Jon Stewart once said about Bruce Springsteen that when the Boss performs on stage, he empties the tank. Some performers endure with unapproachable intensity, defying their age and it would seem even the limits of physics as they keep the needle in the red long after most of the audience is ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion. Paul McCartney remains that in his 70’s. And so does Henry Rollins. From the moment he walks out on the bare stage and grabs his instrument – the microphone – Rollins seizes his audience by the balls, locks them in a vice and doesn’t give them nor himself a single breath until he’s done, two and a half hours later; at which point he marches off without looking back, point made, job done. Rollins is a rare breed and like the most fascinating people, a walking contradiction – a master raconteur absolutely without cynicism; an angry, tattooed punk who rages for the cause of hope. He spits in the face of authority not out of misguided emo angst, but because he’s been to every corner of the world he’s been warned not to visit and has found a common humanity wherever he’s walked. Rollins is a modern pilgrim and is only too eager to share what he’s learned, to put it out there without judgement and have you decide for yourself whether you think he’s onto something or not.
I’m not going to pretend that I have any kind of penetrating insight into punk rock; apart from occasionally digging the odd Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop or Ramones tune it’s a stratum of society that is pretty foreign to a kid whose chosen muses growing up were James Bond and Star Trek. But it’s an interesting exercise to compare the sentiments of someone like Johnny Ramone, who admired George W. Bush and opined that punk was essentially right wing at heart, to Rollins, who rejects the absolutism that frames a conservative’s morality (he refers to Mitt Romney as a “feckless douche” and mocks the Republicans’ deep-seeded fear of “le vag”) and understands that people everywhere just want a better life for their kids and are at their best when they work together for the benefit of everyone. One could hardly find a sharper contrast to the Ayn Randian mentality that characterizes today’s right wing (and contributed greatly to their shellacking down south on November 6th). What I suspect informs at least some of Rollins’ more collectivist thinking as it applies to punk rock is the ability of music to unite everyone, regardless of background, in a shared experience. To show that someone else gets it. Rollins’ spoken word shows carry on that tradition as well. He admits that he both loves and fears his audience, but one thing is for certain: he can unite them.
Perhaps atypically for what one (or, more accurately, “the man”) would expect from a punk, Henry Rollins doesn’t believe in anger without purpose; he quotes Iggy Pop, who, when asked why he was so angry all the time, replied that “I work at it.” We’ve all felt that directionless anger many times in our lives, and rather than throwing up his hands and deciding that humanity is headed to its smouldering doom in the proverbial flaming handbasket, rather than simply stumbling out drunkenly in the night looking for an innocent face to throw a punch at, Rollins channels his anger into positive work. He relates a tale of bringing soap and soccer balls to a shattered community in Haiti, and laments playfully lifting a child into the air when a line of hundreds of them then formed expecting a similar ride from an increasingly sore back that wasn’t physically up to the challenge. He talks about befriending the driver of a broken-down tour bus in Cuba who could only manage a few phrases of broken English (among them “baseball”). He shares a story of meeting a fan who listened to Rollins’ records to gather the courage to come out to his staunchly conservative parents. He tells of a troubled young girl who sent him an email full of naked pictures of herself asking if he thought boys would like her, and of his response, both fatherly (gently assuring her that she doesn’t need to run at that part of her life when it will come naturally in time) and terrifying (talking about the permanence of the Internet and painting a graphic picture of what might happen should the wrong person decide to take an interest in her). And he finds the most clever ways to stick it to the man, as in when requesting that his share of the profits from a poster promoting a festival in Austin, Texas be donated to the local chapter of Planned Parenthood in order to give a smirking middle finger to Governor (and Planned Parenthood foe) Rick Perry. One thing I do understand about punk that many seem to miss is its wry sense of humor, and Rollins could easily be thought of as punk’s happy warrior. For a guy who looks like he’d just as soon kick your ass as look at you twice, Rollins does a magnificent job of making people laugh – not with puns or punch lines or observations about airline food, but with tales of the richness and the wackiness that is the life available to us if we’re willing to leap at it the way he does – even if we’re not all as eager to throw back two shots of cow urine on camera.
I’ve seen Henry Rollins live six times now, trying to make it out to his show every time he’s in the neighbourhood, and fortunately, as the self-professed “work slut” and Canada enthusiast proclaims, that’s often, usually once a year. The stories change but the message remains the same, and it continues to simmer in the recesses of one’s thoughts long after Rollins has said good night and soldiered back to his utilitarian hovel. Seeing Henry Rollins is not a passive experience where you let the words wash over you, laugh a few times and then forget it as soon as you’ve left the theatre. What Rollins wants, and the gauntlet that he lays down, is for each person sitting there listening and laughing to join with him in the spirit with which he journeys through life. To cast aside the filter of fear erected to obscure the truth of our world by people who are trying to sell us things. To come together in the common cause of getting everyone a little bit further up the road. Fundamentally, to find and latch onto that little piece of punk inside that Rollins knows can be harvested to do amazing things. And if nothing else, to rock out to the Ramones. I don’t know about you, but that makes me seriously consider getting some ink – or at least cranking up “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Hey, ho, let’s go.