JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Q & A

Henry Rollins, untethered

The one-time Black Flag frontman, now a multi-media presence, talks to MP3.com about his latest USO stop in Iraq and the second season of his IFC talk show.

He's a musician, actor, author, radio DJ, USO entertainer, and one of the most widely known pop culture figure who's anything but pop. But it's Henry Rollin's interest in everyone and everything around him that has made him such a compelling figure over the years.

In the midst of the second season of his late night IFC talk show, which features guests like Marilyn Manson, John Waters, Billy Bragg, Ryan Adams, the Stooges, and William Shatner, Rollins chatted with MP3.com about his latest USO tour, balancing his stance against the war for his support for the troops, and the art of saying no.

Hey, Henry.

Hey, Jim.

So you slept in Uday Hussein's bedroom the last time you were in Baghdad?


What was it like?

It was a bed. The room itself, it's a place they put us up for the night, this little USO party. Apparently it was Uday Hussein's party house where he had the booze and the cigars. And maybe he had many of these houses, I don't know. But it was at this point a place called Camp Freedom Rest where you could go for a couple of days of R&R if you didn't want to fly back to America and wanted some of the amenities of America like DVDs and cold beer in a dry country, et cetera, you could have your R&R there. And there was a nice lady, an American gal. She was like the hospitality lady, very effervescent. And she's there to make sure that everyone has a good time when they're there.

Everyone's comfortable.

And so the guy said, "One of you will have the dubious honor of sleeping in Uday Hussein's bed. It's at the top of the stairs." I just bolted right up the stairs. I just wanted to check it out. And there were hooks in the ceiling for, I guess, winching the women up. That's what I was told that was used for. So I took photos of that, and apparently this was the rape room.

Wow. Unbelievable.

Everyone should get one of those.

Who doesn't need some winching hooks? And was that the same trip that you were nearby a mortar attack?

Yeah. I forget the exact base we were at. Someone said, 'If you're here in the next few hours there's a good chance you'll be in a mortar attack.' And I said, 'What are you, Nostradamus?' And the guy said, 'No, we get hit every day.' It's daily, and you can count on it. And 20 minutes later, two mortars hit somewhere on the compound very nearby.

Now, we were in a fortified building, so we were not in danger. So don't think that I'm trying to say I'm Mr. Brave Dude. You know, we were in this building, and, you know, kaboom, kaboom. The concussion is quite dramatic. I mean, it feels like someone punched you in the chest. And they all just kind of said, 'See?' I went, 'Yeah.' And I just kind of tripped on it and kept signing autographs and just doing the meet-and-greet thing. But for these guys it's just like the weather.

Standard operating procedure.

Unfortunately I guess you get used to anything. I don't know if I'd like to get used to mortar attacks. You don't forget it all that soon.

Now, when you do these USO events, I'm curious, how do you find a balance between disagreement with policy and support for the troops?

Well, I just tell the truth. I know the soldiers don't set the policy. Well, in a way they do. When they're going house to house, they might be the first American person that the guy whose door they kick down will meet. So hopefully it's as good as that is ever going to be and they don't make more enemies instead of making friends and win hearts and minds.

But the Army did not come up with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That was done somewhere else. So my beef is not with the military. I think a lot of people share that attitude. And the right tends to highjack the idea that they are the only ones supporting the troops, and if you're somehow in favor of kids not coming home with their legs blown off, you are in fact anti-troop, which is a talking point when you're immature and have no game.

So it's simply being a question of being yourself, saying what you want to say and letting the chips fall where they may?

No, not necessarily, in that the war that these guys are fighting day to day is not the same war that we are watching at home in the luxury of our living rooms. If you say to a solider, 'Intelligence was manipulated pre-war, cherry-picked to facilitate this invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation,' et cetera, he just will say, 'I'm 23. I go out for 12 hours a day, and my mission is don't get blown up, keep my buddies safe, get back to base. Hope the piece of garbage I'm driving by does not blow my Humvee up. Please keep your diatribes against the administration to yourself because it's really not anything that has to do with me today at noon when I go out on patrol.' So it's my opinion that that kind of talk on what they're doing is not appropriate at that time.

Right. For that moment.

You can have your little disagreement with the Iraq war, and boy, I've got them, with those guys, sure, when they're home, safe, in the parking lot of your show in the safety of Minneapolis. But when you're out there in it, in the middle of it with these people, I think what they need to hear from me is, 'I've got you covered. Thanks for doing what you do. Get home safe.' Because this kind of stuff could be somehow deleterious to morale or be distracting. You don't want these guys thinking about, 'Remember what Henry was saying?' You want these guys looking around and getting home safe, and that's all there is. It's very clear.

They just want to hear about the time you were a Jackass. They want to laugh because when you see what they do for a living, you provide distraction. Crack them up, tell them a story. That's what these trips are all about. It's not about you; it's about them. It's not a hard thing to wrap one's head around, and you just do it.

Now, you recently returned to Israel?


What was that experience like? You had been there prior but not recently.

Yeah, I was there in '98. This time was much more poignant, because I was there longer and I had more time to walk around. And also I walked around Jerusalem and other parts of Israel with a photojournalist from there named Ziv Koren who's very well known there. It's a complicated and very tricky situation over there. Because there are two very major sides to that story at the most cursory glance at it. You know, there's the Palestinian version of how things are and should be, and the Israeli. And no matter what you say, you will offend someone else. So if someone says, 'What'd you think of Israel?' I go, 'Ah, the food was good. I went, and I left.' 'What'd you think of the people?' 'People smiled; people wore pants.'

Play it safe.

Someone will write you this very heartfelt, super angry letter about how you don't get it and how dare you.

