Henry Rollins, the celebrated spoken-word artist, rocker and writer, travels the United States to find tucked-away history lessons surrounding some of the major events in America’s past. His adventures and examinations are the subject of the H2 reality series 10 Things You Don’t Know About, which is set to premiere 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16.
He landed at The History Channel’s sister network after “waxing psychotic” on why he loves history for the producers. In turn, the creative team, who were apparently looking to overhaul 10 Things, loved him, and the rest is, well, history.
“I did a production deal with Asylum who does this show for H2,” Rollins said recently in a phone interview. “They wanted to go from half hour to an hour and restructure it, and they were looking for a new host. I do not know the exact reasons. And they said, ‘Does this kind of show interest you?’ And I said, ‘It sounds fascinating.’ They said, ‘Can we put you on tape talking about how much you like history.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ So they came to my office and opened up a camera, and I basically waxed psychotic on how much I like history. I’m not an expert. Just like many people, I’m just a fan. And they sent it to History Channel, and History Channel said he’s our guy.”
Last year, Rollins completed four episodes of the series as a trial run, and now he’s back for 10 more adventures. He said the team has been “obsessively” working on the episodes since late March, and they still have a few more weeks of production to go. Upcoming episodes are varied in their content, covering such topics as marijuana, the American flag, civil rights, Texas, the Hoover Dam, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and the Revolutionary War.
Rollins went into detail about the forthcoming American flag episode where the team showcases an angry letter from Francis Hopkinson demanding that the government pay him a portion of a flask of wine for reportedly designing the American flag. “He basically wanted a bottle of wine, and they didn’t give it to him,” Rollins said. “They said, ‘That was your job. Shut up, and get back to your desk.’ And I believe the letter. I believe the fact that he asked to get paid, and he describes this flag. … It’s not like we’re breaking open some magic vault of information, but you might know that. But have you ever seen the letter? We got it.”
Rollins added that finding these documents and talking to experts are what makes history come alive. “Otherwise it’s just dead people in books,” he said. “And my reactions are all natural. This stuff blows my mind. I’m a fan. … What we mainly try to do is get to the big topics by going in through all the side doors.”
Another episode explores the Hoover Dam, which involved weeks of research. The show’s focus is on a town that was eventually flooded by nearby Lake Mead. Now that the lake is evaporating, the town of St. Thomas has been unearthed, and spectators can see an old school building with freshwater shells inside.
“You see these footprints of structures,” he said. “It’s a bitch to find the thing, but the parks service helped us out. We filmed there. We filmed right in front of the school steps. It’s trippy. I mean it is the desert. You said, ‘Wait a minute, at one point this was Lake Mead.’ They said, ‘People scuba dived on this.’ Sixty-feet of water over the schoolyard. People fished in it, and now it is back to the desert. It is brutal — 110, lizards, heat. And there we were with our cameras, melting like packs of butter, and this is what we do. We try and get to the big topics but the small aspects.”
Rollins said that in 2014 we live comparatively easy lives to the men and women profiled on the show. From working in 120-degree heat in the Nevada desert to being a founding father and trying to map the future of the United States, the subjects on 10 Things had to deal with some weighty obstacles.
“And you imagine the families of these men who came across the country to work,” he said of the community around the Hoover Dam. “They’re sitting around drinking bad water. The kids are dying. I mean they lived in a desert for years. There’s no air conditioning. There’s tents. They’re just building lean-tos, and it was brutal. I mean this is America. But it’s like savage, and these people had to be. They just were made of tough stuff. They had no choice. And you and I, we just don’t. I’m not saying we suck. I’m just saying that we, you and I, we, the general we, we don’t have to deal with stuff like this. It’s not even on our radar, yet our ancestors, man, they went through [it]. … I mean if you’re a multi-generation American, somewhere in your bloodline, man, those people were tough and sacrificed and had really hard lives. And so that’s the part I keep coming away with.”
Rollins’ love of history didn’t begin when he was growing up. He said he learned the subject from “disinterested athletic coaches” at his private prep school. Only when he started touring the United States in a punk rock band did he start understanding the full picture of the American landscape, from the accents to the food to the prejudices.
“Then as a kind of an older adult I kind of dropped reading literature almost like a hot potato and just kind of transitioned into history,” he said. “I don’t know why. I just kind of lost my thing with literature. … I travel a lot, so world history is relevant to me. I’m in the Middle East a lot. I’m in Africa a lot. I’m in Europe a lot, so World War II is interesting. The Cold War, the Soviet-Afghan War. I’ve been to Afghanistan a number of times, where all that stuff is interesting, too.”
As an example, he discussed a recent visit to a Las Vegas museum that highlights “atomic tourism,” a time when atomic bombs were tested every three weeks for a dozen years. There used to be atomic cocktails and girls in mushroom-cloud dresses. For Rollins, his stop in the museum’s gift shop ended with a purchase of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
“I have a foot of books from doing this season,” he said. “I’d meet professors. They’d go, ‘Here’s my book on Lyndon Baines Johnson.’ I’m like, ‘Damn.’ I’d read 30 pages that night; then I’ve got to get up. So I’ve got all these quarter finished books or 8 pages in, and you realize there’s just not enough time. And how great would it be to just sit in a room and read all day, but I can’t make the time. This show allows me to satiate [that] at least partially. I’m like a lot of people. There’s nothing unique about me. I’m curious.”
When filming 10 Things, Rollins has little time for other projects — but he still manages to fit them in. He hosts a weekly radio show on KCRW, produces a 1,000-word article every week for L.A. Weekly and 500 words a month for Rolling Stone Australia. “And so I serve many masters,” he said. “And when I have that Tuesday deadline to turn in the L.A. Weekly article, and I’ve just come off a 14-hour shoot day, I hope the writing holds up. It’s a lot to keep all those plates spinning.”