“Some people would say the that election of Donald Trump is a sign of regression,” Henry Rollins told me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I think what you’re seeing now is a sign of progress.”
Rollins, who turned 56 on Monday, came of age and became famous fronting the seminal hardcore band Black Flag in the early 1980s, when America was having another bout of aggressive nationalism. Back then, Ronald Reagan’s brand of capital-driven, me-first-and-then-America selfish cruelty had a friendlier face.
“It was a, ‘Have a nice day, before I break your skull in’ kind of thing,” he says. Rollins spent most of that era and the ensuing decades out on the road, in between appearing in film and on television and writing books.
The last few years, he’s performed what’s become his signature act—a high energy spoken word-slash-stream of consciousness manifesto, delivered with the urgency and intensity of a last confession—upwards of 150 times a year, while still fulfilling his other duties: writing music columns for LA Weekly and the Australian version of Rolling Stone, and hosting a weekly radio show on KCRW, an NPR affiliate in L.A.
Rollins is still the square-jawed, aggressive and thoughtful perpetual motion machine he always was. He hasn’t become a right-wing reactionary in his later years; he was a Bernie Sanders supporter and thinks Hillary Clinton, though “utterly lacking in charisma, would have been just fine.” However, “I was not surprised when Trump won,” he told me. “I did a lot of interviews overseas, where he’s seen as just this nightmare. You can do an interview in South Africa or Australia, and people just go, ‘That guy? Who even gives him a microphone?’ He seems impossible to someone in England. They’re like, ‘How do they even let him out of his lunchbox?’
“You have to explain that, since Reagan to now, there’s been a systematic dumbing-down of the American electorate, so you can fill prison cells and battlefields,” he says. “A guy like Trump is eventual.”
“I think what you have now is the last of the angry, pro-apartheid, single-toothed, mulleted Americans who are the Trump supporters… What you’re seeing now is the last of the dumb Americans. Trump is the last days of the angry whiteness of America.”
“Trump was a good ‘my ass has finally hit the bottom’ moment,” he continued. “This can happen, this is what it looks like, here’s how hard it sucks, and here’s what a nightmare this is. And it happened on your watch. Please don’t let it happen again.
“This is a good cautionary tale. Hopefully everyone—who can read—learns a very good, powerful lesson. I just hope too many people don’t get chewed up before we can undo it and at least neutralize what this guy is gonna do.”
“I still think it’s a great time to be alive. I’m not one of those doom and gloom people. All the fat is off the land now. All the lights are on, we can see where the motherfuckers are. They’re not hiding anymore. With [Steve] Bannon, the pigs are in your face.”
Today, Rollins is scheduled to give the keynote address at the International Cannabis Business Conference, one of the many gatherings of entrepreneurs, investors and anyone else seeking a piece of the $7 billion-and-counting legal marijuana industry to spring up in the past three-to-four years.
Rollins seems like an odd choice.
He doesn’t use cannabis, for one. He’s a noted teetotaler, eschewing alcohol and all drugs aside from coffee—he cops to having smoked weed once, after band practice in the late 1980s—and has been this way since he was a teenager.
Going to see one of the big rock acts “from the six-dollar-and-fifty cents cheap seats” with his childhood friend Ian MacKaye, the frontman of Minor Threat and, later, Fugazi (and the guy who wrote the clean-living-through-punk-rock anthem “Straight Edge,” so you can guess his thoughts on the matter) was what turned him off the drugs bit of the rock-and-roll trifecta.
“We would see Aerosmith, and they’re doing their thing, and half the audience is asleep,” he said. “I’ll never forget: I’m on my feet for Led Zeppelin, this is like 1977 or whatever, somewhere around there, and the guy next to me—here’s a guy face-planted on his corduroy pants because he’s high on something. And the band is playing ‘Kashmir.’ And it’s like, ‘Are you kidding? You blew it!’ Ian and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that’s cool for you.’ I have to be on my skateboard at 7:30 in the morning.”
But later, living in Redondo Beach in southern California, potheads were some of his favorite people. “Black Flag, we had a bunch of stoner friends,” he said. “And their parties were always the funnest. The girls were friendlier, no one is threatening you… These are some of the nicest people I met in the 1980s. If someone said, ‘Pot sucks,’ I’d say, ‘No, you suck!’ It never did me any harm. I was in vans full of marijuana smoke through the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s… I never had a problem. It was, ‘Nah, not for me.’”
“I don’t want to buy a hash brownie today. Until I do want to get one. I don’t want to sneak around. I don’t want a dealer. I don’t want it to be a criminal act. It’s not for me until the day it is—and when it is, get out of my way. Hook me up. I want some.”
Until then, Rollins has the mission of making people slightly uncomfortable. When he speaks to a room full of marijuana business people, nearly all of whom are white, and nearly all of whom are male, to get them to do the right thing, he’ll have to shame them a bit.
To this crowd, the current face of marijuana in America, Rollins won’t say anything “new.” Of course he thinks cannabis should be wholly and utterly legal; of course he recognizes, as the present-and-future cannabis capitalists of America do, that cannabis’s outlaw status came at a great cost borne by poor people and people of color.
“There’s nothing I’m going to say that people in the audience don’t know,” he explained. “I am talking to cannabis entrepreneurs. I want them to get their head around the idea that it’s more than making money.”
“That’s the thing. They have to get around the dollar signs in their eyes. If they do it right, they’re gonna make a ton of money. They’re going to be fine—they’re gonna have a million in the bank after the first two fiscal quarters. Once they stabilize, they should really be seeing this as a bigger deal than their bank account or their new houseboat.”
This is where cannabis and Trump have a few things in common.
If dog-whistle white-supremacy is ending in a real-life version of the Mike Judge film Idiocracy, marijuana prohibition is ending in a businessman’s orgy. The two unfortunately appear to bring out a similar type of person: White, male and into money. This is where responsibility comes into play—and a conscious selflessness. It’s not white men who suffered the most before legalization. It may be the white men responsible for making sure women and people of color can join them.
“I think it’s up to the white males who have the power to help break that down,” he said. “If you’re white, if you’re large and in charge, you have the big stick. You can use it for good, or you can use it for bad.”
This is the great and vicious irony of the marijuana movement.
Legalizing cannabis has opened it up to be exploited, possibly by the same type of people who profited off of prohibition. “That’s capitalism,” Rollins says. “All of that evil shit happens as soon as there’s a dollar to be made. All of those motherfuckers come out of the woodwork, it’s people who want to make a dollar.”
“No doubt there will be some of those money-loving, I sell stuff people there,” he explained. “These are capitalists. They have no morals at all. They’re like Ted Bundy in a suit. They want what they want. But you can get to some of them. You can say that their job could be even cooler than, ‘Hey, we’re doing weed.’ No. You’re promoting goodness, and a level playing field, and pushing against bigotry, and institutionalized racism. That’s the bigger picture.”
“This is where integrity comes in. What are these guys gonna do with these overturned laws? Will they help people who have been historically been set upon by law enforcement and government?
“We’ll see. They will or they won’t. They will see it as part of the responsibilities, or they just won’t give a damn. And it won’t be 50 minutes of me convincing them. It might just put a seed in their head but the rest is up to them.”