The Strength Of ThoughtInterview by Christopher Stipp
This is the second time I’ve interviewed Henry.
The first time that I had the opportunity talk to Henry Rollins I was steamrolled with his loquaciousness. I was warned, to be sure, but when you’re used to talking to actors, actresses, writers and directors of varying verbal ability and competency (you could end up talking to Oscar Wilde or a sack of flour; being adept at this requires you to be ready for both) there isn’t much variance. But then you talk to Henry and realize you have never had a real conversation with anyone in your life. That your opinion on politics barely holds any heft against the kind of informational arsenal and background reading that Henry Rollins has done - even before you’ve asked the question - is something that you start thinking about as he begins to destroy your mind with the dissertation level bibliography he supplies in support of his thoughts and positions. The absolute kicker is that he never once makes you feel ignorant for not having the time to consume the quantity of papers, books, articles or punditry that he must in order to be as deadly as he is with being able to show his facts and prove his math.
It’s also helpful, if you’d like the purple plumes of mystique surrounding the “What would it be like to talk to Rollins on the phone?” question dispelled, to note that the Henry you get on the phone is a lot different than the one you see on stage. Naturally, you aren’t going to get the mic gripping, focused rage of a man on a verbal tear. But, rather, Henry on the phone proved to be quiet, extremely thoughtful as he carefully chose his words, almost in an effort to re-think everything he was saying. A delight. The man answers every question with respectful reverence.
Rollins took some time out of his touring schedule to talk to me about issues that range from the domestic to the international, from the controversial to the mundane and, should you be one of those who likes to read things without pictures, books that could help fertilize your thoughtfulness regarding everything you’re about to read.
CS: Let’s start by talking about the economy… What have you gleaned by looking at what’s happening right now?
HR: I think right now if you look at Washington Mutual, it's just gone belly up. The CEO of the banks had been in control for 17 days. He’s getting an 11.6 million dollar salary and he gets to keep all of it even though everyone else is losing their jobs. I think the last several days with this big bailout they are planning, you are seeing what happens when you get deregulation. And it’s out of control.
Capitalism that’s unregulated.
And if you say “well, capitalism needs to be looked at and looked over” you are called a socialist or a communist and that’s not really true. But you are seeing the dangers of unchecked power. And in the last year, we have seen a lot of that. And now people are blaming the other side and all of a sudden the big bank problems are Barack Obama’s fault or the fault of the Democrats and that doesn’t hold water with me all the way. Since we last spoke, one more year has gone by in Iraq – more dead people and more billions going down the drain. So now here we are. I guess some people are happy with it. Me? Not so much.
CS: You’re still touring after all these years. What’s your goal with this particular spoken word tour?
HR: I’m going to be telling stories from the road, which is essentially what I do. And in between the times I go on tour I go out into the world and gather stories. I go places, I meet people, and this year was no different. I went all over the world, as always, at least I try to. I was in Africa, I was all over Europe, I was in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and Thailand, Burma and Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam... I did about 100 shows this year. So, there will be a mix-up of all of that plus what’s going on in the world.
CS: Are you finding that in the world we are still the laughing stock?
HR: What I found when I go to all these places is that people like America. I ask them what they think of my country and they go, “Well, we like you but we are kind of scared. Your President freaks us out but we like you.” That’s good to hear and I get that from everywhere from Iran to Syria to Cambodia. People are like, “Hey, you guys are great.” And, I agree with them. I think we are really good but think we need an upgrade and to be constantly looking at ourselves and seeking to be making it better, like we usually do.
In Europe, a lot more people speak English and I’ve done a lot of shows there this year. They say to me that “I am losing patience with America” or they’re about to throw their hands up or they are just bewildered and say “I mean, what the hell is with you guys?” I’ll say, “I’m sure some of you have come to that conclusion.” And you wonder. And I say, “Please, just be patient. We are transitioning.” I say, “It might take a while but we are worth the wait. You know that we are a good country and it might take us a while to get back in your good graces and I appreciate you hanging in there with us. I'm sure when you look at our leader, [you see someone] who doesn’t seem to be even interested in world events, won’t sit down and talk with anyone he disagrees with, nor does he seem to be bothered to speak a sentence with any clarity. He seems distracted, like somewhere else.”
I think Mr. Bush is probably a very depressed guy. I think he has a fair understanding of the ruination that’s going to be swinging from his neck like an albatross for the rest of his life. No matter how much the Bush Library tries to whitewash the events of his administration I just don’t think you can whitewash it enough to obscure the blood.
