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The Patch Interview: Punk Icon and Author Henry Rollins

Rollins, who visits Oak Park Tuesday, talks about his new book of essays and globe-spanning photos, 'Occupants.'

Punk Renaissance man Henry Rollins comes to the Tuesday night to talk about his new book of photos, Occupants ($35, Chicago Review Press).

The book chronicles Rollins' obsession with travel, culture and politics. Rollins, who started his career as a frontman for the seminal punk band Black Flag, has since gone on to blaze a trail for himself as an author, actor, spoken word artist and TV host. Some of his most recent travels are reflected in this book, which took him from Afghanistan to South Africa.

Q: During George W. Bush's administration, you called him your "travel agent" as you intentionally traveled to countries on his "Axis of Evil" list. What do you do now that there’s a new president?
Rollins: Well, it’s easier traveling with Obama. I know Republicans and a lot of Americans don’t like him, but foreigners do. The foreigners just love the Obama. And so, traveling under Bush was at times a dicey deal cause you always go to countries where he considered them the "Axis of Evil" or whatever. I would go to these countries, and they’d go, “Where you from?” “America.” And they go, “Oh...”

And my ice breaker was, “I didn’t vote for him,” which would make cab drivers laugh. When I would do USO trips, I was Bush’s custodian. I would clean up after his bloody path. And as a traveler, he became my travel agent.

The countries that his administration threatened, enervated, terrified, or otherwise made to feel cornered, I would go to those countries and walk into the souqs, walk into the bazaars, walk down the streets day and night and boldly go. And say, “Hi, I’m Henry from America.” And see what would happen next. I’m not looking for a fight with anybody, but what can I do? Live under a rock because this frat boy is running my country? Hell no.

Q: What did you hope to accomplish?
Rollins: What I want to do with this book ... is to bring all of this to you, the viewer. To cut down the distance between you and the rest of the world. And it’s not for me to tell you how it is, and nor do I think it is my job to tell you how it is. How dare I school you? I got nothing, you know, I’m no professor.

But I go to these places and I get these images, and hopefully, some people will look at the photos and see the beauty of these kids and how dignified people are, and maybe they’ll think of these countries differently. And most importantly maybe they’ll think of their own country differently.

Q: How so?
Rollins: Have you ever been to countries that a Western person would consider hard-put, like India, Bangladesh, parts of Southeast Asia? You look at what looks like depravity... The hardest core pollution in the world I’ve ever seen is in India. Like absolutely toxic. Like dangerous. And people are just going about their business. The only thing standing out looking weird is you cause everyone else, they don’t have time to screw around. They’re busy. And when you look at them, they’re like, “What are you looking at? You’re weird, man.” And then they start to pity you, I think, that you’re not on the move, you’re not living your life.

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I was there for about a week and a half the other day. The middle of downtown Port-au-Prince looks like a rocket strike hit. I don’t know where all that money went as far as reconstructing the city, but it seems to not have reached downtown because it looks like the time I was in Kabul years ago. It’s like ankle-high rubble covered in human excrement. And so I try and get these photos.

Q: You’ve kept journals religiously for a very long time, but when did you added a camera to the arsenal?
Henry Rollins: I’ve had a camera for quite a while, but it was only in the last six or seven years that I’ve kind of upped the quality of the camera. 'Cause for me, it’s weight. I have to carry everything. I’m basically infantry, so I’m very careful.

And so, I started working really hard on the photography because I was putting so much effort into dragging all of this stuff around with me.

So, I decided, well, I’ll try a photo book with some writing, because I am getting out to these crazy countries and I am coming back with photos, and photography pals of mine were saying, “Wow, yeah, this isn’t bad.”

And so, maybe it’s just a lot of ego or something, but I just wanted to do it. And the writing that accompanies all the photos, if you’ve seen the book -- that was the hard part. The writing was the very difficult and very painful part of the book. The photos were just kind of brief moments with these people. It’s the writing and where the images took me, and trying to write it out and trying to think of them in a larger, more global context — that’s the part of the book that took a very long time. And I paid pretty dearly as far as time caloric burn.

Q: Why?

Rollins: I was reacting to these photos. And I’m not a cold or mean person, and so I can’t look at these without looking at them somewhat through a Western filter. They live differently than I do, these people. I got faucets and showers, and I’m looking at people who walk miles and miles a day just to get their water. I don’t pity these people — that’s just kind of a cheap sentiment that doesn’t do anyone any good.

But it made me see what globalization really looks like and the truth of global climate change, and the lash of globalization. If you got the control, you hold the handle of the whip, everyone else gets the lash. And these countries — Southeast Asian countries, Central Asian countries, Eastern European countries to a certain extent — they feel the lash of the whip of globalization. And that’s in the photos and so the writing came out really angry.

It sounds like I have a lot of contempt for America. I don’t, but we do escape a lot of the day-to-day beatings that a lot of people in the world take as a matter of course. I’m trying to cut down that distance so people can no longer wriggle free of a culpable deniability factor. Like, "I’m not part of this." Oh yeah, you are. And you’ll know that soon because the watering hole of the world, the diameter is shrinking very, very rapidly. And every Chinese person’s gonna want a car and a hamburger, so you’re going to have to deal with that, those two facts. And I’m trying to cut down that distance just so people don’t have any illusions if they think they’re going to be somehow spared.

Q: In the introduction, you wrote that a lot of these images are hard for you to look at. Is there one in particular that you avoid? Why?

