By James Currie
Henry Rollins is known by many monickers i.e. punk rocker, actor, author, poet, podcaster, DJ, Grammy winner, television show host, record label executive and book publisher to name just a few, but this time through Chicago, it was all about his spoken word tour (and birthday). This is one of only three stops on his spoken word tour.
Rollins spent two days in Chicago this month one of which was his 55th birthday. He set up a mini residency in Pilsen at Thalia Hall on February 12th and his day of birth, February 13th. During both nights giving multi hours of stories on his life and times.
This was a solo artist performance. No backing band. No opener. No projectionist for slide show and tell. Just a man with Reagan era tattoos and a mic. And they fans came out in droves for it. Even in the freezing cold and snow, he sold both nights out.
Rollins came out to center stage with three monitors, a corded mic and a couple spotlights. Wearing his trademark all black ensemble of t-shirt and chinos, he greeted the 30-50 somethings audience with a hello with was meet back with a standing ovation and numerous shouts of Happy Birthdays. He smiled and graciously and received it all before tearing into an almost three hour lecture.
He started the show saying, he’s really happy to do these tours and very appreciative to all who came out to see and hear his rants. He further elaborates on how he figures we, the audience, must be smart, educated and openminded people otherwise why would we be there. The things he has to say are going to be meet by like minded folks.
Rollins first story, is one about his meeting and working with William Shatner. How he is almost 80 years old and still touring, writing, working and keeping so busy, he doesn’t know what day of the week it is. Rollins states, “That’s how I am and want to be”. His life is one big adventure and he can’t sit still for very long without going stir crazy.
The next story rolls right off the first without a break. This time he’s talking about the media, new press and politics. How thing are so skewed and we need to stay on top of it all on our own. Keeping well informed and educated. Don’t rely on them (the media) to tell you what’s going on.
Several minutes later, he’s talking about Mother Nature and how we’re constantly trying to fuck this planet up and how she’s trying to take it back. A war of back and forth that we need to stop. “We need to slow down, not over produce, keep our kids in check and don’t destroy it.” Then tells us about a crazed woman that emailed him about human conditions and planet earth needs. A tale met with full laughter that needs to be heard from the man himself.
This leads us into a new story about musicians, fandom and death. How we, true fans of musicians, relate to their deaths like loosing a family member. How we grow up with them like an aunt or uncle. Their music is the story of our lives. Himself included. He’s a fan and can relate to it all from both sides.
He tells a story of how he meet one of his music idols, David Bowie. How he was touring in the UK outside Newcastle. He found out about Bowies death shortly before going on stage. It was like a punch in the gut. It bothered him a lot but he held it in until the end.
David Bowie, to him as a youth, represented someone so different. Something that stood out and promoted youth differences. “David Bowie was punk rock before punk rock!” he shouted. “He made parents uncomfortable and it was good.”
He flashes forward 20+ years to the mid 90’s and his meeting with David Bowie. Bwie was playing an all day festival in the UK and Henry’s band, The Rollins Band, went on very early in the day. They played to a hand full of fans, then had the rest of the day to chill saying, “I had 12 hours of boredom until Bowie came on that night”.
Later in the day, he was standing off the side of the stage when Bowie walks up and say’s, “Hello Henry!” like he knew him already and were friends. Rollins lights up at this point and the conversations grows. The “Bo” as Rollins called him affectionately, said, “He (Bowie) had read an interview I gave and even quoted lines back from the article. The “Bo” has read me!?” he swooned. Then Bowie asked him if he was hungry and wanted to grab a bite. As you can imagine, Rollins followed.
Later, after lunch, Rollins asked Bowie’s manager if he could stand on stage off to the side while Bowie played live. The manager said, “Actually, David has asked that you join his private group on stage to see the show as his guest”. You can only imagine the excitement that followed.
This continued story telling about a famous musician who is a fan of like everyone else. He talks about his friend Lemmy and Iggy Pop. He tells us how he practices his impressions and does his Iggy, tucking in his upper lip and doing his best midwestern Detroit draw. It’s actually spot on. As well as several others. Add another talent to the mans list!
He still buys records (which he just did this day before the show) especially limited editions and box sets. He still goes to concerts. He reads about others and what they are up to and even interviews them from time to time. Henry Rollins is a fan of music in every way.
