Thinking about the traits that Ronald Reagan and Henry Rollins might share is a deluge of irony. For his part, President Reagan was the social-conservative nemesis of 1980s punk bands. During his administration, Rollins charged through the United States, fronting the notorious hardcore punk band Black Flag. Indeed, ideologically, Reagan and Rollins could hardly be more different. But both recognized the rhetorical power of pathos and tangible, relatable narratives.
"What's always interesting to me is you and me, the people," Rollins says, calling from a tour stop in Columbus, Ohio. "That's where I get my information from."
The Reagan Administration's policies were famously influenced by the stories of individuals, from a 5-year-old hospital patient whose tale led to revised rules for Medicare recipients to the mythological "welfare queen" Reagan used to justify a hardline stance on entitlement fraud. When Reagan advisor Edwin Meese III dismissed reports of hunger in America for being overly "anecdotal" in 1983, it struck analysts as a surprise.
"Anecdotes seem to be the way in which this Administration comes to understand a problem," Eileen P. Sweeney, a lawyer at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, said in The New York Times later that year.
At 51, Rollins has spent most of his adult life collecting stories: His résumé includes entries as a musician, actor (credits include Heat and a chilling turn as a neo-Nazi villain on Sons of Anarchy), publisher, writer (including a stint as a Vanity Fair columnist), television host, photographer and public speaker. Right now, that last title has Rollins traveling to the capital cities of all 50 states to tell stories to rock-club audiences. The Capitalism Tour will conclude in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 5, the eve of the presidential election.
"That was the coolest punchline to the whole thing—and also the hardest show to book," Rollins says. His agent, John Dittmar, proposed the Capitalism concept more than a year ago; they reserved the date at D.C.'s storied 9:30 Club shortly thereafter.
But while the tour's conceit and its promise of "timely commentary on the state of the union" point overtly to politics, Rollins says he won't treat the stage as a pulpit for some op-ed speech. "Who needs to be charged 25 bucks to sit in front of some guy who thinks he's a pundit and reiterates something he saw on MSNBC earlier that day?" he asks. "It's insulting to an audience."
Instead, the politics reveal themselves in the narratives. Take, for instance, a story Rollins told during his last stop in Raleigh: Two teenage couples in Texas shared a condom, producing a child whose parents never actually had sex with each other. "The story's human—all too human, as Nietzsche said — but it's also political," Rollins says. "Eventually, you can go, OK, we can assess this in a political way and look at our education system and how America still has a real problem with discussing sex."
Or perhaps you will consider the power of propaganda when Rollins talks about the North Korean tour guide who touts his nation's fearsome navy as he leads tourists to view the preserved corpse of Kim Il-sung in a glass sarcophagus.
The stories are funny, but calling Henry Rollins a comedian fits about as well as calling him a pundit. He's an entertainer, sure, but he says frivolity isn't the goal: "Instead of just going on stage and just talking about a bunch of dick jokes—which I guess is for someone to do, not me—I can sit in front of an audience and go, 'OK, here's what happened in Haiti,' or 'Here's why I think you should vote'—never once telling you who I'm voting for, though it's fairly obvious I'm sure."
He won't tell you who to vote for, either. "I just hope that you make an informed decision that you think is good, and that whoever wins is going to take you and I up the road together," he says. "Ultimately, I'm red, white and blue. I'm Team America all the way. Even the people I disagree with, I don't want them being hungry. I don't want their kids turning into criminals. It's not good for them, and ultimately, it's not good for me. I want everyone to get ahead."
If any clear political stance could be inferred from Rollins' stories and his career, it's one of social equality and justice. He's campaigned for marriage equality and human rights. He protested the war in Iraq while touring with the USO to entertain American troops deployed there.
That perspective, he says, is the result of his travels. He talks about meeting people in South Sudan, robbed of their entire families by war, who welcomed him to hear their stories. "You ask them what they want," Rollins says. "They don't say 'two trick-ass bitches and a Lamborghini.' That's never what they say. They say, 'We want some water, some food.' It's not asking for much. It's impossible for me to walk away from that and deny what I just heard and saw."
So he relays it, hoping to inspire, to enlighten and to entertain. That, he says, is the return on investment for those who "dare to waste two hours with me every other year."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Analytically anecdotal."