What He Sees: Henry Rollins’s Spoken Word Tour, by Chris Pepus

Jan 24, 2003

Henry Rollins took his spoken word tour to the Pageant in St. Louis on January 17. He describes himself as a "jack of all tirades," and there's certainly room for more social commentary in rant form, especially since Dennis Miller lost a long argument with his bank account and became a Republican. Rollins opened the show with a very funny lip synch and dance-along to "Ice, Ice Baby." Of course, Vanilla Ice seems an easy, out-of-date target. On the other hand, Vanilla's extensive face time on VH-1 may yet buy him a comeback among teen hip-hop fans in the suburbs, so you can't be too careful. Not as relentlessly political as Jello Biafra, Rollins gets at larger issues via retellings of weird personal experiences. One of his current preoccupations is his struggle to accept the fact that he's over forty: "I don't fondle anymore - I grope. I don't date anymore - I pay." He seems to enjoy playing against his muscle man image, offering numerous stories about meeting people who could beat him up, though he must have been deadpanning when he included Robbie Williams in that category.

Life in LA is a major cause of Rollins's crankiness, and he started his tirade on Rodeo Drive ("What do you get for $3500 worth of shirt, besides a fist up your ass?") before going after various film and music bigwigs. The show's main theme was the contrast between reality and the plastic world of the entertainment industry, and accordingly, the sharpest commentaries took the form of digressions from the story of Ozzy Osbourne's (and MTV's) New Year's Eve party. Cynical as he is, the old Black Flag frontman still gets staggered by the sense of entitlement that reigns among the rich and powerful. He couldn't even guess at Winona Ryder's possible motivations for shoplifting, and confined himself to making suggestions about her community service sentence: she should make nude films for US servicemen in the Persian Gulf. Speaking of rich sex symbols, Rollins is still fuming about the press's sanctification of the dear departed John-John ("I'll always remember him as that triple homicide") and America's sad hankering for Camelot. In fact, he objects to the association of the word "Camelot" with Kennedy-worship: "The point of the Round Table was that nobody sat at the head of it."

Rollins really hit his stride when he talked about the deaths of Dee Dee Ramone and Joe Strummer. He spat bile when recalling that news of the two men's deaths got pushed off the airwaves by stories like "Creed buys new pants." That bad memory triggered a good one: he vividly described a 1979 Clash concert that turned out to be one of his formative experiences. He recalled staring, stunned, at a band "destroying songs as they played them," as if to say, "we mean this so much we can barely contain ourselves." Rollins also added some funny and poignant accounts of meetings with Strummer, and the high point of the evening was his story about watching a conversation between Strummer and Johnny Cash (I won't ruin it by recounting it here).

Another compelling story was the description of Rollins's recent trip to DC to see his old friend Ian Mackaye. When asked about the state of American music, MacKaye replied that it was great, taking Rollins to three shows at out of the way clubs to prove it. When Rollins bitched about the lousy music on the radio, MacKaye responded that he didn't listen to the radio. When Rollins complained about the chart success of pseudo-punks like Sum 41, Mackaye asked, "Sum who?" Those are surely words to take to heart, though if Rollins did, his shows would be far less interesting.



Originally from Orange County, Chris Pepus now lives in the midwest, where he is a freelance writer. He thinks the Dead Kennedys were the greatest American punk group, but he wonders about some of the bands signed by Alternative Tentacles. He was relieved to find out that despite the So Cal themes of their videos, Sum 41 and Avril Lavigne are from Canada.