Henry Rollins’ hair has grayed and his face has developed a few unwanted lines, but the punk singer/author/actor/publisher/spoken-word icon’s thirst for knowledge and unflappable desire to “stick it to the man” will not be denied.
Rollins, 47, the undisputed godfather of the 1980s US punk scene, said his holiday in Cambodia last week was inspired by an interest in countries traumatized by landmines, as well as his concerns over the global effects of the US’ foreign policy.
“It’s important for me to see what America does to the rest of the world,” Rollins said during an interview Saturday at the Hotel Le Royal.
Having just finished his latest spoken-word tour of Australia and New Zealand, Rollins said his five days spent in Cambodia were not long enough to get more than a cursory feel for the country, but the visit, despite being fleeting, had made an impression.
“Crumbling ruins…the killing fields. I saw human bones,” he said. “The fact that [Cambodians] are so nice, I wonder, and I can only speculate, if it was because they’ve been through war. They’ve watched millions of people be slaughtered by their own people.
“Maybe it takes that kind of thing to make a population go, ‘I’ve seen war and it really sucks,’” he said. “Those people who are interested in war haven’t encountered it yet.”
Rollins said that being exposed to countries affected by war is something he encourages all young people to do, particularly those from the US, because “it cuts down on ignorance, xenophobia and all that.”
“You’ll often find that all the guys who talk the talk, you know, Newt Gingrich and George W Bush, the tough guys, they never saw more than 10 minutes of a wet-towel fight in the back of a prep school locker room,” he said of the former speaker of the US House of Representatives and the current US president.
“But those who have been there and done that come back and say, ‘…war is messed up; it’s obscene; I want nothing but peace—I’ll do anything to help peace.’”
Rollins became a prominent figure in the hardcore punk and alternative rock scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, first as the frontman for Black Flag and then with his own Rollins Band, before slowly becoming widely known for his spoken- word tours, which he began in 1983.
He has also appeared in numerous Hollywood films and founded his own publishing company, 2.13.61, in 1984.
“I do everything myself. I make my own DVDs, I press up my own records, I own my own book company, I own my own music publishing and I make money on that every day,” he said.
“I got off the cotton farm and bought my own farm.”
Of all the labels tagged to Rollins over the years, the one that appears to perplex him the most is “campaigner of human rights.”
“Isn’t everyone?” he asked during Saturday’s interview.
“I became more, I don’t know, philanthropic, when I saw more of the world, and the more I see, I think, that’s where punk rock should be headed,” he said.
“That’s where a guy who’s more gray in the head like I am—that’s how I stick it to the man,” he said.
When Rollins first entertained the idea of visiting Cambodia many years ago, he didn’t thumb through guidebooks or call a travel agent. Instead, he e-mailed the famed Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, whose life was the focus of the award-winning film “The Killing Fields,” and asked for some advice.
“I wrote [to Dith Pran] and said, ‘Hey sir, I know nothing about Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge, and I am not trying to patronize you by thinking you’re the world’s go-to-guy, but could you [pass along] your reading list so a guy like me can learn a thing or two,’” Rollins said.
“[Dith Pran] e-mailed me back in like 20 minutes,” he recounted, adding that William Shawcross’ “Sideshow” is his latest literary purchase. Dith Pran died of cancer on March 3.
Rollins said he had noticed the widespread selling of bootlegged music discs and DVDs in Phnom Penh, and despite being in the entertainment business, it didn’t much bother him.
“Well, if I was Madonna or Sting, I might be losing a nanosecond of sleep thinking some guy who can’t afford a CD might be able to buy a [copy] for a day’s wage, but I don’t care,” he said.
“If you steal my music and listen to it, I’d rather be heard than paid,” he added.
“U2 and bands like that, they should make their records $3 each or make them $10 each and give $7 to the World Food Program,” he continued. “It’s hard for me to complain coming from the punk rock thing—records never meant money for me.”
Cambodia, Rollins said, had left him with other impressions beyond the tourist sites.
“That sound of motorbikes and the smell of everything that can possibly be burned,” he said. “It’s that developing world smell. You smell it in Cairo; you smell it in Afghanistan, India. Oh, there it is, they’re burning something, or they’re cooking with wood.”
“And so, that’s what I’ve gotten from Cambodia, a place that has been pounded on by everyone from Kissinger to Pol Pot, and they’re emerging from that, and they want prosperity.”