Henry Rollins has no problem filling two hours with talk. Taking nary a sip of water, he motored through a sold-out seated show at The Independent in San Francisco Saturday night. It was the last installment of a spoken-word tour commemorating Rollins’ (born Henry Garfield) fiftieth birthday. The poster promoting the show features a grim reaper with a scythe standing over a seated Rollins in Rodin’s “Thinker” pose.
It’s hard to picture a seated Rollins. He is usually jumping out of his own skin, worked up about whatever the current topic may be. On this particular night, he stood center stage surrounded by four monitors. Rumor has it that he brings his own microphone with him to all shows, but there was no opportunity to verify this. He still appeared to be a man prepping for battle (“I work on my physique the way I work on my anger — daily”), but except for the first ten minutes, when he discussed the government shut-down and the Tea Party, Rollins didn’t take potshots at obvious targets. Rather than give the audience his endorsements of specific platforms, his job, as he sees it, is to call out “moral cowardice” on both the left and right.
Rollins never reads from notes; he is fully engaged in the moment and drops Michael Winslow-esque sound effects into his first-person narratives whenever possible. It’s a genreless type of performance that functions at times like stand-up comedy, at other times like a motivational seminar. Recounting his early days in Black Flag, battling the audience and the Los Angeles police department, Rollins put forth some cringe-worthy descriptions of violence. He enjoys hacky puns but can also conjure up vivid descriptions, calling Beijing’s air pollution a “satanic marshmallow of filth.” For Rollins, invoking the US Constitution in an argument requires the care that a samurai uses in wielding a katana blade.
Rollins’ celebrity relative to other veterans of the hardcore punk era is partly due to Black Flag’s notoriety, but also to his willingness to appear in movies and other forms of media. He currently hosts a radio show on KCRW and blogs for the LA Weekly, on top of a steady spoken-word and publishing career and a short-lived IFC talk show. His IMDB credits include Johnny Mnemonic, Lost Highway, and voiceover work for the animated children’s show Adventure Time. All of this has afforded him a lifestyle of celebrity hobnobbing; Rollins has brushed elbows with the likes of William Shatner and acquired a small cache of “only in LA” stories about scaring off celebrities like Dennis Hopper and Matt Groening. His impressions of Shatner and George W. Bush are serviceable but are carried mostly on by the force of his charisma.
A recurrent theme of the show was that Rollins is not cut out for normal life, being a globetrotting cult celebrity who has trouble with day-to-day tasks at home. One crowd-pleasing anecdote concerned a trip to Costco with his longtime assistant Heidi, also known as “The Demon,” voiced with a screechy whine and accompanying clomping hooves (his sideline in cartoon voiceover work seems appropriate at these moments). While he made a few obvious jokes (“Who needs a forty-gallon tub of mayonnaise?”), Rollins took the symbol of mega-consumerism to its absurd extreme with a description of a customer “air-humping a two-hundred-pound bag of Doritos.” The audience was along for the ride, even though it’s a broad swipe. And granted, it’s hard not to chuckle at a line like, “All I know about Costco is that you can lose several Walmarts inside of one.” Even in the midst of mocking the Burbank Costco dwellers, there were moments of empathy, like when he talked about befriending an octogenarian and making painful small talk.
The main crux of Rollins’ wisdom — not that he’s claiming to have much more than ninety seconds’ worth — is that travel expands the mind and reminds us of our common humanity. He retains some positive Pollyanna-like naivete, encouraging his audience to vote and stating his belief that good people will solve our energy issues, and that punk parents are going to train the next generation to take over society. His status as a speaker allowed him to visit Tibet, Uganda, and even North Korea, bringing home the fact that Americans take their freedoms and voting rights for granted. The government-guided tour he was given in Pyongyang included a visit to Kim Il-Sung’s preserved corpse. For Rollins, stifling the smartass commentary was tantamount to fighting an epic sneeze for a week. Other highlights of his most recent travels included a Vietnamese tour guide named Ka, who took any chance to mock John McCain while showing Rollins around Hanoi.
Rollins acknowledged that a sold-out audience for his performance is essentially preaching to the converted. But in trying times, even the faithful need some reassurance that things will get better. The message for those of us who didn’t get to see Captain Beefheart‘s art show or nuzzle for warmth in Bill Stevenson‘s “back fur” in the back of a van during the Eighties is simply, “I’m smaller as the world gets bigger.” By tapping into that innate curiosity and humility, one might realize that in reality, there are still plenty of unexplored cultures. So the audience was genuinely fired up at his closing statement: “At age fifty I’d like to think that I’m only getting warmed up.”