Rollins describes how he was a “cultured and weird little dude” growing up. His mom took him to shows, theatre and live events all the time. His father was a strict son of a bitch, but it all worked out in the end and gave a sort of balance to his life.
Other stories of meeting and hanging out with fellow musicians that he grew up fans of, only to befriend later, included Lemmy of Motorhead. He talked about how Lemmy always tried to get you to laugh. He let you know he was Lemmy and ready to do business, but had a fun side. He told the story of hanging out with him in his home until very late one day and described how Lemmy seemed to be a lonely dude that just wanted company. Once he visited his house in LA, he learned Lemmy was a bit of a hoarder and had a very specific path to walking through his house and not to deviate from it. Then telling him how he just found a suitcase he lost years earlier… right there in his own place. It just mysteriously reappeared.
This led into the story on how the West Memphis Three tribute started. How he called in favors from all his music friends and said, we need to help. Lemmy was a part of this as well as many others. The album was a tribute to the boys from the early days of Rollins career with Black Flag and Rollins Band.
About Chicago, Rollins remomists about his favorite shows being at the Metro here in Chicago. He talked about how he just went and visited the owner, Joe Shannahan at the Metro. Rollins said, “Playing there was great. We were like, look out Chicago, here we come with in your face music”.
At this point, we’re about 2 hours into the show when a group of people in the stage skybox seats starts disrupting the show with loud talking. Rollins quickly looks up to them and growls, “Are we OK up there?” They silence for a while, only to interrupt again about 30 minutes later at which point Rollins really gets pissed and says, “Look you guys, there are a lot of people who paid a lot of good hard earned money to see me and I need to give it to them. Are we cool?” The audience sides with Rollins giving a snicker and jeer back. He continues undisturbed for the remainder of the show.
Other highlights from the show included conversations of living in LA and how everyone sees famous people all the time and doesn’t give two shits about it. Every now and then he does encounter fans. Most are cool. Some experiences have been a little intense. One fan cried at his table at a Starbucks. Another felt him up while telling her midlife story. He’s a regular at this particular coffee shop and the kids working there are like, “Who is this old guy that has people come up to him all the time and cry and want to touch him?”
He talks about how everything changes when you hit his age. “At 50-55 everything is different. Things hurt easy. At 55 everything changes and makes noise. Enjoy life and youth while you can folks because this all doesn’t last forever.”
Henry still trogging forward with out so much as a water break, jumps into things like acting. How he can’t sit still and will do just about anything to keep busy. He can’t not be making or doing something. He does things for the activity of it. He not into things for the money. Then he pokes fun at his role in the movie, Jack Frost. Another, with the fun he had playing the most hated character roll in Sons of Anarchy with Kurt Sutter. He also talks about how fans react to what he does and why he makes certain choices, but explains he honestly doesn’t care. Work is work. Busy is busy saying, “I know I’m not taking this shit serious. Why should anyone else.”
Next he talks about what he does for fun when he is home. It’s not much. He lives very minimal. Prefers to live out of a backpack and be on the road. But when he is home, he loves to listen to records, go out to his coffee shop and people watch and write in his notebook, go out to eat and that’s about it.
Being on the road is really where he feels comfortable. He likes being single. Like not having children and the whole reporting back to someone lifestyle. Not that he doesn’t like woman and children but they just aren’t for him.
He talks about his adventures to other countries and describes how this is what we all should be doing. Meeting each other face to face. Learning cultures and new lifestyles. Saying if we all did, there would be so much less animosity in the world.
Jungle and antarctic adventures being his most recent trips. He’s slept in the jungle with critters crawling all over him and crashed in a self dug trench laying in a sleeping bag in the antarctic with penguins shitting and making love all around him. No other civilization involved, just him in nature.
Rollins still full steam ahead, goes into retirement discussions and how other countries don’t even talk about that as an option. Then about a gay kid in Utah he befriended. Helping him deal and cope with life, family, social pressure and feelings through music and words. He said, “Talking to this kid and explaining life was like if you’ve never had a bite of pizza or sushi or had sex, then did it all in 5 minutes!” Other people he’s meet and touched lives in included a young slightly aggressive girl he meet in Germany who told him she came by herself from hours away to meet him and that he was to do things for her. He thought it was a bit strange, but after talking to her learned so much. They still keep in touch to this day.