So I think that weighs upon him, and other countries look at us and go, “Wow, English is our second or third language and our Prime Minister speaks it better than your President.” A lot of countries wonder what the hell we’re up to.
CS: Interesting point about the world in general. I think one of the big things right now is obviously Iraq. I actually interviewed former Governor Jesse Ventura on 9/11 and it was a conversation that ranged all sorts of ways and out of the blue…
HR: He seems like a pretty straight shooter.
HR: You can agree or disagree but he’s going to give it to you straight.
CS: Exactly. And he said to me, “Do you want to know my thoughts on Iraq?” I didn’t ask the question but I said, “Sure.” He told me, “You know how I know that we’re in the same situation like Vietnam?” He then talked about how he talked to a soldier who has come back from Iraq and Jesse asked whether it was OK to inquire about something. The soldier said, “I’ll tell you anything. What to you want to know?” He said, “I only want to know one thing: Did you know who the enemy was?” And the guy said no. Jesse mentioned that’s exactly when he knew the situation was out of control.
HR: Yes. We are invading an occupied force. You don’t win an occupation. You just kind of hang out and watch your friends get picked off because you are fighting the locals who have no where to go. Will they go home for Christmas? Whoops. They are home. There is no where for them to go. So you are fighting a country where maybe a year ago the guy, an Iraqi, at the end of the block said, “Yay, America!” But he’s tired of your ass. He’s just tired of it and you kick his friend’s door in and your Humvee crunched his car and you know what – go home now. And that’s just how it is. And our guys and girls have the best of intentions. Our military – we want to do good. We want to give democracy, three square meals, and a roof that doesn’t leak and then get the hell out.
Believe me, that’s what these soldiers want. They don’t enjoy killing people. They don’t go in there to shoot people and laugh about it. You can’t stick around in a place and give them real change. The electricity isn’t up and running – the water is in a bad situation and people are just sick of it. And even people who like you turn on you. And now you’ve become the thorn in the side. It’s a different situation between Vietnam. We never went there to stabilize and to keep the peace. We kind of went there and did a great deal of damage. But we’re doing damage in Iraq none the less. And the locals are like, “OK, we’ve got your number now after 6 years. We know what you all do and we’re sick of it.” So I think no matter what we do now besides leaving, we would have to go in there and basically build everyone’s house and make it look like a mansion to even get a collective smile out of these people. It’s very hard to find those stats of the death toll of Iraqis in Iraq everyday. Very few radio DJs are announcing them. The other day a car bomb went off outside a police station or something – 35 Iraqis killed in one “kaboom” – in one eye blink. 35 people.
That’s intestines flying across the street.
Whoever thinks about what that looks like or what it means to clean it up has no idea. And Iraqis in Iraq are dropping like flies every single day. Iraqis die. And this has impact. These are fathers not coming home. These are kids getting blown up and at the end of the day, you know the reason for all this unrest; It’s because of our presence. You can distill it down to that. Hey, I get letters, the surge is working. I never said it worked or didn’t work. It’s one of many strategies that had a limited and temporary bit of success. But it’s the payoff that got the benefit the most, like Al-Sadar. People like the money. They spend the money, they want more, if you don’t give it to them they end up blowing things up again. So there is no win. We’re winning in Iraq? What are you going to win? You don’t win occupations. So when you try to have that discussion people write Newsweek. Say, "Oh you are a 'defeated-crat.'" You’re this, you’re that. But that’s not really the discussion. So the real discussion has rarely been had by people of opposing views without cutting to Sean Hannity.
Meanwhile, real people are getting killed – Americans, Iraqis. And unrest and hatred in the Muslim world, which is a considerable amount of their opinion of us, just sours and sours. The European Muslims have resentment. African Muslims, Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims too. You’ve got many. And in Indonesia the prevailing religion is Islam, and so here we go and you wonder who said this is a good idea. Well, if you sell bombs and bullets you are almost insuring future wars. Well, who likes that idea? Well, if you’re Triple Canopy or Halliburton or Carlisle or Blackwater, that is what you want because that’s your business.
So this is basically business.
