Henry Rollins interview by Gray Switalski: “We don’t need big bombs. We need big brains.” On 20-somethings, for 20-somethings — advice from one of America’s most righteous public speakers.
Interview by: Gray Switalski
Henry Rollins is still a dynamo. The activist/writer/actor/musician refuses to slow down. At 51, he has a travel schedule that would make most 20-year-olds weep. His latest book, Occupants, was released in September. A combination of essays and photographs, the work took Rollins a grueling four years to complete. His research took him all over the world. From Ireland to Afghanistan, Rollins went everywhere, determined to document everything, and he does so with gut-wrenching clarity and empathy. It was time well-spent; the result is a book that is moving and eye-opening, an important look at corners of the world that are forgotten or misunderstood. On the heels of Occupants’ publication, Rollins launched into his current Capitalism tour. The premise? Hit every state capital in the fifty days leading up to the election and end it all with a final show in D.C. on the night before the election.
The concept of doing fifty shows in fifty days is daunting but Rollins is pulling it off with his trademark energy and modesty. He says the audience is what keeps him going. With elections right around the corner, it feels like Rollins’ unique brand of anger, intelligence, and truth is needed more than ever.
(Editor’s Note: This is the abridged interview. The rest of the interview can also be found on 20 Something Magazine here.)
Gray: How do you think the American Dream has changed, for young people in particular?
Henry Rollins: Well, that’s a really good question. I think that the dream is the same in that you should have it better than your parents. Hopefully America kicked it up a notch so that when you walk into the adult world things are more efficient and things are easier going. That’s the dream, that you can, by the sweat of your brow, achieve something and have some range of motion and some relative ease. And I think, if you want to consider the fat of the land, some people through deregulation, through lobbyists, through good lawyers, they took a lot more than they needed and so that situation has changed. Now, you have young people going into a pretty turbulent or aggressive and exceedingly competitive environment. I think it was always competitive but now I think there are less resources and so the stream has more fish and there’s less water in it. So I always advise young people that if they’re in school – you better get this together and see it for the privilege that you’ve got and that you’re getting fast-tracked potentially to some good employment. You want to take these years to really prepare yourself for what you’re going into. There are a lot of people who want what you’re after and you’re going to have to push pretty hard for it. And I think on those levels the whole thing has changed.
Gray: Following up on that, there’s been a lot of talk about of the sense of entitlement and bitterness that exists among the 20-something, early thirties generation. There’s been a lot of talk about how this has come from them being told their entire lives that they can, “be whatever they want to be as long as you work hard,” and instead they are faced with a bad economy and having their expensive college degrees only qualify them to make coffee for minimum wage. Do you recognize that? Have you seen that?
“I do think that these young people are going out into this thing where the college education turns into student loan debt which takes years to get out from under.”
Henry Rollins: Yes, absolutely. I see the frustration. It would be hard, I think, to not tell your kids that they’re exceptional. I think a lot of people would say, “Hey, you’re great, hang in there. You’re going to go out there and it’s going to be fine.” I mean, what do you want to tell them? Dread tomorrow? I don’t think that’s the way to go, that’s not exactly filling your young person with morale and vigor. But it is true. I do think that these young people are going out into this thing where the college education turns into student loan debt which takes years to get out from under. It not only impacts the student later in life but it impacts the family in such a way where they are having a hard time doing what shouldn’t be all that hard to achieve. It seems to me you should try to be full of smart people, that would be your best homeland defense asset possible. To be surrounded by smart people, what bad country would come and act out in America if they knew everyone was smart? That, to me, is the best defense. You don’t need big bombs, you need big brains. So you think that your government would be helping to facilitate having more smart people and that businesses would see the advantage of an educated electorate but that’s not the case. I don’t know what you do about that exactly. I’ve been, like a lot of people, yelling that education is the way out of all this since I figured it out many years ago; it’s not that big of a logical leap. As far as the entitlement that some young people feel, I don’t understand it in that it was never told to me, ever.
Gray: There have also been a lot of ideas proposed in various op-ed pieces that I’ve read and that I’m sure you’ve come across about the concept that same age group are a “lost generation” who are digging their heels in and refusing to grow up. What do you think about that idea?
“Why someone would feel like they want to cocoon themselves away is a way of trying to not face the facts.”
Henry Rollins: Well, not being of that age and not really interacting with that demographic on any level besides, perhaps, meeting them after a show, I don’t exactly know where that would come from. That’s kind of news to me in that I would think that this modern world grows you up very quickly with the technology being what it is and the bottom line being that you got to get out there and pull down a piece of the action for yourself or otherwise you’re going to go hungry. Why someone would feel like they want to cocoon themselves away is a way of trying to not face the facts. For me, it’s kind of difficult to always understand different points of view or different realities than the one that was handed to me or the one that I adopted as mine. I left high school and went right into the minimum wage working world without much of a choice and very soon afterwards had a small apartment, a wounded car, a job that had me on my feet 40-60 hours a week. I kind of hit the ground running and was very conscious of the fact that if I didn’t make this happen, it wasn’t going to happen. There was never any idea, ever, of going home to my parents. That was not an option. Until I finally got an apartment, I was living in my car within five or six blocks from the apartment I graduated from high school in. But I wasn’t going back there. So I just kind of made it happen. And, you know, minimum wage jobs, if you’re willing to stand on your feet all day and carry something all day, you’ll get hired. Well, in those days. I had those kinds of jobs all through high school so it was just the same kind of thing. You know, parking cars, carrying things up stairs but now you’re doing it all day, six to seven days a week. I just grimly looked at that and thought, “Well, this is going to be my life.” I remember being 18, 19 and going, “Wow, this is going to be really tough” and it was. But I had no idea of anything else and I’m not trying to insinuate that all the sudden I was mature. I was just a kid. So I was playing all the same records I had, doing stuff after work with my friends like going to shows, going to peoples’ band practices, hanging out. But, during the day, from 9 to 5 or whatever, I had this thing; I had to go punch a time clock.