Yeah, I gotcha. So let's talk about the show. I'm curious how you go about picking your musical guest.

Bands I like. Bands I think are interesting.

Okay, yeah. Bands with a point of view that you find interesting or new or different.

Yeah. Sometimes, there are some bands where I go, 'Oh, great,' and some bands I go, 'Oh, okay. Cool,' where they're not my favorites but they're doing something. When Dinosaur Jr. and Slayer showed up, my tail was wagging. Other bands, where I'm not as familiar with them but respect them, cool.

Intrigued and that kind of thing.

Oh, yeah. Respectful. You know, there's some people whose music I really respect but I don't have every record and every bootleg. With Dinosaur Jr., they were on the show last year, and I was so happy. We're trying to drag them back in this year if they can spare time. So I basically get stuff that I'm interested in that hopefully the audience will find interesting, because we're not making the show for ourselves.

Absolutely. So I'm interested in the "Letters from Henry" segment on your show, where you write and read a letter to a public figure, be they a political figure like Laura Bush, an artist like Toby Keith, or a pundit like Ann Coulter. Do you ever get replies?

So far Ann Coulter hasn't gotten back to me about being my concubine and basic domestic slave. She'll probably call me a faggot or something. So I'm not expecting a call from her. But I would take that call. I said some silly, funny things about Toby Keith. Not derogatory. But, in a letter to him I said, 'I wonder if it's not a bit hypocritical to ask your listeners to buy a $60,000 truck on their $40,000-a-year salary. And your whole common-man rap, isn't that a bit defeatist? And are you all that common?' Etcetera. I said, 'Look, at the risk of getting one of your, you know, assured Alpha male beat-downs that you would no doubt hand me with great ease, please spare me. I'm in my decline.' But I wouldn't be surprised if I got some letter from him going, like, 'Hey, man. I'll kick your ass.' No doubt he could. But who would care?

So, yeah, no one has written back yet. George Bush's wife has not written back yet. I've not heard back from [People's Republic of China President] Hu Jintao. I just wrote him a letter saying, 'Hey, please don't collect on that debt too soon because we don't have it."

We don't have any money.

We don't have any money. We don't have any money. Love you madly, you Commie bastard.

So what else is on your plate right now? You always seem to have so many things cooking at the same time.

Well, the [Harmony on My Head on 103.1 online] radio show. I put in a lot of work into it just because there's a certain way I like to do it where I annotate all the songs, and I'm just trying to make it really cool. And so that takes a lot of time. I'm working on a few different book projects. They kind of inch along at their own pace. And it's not like the world is breathlessly awaiting my next book, so I can kind of just slog away and I'm editing one thing for release this year. I've got two books coming out this year. And I have a lot of travel plans that are hopefully happening in June, for Asia. And I'll definitely be in Europe for shows and press. And I have a tour in September and October, speaking dates this coming fall and hopefully for Christmas I'll be somewhere with the military doing a USO tour as I did this last Christmas. I was in Djibouti, Africa with Navy and Marines. And I try and spend every Christmas with the troops somehow. I've pulled it off a few times.

Wow, that's a lot of stuff. Any more video game plans?

No. That's just work that comes to me, and I'm just very lucky to get it. It's not like they line up to get me. Mostly it's luck. If it was, like, beat your bitch down, the game, I would pass. But, you know, the last game I was in it was just men knocking the crap out of each other. You know, the Def Jam Vendetta or whatever it is. What the hell. Sure.

In terms of movie and TV appearances, you've been in everything from Heat and Jackass to the 3rd Bass "Pop Goes the Weasel" ad. Have you ever gotten any screen opportunities that you just had to say no to?

Yeah, sure, and for all kinds of reasons. Scheduling is a lot of it, because you can't say yes to it all. And sometimes I just couldn't feel it. You know, I just got this offer to be on this big tour going through Canada this year. It's going to be a bunch of bands, and they wanted me to kind of headline it speaking at the end of it. And they offered a very juicy sum of money. And I just—I looked at it and went, 'I just—I can't see how I can make this real.' I said to the festival people, 'I don't think I should headline this. Who wants to hear some guy talk after you've been through all this stuff?' And they said I could go on whenever I wanted, but as an American in Canada they want me to speak on politics, and I'm no pundit. And I'm not Canadian. So if I say, 'Hey, Bush, he's a wacky guy,' they're like, 'Yeah, we know.' But what can I really tell them about their Prime Minister, and how dare I? So I just had to say no to that.

One time Skoal Tobacco sponsored a tour in '90-something, and they offered me $50,000 a night for the band, six shows a week for five weeks. It was an extreme sum of money. But the festival was nothing but 'we're going to get a bunch of young kids and give them Skoal [Bandits] every day. We're recruiting new tobacco addicts.' And I said, "There's no way I can be part of that." And other people did it and made a ton of money. Iggy did it. He was the headliner, and they said, 'You'll go on right before Iggy.' But I had to say no to that as well.


I'm not burning Iggy for doing it. It just wasn't for me.

Hey, last thing. I know you're a free jazz fan, right?


What were your thoughts on Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane winning the Pulitzer for music?

Yeah, Coltrane got the citation, the Pulitzer citation, for his masterful improvisation, as they said, and Ornette for Sound Grammar in 2006. I think those two are some of the greatest musicians America's ever given to the world and two of the titans of the last century. And Ornette Coleman, he's as good as music gets. Coltrane is my favorite musician. So yeah, it was a good week for music.

Absolutely. Well, Henry, I really appreciate the time. We'll look forward to seeing the rest of the episodes this season on IFC.

Thank you, man.

Thanks, man.