Henry Rollins has had more careers than a cat’s fabled lives. A consistent thread among his various vocations, though, has been a keen eye and ear for provocation and intelligence, as well as his undeniably impressive rhetorical skills. Rollins took to the road as the seemingly interminable 2012 elections neared their fateful end, (PLEASE let them end tomorrow, and not in some courtroom months from now), performing spoken-word think pieces in all 50 state capitals. That tour reaches its conclusion tonight, with a live webcast of his 8pm performance at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. D.C. residents may be saddled with taxation without representation, but its residents still hold a special place in Henry Rollins’ heart.
We spoke with him about the show, (webcast live tonight!), what he’s learned in yet another trip across America, and the mutual respect that should be the basis for our political interactions. Whatever your thoughts on his politics, it is impossible to deny that he takes democracy more seriously than many active practitioners.
Weeping Elvis: You’ve visited 50 state capitals over the past two months, and your “Capitalism” tour ends tonight. For those who haven’t been following along online, what has the tour been about and what can people expect tonight?
Henry Rollins: I’ve been talking about a lot of the people I’ve been meeting on the road and a lot of the places I travel to; that informs a lot of what I talk about year-in-and-year-out on these tours. I travel pretty far and wide. On this particular leg of the tour, I’ve been talking about the importance of voting if possible. If you have an opinion, you are eligible to vote. Who people vote for is honestly none of my business; I don’t have the rudeness required to tell someone who to vote for, just that they should do it. So I’ve been talking a lot about that, and a lot about how, in my opinion, we’ve become very polarized as a nation, and because of that happening, we’re not getting a lot of work done. We’re not getting the work done that we should be getting done. That stresses me.
WE: Having watched the video segments you’ve published online with TakePart, a slightly left-of-center viewpoint emerges, but what struck me was the historically informative and thought-provoking nature of the segments. I learned a lot more than I expected and was reminded of the daily significance of things taught in school, particularly some of the segments on the civil rights struggle. What lessons have you learned or re-learned along your most recent journey across our amazing country?
HR: You need to give people respect, and realize that while you may not agree with them, they have lives and struggles too. And, it’s difficult, it’s Lincoln. It’s a truly Lincoln-esque way to approach things. You have to be fair, you have to listen. And, some of these people have some ideas that are just…pretty strange…but they are deserving of dignity, and if you don’t give them some, that respect, they can’t give it to themselves and they can’t give it to anyone else and you just don’t get them to vote. So if you want to do the right thing, if you want to really make things better, it’s tough! It’s a heavy weight to carry.
WE: And that’s striking. Particularly on cable since the advent of Crossfire, our news is generally presented us with talking heads sparring over often miniscule differences in their politics and using that conflict to sell ads.
HR: That’s the nature of for-profit media.
WE: The Internet presents a little “d” democratic medium where almost anyone can present their views, unfiltered. Did its nature help convince you to enter into this partnership?
HR: I think (it’s about) the access the Internet gives for this thing we’ve been doing — it’s free, it’s you can either log on and check it out or not so it’s just completely unobtrusive and culturally it’s interesting to people. Personally I like the medium of it. I think, these days, people have so many options as to what they could be listening to, and what they’re inundated by or overwhelmed by, even, that hopefully they choose well because they definitely have a lot of choices. And unfortunately I think with all that noise, it’s easy to take information and just manipulate it and abuse it. So I worry about the abuse.
WE: What news sources do you use?
HR: I go for numbers. I go for summaries of Congressional bills. I go for stats. I’m not really interested in opinion beyond a certain point. Put it this way, I don’t get my opinion from other people’s opinions, I get it from the information. I check voting records, what failed in the Senate or the Congress, who voted in what way, what the job numbers are, what are those actual things? And from those things, I get an opinion as to where things are going. I don’t need to read an editorial to get an opinion, it’s an opinion that I can compare and contrast mine too.
WE: You’re actually going straight to the data.
