Henry Rollins @ The Murray Theater

Posted November 18, 2008 in
Henry Rollins
Murray Theater

Henry Rollins

When I was fifteen, Henry Rollins was my god. Not only was Rollins in one of the angriest punk rock bands of all time (Black Flag, of course), but he was also one of the angriest writers I'd ever read. Plus, he provided the voice for a character in one of the Batman animated movies, which was a plus in my fifteen year old mind. Rollins appealed to me not only because he was angry, but because he was angry and smart. He didn't self-destruct on booze and drugs and he didn't throw his own shit at the crowd. Instead, Rollins channeled his anger into a positive force, whether it be campaigning for gay rights, releasing a benefit album to free the West Memphis Three, or simply publishing his writing so that the angry, confused fifteen year olds of the world had something to connect to. Rollins' unadulterated anger towards the world in general coupled with his desire to see it changed will appeal to disgruntled teenagers for years to come, though this night at The Murray Theater, the crowd was treated to something of a kinder, gentler Rollins.

Rollins started his spoken word performance with an obligatory Bush-bashing. However, I found it interesting that Rollins painted Bush not as a the bad guy, but as an inconsequential guy surrounded by bad people. So many are quick to blame a single person for the problems faced by our nation today, yet no one thinks about why we really are where we are and where the blame really lies. Of course, Rollins spiced up his delivery of the obligatory Bush-bashing with lots of humor, comparing George Bush's forehead to a fearsome pair of clenching jaws, and comparing Bush's delivery of the English language to the experimental poetry of e.e. cummings. Rollins then told of his experience of the previous Tuesday, watching election coverage in Washington, DC with Ian MacKaye's family and crying along with MacKaye's wife when they learned Barack Obama had won. Surprisingly, this opening bit was about as deep as Rollins would delve into politics, focusing the majority of his two-and-a-half hour performance on humorous anecdotes.

One of the more ridiculous moments of the night was Rollins' explanation of his unlikely friendship with William Shatner. Shatner recruited Rollins to record a song on one of his albums, and the unlikely pair hit it off. Rollins' impression of Shatner was incredibly over the top, and apart from the sheer absurdity of Rollins and Shatner being friends, the impression really mad the bit work. Rollins even spent last Thanksgiving with Shatner's family, where he was a big hit with the kids because of his willingness to eat any and all gross things they handed to him. Rollins also relayed tales of working on a new movie with Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Rollins will be playing a priest), his unusual propensity for being hit with things while on stage (including a quarter in the teeth in SLC circa 1986), and being "randomly" given an enhanced body search at the Los Angeles International airport. This last bit was particularly entertaining, as Rollins was given a full-body, intense frisk as he struggled not to giggle like a little girl because he is so ticklish. Also humorous was Rollins' description of the LAX security officers reading his journal aloud, and how truly ridiculous Rollins' world-hating diatribes sound when being read in the company of others.

Before the night's end, Henry brought it all back to serious matters, though. It was interesting to hear Rollins talk about how his ideology has changed over the years. He said that when he was younger, he firmly believed that people suck, and that's the end of it. Now, though, he believes that people are placed in situations that suck, and it's hard to tip the scales and make people's lives not suck. He illustrated this point by telling a story about a US soldier who recently returned from war and wrote Rollins a letter asking him to convince him not to commit suicide. This guy did nothing wrong, but he went to war and he came back messed up. He couldn't handle it, and now he's suicidal. Rollins wrote back, but never heard from the soldier again. Rollins also talked about his trips to various other parts of the world, including a trip to France where he became attached to a documentary called H for Hunger, and a trip to South Africa where he stood in the former prison cell of South African leader Nelson Mandela. One of the most interesting parts of the night was when Rollins described being in Pakistan when female politician Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last year. Rollins saw people rioting in the streets, openly weeping and forming angry mobs with no destination in mind. Rollins found himself caught up in the sadness and the anger and found himself in the middle of one these angry mobs, and no one treated him as an outsider.

The Henry Rollins of today is not the Henry Rollins of Black Flag. He isn't even the Henry Rollins of the '90s, or even of the time when I came to admire him a few years ago. Rollins hasn't recorded an album for nearly ten years, and his latest spoken word release can only be purchased in Best Buy. He has a successful talk show on non-basic cable's IFC. Rollins isn't so much a symbol for anger and rebellion in the face of uncertainty -- he is an institution. However, all of my preconceived notions about what Rollins would be like and how he would treat his crowd were entirely unfounded. Rollins still treated his crowd with respect, and most importantly, the crowd still felt connected to him. So Rollins may be rolling the dough now, but does that really matter? What matters is that all of these people who need someone to connect with have it in Rollins, and he's still a damn fine performer.