With a combined age of 108, no one would bat an eye if you described Henry Rollins and Keith Morris as elder statesmen of punk rock.
It's not that Rollins, 51, and Morris, 57, are old in the strictest, let's-weigh-out-average-life-expectancy sense of the word, but both have continued the frantic artistic output they started as singers of seminal Californian hardcore act Black Flag, a band whose black-bars logo is tattooed on musicians 30 to 40 years their junior, well into middle age: Rollins became a prolific author, radio DJ, spoken-word artist, and weekly columnist at L.A. Weekly after leaving the band in 1986; Morris followed up his time in Black Flag (he left in 1979) by forming the nearly-as-legendary Circle Jerks, and currently fronts the hardcore combo OFF!, featuring Steven McDonald of Redd Kross, Dimitri Coats of Burning Brides, and Mario Rubalcaba of Earthless/Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes, who've issued two collections of blisteringly fast, focused hardcore for Vice Records, including a self-titled collection this year, featuring 16 songs clocking in at just over 15 minutes long.
But how about calling them statesmen in the traditional sense?
"We do live in an amazingly great country," Morris says, talking a mile a minute, his words dripping with SoCal surfer attitude, "but we've been doing a lot of stupid things, and my question is: When are we going to start being a great country again?"
Rollins, currently touring the capital cities of the United States with his "Capitalism Tour" spoken-word jaunt, is no less proud of his country — or concerned for its well-being.
"As political I'll be getting on this tour is to gently remind my wonderful audience that we, no matter how we vote or how we think about things, from healthcare to immigration to whatever else, we have more commonalities as Americans than dissimilarities," Rollins says over the phone on Labor Day, just before departing for Honolulu and Anchorage, the two most geographically problematic of his upcoming stops. "It's easy to forget that, in an election season, and in the last few years [as] America has become astonishingly, depressingly polarized."
Though Black Flag's political stance could easily be categorized as "anti-authoritarian," Rollins and Morris have continued to develop political voices as their careers have progressed. Rollins takes explicit political stances (his 2011 collection of prose and photographs taken in the Middle East, Asia, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, is titled Occupants), while Morris keep things loose and angry, singing on 2012's "Borrow and Bomb": "You called up the drones / Destroyed beautiful homes," raging with more specificity than ever before.
"I'm not about taking our government over," Morris says. "[But] we do need to ditch all the corporate people, and we need to ditch both the Republicans and the Democrats.We need to come up with the 'worker's party,' even though that sounds very much like I'm a communist. But what about the middle class? The middle class needs to rise back up and say, 'Hey, here we are. Here we go. Get out of our way; we're not fucking around.'"
Rollins insists that the Capitalism Tour will feature as many personal stories and anecdotes as political thoughts, but he admits that it's hard to avoid the low-hanging fruit in an election season.
"I would never tell someone who to vote for," Rollins 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. I'm not trying to be rude, but that's up to you. 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,' [they should] go vote. Do your thing. Democracy needs you to show up, and that's about as far as I go with that."
Rollins' approach might surprise those who know him for his less-amenable approach (his free-form, free-wheeling radio performances on Santa Monica's KCRW find him as fiery as any Black Flag or Rollins Band record, segueing from The Cop's wiry pop-punk "It's Epidemic" into Earth's plodding, grating noise drone "German Dental Work" during a recent broadcast), but he insists that the Capitalism Tour isn't about stomping into towns and "explaining" their relation to the rest of the country.
"[Arizona] is a hot-button state, as it were," Rollins says. "A lot of people have a strong opinion on Jan Brewer or [Sheriff Joe] 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 . . . There's a lot of people who have a lot to say about Arizona, and rightly so, [but] the stage is perhaps not the place for that. I usually do Phoenix or Tucson on tour, and I say, 'Hey, it's good to be back here. I know some bands, or some people avoid your state, because there are people they disagree with. Well, I disagree with some people in your state, but I like you all. If you really love America, you're not going to play favorites. I really do like this place; it's been very good to me."
Morris laughs about his last experience in Arizona. In March 2011, Morris, Coats, and Rubalcaba were arrested at Ono Hawaiian BBQ for taking used cooking oil from the restaurant's outdoor grease container. The band's tour van runs on oil, and though they didn't get permission to take it, they haven't had any problems with restaurant owners gladly donating the used oil in other cities (businesses usually are charged by companies to dispose of the oil).
"It was a citizens arrest in a parking lot of a shopping mall next to a fast food place," Morris says. "We got arrested for something that even the cops [that were called] were scratching their heads, like, 'Why are we dealing with this?' The whole scene was pretty . . . absurd."
The band managed to get the charges dismissed by doing public service — online, which was expensive, Morris notes — but never held the slight against Phoenicians or Arizonans. "Um, yeah," Morris deadpans. "I've been arrested in Arizona, and I'm actually quite proud. Normally when you get arrested, it's for doing something really stupid, but we were doing something that was geared toward the environment and recycling, and I have no bad thoughts about what we did whatsoever."
Morris and Rollins are, indeed, punk rock statesmen, defying the parental warning stickers that marked up Black Flag albums in the '80s by emerging as productive, thoughtful, and optimistic citizens. "I'm perhaps hopelessly naïve," Rollins says. "A lot of my ideas are hopelessly utopian, and my views are happy, hippie-dippie, but I really need to be able to depend on my fellow American, and they really need to some degree be able to depend on me."
Most importantly, Morris and Rollins' political tack underscores a philosophy that has guided their music, as well:
"I grew up at the beach [surrounded by surfers]," Morris says. "When they weren't surfing they were skateboarding, and when they weren't surfing or skateboarding and it got cold, and there was snow on the mountains, they would ski. The mentality was, you don't stand around looking at it, trying to figure it out, and think about what you're going to do, you just do it. You just jump on it and you go."