Last week, I saw Henry Rollins perform as part of his spoken word tour, Good to See You.
Rollins is an interesting character. He burst into our cultural zeitgeist in the early 1980s as the lead singer/shouter of the seminal hardcore punk band Black Flag, into which he often crammed poetry. Gotta give the man, it was ballsy to drop poetry on hard-core punks in the 1980s in the middle of a show when everyone was more interested in moshing. I was at a Black Flag show in Harrisburg in 1984, a month off my 17th birthday, and I witnessed this first-hand. Somehow Rollins managed to read his poems without being torn to bits by a hard-core crowd, a feat in and of itself. He actually referenced this show in Harrisburg at his gig last week, to the thrill of a few of the crowd members (like me).
Rollins started his own band but gradually evolved away from music as the 1990s progressed, focusing on spoken word and other non-music projects. I saw the man a second time in the mid-1990s and got to meet him, and he is every bit as intense in person as he seems like he might be, with those crazy eyes. But also very friendly, and quite witty.
Rollins branched out in many directions throughout his career, a renaissance man in a black t-shirt. Wikipedia describes him as a “singer, writer, spoken word artist, actor, comedian, and presenter” and sure, that’s about as good as any way to explain him. He is also an activist, one of the good guys, supporting causes such as LGBTQ+ rights, eliminating hunger, and a host of other liberal ideals. In addition, he became sort of a brand for “Generation X” throughout the 1990s, with his thick-necked muscular build, intense stare, black t-shirts, and spoken word gigs making him into sort of a thinking man’s tough guy.
His current tour is more or less long-form standup, with lots of stories delivered in Rollins’ overly caffeinated hundred-word-a-minute style. He bounded on stage without any introduction and got right into it. The stories and subjects he covered ranged from his hilariously strange relationship with his manager, Heidi, to an encounter with a very drunk man who thought his wife was on Rollins’ tour bus to a wild roller coaster of a story about his very strained relationship with his mother that culminated with his mother’s ashes being devoured by ducks in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park (literally, long story). Oh, and he brought the house down with a darkly funny tale about a disturbed young man who traveled all the way from Finland through Mexico during the pandemic to confront Rollins about God knows what. The punchline for me was Rollins saying that he assumed the guy wanted to kill him, and if he did succeed in killing him, Black Flag fans would return all their Black Flag records because of the embarrassment of being killed by someone from FINLAND.
But along with this, Rollins talked about current politics, lamenting how anti-science weirdos have gained way too much power, how even if Trump supporters are unreachable we cannot give up on them given we have to live with them, and how true unity means we don’t sacrifice trans people to hate mongers. There was one thing he said that he kept repeating: even as an old man who will die well before the end of this century, he wants to work at making this century end better than how it began.
“Make this century end better than it began” is not a bad worldview. Perhaps if we all give it a shot, we can make that happen, despite most of us not being around to see it.
The last word goes to Mr. Rollins himself.