By Steven Rosen / 2005/ Cincinnati CityBeat
LOS ANGELES – Whew! For a high-school graduate, the former punk-rock singer Henry Rollins has an amazing frame of reference. In fact, in conversation it’s hard to keep up with him – he’s the verbal equivalent of a basketball game that’s all fast breaks.
And not just when talking about punk or movies – the latter of which ostensibly is the reason for this interview at his Hollywood office, an old house converted into business space. He has a new show, “Henry’s Film Corner,” on the Independent Film Channel. A company called Swift River Productions developed the show with Rollins in mind.
In the space of 40 minutes or so, talking in a room cluttered with piles of books on the floor and shelves, the muscular, heavily tattooed, dark-haired Rollins mentions the following people (and musical groups) in conversation:
Archie Shepp, Sean Penn, Stan Kenton, Bela Bartok, Iannis Xenakis, Albert Camus, Pearl Bailey, Akira Kurosawa, Thomas Wolfe, Albert Ayler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chevy Chase, Sun Ra, Charles Dickens, Werner Herzog, Henry Miller, David Fincher, Glen Campbell, Michelangelo, Iron Butterfly, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Gertrude Stein, Rick Dees, Mikal Gilmore, Monty Python, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Howlin’ Wolf, Clint Eastwood, Robert McNamara, Stanley Kubrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Kiley, Howard Stern, Richard Wagner. And more – many more. He also talks about the military history of Afghanistan, since he’s about to go there to entertain troops.
“I’m a high-school graduate; I’m what you call an autodidact. I just bust out the books, put the work in, and word up on stuff,” he says, describing his self-education process in his trademark colorful way.
Actually, “mention” is the wrong word to use for Rollins. The 43-year-old artist/entertainer expresses his feelings with such willful exuberance that one expects the furniture to start moving from the forcefulness of his words. No wonder that he has become a popular spoken-word performer in the last 10 years or so, mixing political and arts-related observations with personal reminisce.
He also has a freeform weekly radio show on Los Angeles’ 103.1 FM – he played the Cramps, Cat Stevens and Harry Partch during one recent broadcast – and his own small-press publishing company, 2-13-61. Raised in Washington, D.C. as Henry Garfield, he was hired in the 1980s to be lead singer for one of the most uncompromisingly hardcore of punk bands, Black Flag.
For instance, there’s this literary anecdote. “I was raised in my mom’s apartment (in Washington, D.C.) where the TV was rarely on, but bookshelves were everywhere and we always had music on,” he says. “One day, as an older guy, I was at her place and I pulled off ‘The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder’ by Henry Miller from her shelf. I was a big Henry Miller fan, but never had seen this edition. She said, ‘I bought this from him at an art opening.’ I said, ‘Mom, you met Henry Miller?’ She said, ‘Yeah, and he hit me up for money.’”
Here, Rollins’ voice rises with what can best be called a sense of amazement at the pleasures of this world. It sometimes also rings with urgent anger at what he sees wrong – and he can swing back and forth faster than a youthful punk band can tear through a thrashing rock song.
All this is on display at the beginning of his latest venture, the show called “Henry’s Film Corner.” A new episode debuts the first Saturday of each month at midnight ET. His opening monologue in the first show, which premiered Dec. 4 and repeats throughout the month, is about the presidential election and Iraq:
“It’s gonna be a lot of American boy-soldiers coming home in steaming buckets, and a lot of mamas in the Midwest falling over in tears,” he addresses the camera. “I’m trying to look for a silver lining in this Dick Cheney-shaped cloud of hate. What’s the upside? Perhaps it will piss off so many Americans that we’ll get great art out of it.”
Also at the start of the show, Rollins makes an upfront declaration that “Everyone hates a critic, but everyone is a critic, so why not me?” That makes him sound a bit like the kind of no-nothing blowhard that talk-radio has made all too familiar a part of America’s cultural landscape – only with a punk edge. And that fact Rollins has acted in some regrettable action movies, like “Bad Boys II,” reinforces that image. (He’s also been in a good one or two, like “Heat.”)
But it becomes clear pretty quickly that Rollins dislikes the kind of formulaic expensive action thrillers that Hollywood specializes in. For instance, don’t get him started on “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”
“A film like ‘Terminator 3’ genuinely offends me,” he declares. “How dare you take that trademark – the first one was good art, ‘2’ was just a blast. I hate it when Hollywood takes advantage of our trust and besmirches the trademark for (‘Terminator’) and makes a plotless movie that’s just awful.
“For some guy who’s a plumber, who sat under the huge joint of a toilet in order for him and his date to have the money to go to that film, you do that to him? And you got $15 million to make that, governor? You bastard!”
It emerges that Rollins does, indeed, have informed movie tastes – intellectual, actually. And he wants to use this program to turn people onto it in his own inimitable way. In an offbeat segment in which he and his electrician, a man with a lovely, Ringo-like British accent named “Frankie,” Rollins tries to explain the eccentric rhythms of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Frankie is skeptical. (And in the pilot episode, Rollins encouraged his postal carrier to rent Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai.”) Among Rollins’ recommended DVDs on the first show is German auteur Fassbinder’s 1970 “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?”
“My heroes are people like Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Fassbinder, Herzog. Talk about an iconoclast fuck-you way of filmmaking, see (Herzog’s) ‘Fitzcarraldo,”’ Rollins says. And this leads him to an impromptu, hilarious monologue bemoaning Hollywood clichés.
“That risk is absent in the squeaky clean, covering-your-bases, Burger-King-already-making-a-cup-with-the-giveaway-hockey-puck, Jim Carrey…” He stops himself, then resumes. “These films are so safe to me. Like, oh it’s a fart joke; 13-year-olds will be safe for that. Or a lonely beautiful girl. I don’t believe that. Step outside; men will chop an arm off to mate with you. You won’t be lonely. You might be repelled but you won’t be lonely.
“Or Jack Nicholson and his 22-year-old hot girlfriend. Come on! Jack Nicholson, I’m not putting him down, but I couldn’t get through that ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ thing. I’ve seen ‘North by Northwest.’ I can’t sit through this.”
Realizing he’s managed to insult some pretty powerful actors in that tirade, Rollins stops for a moment. “That being said, I’m not going to dig myself into a hole here.”
Henry Rollins being circumspect? Not for long! And certainly not on “Henry’s Film Corner.”