Henry Rollins' Friendship With RuPaul & Optimism About America May Be Just What We Need Right Now (Exclusive)
By Emily Krauser
Henry Rollins is punk rock's main man who seems to never sleep. Though he's transitioned in recent years from a pure music focus to hitting the stage for spoken-word performances, he's as in-tune with the rock world as ever.
But what's most impressive is his dedication to his work. In his Showtime comedy special, Henry Rollins: Keep Talking, Pal, which was released via Comedy Dynamics on nearly every streaming platform, including iTunes, this week, he's taken the time to hone the order of his act. Rollins waxes poetic about his dream of women running the world -- spoiler alert: there may be a machete involved -- and the state of our country after the most recent presidential election. But he's also grounded by one thing that keeps us all united: nostalgia.
Running through stories from his Black Flag past, including a rather bloody Halloween show, fangirling over meeting David Bowie, and his unexpected friendship with RuPaul, the 57-year-old writer is at some of his wistful, insightful storytelling finest in the special, which ET spoke to him about just ahead of its release. We also chatted about the fact that, between hitting the stage, writing, running a weekly radio show on KCRW, and guest spots on shows like Deadly Class, it doesn't seem like Rollins ever sleeps. He ensured us that he does, but we'll let you try to figure out when.
ET: In addition to the comedy special, last year you also toured with the Travel Slideshow, a very different show for you that documents your international travels. The majority of your stories in Keep Talking, Pal are based in the United States, especially with the 2016 election. Did you intentionally split the focus?
Henry Rollins: I didn't really aim it all that much. It was just what was in the front of my brain that I thought was urgent to me or something I really wanted to say. I must say, perhaps I should have planned it a little better. By the time I walked out onstage, I knew exactly what I was going to say [in order]. I knew I was going to execute all of that. I don't leave anything to chance on stage. I think it's unfair to an audience to kind of screw up in real time, but I didn't ever sit down like, 'Well, I'm concentrating too much on America.' I'm not saying it's a bad thought, I just never thought about it. Maybe I should next time.
I noticed it more because there was a full piece on the election in the special, with you noting that "my America has changed." It's been a few months since you taped it, and we've had a third Women's March. Have you seen improvements since the election or are you still frustrated with the course of things in this country?
I'm frustrated, extremely, but I'm also ruggedly optimistic. The reason I'm optimistic is because of the midterm elections. Look at your new Congress. A gay woman, a Muslim woman, lots of women. And the other night, when [President Donald] Trump tried to make it about him during the State of the Union address, and these women are cheering, and he said, 'Well, thank you.' Pal, wow. Don't you understand? You helped create this new Congress. So, you're welcome. I think America, while it's never been more polarized than it is now, I think you are right in the middle of a generational and cultural sea change that will be seen by historians to be quite profound. In your lifetime, you are going to see noticeable change, and even as an old man like me pushing 60, I'm going to be seeing it too. Look at the #MeToo movement, the people rejecting homophobia and racism and embracing science, the pushback against global-climate-change denial. These are signs that the demographic is changing. Hence why people on some sides of the aisle protest so loudly. Because they're a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. And they know that their world is changing in real time. The ground is indeed moving under their feet, and they're not gonna get it back.
That's why I'm optimistic. Someone might counter, "Well, what about all the gun homicide and what about thousands of kids in these camps all over America?" That's all bad. Really bad. But all administrations are temporary. So maybe America had to collectively hit the ground and go, 'Whoa.' I thought we did that with [former president George W.] Bush and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But maybe it's now where everyone goes, 'OK, this can't happen again.' It could very well be we're on our way, we're on the ascent. That's how I see it.
You also speak about the change you hope to see in this country, which is namely that women should start being in charge. How do you keep up that optimism and forward-thinking?
I think one of the biggest things you're seeing in this country is the voices of women. They're always heard, but sometimes they're acknowledged, sometimes they're not. When they're not, you get a new Supreme Court Justice. I believe the doctor who spoke out against Kavanaugh. I believe her, I don't think I'm looking at a liar. Sometimes you lose, but at least we're having these slugfests in prime time. There's hardly a woman I've met that hasn't been groped, honey-shushed, or one of those awful things. When so many women can tell you, 'Yeah, that happened to me'? Unbelievable. It blows my mind. Because as a man, you do that to me, they're gonna have to sew your ear back on. It's a whole other thing for a man. It's not what's happening.
It's a bigger conversation than you think, and you can't say everyone with a red truck hat on is an idiot or necessarily racist. It can happen anywhere. Maybe the great conversation is starting, and it's going to be up to people like you or me to keep pursuing. Hope is great, but hope also has to turn into, 'Don't talk that way around me or you can't come back to Thanksgiving dinner,' or, 'Dad, I love you, but you've really gotta change your mind on this.' It's got to start turning into that, which turns into votes, which turns into legislation, which turns into all these women in Congress. You can get on or not, but we're ending this conversation, not you. I think that's what's changing. This is why I'm really optimistic. But you've got to get up real early in the morning and you've got to stay on it otherwise or it'll drive itself off the road.
I would love to see you, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and your friend, RuPaul, who you talk about in the special, all up on one stage together soon.
RuPaul is a longtime pal of mine. He's one of my favorite humans. Ms. Cortez I've yet to meet, but she's a bright light. She's really inspiring. I love her courage. She'll make some freshman mistakes -- she's so young -- but, oh, boy, I hope she sticks around for a while because she's perhaps the perfect personification of what I'm talking about. Young, there's really nothing you can say to her that's gonna make her blush, and there's really no way she's gonna be intimidated by any misogynist gesture. She's gonna go, 'Uh-huh. You've messed with the wrong borough.' I wish women didn't have to be that tough to get it done, but, for now, that's what it's gonna have to be. She always smiles, so she's kind of the happy warrior. I think she kind of knows her life was leading up to this. I don't think she's that surprised she's where she is.
