something for National Geographic. I saw some of the rawest pollution I've ever seen in my life. Some of the filthiest places I've ever seen in my life are parts of India. There's one part that is basically a city of garbage. Every major garbage pile is there: Just mountains of it, on fire; people were raking it. Miles.
We were there shooting something else, [and] I said, "Fellas, here's our shoot."
Why [did I] want to shoot that? Because it looks insane. I am absolutely getting back there one day with my camera. This is what happens with no EPA. This is Arkansas in 25 years.
I'm working on a piece right now about some local bands who are doing a benefit for Ron Paul. I talked with these guys, and neither of them -- rock 'n' roll guys -- identified as conservative, but we started talking about deregulation. I was like, "Some of the ideas you guys are talking about I get: personal responsibility, liberty, "Don't tell me what to do." I get that part of it, but do people really think doing away with all these regulations is what America really needs?
Yeah. No more food inspection. Okay, the marketplace will no longer buy the E.coli-riddled spinach. Nineteen people will die, and then we just won't buy anymore. The rest of us will shape the market. That's what Ron Paul and Rand Paul say. I think you should be able to have a sign that says "No Blacks Allowed in the Restaurant," but racism isn't a good business model. Thanks, Rand!
Ron Paul -- every once in a while -- will say something that makes sense, and I'm like, "Give me another sentence." "We should get out of Iraq" -- okay -- "I don't have a problem with people smoking marijuana" -- okay -- and then, boing -- he goes way out. "Get the net!"
[It's like] let's do this your way. Let's go the Ron and Rand Paul and Ayn Rand route. Let's do it. I'm going to watch your family die. And I'm going to enjoy it. Because the 101 will finally be unjammed. Arkansas will finally be a state of dead, fat bodies. You think you're a "rugged individualist" and you've been eating the Walmart diet your whole life? Okay, fine. No helmets on motorcycles. Let's do it! Let's go! And when you don't have the money to pay, we keep you in the parking lot of the ER. Because we don't want to waste the money to mop up your brain matter. Go die in the parking lot, and you have an hour for some relative to come get you. That's what you want?
Fine. Because a lot of the people who say that's what they want that, they're not gonna make it another 10years. Teeth will fall out, and the heart will give out . . . These people say they love the Constitution. I read from it almost every day. I have a copy with me. The Idiot's Guide to the Constitution. I recommend it; it's very good. I try and understand it and learn about it all the time. They always talk about the Constitution, but basically, it's this sheer genius attempt to keep all of these states from becoming countries, and living together. It's the craziest experiment. Only a bunch of visionary fools would undertake a concept as crazy as the United States.
It's so . . . wanting to fail. The moment you put greed into the equation, the whole damn thing is now fragile and combustible and turbulent and unstable -- that's the best word. The pact, the Bill of Rights and the Amendments that come after it, is basically like, "We'll help each other."
And Ron Paul and Rand Paul say this hilarious bullshit like, "If my house burns down in Texas or gets swept away, it's not up to the people from New York to help me. I don't want to take their money. They worked hard for their money; they should keep it for their own state. No Ron, it's the United States, so when a twister comes through your state and Texas is out of money -- as crazy as you are -- me, the Californian's money is coming to help you. Because you're my countryman. That's team America. And that's real patriotism -- where he is my neighbor. Yeah, he lives 1,200 miles from me, but he's my neighbor, and I want to take care of him. Not nanny-state him or put a diaper on him, but I can't have a fellow American's house getting swept away.
If you want to go this rugged individualist way, you'd better start packing your rice and learning how to cook beans. America might be taking a few downgrades before it hits rock bottom, but the rest of the world has already been living that way -- for decades, if not centuries.
In Southern India last summer, I was eating rats with rural tribesman. They catch rats out in the rice fields; they break their little necks and throw them on the fire, let 'em cool, and you eat the liver and meat. I did that. It's not bad. Very mild tasting.
They've been eating rats, [so] I asked them, "Why do you eat rats?" They said, "It's available food. It's food, we get hungry, and they are right there." If they don't eat them, they eat all the rice. Americans would see that as a downgrade, so where Americans may have to fall to, there are other people who already dwell and prosper in those environments. America is going to get chopped off at the knees. There will be billions of people all over the world who will say, "C'mon in, the water's fine. We saved a place at the table for you. We've been expecting you."
A little of that humility wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. I'm not saying I want that . . .
I'd like to see it not happen, and I think it's avoidable -- but [there's] the selfishness and other meanness I see. When you listen to Herman Cain, he says, "Don't blame Wall Street; blame yourself." I kind of get that. Pull yourself up. But the way people cheered, it's like, "Really? Oh, shut up."
He's taking about electric fences, and it's like, where is your humanity?
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These people thrive in the division. That's one of the things I do with the book. I try to cut off the distance. I try to make it unavoidable for you, the person with the book in his or her lap, for you to distance yourself from these people.
Look, the kids are beautiful. The adults have dignity. The are to be respected, and treated as other homo sapiens. That's what I'm trying to do with that book. Go to these places where America wants to pick a fight, like Iran, and say, "They were nice to me. The kids were great, the food was amazing. Best ice cream I think I've ever had. Women were beautiful. Why do you want to incinerate them? There's nothing they can do to America."
[People may say] "Well, they don't like us." But look at your history. They might have some very good reason not to like or trust Americans. I'm not here to bash America, but they were not treated very good by America back in the '50s. They have a right to be suspicious.