Henry Rollins, ladies and gentlemen – the mighty Henry Rollins is here! And my word, did we Bristolians welcome him with open arms – apart from the pro-lifer who threw a pint of beer over him, but, y’know, there’s nowt so queer as folk.
In anticipation of his sold-out spoken word gig at Bristol’s St George’s last night, Henry was kind enough to spare me some time for an interview.
I first saw Henry live last August in Belfast, on an earlier date in his seemingly never-ending The Long March tour, which is taking him all around the world and back again. Much of the material was essentially the same, but it certainly didn’t feel like I’d heard it before as Henry had moved everything on and adapted stories to suit his current frame of mind.
Henry confirms: “The material is constantly evolving and new things are working their way into the set all the time. I have to keep the material moving with the world. There are certainly stories I will tell that don’t change as they are what they are, but aspects of the stories will make themselves more known as the nights go on. New material is always good. I never want to ‘dial it in’ so I always want new things to talk about. I go out onstage with a total idea as to what I am going to talk about. I don’t like leaving things up to chance. I wouldn’t dare waste the audience’s time searching for some idea onstage.”
And it is this respect for his audiences that really shines through when you watch Henry’s performance. This is a man who is so sure of his place in life that he has an opinion on virtually everything, and it pretty much always makes sense.
That said, Henry is also a man who in his book Get In The Van (published in 1994, and consisting of his Black Flag tour diaries from 1981-1986) seems to have little patience for the grim existence of life in England in the early 1980s. So I ask him if his opinion of the UK has changed in more recent years.
“The first few times coming here were hard for me,” he says. “I can’t explain to you how much British music means to me. When Black Flag came here and caught so much grief from bands whose records I had bought with my minimum wage earnings, it was such a bummer. Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad. The Damned and the UK Subs, two of the best bands ever, were very cool to us and are friends to this day. When I started coming here with my band in 1987, things got a lot better and many years and literally hundreds of shows in England later, it’s one of my favorite places to be.”
One of the most noticeable things about Black Flag, and many of the bands they toured with, were that they were effectively politically correct before political correctness became ‘a thing’ that people tried too hard to be. I wondered where that consciousness came from?
“I would not say that Black Flag was politically correct,” states Henry. “We were political. Authority didn’t like us and we didn’t like it. Punk rock in those days was pretty PC as there were a lot of females in those local scenes. It depended where you went. Where I come from, Washington DC, that was a very PC scene. PC to the point of being almost sexless, which to me, just isn’t real. That’s an act or some kind of sadistic restraint. All those young people? Come on! It had a great effect on me. California was a whole different thing altogether. I got out there and immediately started getting hit on by women, it was very rock and roll as you might say. I felt very alone in that scene.”
“It is the misogynist, racist, homophobic minority that should be called out, marginalised, voted out, shouted down, whatever way you have to get them out of the way so the rest of us can get down the road”
Having mentioned that there were a lot of women around the punk scene that Henry was involved with, I ask if he’d define himself as a feminist… “I would not,” he says. “I think at this point to call myself one would only impede progress for male-female equality. I am not trying to be coarse. My interest is to get women off the sidelines. For a man to call himself a feminist at this point, while no doubt well-intentioned, is keeping equality somewhat tied down.”
He goes on to clarify: “I am a human, male. I acknowledge female humans and other males as my equal and deserving of civil and human rights. Period. This is where it should be. Homo or hetero, I do not care. It is the misogynist, racist, homophobic minority that should be called out, marginalised, voted out, shouted down, whatever way you have to get them out of the way so the rest of us can get down the road. I threw out the notion of being a feminist a few years ago. I would rather be considered a humanist.”
And what of the women whose lives you’ve seen in other communities? You’re extremely well traveled, as you talk about a lot in you live shows… what have you noticed about the lives of women in more remote countries? “In many African countries I have been to, the women fetch the water, do incredible amounts of work and in many cultures, are revered and respected,” he says. “It is strange to go from that to a place like Saudi Arabia, where women seem to be hidden away and treated as something other than a human being. For a western type, it’s a strange thing to see and at times, difficult to tolerate.”
“As an older guy, I am mad at famine, inequality, deregulation, banker graft,
war, globalisation, cruelty and things like that”
war, globalisation, cruelty and things like that”
On that note of tolerance, or the lack of it, I ask Henry if he finds himself getting more or less angry as he gets older, and whether the things that make him angry have changed with time? “I have gotten more angry, I’m afraid,” Henry simply says, before adding: “The sources of the anger have changed. When I was younger, I was mad at the guy who gave me the bad review, or the bass player who was doing whatever, or the girl who rejected me – basically, lightweight stuff. I was also mad at how I was raised and some real things like that. As an older guy, I am mad at famine, inequality, deregulation, banker graft, war, globalisation, cruelty and things like that. The girl doesn’t like me thing means nothing to me at this point, that’s too lightweight for me.”
Wrapping up, and (at this point) in anticipation of seeing Henry live in Bristol’s wonderful St George’s, I ask if he ever gets any time to himself and, if so, what he does with it? Somehow, I can’t imagine Henry Rollins sitting back with a takeaway pizza, watching Deal or No Deal… “I don’t have a television, believe it or not,” he tells me. “I get a fair share of down time. I go to the gym a lot. Post show, I get time to let the parts settle. I go online and look at things, listen to music, read, write. Most of the time though. I am active and working on something. That’s how I have always been, a kind of nervous, energetic type. I am trying to make the most of my time and what luck I have had come my way.”