One of the most fascinating parts of your special is that you balance being outspoken about the #MeToo movement and also how much you love being a fan of people like RuPaul and David Bowie. How long have you and RuPaul been friends and what is it about him that intrigues you so much to this day?
I met RuPaul in 1995, I believe. There was an old building, like 1st and A on the Lower East Side, an old building where you take the service elevator up to one floor and it was practice rooms. I lived in that place. I would rent one room, block it out for like three months at a time, and my bandmates and I fought and struggled to write music. On some days, you could walk down the hallway and just hear all the bands bleeding through the doors: Iggy Pop, David Byrne. It was just really cool, all these sounds you hear and all the people you'd meet in the front lounge, because they were literally all these cool musicians. I was in the front lounge, and I didn't recognize RuPaul because he was just in pants and a shirt. He didn't have what I call his fighting gear on. It's his eyes and cheekbones that give him away, like, oh, it is you! Every once in a while you meet someone and you just kind of like them within a minute. It's happened to me a few times, but not often. And that was my reaction to RuPaul.
I think when the big history book gets written, RuPaul will be duly noted as someone who helped, a voice of reason. A lot of gay folks all over the world, they get told by their own parents to die, that you're filthy, you're awful, you're wrong, you need to get in reconversion camp. Some of these people kill themselves. A 13-year-old gay kid killing himself because he got Facebooked into shame? That can't happen anymore. And RuPaul, whether unwittingly or wittingly, probably by his sheer presence and fearlessness, has kept a few people who really wanted to hurt themselves from doing so because they look at RuPaul and go, 'Why would I want to hurt myself? Look at this guy.' So I think he's given a lot of bravery and put a lot of wind under the wings of a lot of people that really needed it at times. I don't know if he really understands the cultural wallop that he's administering to the world. I'm not trying to be hyperbolic, but I think it is profound. And he made drag a thing people can now talk about with some authority. He's very important to me.
How has your friendship with RuPaul made you better?
It's not like I needed to be talked down off of some homophobia ceiling. I've never had a problem with gay people or trans people or cross-dressing people. I come from Washington, D.C. I was raised eyeball-deep in gay culture. So it's not like he changed my mind. It's just that RuPaul is a very patient and decent person, and I am very, at times, impatient, quick to judge and quick to anger. I'm hot-headed, and RuPaul isn't. Everyone has a bad day, but he just makes me see the world with a little wider lens. One of the funniest things with the history of RuPaul is when I was a judge on RuPaul's Drag Race. I take everything seriously. I'm just one of those guys. So I'm judging these drag queens, they're doing their thing, and I've got the notebook out. I'm gonna have to vote someone down, so I want to be able to defend my point of view. But my fellow judges are hooting and hollering and having a great time. All the drag queens see that I'm staring unblinkingly at them, so they give all their attention to me because I'm the one concentrating. So they basically start dancing at me. I am an aging yet still intently heterosexual man. I know that I'm staring at men in women's clothing. I'm not like, 'ew,' but the primordial me comes out and I'm, like, getting warm. I start having a conversation with myself. I said, "I guess I'm just a tadpole. Anything in a short skirt looking my way will do." Now maybe I have more options. It just shows you that you can't get on that much of a high horse. I'm not saying that one day I suddenly want to hang out and have sex with men -- that's not on the menu for me -- but I can be readily aroused by provocative behavior no matter who's wearing the skirt. For me, it just the perfect stuff of comedy and some interesting self-discovery. Of course I told all of this to RuPaul while we were having lunch, and he's probably heard it before, because he kind of went, 'Uh-huh.' It's part of what I'm talking about where you meet someone and through your friendship or your intersection with them, they allow you to see things differently, see yourself differently, and have a different outlook.
You also just appeared in Deadly Class. The creator has said many times that he was influenced by you and Black Flag. How did you end up appearing in it?
I rarely say no to work unless I just don't want to, and rarely do I not want to. I like working eight days a week. I did the Kamau Bell show [United Shades of America] in D.C., then flew immediately from that to Vancouver, shot [Deadly Class] for about a week, and then two days later I was on the second leg of the slideshow tour. All of this is work to me, and I'm not saying I just put my hat on and do the work, but I kind of do. At this point, I don't work for money. I like getting paid, it's good for groceries, but it's not about the paycheck or fame. It's about not sitting on the couch and watching it all fly by. And that's why, if you look at the list of things I've done in the last 24 months, it looks like three different people. It's not like I'm multi-talented; I just say yes to a lot of different things and am ready to leap into the deepest pool of the coldest winter and will figure out if I can get it right when you say action.
On top of all that, you also have a weekly radio show in Los Angeles. What new music are you excited about these days?
There's a lot of great women in Australia making some really cool records these days. There's a really great band called BB and the Blips and another called the Stroppies. There's a woman who amazes me and we're kind of pals. Her name is Teresa Suarez Cosio, otherwise known as Teri Gender Bender, and she has a band called La Bucherettes. They had an album come out recently, it's called Bi-Mental. If you can ever see her play live, she will run you over. I think she is all kinds of fantastic. I support her hugely. There's also a great band called C.I.A. It's Ty Segall and his amazing wife, Denee, and they do a very cool techno-punk-rock, cosmic, in-your-face music and their new record just came out, and I'm playing a track a week on my radio show. The state of music is fantastic right now. It's not for me to steal any band's thunder and pre-announce a record that's not announced yet, but I have on my hard drive evidence that 2019 is going to be a very good year for music. And again, it's these people who vote. This is the new America. And it makes me super excited, because it's nothing like the one I grew up in.