Henry Rollins is still ready to get to work

The legendary musician, author and radio host brings his speaking tour to Columbus’ Southern Theatre on Monday, March 14

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Henry Rollins

In the months before the pandemic hit, Henry Rollins took two trips that, in a way, served as a line of demarcation between pre- and post-COVID times.

In December 2019, the legendary musician, writer and spoken word performer traveled to Tokyo, Japan, where he watched avant-garde guitarist Keiji Haino perform in a marathon concert. Then in early March, he flew from his home in Los Angeles to New York City in order to attend what he termed “a going away party” for a friend dying of cancer.

“And that was right at the beginning [of the pandemic], where within five days I was wearing a mask,” said Rollins, who wore a painter’s mask purchased from Home Depot in the earliest days of COVID-19. “And since then, I haven’t been to the airport to go anywhere more than a few hundred miles, and so my life has become insanely localized. And I don’t see that really changing.”

For Rollins, this realization was an admitted gut punch, but one with which he said he’s made peace, describing his days of globetrotting to far off locales carrying little more than a backpack and an unquenchable sense of curiosity about the world as a thing of the past. “It’s something that got amputated, and I still have the phantom limb effect where I want to go places, but I think it’s over with,” said Rollins, who will bring his spoken-word tour to the Southern Theatre on Monday, March 14. “I should be in Germany or Belgium right now, but, in my opinion, anti-masker, anti-vaccine types took my European dates from me, and the way this virus is being handled in this world is going to eliminate my ability to travel. But what am I going to do? Stomp my little feet and go door-to-door saying, ‘Did you get vaccinated? No? Then you’re part of the problem, man.’ I'm not going to do that.”

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As a result of the inertia brought about by these last couple of years, Rollins’ current speaking tour has taken on different dimensions. While past spoken word shows often hinged on elaborate stories culled from his travels, such as the time he was in Pakistan when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, he didn't have any of those "big Marlins hauled into [his] boat" this time around, which forced him to turn inward for inspiration. “I had to go down to the bone marrow for this show,” he said.

Amid the coronavirus spread, Rollins continued to wake up each day and work, immersing himself in projects he could do while seated in front of a computer, writing and editing, in addition to hosting a radio show on KCRW, because the idea of slowing down, even at age 61, and even in a pandemic, would have constituted a personal crisis. “And it’s not financial based. It’s more like, please don’t get up today and have nothing to do,” Rollins said. “To get up with no purpose, I think that would break my evil black heart. And so I’m always looking for something to do, and a lot of those ‘weird’ career paths I’ve taken were just because someone said, ‘Hey, you want to try this?’”

Rollins traced some of this mentality to being brought up as “nobody, from nowhere,” relaying the experience of being raised in a working-class home, splitting time between a “kumbaya” mother who introduced him to the music of artists such as Bob Dylan and a father he termed “a tremendous racist, a great homophobe and a get up, show up early misogynist."

"And [my dad] tried to instill all of those virtues into me, and even as an impressionable, desperate-to-please little kid, I’d listen to him and it’d be like, I’m 7, and I’m an idiot, but it just sounds like the milk is a day off,” Rollins said. “And my mom counterbalanced that, and I went in her direction, because [my father’s ideas] just couldn’t be right.”

After graduating high school with poor grades, Rollins spent time slinging ice cream, a career cut short when he was asked to audition to be the new singer for Black Flag. Two weeks later, following a successful tryout in New York, Rollins found himself, duffel bag in hand, in a tour van alongside his favorite band, a gig he held for five years starting in 1981 before spinning off into a successful run as a solo artist. His path as a writer started in similarly inauspicious fashion, with Rollins assembling hastily copied zines using a stapler he pilfered from artist Raymond Pettibon.

“And that’s kind of how I’ve gone about all of it. It’s all about DIY. And it’s survival, absolutely. I’m from the USA. I’m not looking to starve around here,” Rollins said. “It’s a cruel place, but the cruelty and the indifference and the sheer brutality of the USA, at least you can depend on it. You can depend on the meanness and the coldness, and you learn to rely on yourself. I’m happy to help anyone else, but I don’t think anyone or anything is going to help me.”

This intense self-reliance carries over into Rollins’ career decisions, such as the one he made to walk away from music in the early 2000s, later telling Rick Rubin during a podcast appearance that he stopped writing and recording because “there’s no more toothpaste left in the tube.”

“I’m pretty good at the gut-check. When I stopped doing music, I didn’t want to stop all of the way, but, nope, it’s time to stop. My gut told me, and then my brain caught up,” said Rollins, adding that he didn’t think he was nearing the end of his writing and speaking careers. “And when I do leave, it’s pretty abrupt. Not in the middle of something; I wouldn’t screw up a production or tour. But when I got to the end of it, I’d be like, OK, and that’s the last one. … And then I would look to do something else.”

At the same time, Rollins acknowledged he has a limited number of career pivots left, describing himself as “rounding third, in terms of the average lifespan.”

“Anything I do I wonder, how many more of these do I have in me?” Rollins said.

Until that time comes, though, Rollins will continue to forge onward, driven by the same curiosities and the same relentless inner motor that have fueled his pursuits for more than four decades.

“You just decide what you’re going to do, if you’re lucky enough to be able to decide to do it, and then you do it, and then one day you die,” Rollins said. “And that was the life of Albert Camus and Mark Twain and your neighbor down the street. You do some stuff for a while and then one day stop breathing. And, for me, I decided a few years ago that I’m the guy who writes these books, does this radio show, and then gets up onstage and talks at a high rate of speed for hours at a time. And that’s not all I do, but it is what I’m doing. This is the hill. So, it’s like, OK, this is decided. Now get your cup of coffee, stagger into the office, and get to work.”