Veteran punk and spoken word artist Henry Rollins has been touring relentlessly in one way or another for over 30 years, and all that experience has made him extra-sensitive to the ways of public speaking. When he watches a speech by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, he doesn’t just think about what they say. He deconstructs their mannerisms, word choice and sense of rhythm.
So Rollins wasn’t particularly surprised when he read passages from the now-infamous video of Romney at a recent fundraiser in Boca Raton – unveiled by Mother Jones – which shows the Republican presidential nominee basically dismissing 47 percent of the U.S. population as moochers who don’t pay income tax and depend on government handouts.
“Nothing [Romney] can say at this point surprises me. You know who he is when he walks in through the door,” the former Black Flag singer tells Rolling Stone. “He has waterboarded and steam-pressed every bit of humanity out of himself. I’ve never heard a more robotic, dehumanized person in my life. Everything he says just sounds like a thoroughly wiped ass when it comes out of his mouth.”
These days, Rollins has politics on his mind. On his current “Capitalism” spoken-word tour, he’s hitting all 51 capital cities in the United States; he’ll finish at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. on November 5th, on the eve of the Presidential election. Onstage he’s telling stories about his travels to countries such as Vietnam, India, Sudan and North Korea. He’s also urging his audience to vote (for whichever candidate), and weighing in on the country’s political discourse.
“Since we’re coming up on an election, I do take the time to remind the audience that, in America, we have become extremely polarized, and that perhaps our similarities and commonalities far outweigh our dissimilarities, and we should maybe remember that,” he says. “I really don’t like all this anger that’s going back and forth. It’s just not productive.”
For a guy as famously angry as Rollins, this might seem like a curious position. But he prefers addressing complex issues with cold, sober reason, just as his hero Abraham Lincoln did.
“I’m angry every day. There’s plenty of stuff to be angry about, absolutely. I’ll always be angry, I hope – if I’m lucky,” he says. “But with this kind of thing, man, you’ve got to really look at it. You can’t get your head around something if you’re yelling.”
As for the Presidential election, it’s fairly obvious whom Rollins is voting for.
“I was a fan as soon as I heard him speak,” he says about President Obama. “I think the last four years, you’ve seen an incredibly brilliant man do the best he can with a Congress that says ‘No,’ and an alarmingly wide swatch of America calling him a nigger.
“When I see the hatred exacted at Mr. Obama – you know, he lowered your taxes, killed your number one bad guy and got your guys out of Iraq – I don’t understand why he seems to inflame people so much. You know, unless, unless there’s a race problem,” he explains. “I try to give people the benefit of the doubt as long as possible. But when you see people with signs of the president with a bone in his nose or something like that, I don’t know what other conclusion I’m supposed to draw.”
But while he’s a fan, he has mixed feelings about the president’s speaking style.
“I like when he’s laying down the facts, but then when he gets the applause going and he goes into Sunday preacher mode: ‘I’m with ya! I’ll be walkin’ with ya!’ Like, really? You don’t talk like that, so why are you doing it now?” he says. “He does it a lot. And I don’t like it.
“Also, he stammers a lot, and that doesn’t sell very well with me,” he adds, noting that it appears to be a deeply ingrained mannerism Obama is aware of. “He’s one of the most intelligent Presidents in our lifetime, for sure. And that stammer – I don’t know where it comes from. But whenever he speaks, I wish he’d lose it.”
So far this year, Rollins has performed more than 100 spoken word shows. When he’s done with the “Capitalism” tour, he’ll return to “The Long March,” a marathon talking tour he’s been on since January. Starting on November 8th at Joe’s Pub in New York City, he’ll do a series of multiple-show residencies in New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
He says he’d be fine financially if he retired, but he doesn’t want to. He loves performing onstage and having a responsibility to his audience, he says, though he acknowledges that there might be another reason, too.
“My assistant says that I’m basically meditating – I have some condition – by touring. And she scolds me when I tour a lot,” he says. “I say, ‘Aw, come on! It’s a great work ethic.’ And she says, ‘No, you’re running from something.’ She’s not impressed. And that very well could be. Maybe I’m just a psycho, and the stage is a better place to go than either the loony bin or somewheres else.”