Rollins: Nothing I really avoid. It’s just, you know, people picking in garbage to eat available food. But it’s really hard to look at because it kind of strips people of their dignity.

There’s a photo of a woman in Bangladesh, she’s squatting in garbage, and she has this kind of uncomfortable look on her face. And I approached her, and you can see her hands are covered with some kind of garbage, she’s clutching some bag, a greasy bag of something rotted, probably chucked out of the local hotel, and I said, “Madam, may I take a photo?” And she was so shy, but she nodded yes. Basically she was just doing me a favor. And I could see, you could see in the photo, there’s a slight look of humiliation. There’s a real uneasiness to the smile. Like it’s a smile she’d never smiled before. And she kind of nervously pulled her scarf around her face a little, like a little give me a moment to pretty myself up if you’re going to take a photo of me, you know, reaching down in shit to get some food. And I realized I had perhaps, maybe humiliated this woman, which I couldn’t stand.

I’m not like paparazzi. I never force myself on anyone. I always ask, and some places offer money. And so I try and get these photos to give you, the viewer, a real look at what I was seeing. Yet at the same time, I’m trying to be considerate of these people. I’m not taking this photo like some voyeur then going back to a mosquito-free, air-conditioned hotel room and looking at it later, like some giddy child who tortures kittens or something. And I’m not trying to be over-P.C. with the thing, but I get to leave these places. But I don’t pity myself and these people don’t pity themselves.

Q: The subject matter of the book is very hard and very bleak at times. But can you tell me of an experience on these travels that just made you laugh?

Rollins: The time I laugh is when I get laughed at. And that happens a lot. Kids come up and just bash on you. They see the tattoos, and they laugh at you. You look ridiculous to them, I think. And sometimes you come walking through their village and you’re sweating buckets, and they’re looking good, real cool and dry. You’re huffing and puffing, you’re clothes are sticking to you, you’re covered in sunscreen. You just look like an idiot.

And you’re hoisting some camera up, and they just trip on you. Like, "What a nut!" And they’ll always laugh. They’ll laugh at you or they’ll come up and they’ll grab your arm like it doesn’t belong to you. And they’ll point at one of your tattoos. And they’ll just hold your arm and kind of dig their index finger into your arm and point and just poke this tattoo. Like, "Look at this one. What Cracker Jack box did he get this one from?" And two people come over and laugh at it. And so, what do you do in that situation? Well, I think it’s funny. And so I start laughing, too. I can’t help it. And that just kind of, the tension goes out of the scene, immediately.

I go off the beaten track pretty often. I don’t really travel with people. And I’ll just see a street, and if my stomach goes, “Nah, don’t go.” That means I have to go. And I go in, and some of these places are dead ends, and so I go in, and I take photos of a way out, just in case I anger someone.

Because they’re not getting the camera. They think they might, but they’re gonna have to cut me to get it. And so I don’t want it to go there. But I’m just one guy. And two people have tried to take the camera, one in Senegal and one in Delhi. The one in Senegal...we ended up laughing about it. The other guy was in a tuk-tuk [a three-wheeled motor rickshaw] and he came by and tried to swipe it, but I dodged him. But I’m just saying, if these countries and these cities, it’s like Baltimore. ... You gotta watch your ass.

Q: On your last tour, you talked about dealing with sciatic nerve damage. Has it changed the way you travel abroad?
Rollins: Well, I limp a little. It doesn’t hurt, there’s no pain. It’s just that the leg is not as responsive as it used to be. You’ll see older guys in the airport kind of clump by and their foot looks likes a peg leg. That’s what I’ve got. It’s called "foot drop." It’s kind of garden variety sciatica basically.

And it’s not uncommon; it just sucks. You gotta be careful to keep your discipline in keeping that left foot up when you walk. Otherwise, the sidewalk will be a little uneven, and your foot will squarely catch that half-inch rise and you go flying forward — like in the air, groceries flying, book bag flying ahead of you, camera lens breaking in half on the street of Bangladesh. That’s what happened to me.

Q: Where haven’t you yet visited that you want to go?
Rollins: I want to spend time in Palestine, which hopefully I get that happening this December. I’ll be in Cuba next month when we go down to Bay of Pigs. I’m looking forward to that. I want to get some more of the Stans. Like I want to get to Uzbekistan, which I think I can get to pretty easily. Tajikstan — I don’t know if I can get there. I’d like to go back to Afghanistan, but I don’t know if that’s a possibility. I want to spend more time in countries around the Caspian Sea.

I want to get back to Azerbaijan, to Baku and see if I can spend some time there. 'Cause that’s the part of the world that has all the last trenches of natural gas and oil. And of course, America is angling, the Russians and Chinese are certainly angling for drinking straw position to get in.

It’s why America’s still in Afghanistan. It’s not about the Taliban, there’s like eight guys in Taliban. It’s more about the minerals. And it’s why the Chinese are turning up in some very interesting parts of Africa. It’s for the minerals. And so the ex-super power, America, is flailing as it falls over, the Chinese are coolly and calculatedly, slowly and forcefully making inroads to getting the means of production in economies easily softened and manipulated. And so these are the places I want to go and basically see what’s happening.

Henry Rollins will appear Tuesday night, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. at the . Co-sponsor advises that "The first 150 people in line at 6pm will get a free ticket for the talk. However, even if you don't get a ticket, you can get into the signing line after the talk."

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