Black Flag's Henry Rollins on 'Portlandia' and Why Resistance Belongs to Young People

henry rollins
Rollins performs at Festival Supreme 2015 at The Shrine Auditorium on October 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Getty Images / Jason Kempin

Henry Rollins, one of the greatest punk frontmen of all time, was infamous in the 1980s for beating the crap out of unruly fans at Black Flag shows. Now, at 56, Rollins said he's feeling the wear of all those mosh pits on his body, and he can't condone violence anymore.

"If you don't laugh about getting older," Rollins told Newsweek, "all you can do is bemoan your own aging carcass."

He has some fun at his own expense in the Season 8 premiere of Portlandia, which airs Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on IFC. Rollins appears with Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and Nirvana's Krist Novoselic as three aging punk rockers trying to get their old band back together. They get distracted while rehearsing by going antiquing or admitting that Bruno Mars is actually not that bad, and Rollins's character says he'd like to try singing into the mic instead of screaming. Their hearts are in the right place, Rollins explained, but they've just been out of the rebellion game too long.

Rollins, Armisen, Canty and Novoselic as aging rockers in 'Portlandia' Season 8. IFC

The Portlandia spot is on-brand for Rollins, who has never been just a wall of angry muscle.

He's always had an acerbic wit—he offers up that unique cocktail of thoughtfulness and rage in spoken word performances, his radio show, and his writing. For seven years, he published a culture column in LA Weekly. But it came to an end in 2016, when Semanal Media fired his friends and colleagues. The swift culling of the staff, he decided, marked his cue to leave, too.

"They weren't given any notice, just a 'Get out.'" he said. "As uncool as the new owners could have done that, that's how they did it."

Now, Rollins posts a regular column to his website, alongside ads for his stellar KCRW radio show, which is meant for younger listeners stuck in oppressive cities. "For 13 or 14 years, I've been doing the show for the kid, boy or girl, who no one in town likes. At least they get two hours a week where they can hear good music put together by someone who accepts them unconditionally," he said. "The show's for young people, but all the old bastards can show up too if they want, because it's free."

That tension between old and young, past and future, is at the core of the comedy in his Portlandia spot. But it's also something that has marked Rollins's career. As the frontman for Black Flag in the '80s, he was as inclined to punch a skinhead as he was to advocate for LGBT issues. Today, he performs for American soldiers through the USO program (he has traveled across the Middle East and Asia) while supporting the moment's causes, like the #MeToo movement.

Rollins performs in 1993. Wikimedia Commons

Fucking with the system, Rollins said, has to change as a rebel gets older. That's why he understands it's necessary to look to young people for cues.

"I'm not trying to shove anyone into a grave, but the generation that watches Fox News and supports Trump is dying off," he said. "I just don't think you'll be able to convince American kids in high school that bigotry is the way to go. Most of the music on their phone is made by African-Americans, so I don't think you'll be able to get them on board with racism either. Kids today, their last elected prom queen was a boy and everyone thought that was awesome. This isn't a group that'll let you sell climate change as a liberal plot to end the world."

The angry punk hasn't mellowed in his old age, necessarily, as much as found a balance between nihilism and optimism. It can sound strange at first, but there's something infectious about listening to the aging, age-less punk offer a soundtrack—"Here's Joy Division and John Coltrane, and something I dig that'll be out in three months"—and prescription for anyone who feels trapped in these difficult times.

"Don't pretend to be into something or someone you're not, because life's too short," he said. "If anyone asks you to defend an opinion, you can always say, 'I can't and I'm not and I'm gonna go. I'm tired and my ass hurts.'"