In October 1934, forces loyal to Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek surrounded Mao Zedong’s ragtag Red Army. Half a million Guomindang soldiers encircled the communist stronghold in Jiangxi. Besieged, cut off from supplies and having lost 50% of their territory and 60,000 fighters in 12 months, Mao was left with little option but to undertake what the communists called ‘The Long March’.
So began what punk icon Henry Rollins describes as “one of the most inhumanely psychotic human episodes ever.” Fleeing from the assault of Chiang’s troops, Mao took his army on a gruelling 365 day trek to the north of China, crossing 9000 miles of snow encrusted mountain peaks and suffocating marshland. Of the 87,000 troops who began the march, less than 10,000 made it to Yanan.
After speaking with Rollins for a few minutes, you begin to understand why he’d name his upcoming world tour after a suicidal hike instigated by one of history’s most ruthless tyrants. He’s sitting in his home, fielding calls from journalists on the one week he’s got off before heading here in March. Only a few days earlier he returned from performing 32 European shows and is now spending four to six hours a day speaking with the media. While he does this, he’s waiting for his agent to shoot through an email informing him how many shows are booked for the second half of the year. The Long March isn’t just a miserable footnote in history, nor Rollins’ arduous undertaking, it’s his personal odyssey, a philosophical pathway that’s horizon ends with “George Calindom”.
Rollins is shocked that I don’t know who George Carlin is. According to the former Black Flag singer, the stand-up comic is “a patron saint of American comedy”, but most importantly he died mid-tour at the age of 71. “Though I don’t think of myself as a comic,” Rollins explains. “I do think of myself as someone who really wants to be on stage with an audience when I get to his age.
“I was always jealous, I’d be in Vegas doing one show and whenever I was there George Carlin was doing some amazing amount of nights for about three weeks, I was like ‘check you out man! That’s what I want!’ But you get that one way – you earn it.”
And Rollins has no problem with hard work, confirming that he’s “kind of a work slut.” In the last year alone he released a book of photography called Occupants, toured with grunge pioneers Dinosaur Jr, filmed three National Geographic docos, finished off his 50 tour with sixty-five shows, travelled to Haiti and Cuba and wrote 52 articles for The LA Weekly and hosted around 50 radio shows. This insane work ethic might surprise some of Rollins’ fans, and with thirty years experience in many different areas under his belt, he’s no doubt got a few.
After fronting punk band Black Flag from 1981-1986, he released two solo albums before eight records with Rollins Band, not to mention spoken word titles, DVDs and books. He’s starred in films alongside Pacino and DeNiro (Heat), Keanu Reeves (Johnny Mneomonic) and worked under David Lynch (Lost Highway). His live music performance, part karate kata, part frothing man beast, indicates the level of intensity Rollins applies to all aspects of his life.
This tapestry of a career, patched together from professions in different fields, might seem to some in the punk scene, where Rollins cut his teeth, as betraying his anarchistic roots. In a confrontation with a hipster fan (captured on YouTube) at a record store in New York’s East Village, the idea that Rollins has sold out is brought up. When asked how serious he was during the conversation he tells us, “I thought I’d give a little back so I said ‘oh yeah, I’m the big sell out sort of guy’ when I’m the one who gets up early and goes after it. All the things that you see me get, TV, movies, voice-over work, guess what? You audition and you audition with a lot of people.”
One dramatic role that Rollins beat the field to a few years ago was AJ Weston, a meth-cooking, white supremacist on Sons of Anarchy. The reason this particular role may contribute to an idea of selling out is that Rollins is famously opposed to racism and drug use. “I have a very dull and utilitarian bent in that it was work and I took it,” he reveals. “And I was grateful for it but it means nothing more to me than that. When I’m on set, if you’re a director I’m going to give you everything that I’ve got – I take it very seriously – I just don’t take myself seriously.”
Contrary to that admission, it seems like Rollins takes a great many things seriously. “You’ll never hear me call myself an actor or a writer ever!” he clarifies, “I wouldn’t dare – that would be such an insult to real writers and actors. I just do stuff; I come from the minimum wage working world. I’m just going for it, I’ve got nothing to lose and I’ve got no allusions about where I come from.”
To reiterate his point, he mentions recent voice-over work completed for car company Infiniti. At the audition for Nissan’s luxury brand, Rollins was competing against four hundred applicants. “And I’m the guy who got it,” he tells us. “I don’t know about selling out. I do know about peeling myself off the mattress at 5am, rehearsing and testing my mettle against other people.
“I’m earning my keep, if someone doesn’t like that – if they want my pay check, they’re welcome to it,” he challenges.
Now it’s back on the bus for The Long March Tour, which runs until next February. With all of these commitments, including voice-over work for cartoons and car companies, acting roles and appearances at USO shows for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s almost inconceivable that Rollins spends over two hours a night standing on stage talking. What’s not inconceivable is that he’s got something to talk about. A suped-up motor mouth, Rollins could talk the chrome off car wheels, regaling the audience with personal stories, philosophical musings, politics, the media (particularly his ire for Fox News), and travel stories.
When he hits our shores next month Rollins will demonstrate his utilitarian bent once again. “It’s me on stage with a microphone, there are no sound effects or rear projects,” he says, approaching the performance from a casual, organic perspective. Audience members can expect to hear travel tales from North Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Sudan and Uganda, as well as his thoughts on “things going on in America.”
Those things going on include the Occupy Movement, which he wants to see consolidated into a 4 million man march on New York, how Fox News consistently character assassinates Obama, who Rollins believes is “doing an amazing job considering the [hostile] Congress”, and the state of America’s image during an election year, which is “American politics at its bloodiest.”
Despite naming his tour after a moment in Chinese history, Rollins is quintessentially red, white and blue collared. His allegiance to bus life is pledged with the American traditions of manifest destiny and self-determination at heart. He seems to view the country through the prism of the early pioneers, perceiving a land of both opportunity and uncertainty, like many Americans confronted with the current state of the Union.
“It’s not a country,” he says of his homeland. “It’s just an idea. It’s a place you survive, that’s what America is to me and I’m hell bent on surviving it.” Which is exactly what he’s been achieving with his music, writing, acting and performances for the past thirty-one years.
“That’s what I do – stay employed, stay with it. I’m an opportunist,” he concludes. “I’m a food eater.”