That’s why we rattle the sabers at Iran. That’s why we are so happy that the Russians and Americans are starting up in Georgia. We are reheating the Cold War. Oh yeah, countries coming into NATO? Great. We sell them billions of dollars of attack munitions and other stuff they don’t really need because we tell them they do. You need an F14 and all this stuff and you can’t buy them from the French or the Russians or anyone else? You have to buy them from us. In the last year or so we sold Egypt and Saudi Arabia joint defense attack munitions, JDAMs. We’ve never sold any country those things. Israel, of course, is very upset because both countries have a hate on for that country and Rice and Gates went out to Israel to assure them, “Don’t worry, those rockets don’t have the range to get there.” That doesn’t mean they can’t be taken somewhere else. Like take them to Jordan and access Israel just fine. If I was Israel, I would be losing sleep. It just seems like war is our endless activity or selling the means to it, or engaging in it. In the last 8 years it seems to be our only export item. It seems to be porn, corn and bullets. Well, that’s the name of a tour – Porn, Corn & Bullets.
CS: Yeah, but then you turn on the local news and it’s about all the stories that don’t seem to matter. We have an economy that seems to be slipping further and further into someplace we don’t want it to go…
HR: Into the cesspool of deregulated unwatched unchecked capitalism and here we are. At some point I’m going to lose my patience and say, “Well, someone will have to conclude that 51% of Americans are happy with amputated men and foreclosure, misery, obesity. You go rock that. You have fun with that. I’m out. If this is what you want, don’t touch me because I’m done trying to help you and obviously you don’t want any help. Obviously leaving in a lean-to next to the house you used to own seems to suit you – well, fine.” A lot of the rest of the world will come to that conclusion. I’m done arguing, done defending. You are the majority. This is how you want it so I’ll just get in line and watch you starve because I’m through shouting at idiots.
CS: I feel the exact same way. In some ways I feel helpless – just talking against the wall when I try to bring up some things. How do you get mentally past that? You obviously on some level feel that at least some people are trying to speak, trying to raise the intelligence bar. But seeing time after time we are getting f’d by this company and these guys over here who have imploded their own Wall Street conglomerates but are still walking away with their million dollar parachutes. Why keep trying to fight the good fight as it were?
HR: Well, because you know you are fighting a good fight and even though you are working on behalf of people who will call you names and vote against everything that will benefit them. They vote for their own demise. They vote for wars without end, outsourcing employment, they willingly run to the slaughter. Put on track shoes and lead the pack to the abyss and you try to at least slow them down, they call you a communist. You just know you are doing the right thing and at times it can be exasperating but what are you going to do? But as dismayed as I can become – the next morning I can pick myself up and go “OK, let’s do something here” because I realized a while ago that I don’t wait around anymore for the right president or the right government. Change starts with you and me. You learned your lesson at Katrina, FEMA failed. It’s not that it’s a bad organization, they basically trained to fail.
They were built to fail by the Bush administration so they can say, “Look, government doesn’t work – let’s privatize everything.”
And, our government actually does work. It works very well when you are not trying to break it in pieces, but the private sector – look at the private sector. We came through for when people in Katrina – well over a billion dollars, we raised almost immediately. So, America gives a damn. The American citizenry, we kick ass so you have to remember that. So whatever problem we have here we can also solve it. Any problem within our borders can be solved by our resources within our borders. You have to get some more people down with science, the future and progress. Don’t be scared. Silver panels on your roof will be not a bad thing. They did have them on the roof of the White House. Ronald Regan took them off. Progress. No, no no. Back into the Stone Age.
CS: That’s funny that you bring that up. I live in an area that has an HOA that explicitly prohibits that because it somehow downgrades or degrades the aesthetic enhancement of the neighborhood.
HR: People have some lofty view and look at their neighborhoods from a rooftop? Maybe the police choppers chasing a crackhead might like looking at flat black panels but the rest of us who don’t have wings, I think we perhaps might not even notice if our neighbor had solar panels on our roof. Saying it makes a house un-aesthetically pleasing – what happened to that good old Republican conservatism of, “It’s my house, dammit, and I can have a solar panel on the roof and a gun in every room.”
These people should shut up and get out of the way.
It’s probably GE and people like that that don’t want you to go off the grid. Progress and solutions are staring you in the face begging you to come on. Like, “Don’t you want to play? Come on.” If you look at the electric car – the Who Killed the Electric Car documentary – I recommend it…
CS: I’ve seen it. It’s a great exposé.