So, on that note… it’s on with the show:
Henry Rollins at St George’s, Bristol – Tuesday, January 17
Let’s lay our cards on the table when it comes to this US punk icon: I own all of his albums, virtually all of his books and all but one his spoken word albums. Last night was the fourth time I’ve seen him perform spoken word live. I’m a fan.
Henry’s enthusiasm for life, culture and politics is infectious. He has turned me – and numerous others – on to great music and books. We might have got there eventually, but the urgency with which Rollins speaks got us there faster.
If you know Rollins’ work, then this review isn’t for you. You know what to expect. At exactly 8pm, a muscled mesomorph with tightly-cropped grey hair pounds on to the stage, takes the microphone in his left hand, wraps the cord around the same hand three times, plants his feet, and hits it, hits it hard. It’s a ‘relaxed’ version of the stance with which he attacked audiences of the Rollins Band for years when his nightly mission was to destroy the crowd with the power of his music. This is spoken word, and while it lacks the raw wattage and physical bruising of a Rollins Band or Black Flag performance, the intent and intensity are the same.
For two hours and 36 minutes, Rollins powers through anecdotes, jokes, opinions and minor epic prose-poems on his daily life. He also includes his recent travels (Vietnam, North Korea, Haiti, Tibet…), celebrities he has encountered (and on occasion terrified), and more. No umms, no ahhs, no sips of water. It’s seriously impressive.
At the height of the Rollins Band fame, the UK music press portrayed him as a tortured Nietzschean figure. The aggression, the songs of pain, and the superficial resemblance to a Brit-lensed stereotype of an American marine made him seem like the anti-Morrissey. Rollins’ goading of Brit indie bands for their weakness and lack of work ethic added to the press’ image. Indeed, his earlier spoken word, for example on the album Big Ugly Mouth, is a thanatotic rage. There are gags, but even those feel pained.
The difference between then and now is that while the anger has not diminished, this is a fully accomplished performer. Rollins hits the same subject matter as he has for decades – his anger at prejudice, injustice and at times the downright stupidity of human beings. But in 2012, Rollins can take an audience wherever he wants.
From mentally enervating tales of human suffering, to hilarious throwaway lines about shopping, he holds the audience’s attention whatever tone he cares to take. This is not to say that Rollins panders, but rather that he has skill and persuasive power to give people what they want even when they didn’t know they wanted it. It’s impossible that everyone at St George’s last night agrees with Rollins on all subjects, but we all wanted to hear him tell us about it, whatever it is.
The exception that proves this came nearly two hours into the show. Rollins was explaining that while he is not religious, he has no problems with religion per se, the exception being when so-called pro-life Christian groups try to dictate what a woman can do with her body. His statement was punctuated by a plastic pint glass, which blindsided him and hit the stage just to his left. The woman who threw it from the balcony had already vacated her seat and, presumably, the building by the time Rollins drew up. His reply began: “By the way, you’re a coward…” and ended with an offer to meet him outside where they could discuss the subject, or she could simply do her worst if she wanted. Do not doubt that at 10.37pm Rollins was waiting outside St George’s, eager to make good on his offer.
The incident added to the performance. His response reminded anyone who may have forgotten just who Henry Rollins is and where he came from. This is a man who in Black Flag shows was spat on, kicked, punched and cigarette-burned by ‘fans’. There is YouTube footage of a fan who made the mistake of trying to grab the singer’s microphone, and being told not to by the end of the singer’s fist. This is a man who at a Rollins Band performance took to the stage with such ferocious intensity that when he planted his foot in front of him and brought his head down to deliver the first line of the first song, they connected with such force that he knocked himself out for a few seconds, before stumbling to his feet and careening through the rest of the set with concussion while spraying blood all over the band from the head wound. This is a man who, in 1991, looked down the barrel of a gun and witnessed the death of his best friend when the two of them were robbed in front of their LA house.
So the question is: Why bother throwing a plastic pint glass at the man? What was the point? And if you are that highly-strung that 20 seconds of monologue in criticism of ‘pro-life’ authoritarianism sends you into a foot-stamping hissy-fit, then why the hell go to see any spoken word performance that isn’t delivered from a pulpit?
If you haven’t seen Rollins perform spoken word before, or heard his music or read his books, but you are interested in fast-talking, high protein culture, then check him out. Either you’ll be desperate to see him again straightaway (like 99.98% of last night’s audience), or you’ll throw something at him and walk out (0.02%). Either way, it’s called art.
I said at the beginning that if you were familiar with Rollins then this review wasn’t for you. There is one thing I would urge though: he tours constantly. The Long March Tour runs all this year and into 2013. Therefore, it’s relatively easy to see him. However, don’t wait for the next one. Do it now. If there was one message from Rollins’ performance last night, it was that we only live one life. Don’t miss out.
Interview by @MadamJMo
Gig review by @Redlife77
For details of other dates on Henry’s tour, please visit the tour page of his website by clicking here.
For more information of upcoming gigs at St Georges in Bristol, please visit their website by clicking here.