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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.”
Rollins said that this particular boss would send him out to the sidewalk to find “any man who looked like Omar Sharif.” On Saturday, the theater manager would bring over “the girls.”
“You know,” Rollins explained, “his gay friends.
“They would sit on the radiator and we would all revert to the feminine of our names. I was Henrietta, he was Roberta. These were men in their 50s and I would talk to them about [them] being gay. And I remember one of them — his name was Kevin, they called him Kevina — had just got fired from his job as a short-order cook at National Airport. I said, ‘Why did they fire you?’ I was young. And they all looked at me like, ‘Henry, why do you think?’ I go, ‘I don’t know, because you’re a bad cook?’ They said, ‘No, Henry. Because he’s queer.’”
Then, Rollins said, he got into the D.C. punk rock and hard-core scene.
“A lot of my D.C. punk friends are gay. None of us cared. It was a very, kind of, illuminated scene,” he said. “You know, girls got equal say. There was none of that ‘hey, baby’ stuff. I mean, you try that with a D.C. punk rock girl and your [ass] would be handed back to you.”
Then Rollins moved to Los Angeles and everything was different.
“California [and the punk scene there] was the complete opposite,” he said. “Girls ... were around to be, you know, explored sexually. And the homophobia in the punk rock scene was present. I never had a problem with cops in D.C. growing up. I was totally the Boy Scout type growing up. I’m not into crime. Then I get out to California and I am in the notorious band [Black Flag] and I’m in the L.A. Times [on] day one.
“So my relationship with law enforcement changed and it’s not gotten a lot better. ... Any armed person scares me. All of that was politicizing as well.”
Eventually, with his success, Rollins said, the politics and public responsibility began to come together with his exposure to the entirety of America.
“I started thinking civically as soon as I could feed myself, as soon as the rent was no longer this Damoclean sword of dread at the end of every month,” he said. “If you’re in a band, you’re always broke, and if it is your band, like if you’re paying for the checks and all of that, then you pay for the drumsticks and everything else. Back in those days, back in the ’80s, people would ask ‘Would you play a benefit?’ and I’d say ‘Sure. We’d play a benefit.’”
But, mostly, he said the early days were simply trying to make ends meet.
“And as soon as I was able to stabilize myself, which was in the early ’90s, where I was like, ‘OK, I got the rent covered,’ that was ’93. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to buy a little house.’ Once you have that stability, once you got the mask on, you can put the mask on the child, as they say on the airplane. I was able to say, ‘Now is there anything else that needs attending to?’ I started making a foray into seeing if I could help elsewhere. Up till then I was just trying to help myself and my bandmates, you know, not get kicked out into the street.”
“Touring is a great way to see America, one armpit of a city at a time,” he said. “That’s where they put the punk rock clubs, by the train track or where the runaways and the hobos reside, and you meet a whole other kind of American. You meet the runaway kids, you meet the lifer hobo, you meet the Aryan Nation guy freshly sprung from prison with a swastika on his face. I met these people from a different part of America. It was very informative.
“So, when someone says, ‘Can you help me?’ I believe they need help. I’m one guy. I can’t be everywhere at once, so, you have to pick and choose your help opportunities as best you can. And once you help out one organization, you must be put on some kind of list.”
Because, Rollins says, suddenly the charities start beating down the door. He tries to meet the demand where he can, he says, and sticks to the causes, such as Drop in the Bucket, that he believes in.