When Henry Rollins enters the stage, he dives into what evolves as three hours of personal recollection and exorcism – we hear the voice that shrieked through the most striking moments of Black Flag’s career and see the stern, sometimes caustic face that haunted and howled in the most seedy and questionable bars and clubs throughout the United States when hardcore was blooming and collapsing on itself all the same. Those days would die, and Henry would reappear in the jazz prone but equally heavy and lyrically acidic Rollins Band, then commentating on IFC, and then doing what he now does – traversing the globe whilst unleashing his infinite convictions and memories upon the audience.
One could look to either side of the auditorium and realize that the people who pay twenty to thirty dollars for an evening with the artist have indeed aged and grown with him – they’ve been embedded in the same political landscape and subjected to identical controversy; they identify with Henry Rollins, who, unlike many from that powerful and crushing musical wave of punk and hardcore that inspired and united a wayward youth, manages to survive and adapt to the greater culture while maintaining the honesty, humanity, and poignant articulation that has contributed to his status as hero. He could’ve been entirely forgotten with some of the best of that bygone cultural onslaught or vanished into relative obscurity, but Rollins’ work ethic and innate intensity have preserved him against the decay that often strikes even the most potential cultural icons – he thrives on the past but is always relevant, alert, and direct, his thoughts and critique emboldened and indeed human, as even Rollins would himself admit that night as he has in the past, he can be wrong or misguided despite the compulsion his passion provides.
Rollins thoughts flow like a conversation with a familiar friend; he towers and remains tense through each story. The tales draw from the recent and seemingly ancient; each is indispensable, a gem of sorts in delivery and content. As his followers often do, Rollins himself reflected on the dark and distant era of hardcore when he and a league of others were piling into vans to tear through the American landscape – he would speak with a grin while remembering a night where he was kicked around and thrown by an obese biker type throughout Black Flag’s set, who he would later see be stabbed in the parking lot while informing Henry of how much he “sucked.” He ventured into the hostile nature of Los Angeles’ murkier industries, recounting two ultra-feminine work boys he’d seen shout down a pair of tough guys in a gas station who had intended to jeer and leer – Rollins had expected a fight to go down, not for the truckers to break for it when their intended victims had something to say back.
Those were strange times for Henry, who learned enough to survive the crash of Black Flag and unlike the incredibly talented and influential but background-prone Greg Ginn, come out of it and develop into a cultural icon to both the veterans and newcomers of the punk scene and, importantly, to those adrift outside of such niches.
In the evening’s latter half he detailed account after account from when filming a new television show for National Geographic, explaining the brotherhood he entered by consuming rats with rural exterminators in India and how much of his mind had been blown when being witness to a traditional, snake handling Pentecostal church’s service that included, of course, live serpents and the most impressive blues guitar playing from the congregation’s pastor. Rollins dives into things like this with the ease and vibe of a sharpened ice pick; there seems to be no script and every word rolls smoothly, making him a human being with something to say, rather than a fill-in figure with a script and sales pitch – he is proud of his humanity, conscious and seemingly glad for the discord he is granted.
Perhaps the most striking stories that illustrated what Rollins has become for a generation involved what makes its way to his email: a soldier returning home from Iraq is plagued with suicidal thoughts after accidentally killing a child on a bunk order from his commanding officer and leaves Henry as the one responsible for talking him out of it; a young girl sends him nude photos asking if she’s pretty enough for boys her age to like her; a message titled “You’ve lost another fan” turns out to be a note from a mother whose son was killed in the Iraq war who had looked up to Rollins and his work. But Henry deals with each issue head on: he provides a detailed solution for the guilt-plagued soldier but never hears back from him; he urges the girl to never send anyone such photos again for her own good and to be confident; he is at a loss for words when replying to the mother’s note, but still manages a genuine, sincere, kind response.
He is an icon, a beacon of hope – so many connect with him through the spoken and written word; he isn’t untouchable or propped on a pedestal of warrantless self-importance. Rollins is far from comfortable in his own humanity; rather, he is the embodiment of internal conflict. The man is chaos, but a controlled chaos that identifies with struggle and constant work, growing older with the generation that best knows him, but remaining relevant and awake for those who have yet to – there’s no rest for the obsessed.
Check out some YouTube footage from the appearance below.