He’s not an especially gifted singer or songwriter; his post-Black Flag musical output has succeeded largely on the strength of a simple formula—half-personal lyrics delivered in a drill-sergeant bark over lean stadium-metal pounding—with a high stick-up-the-ass factor that makes his albums useful but not exactly enjoyable. Hardly exceptional as a writer, either; his prose is blunt and workmanlike, his poetry usually embarrassing, and however shrewd his observations of human behavior, they’re strangely offset by an almost cartoonish disinterest in the people behind it. He’s shown himself to be an effective character actor in small parts, but how can you look like Henry Rollins and not make a terrifying movie cop?
Say what you will about the man, but it’s past arguing that Rollins has stayed in the public eye for the past 15 years largely on the strength of his own ferocious resolve to gather no moss and a work ethic that would humble an Amish farmer. The image he’s molded for himself is one of a man who can triumph over anything through sheer determination, and, as rock’s most prolific polymath, he’s been writing his own ticket for the past 15 years.
Perseverance is one thing. But if you’re looking for answers as to why this bull-necked combination of Roy Batty and Randian ego manages to consistently endear himself to audiences in his spoken-word performances, match that unnerving obsidian glower of his and consider the candor with which Rollins can discuss erectile dysfunction. His problems with women. The embarrassment of picking out a soap dish in a yuppie home furnishings store. Entertaining a lapful of transvestite prostitute on his birthday.
This is Rollins’ true bailiwick, and the reason you’re in for a pleasant surprise if you only know him as that big scary dude who occasionally shows up on MTV and seems to make everyone within swinging distance palpably nervous and ill at ease. A gentler side shines through in his spoken-word performances and on the accompanying recordings on Chicago-based Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records. Part of it is obviously done with cleverness aforethought; he plays off your dimmest expectations of his outward meatheadedness by sharing his most laughable foibles with self-effacing humor.
His world travels, of course, also figure prominently in these lengthy performances. Rollins might not be the most astute travel writer, either, but he does have a way of combining travelogue logorrhea (a lot of it written, cramped and uncomfortable, on airplanes) with some very funny observations; Moscow, as we learn, with its plunging escalators and violently closing doors, is no place for people with no common sense.
And a portion of each performance is pure pep talk; obliged to sum up somehow, Rollins usually brings his longer-winded anecdotes to a close with exhortations that are part track coach, part high school assembly—in so many words, for audience members to “make something of themselves” and “set goals” and so forth. In some anti-authority Bizarro world, Rollins would make an effective inspirational speaker for high schools. You certainly do come away after three hours feeling, if a little overwhelmed, inspired nonetheless.
Henry Rollins comes to the Wilma next Friday, April 6. Tickets available at TIC-IT-EZ outlets and by calling 1-888-MONTANA or 243-4051.