Gray: For your latest book, Occupants, you traveled all over the world documenting people. I was curious, how did people react to you being there and injecting yourself into their lives? How did they react to you wanting to take their picture? Did you ever get them saying that they felt like a spectacle or a novelty?
Henry Rollins: Well, there’s a risk of that happening with almost every trip. I’ve learned that you have to tread lightly, be incredibly polite because what you’re intent is might not be taken as such by the person you’re looking to photograph. Certainly you don’t mean to be rude or obtrusive but the person you’re trying to photograph might find it that way. When you’re in a different country, you’re vastly outnumbered and you have to try and assess the culture before you go out into it. You have to become a very quick study. What I usually do in these situations, after having done it so much now, I leave the hotel or the tent, wherever I’m staying, and I walk the streets without a camera. I just try and gauge the temperature, the metabolism, the attitude of the people. Are they friendly? Are people smiling? If I walk into a shop are the vendors speaking English or are they welcoming? I try and denote hostility or aggression or unease. I definitely want to get photos but I don’t want to insult or enrage because I don’t want to get in a fight, I don’t want to fight for my camera, and I definitely don’t want to insult. Especially not wanting to insult, I’m not there to patronize these people, I’m there to capture an image. So I’ve found that basically casing the joint, if you will, is very helpful. In a place like Senegal, the people are exceptionally photogenic. They’re just these incredible looking people, very tall, amazing jaw lines, great cheekbones – you want to do a portrait photograph of every single person you see on the street. However, when you pull your camera up to take a photo, people walk away quickly or put their hands in front of their face or shake a very angry finger at you and you realize that this is not okay. That was almost a uniform reaction on the streets of Senegal, in Dakar. You have to be very careful and so that’s what I do. I try to be very polite and very conscious of where I am.
Gray: Obviously, you travel a lot. And I think you would agree with me when I say that traveling has really helped open your eyes to a lot of things.
Henry Rollins: Absolutely.
Gray: And I think you would also agree that young people should travel as much as their means allow.
Henry Rollins: Yep.
Gray: Now, I’ve seen you speak and I’ve heard you talk about how you travel. You drop your stuff where you’re staying, find clean drinking water, and take off walking. That leads to a pretty authentic experience. My question is this – how can young people translate that approach in their own life and their own travel? How can they balance safety and experience? Furthermore, should they heed State Dept travel warnings?
“If you’re a novice traveler, a young traveler, and you’re going into a situation of conflict or if you’re going into a place that could get dodgy, your youth and your relative inexperience might work against you.”
Henry Rollins: I think they should travel and the spirit of it would be to get your own adventure and get a sense of the world with your own eyes and your feet on the ground. I would encourage them to travel, but I would very much encourage them to heed the state department warnings. If you’re a novice traveler, a young traveler, and you’re going into a situation of conflict or if you’re going into a place that could get dodgy, your youth and your relative inexperience might work against you. You might want to try to travel in a place that’s a little easier to negotiate at first. You can get a Euro rail pass and get so much culture that you won’t know what to do with it and go from top to bottom of the European continent quite easily, quite efficiently, quite cheaply or to get a couple of countries in Southeast Asia under your belt. Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, these are incredibly interesting places and they’re very friendly. I’ve been to Southeast Asia many times and people fall over themselves with kindness. Also, a young person could easily have their minds blown in a wonderful way by going to India. It’s high impact culturally but I’ve never seen a dangerous situation there. As a man in his late thirties, forties, and fifties, going into India I’ve seen teenagers, backpacker youth going into India a lot. That would be a great trip, go there or go to Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.
Gray: You’ve been a huge inspiration to so many people. You have kept going for so long –what or who is it that inspires you to keep going and not stop?
Henry Rollins: That’s an easy question. I’m inspired by the audience, the people you meet, the letters that you get. These are cool people and they have lives and dreams and they tell you all about it and its great. I mean, the feedback you get, that’s all the inspiration I need. Otherwise, if you didn’t have that, all of this is just too difficult. Its hard living on the road and doing all these shows, so if you didn’t love it then just forget it. It’s just not doable.
Gray: I’m looking very forward to seeing the show in Annapolis on the 4th.
Henry Rollins: Yeah, me too. I’ve been to that venue before, it’s good. Right on, see you soon.
For more information, news, tour dates, etc. on Henry Rollins visit his website!
Gray Switalski is a teacher, writer, and animal trainer. She adores Cat Stevens and Buddy Holly, has a strange obsession with the state of Tennessee, and wants to learn Arabic.
Header Photo Credit: Heidi May