INTERVIEW: The 8 Labors of Henry Rollins

As a stand-up comic with a gift for going over the top, Henry Rollins makes Denis Leary look like Steven Wright – but he’s not really a stand-up comic.

As a motivational speaker, Rollins is more motivational than Tony Robbins and Gene Simmons rolled into one – but he’s not really a motivational speaker.

As a rock musician, Rollins’ exploits in the punk rock scene are widely known, perhaps mainly for a band called Black Flag, back in the day – but he hasn’t done much music lately. Been busy.

As an actor … well, you can’t have everything. Just say it’s difficult for Henry Rollins to play any role other than Henry Rollins. Why would he want to? A dynamic, driven character impossible to ignore, he performs another of what he likes to call “the talking shows” (UPDATED Jan. 2017): at the Myer Horowitz Theatre on Friday, Jan. 6. Please don’t call him a spoken word artist.

“I remember when I first heard that term, I went, oh, no, I’m screwed, if that’s what they’re calling it. It sounds like something I would never show up for,” he says.

We have to call him something, though. Please make your selection from the following choices:

1. Future Senator

On whether he might follow the example of entertainer-turned-politicians like Al Franken, Rollins exclaims as if it had never been suggested to him before, “Run for office?! I think my opponent would be able to find so much useable dirt on me that it would be a non starter. I have not raped or pillaged anyone, but I was in rock ‘n’ roll for all those years, and everything I’ve said is on YouTube.”

Q: Maybe voters would appreciate your honesty?

“Maybe. But you can capitalize on someone’s past these days. They seem to do it on all sides. I don’t know. I really never admired politicians. I come from Washington, D.C. I was around it quite a bit, my mom worked for the government, and ultimately these people, some of whom I vote for, they have to do a lot of talking out of both sides of their months. I don’t have to. I enjoy being a pain in the ass in the private sector, and sticking it to the Man at every turn.”

2. Travel Journalist

Rollins recently visited such countries as North Korea, Bhutan, Mongolia, Tibet, Uganda, Sudan, Haiti and Cuba – the type of itinerary not usually seen in an Expedia world tour package – with nothing but a backpack, notepad and camera gear. He had to adhere to a few conventions – it’s illegal for a Westerner to walk unaccompanied in North Korea, for instance – but for the most part he’d just wander around with no plan at all, talking to locals. He had little trouble (a couple of guys tried to snatch his camera, that’s about it), and says he found everybody very nice, though it must help that Rollins does not look like the sort of person you want to mess with.

In Southern Sudan, which is just emerging from civil war, he reports, “You look down at the ground and you see bullet casings, rocket parts, bones sticking out of the ground, Northern soldiers, usually, in shallow graves – and these people are living in it. This is their day to day. They have bad water and they’re walking four miles or more to get that water every day, and they have a smile on their faces, somehow.”

3. Stand-up Comedian

It’s hard to imagine material like the above being used in a comedy routine, but as fans of his talking shows can tell you, Rollins seems to have a natural sense of comic timing about almost every story he tells. He doesn’t analyse it too much.

“I don’t think about punch-lines,” he says. “That’s for comedians. It’s just what occurs to me. If I wrote this stuff down, if I wrote bits, you would know. These things find themselves. It’s natural comedy, instinctive comedy, and some things are just funny. And by reporting about them clearly, you kind of fall on comedy. I don’t aim for comedy, I trip over it.”

4. Entertainer

On the broadest of all possible show biz roles, Rollins considers the act of going on stage an enormous responsibility that requires intense mental and physical stamina. Because one must never give the audience less than everything you have. He says, “Performance and art, in my opinion, should leave a mark on the performer. It should cost. In order for the work to be good, you have to bleed some.” Being in rock ‘n’ roll all those years has held Rollins in good stead. He adds, “It’s always Super Bowl Sunday. I’m not going out there to lose. I’m going out there to kick your ass.”

5. Nature Show Host

Here’s an unlikely new role for everyone’s favourite punk rocker-turned-talking show guy – star of Animal Underworld on the National Geographic Channel, where he interacts with a variety of dangerous critters in exotic locales.

“National Geographic asked me, and of course I said yes,” he says. “It’s National Geographic! They found some use with me being able eat beating snake hearts, eat rats, drink cow urine and pick up cobras on different continents.”

6. The Man Who Never Says No

“I say no to stuff all the time,  usually corporate endeavours I find displeasing, but I come from a minimum wage world, so all of this is an adventure to me. I say yes to work. I go at it all with a utilitarian snarl.”

7. The Man Who Never Mellows With Age

Rollins, 51, has found that travel “has informed a lot of anger – anger at the Man, inequality, good people getting kicked in the teeth by globalization, by global climate change, by the rougher elbows of capitalism … You see a lot of people taking it really hard, and it makes me quite angry.”

8. Author

Asked if he’s working on a book, Rollins replies, “I’m working on five simultaneously.” Of course he is. What a stupid question.