Henry Rollins Tells Young People to Avoid Resentment and to Pursue Success with a “Monastic Obsession”

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.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Rollins has always been inspi­ra­tional, and I’m quite dig­ging how he’s mel­lowed in his old age.

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