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The importance of being hard

The never-ending discography of Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins
Up For It DVD
Pioneer Video

A person could spend himself stupid trying to keep up with the recorded and published output of Henry Rollins. A person obsessed with the idea of hard work, particularly how hard he works, Rollins has managed to deluge the marketplace with videos, DVDs and CDs documenting both his band and his spoken-word performances. He has published in excess of thirty books ranging from tour diaries and travel essays to free verse to a coffee table book filled with photography culled from his six years touring the U.S. and Europe with Black Flag.

In the space of the past year or so, Rollins has released a spoken-word DVD, a new coffee-table book of unused lyrics, and Rise Above, a benefit CD featuring a gaggle of contemporary and slightly stale rockers singing along to old Black Flag songs.

But as one might guess, prolificness often comes at the expense of quality, and indeed, a fair amount of Rollins’s output is remarkably unspectacular.

The Rollins Band, the outfit he has operated since the demise of Black Flag in 1986, has churned out more than its share of middling man-rock—entire albums’ worth of limited vocal ability served atop humorless slabs of volume-discount riffs that are hardly discernible from your choice of throwaway Ted Nugent or Deep Purple albums.

Lyrics and song titles seldom waver from the same recurring themes: I am hard. I work hard. I am constantly getting burned, usually by people who don’t work as hard as I do. Certain things are intense. I am accustomed, and well qualified to deal with this intensity.

To his credit, around 2000, Rollins quietly replaced the instrumental portion of the Rollins Band with the L.A. band Mother Superior, a move that, while not much of a stylistic change, did nonetheless seem to re-energize him somewhat.

But the Rollins Band has never been Rollins’s cause celebre anyway. For years, most of his commercial success has come from his spoken-word performances. Though nowadays you’d have a hard time distinguishing him from a stand-up comedian, he actually began doing these performances as an adjunct to Black Flag shows.

Toward the end of that band’s run, Black Flag founder Greg Ginn had become increasingly perturbed that fans were identifying more with Henry Rollins, then the band’s lean, menacing, long-haired, tattooed frontman who was often likened to a scarier Jim Morrison (or a more genteel Charles Manson, if you like). Ginn had always intended Black Flag as a vehicle for his arty, exploratory guitar style, and by all accounts strongly resented the fact that fans were fixated on Rollins. Ginn began having Black Flag play instrumental shows, allowing Rollins to open by reading from his journals or reading aloud annotated passages from Henry Miller’s Tropic books.

Over the years, Rollins has all but phased out the self-serious mental anguish material in favor of a more light-hearted, often self-deprecatingly humorous tack. He has essentially morphed into a punk-rock version of Denis Leary, an observational comic for people who’ve outgrown the formulaic nature of mainstream comedy.

Having released seven or eight CDs worth of spoken-word material, Rollins eventually made the move to video and DVD—a shrewd choice in light of the fact that it is his striking, chiseled physical presence that accounts for much of his intrigue. On the new Up For It DVD, we see an affable, 40-year-old Rollins holding forth on a number of topics with his usual aplomb. Video affords an appreciation of some of his physical comedy; in one sketch, Rollins acts out how he tried to replicate a story he read about a man getting his johnson smushed under the toilet seat. Another sketch features a lengthy impersonation of Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson that is pants-pissing funny.

It’s nothing terribly unexpected, but the viewing experience is sullied by annoying videography. The cameras constantly pan out to laughing audience members, which would be fine for a Bill Cosby concert, but is incredibly off-putting in this particular context. And among the bonus material is an interview in which the cameraman insists on shaky close-ups of Rollins’s nose hair and forearms. It’s distracting and bizarre as hell, almost as if the concert was shot by the video club from Oral Roberts University.Various Artists
Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three
Sanctuary Records

Rise Above is a CD release intended to benefit the legal defense of the West Memphis Three, a cohort of teenaged Arkansans widely believed to have been wrongfully convicted by a fundamentalist Christian community of the ritual murder and rape of three young boys. The case was featured in the HBO documentary Paradise Lost, which is how Rollins purports to have become concerned with the case. Not exactly a tribute album as such, Rollins essentially asked a host of various rock notables from yesterday and today to do a sort of live karaoke act (and Henry himself sings a few tracks) with the current Rollins Band lineup taking care of the music, mostly songs from Black Flag’s classic 1981 Damaged LP.

None of these versions stray far from the original, either musically or vocally, and the results are mixed. Having the guys from contemporary bands like Slipknot sing Black Flag songs makes for a startling asymmetry of style, to an almost distracting degree. Maybe it’s an aging-punker bias, but the variety of Neanderthal machismo typified by that genre really doesn’t seem to catalyze favorably with Black Flag material. As is the case with most tribute records, it’s the more unpredictable entries—like Ice-T singing “Police Story,” or a version of “Wasted” performed as a duet with Henry and the bewitching Exene Cervenka from X—that yield the most satisfaction.

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