Photo by Ross Halfin

Punk and the Pandemic

Singer, writer and spoken word artist Henry Rollins brings his commentary to Eugene

Like most people, legendary punk rock figure Henry Rollins spent the past few years at home, listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recommendations. 

“I believe in scientists,” Rollins tells Eugene Weekly. “When Fauci speaks, I listen. I think he’s looking out for me.” 

You heard it here first: It’s punk to listen to the science. 

Rollins’ body of work is diverse, from photography to writing to spoken word. But most people know of him as the frontman for the influential punk band Black Flag.x

He brings his brand of humorous and acerbic insight on current events and his life to Eugene when he speaks at McDonald Theatre Saturday, May 14. It’s his first tour of speaking events since the start of the pandemic. 

While at home for the past few years, Rollins has come to terms with saying goodbye to international travel, something that’s been a part of his identity. And he’s also spent a lot of time while at home reflecting on the state of U.S. politics and right wing extremism. 

“I see the damage that [Ronald] Reagan did to dumb down the electorate,” he says. “When rational adults who can put on pants and drive can tell you that a vaccine can hold tiny tracking devices so that communist Joe Biden and his evil socialist henchmen can keep track of you, it’s like ‘Wow, that’s not smart. That’s just crazy.’” 

He adds that if that was accepted as it is today in 1975, people would be wondering if those conspiracy theorists were putting paraquat herbicide in their weed. 

The vaccine and masks have become heavily politicized, and he says he’s watching a country not intellectually prepared for a pandemic at a time of deep political division. “I think we’ve stopped evolving. You have some groups who don’t want to just stop, they want to go backwards to when all those women, gay people and nonwhite people knew their place,” he says. “I just watched a country get a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and hopefully once-in-a-lifetime president, and it’s just this perfect storm of bad hitting stupid.” 

In addition to all of that, Donald Trump is still influencing dangerous discourse. Rollins points to Trump’s use of the word “heritage” as a political dog whistle. “Dude, you’ve just greenlit some really bad people,” he adds. “Don’t use the ‘h’ word because all those people are saying, ‘Let’s go.’” 

Rollins lives in Los Angeles near a gun range that was formerly a theater. The place is busy with people shooting guns, and he says it makes him wonder whether they just like shooting paper or if they’re getting ready for something. 

And he prefaces this by saying he’s not a conspiracy theorist, but he wonders sometimes about some shooters there. “Someone put something in his mind and he’s getting really good with that AR-15. By the fourth quarter of this year, there’s going to be some awful headlines,” he says. “I want to be wrong about this, but I think there’s going to be some grown-ass men acting out this year because something is in their head.” 

At the same time as a touring musician, he says he’s seen some of America’s soul while on the road. “You’ll never be cynical when you meet Americans in America,” he says. Seeing a Walmart employee, 10 years older than you, wearing a back support brace stacking cans of applesauce at 4 am who also tells you to have a good night is the country’s salt of the earth, he adds. 

Travel has been a big part of Rollins’ identity, whether he was sitting in a truck with “smelly guys of my band” or watching a 2 pm sunset in Denmark. But age is catching up with him, he says; at 61 he doesn’t know if he has many trips left in him, especially with COVID complicating travel. “I don’t know if I’ll get back to Europe, and I will miss it,” he says. 

So he’s left with the memories of international travel, especially with the Omicron variant canceling his February European tour dates. He refers to his travel memories as his “Wayback Machine.” “I have a lot of fond memories of winter in Europe,” he says. He remembers nights off performing and looking for restaurants that sold massive amounts of lasagna for cheap. “Sitting in a coffee shop in Moscow, St. Petersburg or Warsaw listening to the “Heroes” album by Bowie in my headphones.” 

Even though his travel days may be over, he spends time hosting bands traveling through L.A. It’s what his mother did in the ’80s for bands like Hüsker Dü, he says, so he’s giving back to today’s scene. 

“I call it Dischord West,” referring to a record label owned by his friend Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. “I’ve had all kinds of musicians sleeping on my floor because I’ve slept on so many floors in my life.”

Henry Rollins is 8 pm Thursday, May 14, at McDonald Theatre. Tickets start at $22. 

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