When Henry Rollins returns to Raleigh, it won’t be as a punk singer or a spoken word artist, the two parts of his career for which he’s most known.
True, his music career is the stuff of late 20th-century legend. As vocalist for Black Flag, he fronted one of the most influential punk bands of the ’80s. With his spoken word shows, he communicates straightforward dignity, honesty and gravitas.
He is also an actor, appearing on shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and voicing characters on cartoons that include “Adventure Time.”
On top of all that, Rollins (who was born Henry Garfield) is also a photographer and will appear at Fletcher Opera Theater Jan. 6 for his Travel Slideshow tour, where he’ll share the stories behind his photos.
The News & Observer caught up with the 56-year-old Rollins in a phone interview from the Los Angeles office of 2.13.61, his publishing company, to learn more about this corner of his ever-evolving, multifaceted career.
On his many, many interests
From his influential musical career with Black Flag and Rollins Band to his books, his spoken word, his writing, his photography, his radio shows, his acting and his newspaper columns, Rollins has been active in numerous art forms.
Yet he’s pragmatic about the roles these creative interests play in his life.
“I hate to disappoint you,” he says. “I am an opportunist hack cleaved from the minimum-wage working world of the 1970s and ’80s with an insanely low tolerance for boredom or normalcy.”
Rollins tells the story of the day his friends in Black Flag asked if he’d audition as their new singer. Rollins was in a Häagen Dazs, scooping ice cream for less than $4 an hour, and they called him at the store. He looked down at the ice cream-smeared apron he was wearing and pictured what his future could easily look like: low wages, aching feet, plentiful frustration. He had nothing to lose, so he packed a duffel bag and boarded a Greyhound bus bound from D.C. to Detroit. Two weeks later, he was in Los Angeles, a member of Black Flag.
“That was 36 years ago,” Rollins says. “And I just kind of lept at things.”
When Hollywood movie directors asked him if he could act, he said, “Why not?” When he realized in 1983 that he’d seen a lot of insane things, and that he wanted to write about them, he started 2.13.61 and started writing. He comes from the DIY tradition: if you want to do something, do it yourself. And if an opportunity presents itself, go for it.
“I just say yes all the time,” says Rollins. “I capitalize on my curiosity and the fact that I know that, really, I’m nobody from nowhere and I probably shouldn’t be any of these places that I am.”
Rollins’ photos have been displayed in some vaunted locales – including the National Geographic Theater in Washington and Los Angeles’ Annenberg Space for Photography – but he doesn’t think of himself as a photographer. He’s passionate about traveling the world with camera in hand, and he has certainly improved his gear and his eye.
But he still refers to himself as an active learner.
He credits a set photographer he knows and photography books for novices with getting him started. Most of his lessons came from simply going out with his camera for six hours at a time and getting real-world practice with it.
“I would get back to the hotel at night and look at the shots and go, ‘OK, that’s not how you do it. That’s a day I just got thrown for a 20-yard loss,’ ” Rollins says. “I learned from a lot of sweat and a lot of loss.”
After close to a decade with a camera, he’s still working on it, he says, breaking out some more humility – and another sports metaphor.
“If I was trying to do this with film, I’d be broke trying to learn,” Rollins says. “With a digital camera, you can just be a screw-up, and every once in a while you’re going to hit the three-point shot if you just sling the ball at the net enough times. And that’s kind of me.”
Rollins’ locations reflect serious travel: Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Northern Ireland, New Orleans’ 9th Ward, Cuba, Antarctica.
He’s been to northern Mali for the Desert Music Festival, where Tuareg men rode their camels straight through the crowd to the stage. “It’s their desert,” Rollins said. “You’re just having a rock show on it.”
And he’s been to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, Cambodia’s Killing Fields, where human bones and bits of clothing are still poking out of the earth.
“What interests me the most are humans, a human story. I don’t take many photos of landscapes,” Rollins said. “My joke is what Bruce Lee said in ‘Enter the Dragon,’ when the guy broke the board in front of him. He said, ‘Boards don’t hit back.’ Landscapes don’t hit back.”
Rollins prefers the one-on-one interaction of walking up to someone and asking to take his or her picture, even if it means being told no. In Senegal, for instance, he has encountered the most beautiful men and women he has ever seen. Yet they typically don’t want their pictures taken, and Rollins always respects a potential subject’s wishes when this happens.
“I’d rather be in the market in some place and have to walk up and say, ‘Excuse me, hi. Photo? No? OK, man. That’s cool. Have a nice day,’ and really interact,” Rollins says. “I have to get right up close and personal and say, ‘Hi. May I?’ Which isn’t always easy, and it’s not really me. I’m not always, ‘Hey, I’m Henry.’ I’m not that guy, so a camera has forced me to meet, like, 40 people a day. I just walk right up and get told to piss off.”
“Every week I do my column,” Rollins said. “That’s what I do.”
Over the span of seven years, Rollins wrote 359 columns as a contributor to LA Weekly. Then, in November, the paper was bought by Semanal Media. Rollins describes them as a “group of pretty crazy right-wing people.” The new owners proceeded to fire 75 percent of LA Weekly’s staff, including Rollins’ two editors. Rollins researched the new owners and declined their offer when they asked him to remain with the paper.
Yet Rollins had never missed a deadline, so the Sunday after that, he wrote his column and emailed it to his editor’s personal address, like a faithful dog dropping a pheasant at his master’s feet, he jokes.
“And last Sunday I wrote another one,” Rollins says. “I’m just posting them on my website, because every week I write a column now. And I don’t want to stop.”
In these columns, Rollins’ aim is to lend perspective and avoid common opinions. “Hit ’em where they ain’t,” he says, borrowing a baseball aphorism.
He doesn’t see much point in flatly declaring his anti-Trump opinions. While Rollins, a longstanding LGBT and civil rights advocate, isn’t a fan of the current president, he doesn’t think those kinds of opinions add anything new to the dialogue. For his second column after leaving LA Weekly, he decided to write about the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
“I wrote it basically as a big bravo to Mississippi, in that some of the worst events of American history happened in that state in the last century, and it was a lot of guts for them to open that museum,” says Rollins. “There’s people in that state that would love to burn it to the ground, but they turned on the lights and said, ‘Here’s what happened.’ And I can’t thank them enough. That’s how you get somewhere. So Mississippi is to be commended.”
Corbie Hill is a Pittsboro-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter at @afraidofthebear.
What: Henry Rollins – Travel Slideshow
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 6
Where: Fletcher Opera Theater, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Cost: $37.44 - $42.10
Info: dukeenergycenterraleigh.com or 919-996-8700