The introverted, nonstop life of Henry Rollins
Photographer, actor, writer, and human rights activist Henry Rollins is masterful at forging stories from the grit and grandeur he intakes while raw powering around the world. Last week DGO spoke with Mr. Rollins about photography, the intentions of art, and if we’re ever gonna see him on a travel TV show. Buckle in, because here’s part two, with Rollins on being an introvert, if he gives a shit about his legacy, and not wasting one hot minute of life.
What drives your constant global travel? I’m hungry for the world. I’ve tried to figure out exactly what that is, if it’s motivated by curiosity, or some kind of overwhelming sadness to keep moving, or a fear of being still. I think it’s more of the latter. I fear if I sit still long enough then maybe everything is over, but if I’m in an active state of moving, then maybe I’m still a freshman somehow. It’s not like I’m afraid of being old. I am old, but I don’t like the idea of retirement or, ‘Well, finally you’ve gotten here.’
Travel gets me genuinely excited because the places I go to, you really need to have your wits about you. Any time you’re in Africa, any part of Africa, you have to be engaged, because it is moving quickly and everyone is incredibly alive. You come back from two weeks of travel there and your clothes are worn out. A new pair of boots is beat, because Africa ages everything, because it’s somehow moving at a faster metabolic rate.
Some folks might find it hard to believe that you’re an introvert.I’m an extraordinarily introverted person. On stage, interaction comes out like a piece of beef Heimliched out of someone’s mouth, or vomiting, or a sneeze. Like, [louder, excited voice] ‘Here it is!’ It flies out of me. But meeting people after shows is nerve-wracking. If someone goes, ‘Come to the house for dinner,’ it’s like, ‘Ahhh, no, please no.’ Go talk in front of 3,000 people? OK! If I’m on stage, I have a mission. I’m working. I’m here to sling the hash. I’m an outputting machine.
On the streets of the world, I engage because I want to know. Why do I want to know? I want to know because I want to know, but eventually I want to put it out there for others who might not know. Ultimately, everything ends up on stage.
Going to all these places, it becomes expository – in the photobooks or in the travel books I write with the photo insert in the middle. It all turns into an exhale. I took in information, that’s the inhale. Then I’m on stage, ‘Hey, when I was in North Korea, this happened,’ and there’s the exhale. The expository. I’m trying to get amazing ingredients so I have something to tell you, the audience, that does not waste your time.
You’ve been on to the next project your entire life. There’s not a wasted minute. I call it swinging from vine to vine. When Tarzan is about to run out of vines, he goes the other way. The pendulum needs to go back the other way – I’m just hoping that there’s another vine showing up so that I can grab it and keep going that away. When someone says, ‘Hey, you wanna be on a TV show?’ Chances are I’ll say yeah because I have nothing going on this week. I’ll show up tomorrow and do a mini-character arc because I don’t like sitting still. It’s depressing. It really makes me so sad, the idea that this slows and is over. It really shakes me.
I have no plan. I’ve never had a plan. Since I graduated from high school in 1979, till right now, I’ve never had a plan. You’ll be big in music? I had no proof of that. When I was in Black Flag, there was no proof that we were even getting the proverbial bowl of rice the next day. I’m always desperately looking for the next thing.
Ever give a thought to slowing down a smidge?As far as traveling, it’s harder now than it was five years ago. I feel my body. I really mushed myself up. Joints hurt. Back hurts. You pay for having a wild existence, throwing yourself about – or put it this way, I’m paying. A lotta aspirin in my life. It’s harder to keep getting up and leaving the tent on a daily basis. There’s trips now that I probably won’t do.
Some of the photos I’ll be showing are from trips in the earlier 2000s. Those are trips I could still do, but it would feel like a Singapore caning by sunset every day now. I am tough and I can take it, but I’m really feeling the wear and tear. Where five years from now, I don’t know if I could do six weeks with a backpack hustling from L.A. and ending up in Beijing via Saudi Arabia and all these other places – that was 2009. I think of a trip like that and don’t know if I could mount that offensive again in a few years. There might come a time when I have to reconsider this – what I do.
Do you give any thought to what you’ll leave behind when you’re gone? I’m not trying to build a legacy, I’m not hoping that my grave will be kept clean, I don’t put these books out so I’ll be taught in classrooms later or remembered. It’s all fleeting to me. All of it. Ultimately, I’m as worthless or worthwhile as any other human who shuffled through; I’m just doing stuff. If the books all go out of print and it all turns into sand in the wind behind me, it’s OK.
I’m interested in what I can do and what I can think of and acting upon it. Coming up with an idea and saying, ‘Well, it will take 5,000 words to see if that idea still holds water. I’ll get to work on that book idea.’ I own a book company. I don’t have to audition a manuscript because I sleep with the owner every night. If I come up with an idea I get to work.
I just finished about 407,000 words. A four or five part book series about music. The first installment went to our beleaguered proofreader who just recovered from my last book, which we just got copies of. We asked Carol if she stopped vomiting and she said, ‘Yeah, I’m towing the water of your next manuscript.’ She has stuff from me for the next 18 months. I’m kinda like the cook in the kitchen who keeps putting the plate in the window for the person to take away. I don’t know where they end up. Read the book? Cool. Don’t read the book? That’s OK. It’s not really why I write them. [Laughs]