You’d be hard put to find a better example of punk rock polymath than Henry Rollins: singer, author, poet, diarist, publisher, actor—is there anything this guy can’t do?
A better question would be: is there anything this guy won’t try? In Get in the Van, a coffee-table photo-essay/memoir devoted to his touring years at the helm of Black Flag, Rollins himself admits that he’s your basic average guy, nothing exceptional in the intelligence or natural giftedness departments, but has gotten to where he is today through austere self-discipline and fanatical devotion to his own self-styled work ethic.
So where is that, exactly? The prodigious output of Rollins, Inc. is a mixed bag—musically, the Rollins Band (formed within a year of Black Flag’s 1986 breakup) owes more to the turgid arena rock which young Rollins was weaned on than to the nihilist scumbag punk of Black Flag. His musical career in the wake of BF’s breakup polarizes fans of that band the same way Sugar drove a wedge between diehard Hüsker Dü fans and people who were willing to let Bob Mould get on with his life. Not bad by any means—just a little too vanilla for the old guard.
Rollins the author, on the other hand, is much more hit than miss. He excels at capturing the gritty details of the rootless life—even in Get In the Van, where a bleak sense of sameness emerges out of the chaos—although he occasionally bogs down in morbid introspection seasoned with melodramatic lines like “Sometimes the hands trying to kill me are mine.” As for Rollins the poet, well—two out of three ain’t bad.
But to really catch the man in full, as it were, you really need to check out Rollins the Speaker. As a raconteur, no one in the currently booming field of punks-turned-sojourning-one-man-shows can touch him. He stalks onstage with nary a prop or visual aid except himself, a microphone and a bottle of water, and holds his audience on point with nothing but talk. Sometimes for over three hours. Deranged parents, obsessive fans, getting to meet Ozzy Osbourne, his bouts with impotence—a little of everything finds its way into the act, in blocks ranging from five minutes to half an hour, careening abruptly between gravity and deadpan humor. On his last stop in Missoula, Rollins decreed that El Niño—“the child”—was an unacceptable name for something that did so much damage, suggesting that the freak weather system should be renamed “the first four Black Sabbath albums” instead. On one of his spoken-word albums, he explores the bathos of his hatred for Edie Brickell (of New Bohemians renown) by outlining a performance-art piece in which he plans to dismantle and then reassemble a pyramid of broken glass and barbed wire, using nothing but his body, with Brickell’s voice blaring over the public address system.
It’s inspired stuff. Rare is the performer who can talk about himself for three hours and leave you wanting more.
You’ll find Henry Rollins Spoken Word at the University Theatre, Thursday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $12 general, $10 students, available through TIC-IT-EZ. Word.