HR: You go to the one part of it where they say, “This is what you have to put into a car every other year” – gas filter, oil filter, a table full of stuff that a man has to put in and charges you money to put it in. The car, the electric car, all of that is over with. So STP and all these companies no longer get to sell you the oil filter. Do you think they are happy about the electric car? If you make oil filters, you are not happy about an electric car because your paycheck looks unsure. But that’s the turbulence of change. If companies were smart, they would be looking for opportunities elsewhere and that’s why you have hesitancy where Europeans just run with this stuff. They go, “Wow, change? Progress?” Because they remember wars. They remember sieges on their country and they have rear view. We are a very young country. So, that idea that big business will save us all, well, OK, I don’t believe it but then let’s take solar energy and wind energy, big business and they can keep getting their bailouts and keep getting cheaper energy that doesn’t rely on countries that hate our guts. So, I’m just saying, it’s interesting to me that when you see solutions staring at you, why we are not leading the world with this stuff. We, it seems to me, have the resources, we are so smart, so innovative, not lazy, what’s the problem? And there’s always some punk ass excuse, like the aesthetically pleasing thing. No one ever comes back with the hard facts. All they can do is insult you and say that you are liberal… Never anything that comes back with any worth.
CS: And I think part of the problem, to some extent, is that those that feel their paychecks are threatened will turn to a lobbyist committee and campaign.
HR: Absolutely. The power of those guys is incredible.
CS: Got a problem? Pay a lobbyist. Get someone to change a law for you or have someone take you out to dinner.
HR: If you read the book The Wrecking Crew, which I just finished and I recommend it, I didn’t quite understand the power of lobbyists in DC and I thought I kind of understood it but this book breaks it down. Basically, they are pretty much the government. At least for the last seven years they have been.
CS: Europeans are obviously more progressive in this regard. Do you see other countries whose governments operate more efficiently or more openly than ours?
HR: Sure. Like almost every European one.
HR: Like where they value education and health care or in some European countries if you say your want to be a doctor, they say really “We’ll pay for that, we like doctors, because when we get old we want a bunch of you around to insure we have a better life. We like little kids but we need doctors around” or “I want to be a professor.” “Hey, we’ll pay for that. We need smart people in our country. Smart people make good choices and keep its citizens away from war, pestilence and unhappiness.” It costs the country and you pay into this. And a good capitalist says, “I don’t want to pay anything. I don’t want to pay any taxes. I don’t want to pay for children in the ghetto to have crack babies. I don’t want to pay for an artist who depicts the crucifixion in a vat of urine and call it art. I’m not paying for any of it and when they just collapse they don’t have much to say about it except well, we should privatize that, so they can charge you any amount they want to drive over that bridge. I don’t agree with it.”
They hate the New Deal – I like the New Deal.
CS: I think it was one of the more beneficial things that happened to our country at that time.
HR: Well, a lot of those reforms live with us today. Like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the FCC, the FDIC, minimum wage, Social Security. Not so bad. This, of course, is stuff that right-wingers are trying to destroy and rip apart if they could and they’ve done a good deal to wear away. Did you see that the minimum wage was just recently passed – went kicking and screaming to a non-veto proof vote.
Too bad that we don’t value the working person in America.
We don’t value unions and all of that. Big business is basically anti-labor. Just, “Shut up and get back to the mill and not have any lobby, not have any power to argue back.” It’s basically “Shut the fuck up” and that’s kind of how they want to run the show. If you ever get a chance, if you have not, do some studying on the Providence of Saipan. It’s part of the Mariana Islands and is basically an American protectorate. And I think Tom Delay called it the “laboratory of liberty” because it is completely unregulated there. They pay you whatever they want. They have tons of guest labor who live on derricks. And I saw this when I was in Dubai where these men actually live in an enclosure and they are from China, Hong Kong, other places, maybe 12 hours on, 12 hours off, they get Sunday’s off and only with a special pass are they allowed to go into town and that’s how they set up the Mariana Islands. Tom Delay said this is how America should be. This is great. This is it. They have total abuse of the working class there.
CS: I watched a Frontline episode on PBS last year about China and that was the first time when I saw that there are places where you live and work at the same place and they, the workers, said, “This is great, we love it.”
HR: Yes. Workers are contained. They have no rights. They have no recourse. Basically, “Shut up and get back to work. And if you are lucky to send a few cents back to your relatives in the village you left.” People like Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, major lobbyists and politicians on the right, this is what they want for America. A totally deregulated state where we, the people, live off the crumbs of the big banquet happening over our heads. You live off the crumbs that come from Caesar’s mouth. No Teamsters, no unions, no say. The world becomes Wal-Mart and you’re lucky. Meanwhile as we go deeper and deeper into debt to the Chinese and Saudi Arabians, all of that, I just don’t see the good idea. I think maybe it’s a good idea for about 20 people in America who make tons of money, but for everyone else, it’s a delusion of a good idea. That people can sway people to get their vote... it’s amazing, and such a slight of hand. Really well-worded.