The show is coming to an end. Rollins says, “It’s an honor to be here and do this for you guys. I love sharing this moment with you.” He further explains, “I hope that you all get something positive from this. That you leave and do something. Until next time, thank you and goodbye.”
The main stage performance ends just shy of three hours. Henry Rollins leaves the stage with a final wave and the lights go out.
It’s at this point that the show for the majority is over. The remaining few get a VIP experience with Rollins. He answers a few more questions and tells a few more stories. These lucky few have now received about 4 hours of Henry Rollins. As well as gaining some inside scoop on further details of the man.
He explains why the VIP experience is even happening, “When I was first asked to do this VIP experience, every punk rock part of me said hell no! It goes against all I believe in for what is punk rock. This is not what it’s about. If I meet you on the street, I’d talk to you. Why would I charge to hang out with fans for more?” This was only the second time he’s done this and you can see he doesn’t feel very comfortable with it. Then proceeds with, “I though about it, and realized my time is valuable. If you want more, than that’s part of the show so for me to go on longer with a performance, I can accept it as work. I’ve already talked for a long time and I’m getting tired. I’d like to just leave and go have a drink, but I know what it’s like to be that fan. I just gave you a couple stories on how I experienced some meet and greets on my own. I know where you’r coming from. I am one of you too.”
People asked questions like, What was it like hanging out with Black Sabbath? Or what did he do while visiting Chicago? Favorite authors. What foods does he like to eat here? Another Lemmy story. Owning a pet shop or not. Growing up with a strict father and household. What does he think about when alone? Surprising answer by the way = vengeance. He wants to get back at anyone that ever wronged him and or his friends and family i.e. record executives, layers etc… but also puppies.
Other questions were about making it in the music business – one he suggest is set up against you from the beginning and not to get into unless you want to just have fun with it. “The music industry has made me a very thick skinned man. A hard individual. A bastard on the outside, but a caring human inside.”
Lighter questions included things like, who inspires him. To which he replies, “My best friend back home and also Abraham Lincoln. If you ever get a chance to read Abe Lincoln’s speeches, do it. He was a true hero. Fast on his feet and true to his words.”
Someone asked why he wasn’t in or part of the recent Descendants punk rock documentary. He said, “No reason really other than I seem to be in every punk rock doc. The band was great, the film was not. I don’t need money or the recognition.”
There were a couple teachers in the audience. They wanted to know things like how would he change school and the current education situation. He said, “They (the education system) are setting the youth up to be robots and soldiers. They are dumbing us down and they want it that way on purpose. We need to educate and protect ourselves.”
Even though Rollins is in his mid 50’s now, he still looks and acts like a young man in his 30’s. He is still very physically fit. When asked about how he does it, he said, “I try to keep a good diet and work out 5 days a week. Using stretching cables and tread mill can only go so far, but I need it now.
We also learned that he doesn’t have any place he wouldn’t visit, unless it was a threat to his life. He wouldn’t dive in dangerous waters just to do it, but he would like to have fun and take chances. He does take photographs all the time and likes underwater photography.
The biggest surprise and news was a question about playing and making music. Rollins replied, “Music was one vehicle for my expression. It was a certain time and place. That doesn’t convey the same in my fifties as it does for others. I’m happy for my fellow musicians who are still doing it, but it’s hard, and I give them credit for going on but it’s kinda sad. It’s not for me anymore, but I hope they make it. No one wants to see a white haired man jumping around on stage singing about beer.
Ending on a completely silly note, a woman named Susie wanted to know if he would make out with her. He laughed it off and said, “I wouldn’t do it to you, just because I want to protect you from whatever is coursing through these veins. I’ll save you from a world of disease and hurt.”
To experience a Henry Rollins spoken word show is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Sure, he’s not jumping around screaming at you in shorts singing about pain, loss and injustice, but in a way, he is. I mean, barring the physicalness of a Rollins / Black Flag show, he’s still in your face, only this way, it’s more direct and personal. Rollins brings so much passion, energy and animation it only makes for great educational entertainment that you not only see, but learn from and bring something home. He still has the fire in the eye, but now it’s more like a cutting torch than a flame thrower.
For more on Henry Rollins, click here
To buy Henry Rollins music, spoken word cd’s and more, click here
For video clip samples of Henry Rollins spoken word live talking about David Bowie, Roadies, Weed, Government and more, click here