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Henry Rollins was supposed to talk about clean-water issues and his relationship with the charity Drop in the Bucket, whose mission is to build wells and sanitation systems in schools and to provide education, health and gender equality programs across sub-Saharan Africa.
But in a long-ranging interview with CQ Roll Call, the iconic D.C. punk figure also touched on growing up in the District, his involvement in the early hard-core punk scene here, low-wage jobs and his relationship with law enforcement.
Rollins has been in D.C. a lot lately, helping out with the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Pump Me Up retrospective on D.C.’s 1980s subculture, getting involved in a go-go/hard-core throwback concert at the 9:30 Club in February, filming a documentary in April and showing up at Politics and Prose last week for a book event for photographer Lucian Perkins’ book “Hard Art, DC 1979.”
“I was born in D.C. General Hospital, which is gone now. I lived my life in Northwest: Glover Park, Cleveland Park. My mom lived above Georgetown for a minute,” Rollins said. “And then we, me and all my friends, graduated from high school and it became time for us to go out into the world, we all discovered, in about a week, that none of us could afford to live in Washington, D.C. And then we all became Virginians. We all worked these minimum-wage jobs, so we couldn’t afford a D.C. apartment. ... All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Wow. We all live in Arlington all of a sudden.’”
Rollins, a liberal political activist in his own right, credits his early years for shaping his beliefs.
“Washington, D.C., definitely politicized me. Being a white middle-class kid in Washington, D.C., coming up in the 1960s, you become very well aware, even at the age of 7, that different colors and different economic altitudes are going to give you different outcomes. ... Living in D.C. during that time, you could smell the mace in the air during those riots; you’d see the National Guard on your corner. [I would be] chased around by the black kids, called ‘cracker’ and all of that. Thankfully, my mother raised me in such away that I never returned the racism. ‘Oh you’re going to call me a cracker? I’ll call you ... a whatever.’ I never went there.
“My way of retaliation from all of that was to stay in my room and read. I mean, what am I going to do? Go and kick someone’s ass? Not possible, not me,” he said. “And it’s not me.”
“Yes. My years in D.C. politicized me,” Rollins continued. “I had a lot of gay bosses. I worked a lot of minimum-wage jobs ... working at a pet shop, working at a movie theater and my bosses were gay. Just happened to be. So all through high school, I’m working at the movie theater — the Georgetown movie theater, now gone — and I am with my boss, my amazing Portuguese, hysterically funny, queenie boss for four years in high school.”