When asked whether he'd marry, kill or sleep with Sarah Palin, Henry Rollins stutters, tripping over his words. After a few moments of silence, he chuckles, dissipating the awkward tension.
"Neither. None. I don't want to, um... No," he sputters. "No. None of those options work for me."
Coming from a man who threatened to "horribly mangle" Canadian thieves who had the misfortune of stealing his band's gear, this is refreshingly humanizing stuff.
"But I'm not in a position to judge a country and a people," he adds. "I like Canada. It's very sane."
We catch up with Rollins in Philadelphia, the latest pit-stop on his Frequent Flyer spoken-word tour. He'll be bringing his travelogues and incisive humour to the Rebecca Cohn on March 19.
The former Black Flag frontman has retired from music, but his demeanour is everything you'd expect from a hardcore singer: he speaks assertively, in mechanical, syncopated soundbites. He's cordial, but there's always a latent aggression to his tone.
"I'm busy. Angry. Self-interested," he curtly explains.
But Rollins is being a tad reductionist. Yes, he's a workaholic, but he also happens to be a veritable pop-culture icon.
As an actor, he's appeared in Californication and Sons of Anarchy. He's hosted his own shows, The Henry Rollins Show and Uncut. He won a Grammy for a music video, Rollins Band's "Liar." He founded his own publishing house, 2/13/61, and penned more than 30 books. Heck, he even judged a transvestite talent contest as a personal favour to RuPaul.
"We used to work at the same practice space in 1995 or so. He's a really cool guy," Rollins says. "I was judging for good dance moves, lip-synching ability or singing ability."
Rollins would know a thing or two about performances---in drag or otherwise. A product of DC's fertile hardcore scene, he cut his teeth alongside future punk visionaries such as Bad Brains and Minor Threat. "It was great, seeing these shows," he says. "You could stand right up close and get sweated on. You realized you were part of something that was going to have meaning."
Like Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye, the Cro-Mags' John Joseph or Gorilla Biscuits' Walter Schreifels---hardcore pioneers who have also shared their experience via spoken word---Rollins has outgrown the angst of his youth. Nowadays, Rollins mainly listens to classic jazz and blues, saying he has little in common with punk rock.
"It's a scene I don't know much about in 2010. I'm 49," he sighs. "What might be on the mind of a 17-year-old lyrically might not necessarily be where I'm at. It's with art and music that you release aggression, so no one gets hurt. My basic attitude is rumble, young man, rumble. It's your turn. Get on with it. Do well."
Rollins' past is inescapable. On a recent trip to Indonesia, he spotted Black Flag's iconic logo adorning the most unlikely of sources: a middle-aged woman in the slums of Jakarta. He's willing to bet she didn't want to discuss the finer points of Slip it In.
"It's not the music that made it there. It's a product of America washing up on foreign shores," he says. "I'm sure there's people who are aware of the band there, but it's not about what band I was in. It's something I found political."
And that's the same approach Rollins takes to his travels. The motto of the Frequent Flyer tour, accordingly, is "knowledge without mileage equals bullshit." If you're expecting stories about discovering himself in Rotterdam, think again. Rollins has spent time travelling as an entertainer for the United Service Organization, a service meant to improve the morale of American troops abroad. Through the program, he's met soldiers in Afghanistan and Turkey, but his experience in Iraq was the most rattling.
"Two mortars landed outside of the building I was in. The concussion of the blast---it's the feeling of getting punched in the chest. It's pretty substantial. For [American troops], it happens every day."
Rollins makes it clear he's supportive of the troops, not US militarism. A vociferous critic of the former Bush-Cheney administration, he calls the Iraqi occupation "illegal," pointing the blame squarely at American policymakers.
"My country makes a lot of money selling weapons, and to not acknowledge the military-industrial complex is to lose the plot," he says. "America makes money-making wars happen. When the peace gets too prevalent, they reset the board and find a new bogeyman."
Alongside his experiences in the Middle East, he recently travelled to South Africa, Northern Ireland and Israel for his television series, Uncut. A veteran of international stages and screens big and small, Rollins says he still gets the jitters before performances, and this is his first time in front of a Halifax audience.
"It's a lot more difficult to do the talking shows. There's no band to get lost in. You are the show, so if you make a mistake, it's all on you," he says.
And if the previous dates on his most recent tour are any indication, he'll be exploring a new territory: women. Notoriously a man of solitude, Rollins has recently found a worthy lady, and even he's not sure what to make of it.
"I have no approach [to women]. It's not something I'm on the chase for all the time," he says. "I'm one of the people brave enough to admit I don't understand women."
Damaged as he may be, Rollins is human after all.
ROLLINS IN PRINT
“I get tired of talking when I want to be silent.” —The Portable Henry Rollins
“Basically, men are afraid of women and can’t handle the fact that they came out of the same thing they spend the rest of their lives trying to get back into.” —Solipsist
“I got three letters today telling me that I’m god. Why can’t I pay the rent?” —Black Coffee Blues
March 19, 8pm
Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University Avenue
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