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Henry Rollins

John Robb gets an exclusive interview with the man who paved the way for Nirvana

Published on January 29th 2008.

Henry Rollins

Spoken word is very narrow field

Many have tried and few have succeeded, but Henry Rollins who brings his two hour spoken word show to Manchester this week is by far the best. His witty and cutting edge dialogue on the modern world is a long way away from his riotous roots in American hardcore punk.

I was on one of the forward bases on the Pakistan border where it was heavy. They had lost a guy there a few weeks before and another guy lost his arm.

Last week in London his three hour set was brilliant. Lots of laughs and some real cutting edge comment. His 30 minute deconstruction of George Bush is worth the entry fee on its own. Very few people fronted legendary hardcore American underground punk bands and got out the other side. Many retreated back to the real world with a shell-shocked look in their eyes. Rollins just carried on.

In the early eighties he was singing for Black Flag who toured America relentlessly and made their name for some of the toughest, wildest, craziest gigs ever. The weightlifting Rollins cut a scary figure with huge tattoos back in the day when no-one had them and a psychotic stage demeanour. His band did all the work and fell apart. Black Flag’s legacy was the American hardcore scene and the circuit that provided the means for Nirvana to become huge.

At the tail end of the band Rollins started writing books and doing spoken word performances - at first this was intensely personal work that explored the dark side of the human condition. Nowadays he’s become the world best known post-punk spoken word performer with two hour shows.

He was also one of the few American voices that took a stand against the Iraq war whilst still having the guts to go to Afghanistan and Iraq and talk to the troops several times.

‘‘I have been to Iraq. I’ve been to Afghanistan twice which is really intense,” he says. “I went out again doing my spoken word thing to the troops a couple of weeks ago. I was on one of the forward bases on the Pakistan border where it was heavy. They had lost a guy there a few weeks before and another guy lost his arm - they are not kidding around. It’s an inhospitable place. They have repelled every foreign invader from Alexander the Great to the Moguls to British to the Soviets. They are a very wary bunch of people. Everyone has come to their country over the ages and tried to fuck it up. We come in there and they think here comes another bunch of bastards.

“You speak for 20 minutes to the troops. It’s not like I go to Baghdad and go on about how I disagree with the war. I’m not going to burn them. They didn't ask to be there. I don't want to lessen their morale - the next day they go out and get shot at. I get stick for doing the tours - people say why do you go if you don't support the President and the war and I say the soldiers don't dictate policy, they are tools, they go where they are told do. It’s not even their war. But they have to fight it.”

Rollins spoken word deals with this and deals with Bush in a decisive and witty manner. He tears Bush apart.

“He’s bad for every country on the face of the Earth, especially America. I think things will get worse in America. Internally a lot of programmes he initiated are great if you have got a lot of money but kind of rough if you are middle class or lower.”

But if that were the case how did Bush win at the last election?

“Bush ran a great campaign. His people capitalised on the War and on homophobia. They sold it to Christian America. The Christians are just fine but they get hysterical and think mankind will destruct if you convince them that same sex marriages are on the way. Also the Democrats keep underestimating George W. Here you have a man who can't debate, can’t speak, he leaves himself so wide open with so many things that I can’t believe they couldn't hit him here, there and everywhere else.”

Rollins also talks of personal politics, his self-deprecating approach deflating his fearsome reputation. In the old days his grubby on the road experiences in the UK saw him relentlessly tear us apart on stage and in his books. These days he sees a more positive side to our dear damp country. A massive fan of punk and post punk he especially has a soft spot for Manchester- a city he details in his great book about touring with Black Flag, Get In the Van, writing about one particularly cold gig in the Black Flag era when he ended up freezing in a Hulme bed-sit because the band had nowhere to stay after a gig a 1994 University gig.

Rollins speaks what he believes true and that’s rare in these weak times. His spoken word show is funny, thought provoking and hits the right targets: a quite brilliant deconstruction of the 21st Century blues.

Henry Rollins is at the Academy on Wednesday 30 January at 7.30pm. Tickets £17.50. 0161 832 1111

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CliveJanuary 29th 2008.

It's a bit late to be going on about George W now. It's time to start thinking about the next president and the future than an incompetent lame duck. Still I agree Rollins is funny.

BillJanuary 29th 2008.

brilliant last time!he telss the truth in a ****ed up world!

sally magillJanuary 29th 2008.

I think John Robb means 1984 for the Black Flag/Hulme trip! Been a disciple of HR since i can remember - still best chat up line I have ever been on the end of in the late 1980's at manchester Uni in the tiny little venue at the top. After the gig I asked him if he would like a beer. He looke me straight in the eye and said "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I just make music and ****.." I ran like a startled rabbit! (well I was only 19!)Part animal, part machine - that's HR!!!! Saw him most recently in Bristol. 3 hours non-stop ranting. Not even to stop for a glass of water. 'Nuff said...

FugaziJanuary 29th 2008.

Bush is still president for ONE more year...wish it was too late to be going on about him though!

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