Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Henry Rollins: American Artist

Henry Rollins might just be my hero: legendary front man for Black Flag and Rollins Band, author, actor, spoken word performer (amongst other things), the man lives to create: literarily.

But that’s really just the start of it.

I rolled through the California desert this very evening, sand blowing my car sideways with with the bite and power of the wind. I was tired, over-caffeinated, peevish, cold and clammy and rattled. I had to make a round-trip of around 250 miles, and thankfully my iPod was souped up and powered up. Random shuffle popped on a spoken word performance by Rollins from the late 90s.

And the rest of the night was cake.

Rollins has the ability to take a fairly ordinary, somewhat interesting musician’s anecdote (in this case a series of incidents in which Rollins desperately wants to outperform fellow legend Iggy Pop on stage) and turn it into a self-effacing, laugh-out-loud tour de force. The story telling begins in a relatively even voice as Rollins doles out only as much information as his audience needs to know. During the first part of the tale, concerning an early 90s concert in which Rollins and Pop were on the same bill, Rollins explains that the far older Iggy “blew my ass off the stage.” By the time the climax of the story hits, during the third attempt of Rollins to upstage Iggy, Rollins is screaming, exhorting, working himself up into the same spirit that fueled his artist-commando siege upon the House of Pop.

A classic vengeance story is born. Rollins carefully, colorfully, and hilariously builds up the conflict in the story: the "aw shucks" one moment, raging rock demon another Iggy versus the single-minded musician-assassin set out upon a course of redemption.

The brilliance is in how far Rollins is willing to go in poking fun at himself. The audience is treated to a word portrait of Rollins in full military/Buddhist/samurai-style training to finally match Iggy's stagemanship at a Finland rock festival in 1998. The bill? The Cure ("Pretty good songwriter," Rollins says of front man Robert Smith, "but what's up with his whole pose, and that hair? How did he pick that?") backed by Iggy Pop and Rollins Band. Rollins lets us see and enjoy how much of a maniac he became in the pursuit of his goal, how others around him were amused or appalled (his own backing band, "real musicians," thought he was an "asshole," Rollins tells us).

The climax sees a mid-30s Rollins giving the performance of his life, and working within an inch of it, to upstage the soon to perform Pop in Finland. "My head hurt, my ass hurt, I couldn't breathe," Rollins says of his rock-'till-you-drop performance that evening. Between sets, a normally infuriatingly aloof Pop sees Rollins and says, "fucker."

But that's just the beginning.

During a five-minute rollercoaster ride of the senses, Rollins explains in visceral, excruciating, hilarious detail the lengths that Pop goes through to maintain his title of punk rock's hardest working elder statesman. Now 50, Pop proceeds to vanquish Rollins' noble quest by crashing off loudspeakers, bleeding profusely from his "serpentine body," smashing spotlights, scaring the hell out of his own band, kicking out light fixtures, invoking the crowd to come on stage, and smashing hell out of the dozens of potted plants set up on stage for The Cure's headlining set.

The end of the sweaty, manic, all on-the-line tale comes when a wild-eyed, bloody, mud-basted Pop walks past Rollins.

And chuckles.

Rollins has the ability to take an average story and transform it into a magical and exquisitely unique journey. This is because of his brutal honesty: about others, about the world, but most of all with regard to himself. He's a stand-up philosopher, to steal the term coined (I believe) from History of the World: Part I.

Henry Rollins is an inspiration to anyone who would practice true art.


Lucas Brachish said...

I was never a die-hard fan of Henry Rollins' music -- I can appreciate his importance to music history with Black Flag, as well as the energy and intelligence of his solo work, but neither Rollins nor Black Flag really does it for me on a personal level. (Well, I did find myself humming that one MTV hit Rollins had back in the mid-90s. What was that – “You’re a Liar” or something, right? And I’ve gone through phases of listening to Black Flag. But they aren’t in my top hundred or anything.)

HOWEVER, I did see Rollins give at a live spoken word event once, where he spoke for over an hour, and it was AMAZING. Just as you describe, the man is a tremendous storyteller, with great timing and the ability to wring out every laugh and whimper from a tale. (Note: I think he should be used more as a film actor, and not just a talking head on VH1 music specials, even though he usually has some of the most cogent opinions, because his dynamic personality could be better served in a lasting medium such as film)

I've also seen Iggy Pop perform live -- in 2004 as part of his reunion tour with the Stooges. My f*$@ing god, I've never seen a performance like it. I like Iggy's music, and I worship his classic work with the Stooges, but I just was not prepared to how incredible he'd be live. Sure, he's famous for his wild stage presence, but at this point the guy is old enough to be a grandfather, and yet he had more energy than -- than -- well, saying he blew the asses off the 20 or so hot acts that came on before him just isn't enough. He's a friggin' Tasmanian Devil.

Regrettably, I haven't heard Rollins' story about trying to upstage Iggy. Do you know what album the track is located on? Or the title of the track, anyway. . .

Eric Berlin said...

Lucas - I largey agree with you regarding Rollins' music, spoken word, and film career. I really like about 8 Rollins Band / Black Flag tunes, and can safely live without the rest.

But the spoken word is compulsive listening. The performance I wrote about is called, I believe, Live at Luna Park.

Rollins has actually been in a bunch of movies, albeit in small roles. I agree I'd love to see him in bigger parts -- perhaps not the lead, but a strong secondary role in a fun/intense/trippy film would be epic.