Concert review: Henry Rollins speaks his mind and heart at the Pageant, Saturday, March 24
Punk-rock icon turned wordsmith Henry Rollins summed up his set of spoken word material perfectly himself last night. Stating that he was, “Like a 33 1/3 RPM record playing at 78 RPM,” Rollins advised, “I try to squeeze eight hours of material into four and a half.”
Dressed in his traditional black t-shirt and pants and armed with only a microphone, Rollins, without much lead in or introduction, took the stage at the Pageant promptly at 8 p.m. and proceeded to jump head first into the proverbial mosh pit with his rapid-fire speech and held the seated crowd’s attention rapt for the next two hours and forty-five minutes. While the thought of watching someone on stage speak for that long without a break or music may make some cringe, the fact was Rollins’ machine-gun-like delivery made the evening fly by is impressive – especially for this reviewer who stood in the back for the entire show.
At 51, the former lead singer of seminal punk band Black Flag is funny, self-effacing and practically an open book. His constantly changing material only gets better with time and age as Rollins becomes more knowledgeable about the world. He advised that he spends much of the year on the road speaking to audiences: “Being at home is not interesting to me. I don’t like being off tour or going to the grocery store.” He stays busy with these spoken-word performances, film or television projects, a recent affiliation with the National Geographic channel and doing work for various non-profit organizations. He referred to himself not as a workaholic, but as a “work slut.”
Rollins started the evening with a discussion of his background of learning American history from disinterested athletic coaches at a naval prep high school in Washington, D.C. in the late ’70s. This set the tone for the evening as he related that this stunted his knowledge of the subject in his younger days, but as he grew older he took it upon himself to study and gained a large admiration for the subject — especially Abraham Lincoln.
To illustrate his point he referenced Lincoln’s “Speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois” given on January 27, 1838, just before the young politician turned 29 years old and over two full decades before he led the country during the Civil War. Recalling Lincoln’s words through part memorization and part paraphrase, he advised that Lincoln’s words “Speaks to America now.” Rollins continued by reiterating Lincoln’s sentiments, “America’s biggest danger does not come from abroad, but from America itself.”
The heavy preface allowed Rollins to give the audience his thoughts on the current state of American politics and the Republican race for a 2012 presidential nominee and continued as an undercurrent of his stories traveling around the world later in the set. With the state of current events, Rollins was able to rely on his thoughts about the candidates in a humorous tone while making the point that these are the type of leaders who are going to ruin America from within.
Moving quickly to the next subject he began a discussion of the mail he receives from fans especially those from Iraq war veterans and their families. He made sure to point out that he isn’t a detached famous person and tries to respond to much of it himself as much as possible. Rollins attributed this to his punk-rock background and gave Joe Strummer credit for his ability to look at things more than one way and to question authority — something he never would have done as a young man growing up. He pointed out that he “doesn’t give flimsy advice” and replies with compassion and urgency whenever he receives a heavy letter that “ruins your weekend.”
Rollins touched on a number of subjects in-between including his 50th birthday, his generation of musicians, fans being hurt years ago at Black Flag shows and discrimination of LGBT lifestyle. Here, he continues to show that he cares about people even when he sees injustice in the world, sometimes self-inflicted. He may seem gruff on the outside, but as he pointed out during the set, we “shouldn’t judge people by their appearances.”
Rollins finished the evening telling a series of stories about his travels around the world on his spoken-word tours and with National Geographic including trips to: India, Kentucky, North Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, Uganda and Haiti. These stories were often hilarious, yet heart wrenching at the same time.
He told how he met snake hunters and ate a rat liver in India; saw the best rock show last year given by the pastor and his band at a Pentecostal church in Kentucky that uses snakes in their services; visited the tomb of Kim Il-sung and the oppressive government in North Korea; witnessed the oppression inflicted by China on the people of Tibet; spent time with a Vietnam war historian reliving the brutal “Christmas Bombings” of 1972; saw the tactics of Joseph Kony in Uganda; and encountered the horrific living conditions of the people of Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that ravaged the island nation. Each story contained a keen focus on how lucky Americans are when compared with the rest of the world.
Near the end of the performance, Rollins summed up his thoughts on the American system of government and current state of affairs with the one-liner, “Democracy is beautiful but people screw it up.” He, like the majority of Americans, believes deeply in our country and the ideals it stands for. However, Rollins takes the view that we have the power to make it great and this can be the best century ever.
The audience seemed to take this positive sentiment to heart, loudly applauding as he left the stage — another crowd satisfied with his effort and punk-rock work ethic.