HR: I’m trying to, as best as I can understand it. Like, when I see the Veterans Job Corps Act, which failed in September of this year in the Senate because it would have required 60 votes. Republicans said they couldn’t justify it because it was a billion dollar cost. And so what’s my takeaway from that? You’ll spend trillions of dollars of borrowed money on a war, keep those numbers off the budget from a series of emergency supplementals, and whenever the new guy comes into town and puts all of those awful numbers on the books, you say that’s the Obama recession. None of that’s opinion, that’s what happened. And, so, it tells me everything I need to know about everyone who voted against the Veterans Job Corps Act. You’ll send them into war, but you don’t care about them when they come back. And so, from that, I draw my opinion as to who will get my vote and my respect. I don’t go on opinions, I just go on the facts and the facts lead me to my conclusions. Everything I’ve said to you is fact, and those facts will take you whichever way the wind blows you. And it takes me to conclusions that in my mind are very unshakeable.
WE: You obviously have a long history with D.C. In addition to the election-related symbolism, there must be some personal significance for you, ending the tour here tonight.
HR: Well yeah, it’s where I come from. It’s at least part of my life — I’m 51 — I lived here the first 20 years of it and I’ve been moving around ever since. It’s a city that I miss when I’m not here, I like being here. I’m sitting on the tour bus next to the 9:30 Club looking out the window and it’s nice to be here. But, I have a show tonight, so I’m really more focused on that than anything else. As soon as I’ve performed the show and walked through that, I’ll be able to enjoy where I am a bit more. But right now, I’m more about, “I hit the stage at 8 o’clock,” you know?
WE: We recently spoke with Jim Saah about Salad Days, an upcoming documentary on the early 80s punk scene in Washington, D.C., in which you were obviously a key figure. The city has changed a lot over the years, and many of the changes can be attributed to both the positive and negative aspects of capitalism. For example right next to the new 9:30 Club, Atlantic Plumbing is about to turn into a 300 unit apartment building, which will certainly change the neighborhood a bit. I’m sure you see these changes each time you return. How do you compare the city now to the city you lived in when coming of age, playing music and working at Häagen-Dazs?
HR: I think that things are obviously different, and I think the money has moved things around. The neighborhood that I came from (and spent) a good part of my life was Glover Park, near the National Cathedral. When I was living there it was just a very normal, nice looking, and relatively safe place. Not a rich neighborhood, it was very middle class…those small houses all stuck together in those long rows where the porches sit right next to each other and you could hear your neighbors on either side of you in their living rooms at night. These are incredibly small houses; I actually saw a house that I lived in for a couple of years for sale. So, a month later or so it sold, and I looked it up on the Internet and the thing sold for three-quarters of a million dollars…it’s like a shoebox! It’s amazing how much money such a little space could cost. D.C. is a very expensive place to live. I couldn’t have afforded to live there when I left home and was looking for an apartment, I became a Virginian; we all did, we all moved over the Key Bridge and said, “Here we are now.” None of us could handle it on minimum wage, you couldn’t afford an apartment in D.C.. So, I think the money has pushed some people out and brought some people in. In my old neighborhood, when I walk through there now, it’s people with those three wheel baby carriages, and au pairs, and in the summertime sweet young white people buying $80 bags of groceries at Whole Foods, where it used to be liquor stores and parks when I was young and lived on that stretch of Wisconsin Avenue.
WE: And Arlington, it’s even more different perhaps.
HR: Sure, yeah, I used to live over behind the Marriott near Key Bridge on Pierce, and the apartment building I lived in is gone now. I don’t know what’s in its place but I was told it’s gone. And so, all that stuff changes; I see that all over America, D.C. is certainly not unique. The money comes in, the demographic changes, but mainly all these places…the “favored” get a place to live and everyone else just gets to suck wind and figure it out, become that “rugged American.”
Check our more of Henry Rollins’ well-informed pre-election opinions tonight,
webcast live at 8pm eastern on TakePart’s YouTube channel.