Yesterday, 458 episodes of legendary maverick pirate/BBC radio broadcaster John Peel's radio program were mysteriously uploaded to SoundCloud. For fans of radio that plays by no rules, this is a windfall -- you can listen to Peel's joint interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, scroll back to Peel's spotlight on Faust in 1968, and hear sounds from DJ Shadow and plenty of inscrutable noise.
Peel passed away in 2004, but for fans of off-the-wall radio, there are still people carrying on his anything-goes style on the FM dial, namely Los Angeleno Henry Rollins, whose weekly show on KCRW is one of the best things happening (this week he slid effortlessly from agit-pop punkers The Cops into a drone-blast from Earth -- on an NPR affiliate, no less).
It's just one job the man juggles. In addition to his radio gig, he writes a weekly column for our sister blog, West Coast Sound/L.A. Weekly, and he's constantly on the road. His current speaking tour, the Capitalism Tour finds him hitting every capitol city in the USA, and brings him to Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, September 15. As one might guess, being on the road requires a little legwork beforehand, and from the tour bus.
"I've been working like a crazy man. I did all of the September [KCRW] shows in advance, all of the October shows," Rollins says on Labor Day, scoffing at the notion of taking a day off. "That's just [putting] the music together, which is not easy, because I want it to be good."
He records from the road some, utilizing an M-Audio box, and prefers to do his writing there as well, allowing his varied locales to shape his perspective. "This year it's been South Africa, Poland, Holland, all over the world."
In typical Rollins fashion, his columns blend political and social ideas with musical commentary. He's personable and funny, a far cry from the angry shouting man image that people hold of him (no doubt inspired by his angry shouting at the front of Black Flag and Rollins Band). Talking with him reveals the same thing -- he's more than capable of getting fired up, but Rollins is remarkably soft spoken these days, erudite and chilled out.
"It's not going to be me on stage doing some boring discourse on capitalism," Rollins says of his upcoming tour. "That would be mind-numbingly boring, and I don't have the intellect to support such a topic. Capitalism is not that hard to understand: supply, demand, et cetera. My take on capitalism is not anything that's interesting or controversial. I think capitalism is fine, as long as people play fair. I live in a capitalistic society. My whole world runs on capitalism in that if I don't make a profit, I lose my office, my staff. I can't do anything. If I operate at a loss, I'd have to get other employment and do everything I do differently. [But you'll] notice that my ticket prices and my merch prices are exceedingly low, because I'm not trying to drain these people. I'm not a robber. I want them to stay with me, so I can't make it onerous for someone to come and see me. I've got expenses -- and the people on my bus get a salary. So that's my understanding of capitalism, and I don't think I'll entertain anyone with that."
Rollins expects that his stories will be personal and reflective of his time spent globe-hopping, but in an election year it's hard to move away from the political process as a topic of conversation -- not that one should expect liberal tirades from Rollins.
"I would never tell someone who to vote for," he says. "That's just really rude. Who you're going to vote for in a presidential election is none of my business, and quite honestly, it's not interesting to me. It's up to you and your opinion, which is as valid as mine. My only concern is that you vote. Democracy needs you. Someone says, 'Oh, it's all the same, why bother voting?' That will get me going. But if someone says I'm going to vote for Mitt Romney [or] I'm going to vote for Barack Obama, go vote. Do your thing. Democracy needs you to show up, and that's about as far as I go with that."
"What drives someone from Mexico or South Central America into America? They're not here just to goof around; they're not here because they like the taste of our Coca-Cola." -- Henry Rollins
With the tone of the national debate at its shrillest right now, Rollins likes to remind his fans that -- for lack of a less "hippie-dippy" term, we're all in this together.
"[I want to] gently remind my wonderful audience that we, no matter how we vote or how we think about things, from health care to immigration to whatever else, we have more commonalities as Americans than dissimilarities. It's easy to forget that, in an election season, and in the last few years America has become astonishingly, depressingly polarized."
Rollins insists that respect is his main goal -- in other words, he won't be marching into Phoenix to tell us wrong with Arizona politics.
"Your state is a hot button state, as it were. A lot of people have a strong opinion on Jan Brewer, or Arpaio, or immigration in general, and what it all means and what should be done. It gets right to the core of big problems in America: employment, and the permeability of our borders, and what should be done. I think it's good [to ask] 'What drives someone from Mexico or South Central America into America?' They're not here just to goof around; they're not here because they like the taste of our Coca-Cola. They're looking for a job. There's a lot to be said for looking at the problem from a Mexican aspect. Once you make things better in Mexico [things could change]. I have no desire to sneak into Canada for anything. I love where I live in America. I would never seek to leave. What would drive me out of this country? It's inconceivable to me. No matter who the president is, no matter how much I disagree with whoever is in office, I'm not leaving. What would make me leave? How bad would it have to get? I think we have to look at people coming into this country that way."
Arizona remains a fascinating 10th Amendment case for Rollins, who cites the friction between individual states and the federal government as a safe guard against a sitting president getting "tyrannical," though he rails against the "rugged individualist" movement getting in the way of common patriotic decency.
"[In regards to] Arizona -- I believe in the 10th amendment, for better or worse. You all have some things to resolve," Rollins says. "That's for you all to deal with. I live in California. You think we don't have problems? We have our work to do, and so do you. I don't think it's for a Californian to go on stage and talk to an Arizonan, I think it's for an American to talk to an American, when I'm on stage. [I want] to draw a wider lens on things."
So there's where we are -- the man who intoned the terrifying lyrics of "Family Man" has become a bipartisan statesman. His tact and easygoing humor make his political talks nearly as remarkable as his DJ work -- where he'll play something as booming as Nile right after a De La Soul jam. Automatic eclectic, for the people.
"Someone's got to say it," Rollins says, "and I really enjoy the idea of bringing it up. I'm perhaps hopelessly naïve, and a lot of my ideas are hopelessly utopian, and my views are happy, 'hippie-dippy' [ideas], but I really need to be able to depend on my fellow American, and they really need to some degree to be able to depend on me."
Henry Rollin is scheduled to speak Saturday, September 15, at Crescent Ballroom.