How to explain Henry Rollins to someone who doesn't know his work? Twenty years ago, you could've just called him a musician, the guy who used to sing with Black Flag. At that point he had moved on to front his own band, one which also showcased the personality that routinely drives journalists through their synonyms for "intense." Having sworn off singing, Rollins these days concentrates on column writing, television hosting, radio broadcasting, and politically charged spoken-word performing. (You can watch him participate in a live reading of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King here.) His personality remains in full effect and, unencumbered by early punk rock's demand for emotional bluntness, he now projects a more complicated, harder-to-caricature image. He still seems driven by seething anger at society's shortcomings, but his current middle-aged mixture of rage and benevolence (though sometimes unsettling in its own way) avoids the raw aggression with which music history has associated him.
Rollins seemingly never swallowed punk's youthful nihilism, but now, in full maturity, he sometimes sounds downright motivational. Case in point: his "Letter to a Young American" from Big Think, a warning about the debilitating effects of feeling spite toward the privileged. "You will encounter people who never have to pay in full," he says. "They get to wreck the room and never have to clean it. They can get all the way through high school and never understand where a dollar comes from, because they just get it given to them." While acknowledging the existence of such people, often in positions of power, Rollins recommends the strategy of ignoring them: "You cannot let these people make you feel that you have in any way been dwarfed or outclassed. You must really go for your own and realize how short life is. You got what you got, so you've got to make the most of it. You really can't spend a whole lot of time worrying about his." Like or dislike the Henry Rollins persona, how often have you seen a high-profile activist take such a firm stand against resentment? A transcript for his "Letter to a Young American" can be found here.