The former lead singer of punk band Black Flag and an ardent proponent of human rights, Henry Rollins is a prime example of a rocker turned activist. This year, he's hitting the presidential campaign trail with Capitalism, a two-month tour that will bring him to every state capital. He'll share his perspective on our nation's political process and anecdotes from his trips abroad. I asked Rollins about his travels before his Oct. 9 appearance at the Barrymore Theatre.
Having visited so many states in a row, what's your impression of our country's concerns?
That's what I try to do. I meet and talk to people, and do what I can to try and get a temperature. But it's not all that easy, in that my facts and figures are kind of perverted. Every night I talk to people who come to my shows, who by and large probably agree with me or feel some kind of empathy or sympathy with things that I do. So it's not a real reference of America. It's not like I've got Glenn Beck's crew coming. That would be a pretty high-contrast thing compared to my audience. So I get the people who show up to see me, but by and large, I ask questions and try and get information that isn't exactly partisan.
A lot of people are nervous about their economic future, understandably. The one thing that keeps coming up every night is Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming to the show, or relatives of them. So all of that keeps coming up, topic-wise. Sometimes the veterans themselves keep showing up, and it's always intense. In Austin, Texas, the other night, a guy came up and gave me one of those rubber bracelets that you'd see on Lance Armstrong's arm. On it was this man's brother's name and the date he was killed in Afghanistan. He said, "I want you to have one of these." As he was telling me about his brother, a girl who was standing nearby said that she'd also lost her brother in Afghanistan, and she started crying. And then he started crying, and they hugged each other, and everyone else stood around very quietly. It was a very intense moment. It was very sad. You saw the unrestrained grief of these two people.
When you meet fans abroad, what do you learn about their perception of America?
I've asked people all over the Middle East, all over Africa, all over Central Asia, "What do you think of my country?" Usually, we get this crazy report card. [But right now,] people really like America. It's almost like you're asking a girl in the '50's about Elvis. Which is nice to see. Especially if you're alone with thousands of dollars of camera on the end of your arm. You want people to like you, not say, "We're coming to get you with a pitchfork."
You ask them about Barack Obama, and you get this crazy cheerleader sort of response. People really dig the dude. And it's been America's posture for several presidents to kind of lean on other countries and basically say we'll be peaceful with them, because they don't want to see us when we're mad. That's been our foreign policy. And that's not always going to go well for us, because as you know, people will eventually push back. Chalmers Johnson called it in his book Blowback and everyone laughed at him. Then 9/11 happened, and his book shot to the top of the bestseller list. They're only people, ultimately. And I think right now we have a president that's trying to bring people together rather than pull them apart. So that's what I get when I travel abroad. They like America. They want to go and are fascinated by it.
What was the first travel experience that opened your eyes to other cultures?
I think probably as a kid is when I saw real poverty. Non-American poverty. I grew up in D.C., so there are some tough places here and there, that's for sure. But when you see a deregulated place where they kind of throw everything into the street and have given up on civility. ... [When I was] a kid, my mom would take me traveling to places like Greece and parts of Turkey, and you'd see a dead body in the street. Or kids your own age, begging. ... It kind of knocks you out. It's like getting punched in the stomach. So all of that switched me on in a way. Sometimes experiences open you up. It doesn't matter whether you want to be opened or not, you kind of do. And you stay opened. And with that, the rain comes in, so you have to be careful.