At the end of the day all the information that you need to see through this is at hand.
If you want you can learn all this stuff. You can make a choice. If you choose not to at this point, like I said before, you go, “Oh no, I’m done with that because I’m tired of telling you.”
CS: I notice in conversations that you read, voraciously. I’m curious to know in the last year what are some really good books that you’ve read that you would like people to know and go out and learn. You mentioned The Wrecking Crew.
HR: I think that’s by Thomas Frank. He also wrote What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a book about why voters vote away from their best interest. That book was great. Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, I thought was a really good read. That was the best read of last year. One of the best reads of this year for me is by Paul Roberts called The End of Food and also The End of Oil. Basically it’s an extrapolation of how 100 years ago with the growing population in the world and the amount of available food, we kind of ran the numbers and went, “Ah ha, we are all going to starve to death.” And he is kind of right every once in a while where it looks like we won’t be able to manufacture more food. Unfortunately, when we manufacture more food, what do people do? They breathe more. So, the problem become exponentially bigger and now the chicken breeders have to shoot up the chickens with steroids and everything is chemically driven. Meanwhile we deplete soil, we filter water, and that was a bummer of a book but a solid read. I’m trying to remember the book I read a couple months ago. It’s brilliant. It’s not The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, that’s Greg Palast. Oh, The Greatest Story Ever Sold. That was a really interesting read on just the manipulations on the press core on the last election and the Iraq war – a really great overview.
CS: That really does sound like a really good read actually.
HR: It was fascinating. You think you know all of that stuff and then you see it from this guy’s point of view and you find out more about different press releases, different presidential daily briefings, etc. You say “Damn, I didn’t know any of that” and he connects a lot of dots that you might not have connected previously – interesting stuff, very well written journalism. I think he’s a New York Times or Newsweek guy – The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Not a bad read at all.
CS: And, if I had just one more question to tie into what you just mentioned, as someone who wants to expand my consciousness of what’s going on in the world around me, and reading obviously helps, what do you see as the biggest challenge for young people? Young people who want to try to get the word out or expand their own consciousness in a way that kind of cuts through the mainstream b.s.?
HR: Well, the first thing you need to do is get your house in order. Be stabilized financially which will take quite a bit of time in this day in age. But as soon as you have your own house in order you can venture forth. And I would encourage young people to at least get a passport and try and get out into the world and see different points of view, see how other people in the world are living and come back to your America and then evaluate it. I think one of the best ways to look at your country is to leave it and look at it from afar. To see how your country comports itself in other countries and other cultures. I travel quite a bit and I see a lot of things and it makes me think we should really value America.
Oh, OK. The Greatest Story Ever Sold is by Frank Rich. That’s that guy. I’m on Amazon over here. And also there is a lot you can do in your own country, in your own area code.
And I think the best change starts locally where you can’t change the world but you can change your world. And that’s a pretty potent one liner. So, no matter where you live, there is work you can do physically right in your own neighborhood, within 10 miles of where you are sitting. And if more people were kind of being true to their school, their city, their county, whatever it is, that is what I would advise. And, it’s fairly addictive once you help someone or become part of an agency that is only beneficial or is a non profit, NGO (non-governmental organization). I work on behalf of a few now.
It’s a real turn on.
One of the best ways to get is to give, and also just makes you feel differently about yourself and gives you a sense of responsibility and a sense of civic duty. What makes America great is when we look out for each other, when we are not divisive or not trying to separate and draw lines. That’s why I’ve been so angry over the last 8 years. Because while I may have some major disagreements with the Republicans, I understand where they are coming from – the basic disagreements between Republicans and Democrats – I got it. And I can debate easily from both sides. I can take the right side easily. I get it. It’s just when the other side goes unchecked, you get bad things. When my side goes unchecked, you get bad things. So everyone needs checks and balances. The last few years have just been so one-sided this country has become very polarized and you see what happens when this country becomes polarized. We’re not getting the big “IT” done. We’re not getting stuff done. And that’s not America. America is a country that wakes up everyday and kicks some ass.
So, I’m looking forward to getting back to that. I’m not just getting into arguments all the time. If you are a Republican or a Democrat we can still see eye to eye. I’m just sick of it. I don’t want to hate my country. I don’t want to hate my countrymen. I don’t want to distrust the media. I watch carefully but just don’t want to watch and say, “Fuck you all.” I’m just sick of the negativity. It’s not how I like to operate. It’s not a world I want to dwell in and I know it’s completely preventable.
I’m looking forward to brighter days ahead for sure.