Get Up the Road: Henry Rollins live

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.

Give me Maher!

With the recent political swing to the right in Toronto, first with Rob Ford, then with the Conservative GTA wins in the federal election, you’d think there wouldn’t be much of an appetite for Bill Maher’s brand of comedy in Hogtown.  But a packed Massey Hall couldn’t get enough of him last Saturday night.  For 90 minutes the master of taking the piss out of the American right-wing was slicing and dicing the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, to a crowd that thankfully doesn’t have to face the prospect of a ballot with any of those names on it, but was still informed enough to understand just how deserving of mockery those targets are.  (Curious how Rick Mercer might have done with a set on Stephen Harper and Rob Ford in Texas – I’m guessing crickets, and that’s nothing against Mercer.)  To any regular viewer of HBO’s Real Time, some of the wisecracks were familiar.  But Maher delivers them with such verve you can laugh at them again and feel like it’s the first time.  It’s all still hilarious, and ever so true.

Those of a certain political inclination inclined to dismiss Bill Maher as a “loony leftie” miss the point.  His politics, and by extension his comedy, isn’t about left and right, it’s about intelligent and stupid.  Maher is, like Aaron Sorkin in many ways, if not an idealist, then at least someone who prefers to be led by smart and curious people and has no patience for the kind of false populism that celebrates the mediocre and the small-minded.  Religion is a particular bugbear for him – among the best jokes of the night was a bit about how the West has learned to ignore its religious leaders (in contrast to fundamentalist regimes abroad) and a prediction that the Pope will one day be nothing more than a  float robotically blessing the onlookers in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.  For Maher, looking to the imaginary guy in the sky for answers is the refuge of the foolish, and he saves his most bitter disdain for scheming politicians like Rick Perry who prey on that naivete to win votes.  I don’t suspect Bill Maher would have as much of a problem with the likes of Perry and Bachmann if they didn’t parade their faith around like a political prop.  It’s when faith is used in lieu of reasoned arguments that gets Maher’s hackles up.  These aren’t the William F. Buckleys of decades past laying out their case in thought-out paragraphs spiced with Latin.  Today it’s Southern-accented fire and brimstone and the all-consuming, earth-ending threat of gay marriage.

The conservative comedian Dennis Miller, for all his verbal calisthenics and classical references, these days comes off only as sad and angry – not in the rebellious sense, but more in the mold of that kid at the party who was only invited because his mom pulled some strings.  Miller’s repertoire has become a tired litany of ramblings about Joe Biden’s hair and Nancy Pelosi’s makeup – he’s mainly upset because his team didn’t win.  Bill Maher, on the other hand, remains fresh and inspired because he doesn’t really care which team wins – he just wants both teams to be better.  His targets are anyone he sees to be dragging the whole cause down:  a refrain repeated often during the show, with a hand covering his face was “I’m embarrassed for my country.”  He isn’t afraid to take shots at President Obama either, bemoaning what he sees as a pattern of capitulation to the Tea Party extremists in Congress who are determined to see him fail.  But what bothers Maher most is what he sees as America’s hypocrisy-fueled descent into idiocracy; an electorate swayed by celebrity into voting against their own interests time and again, and a political movement that claims to be for the common man but is in fact backed by billionaires and underpinned with a very real, very ugly swath of racism.  The fact that he’s out there making jokes about it, even to a foreign audience, suggests that he thinks there is still hope – if the good people can find their feet and their guts and start taking the power back.

You might miss that message amidst all the laughs, and the occasional side ventures into the never-ending mine of the perplexity that is male-female relations.  But Bill Maher knows that the best way to serve up wisdom is with a smile.  You come out of his show with your sides hurting and your mind thinking.  Maybe the way we beat these guys is to make them ridiculous.  It’s certainly a lot more fun than hate.

Huge Act, Man!

Few of us are lucky enough to love what we do.  A vast majority slog across a daily grind of menial, meaningless tasks, the day’s only bright spot the dwindling minutes until quitting time.  When you consider that you will (unless you are a Kardashian or a Hilton) spend most of your life doing a job, it is tragic that many of us won’t ever find that singular vocation that we can relish.

Hugh Jackman doesn’t have that problem.  The Australian actor, who got his star-making break as Wolverine in X-Men eleven years ago when original casting choice Dougray Scott got stuck growling at Tom Cruise on the overlong shooting schedule for Mission: Impossible 2, is finishing up the last of a two-week run of his one-man performance at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.  By “finishing up” you might suspect that he’s going through the motions as the end draws near.  Not so.  The show is a supernova’s worth of energy and talent blasted at an eager audience whose already high expectations don’t come close to what this natural-born-entertainer is capable of.   With a continent’s worth of charisma and a wit quick enough to rival the most skilled of improv comedians, Jackman takes you on a personally guided tour of his career, his passions and his favorite songs, including stories about his family and a spiritual experience of the beauty of the Australian outback and the magnificence of its indigenous people.  He loves being there, he loves doing this, and unlike some performers who subtly hint that they occupy a stratosphere never to be glimpsed by mere mortals, “Jacko” makes the people who come to see him feel like their coolest BFF got a stage show.

That show ranges from the flamboyant (Jackman reprising his The Boy from Oz role of Peter Allen for a couple of numbers), the touching (a story about Jackman’s father coming to see him play Carnegie Hall, and a quiet rendition of Allen’s moving song “Tenterfield Saddler”), the hilarious (inviting a lucky shlub of an audience member up on stage to dance with two sexy backup singers), the absurd (how the studio behind X-Men thinks he should be spending his downtime), the raunchy (grinding his hips for the female fans), the romantic (a series of clips from his leading man roles set to “L.O.V.E.”) and the transcendent (an incredible closing number involving two digiridoo players and Australian Aboriginal leader and singer Olive Wright).  After witnessing this it’s hard to imagine anyone else – including the Rat Packers at their peak – who could wrap all of these diverse ingredients into a swift 90-minute cocktail that goes down as smoothly as a cool martini.

I’d be remiss in failing to mention the personal connection I have to this show in that an old high school friend is a member of Jackman’s orchestra, and it’s a moment of extreme pride to hear one of the biggest stars in the world give her a shout-out onstage for baking cookies for the entire crew.  Way to go Kate, you done good!

Aaron Sorkin has written that an artist’s job is to captivate you for however long he or she has asked for your attention.  Hugh Jackman does more than that.  He shows you how good it can be when you really love what you do, and it’s a seductive, and inspiring experience that stays with you as you wander back into the office the following morning and behold the litany of frivolous emails and the malfunctioning photocopier demanding your attention.

Too many of us sacrifice our passions with excuses we know don’t hold water.  “It will be too hard.”  “I probably won’t be any good at it.”  For 90 minutes last night, we could understand how richer we are that Hugh Jackman (and my friend Kate) never succumbed to that.  It makes us wonder, too, about the possibilities that might unfold were we to, as Hugh would put it, just “have a go.”  That’s the best lesson to take from Hugh Jackman and one that I suspect he’d probably be cool with.

Thanks for the show, mate.