Thebarton Theatre. 8 Jun 2023
I’ve attended Henry Rollins performances for over 30 years now; first he was a member of Black Flag, then fronted the Rollins Band, then as a spoken word performer. Rollins is always switched on in full performance mode when he is in public, and he is as practiced and determined in crafting his persona as any great actor. The discipline, the resolve, is part of his thing. This much Rollins (even with the passage of time I could not allow the familiarity of calling him Henry) allows us to understand as he assures us he would have toured earlier had Covid allowed it. He loves coming to Australia and the feeling is reciprocated; this is a massive list of dates he has signed on for.
He hits the stage at 8 pm on the dot, as advertised. There is no introduction though he speaks in general terms about his life and career for the first few minutes, no doubt aware that many in the audience have not seen him before. As he speaks, he rocks back and forth on his feet, for two hours and twenty-five minutes precisely, noting at one point as he does that he takes no pauses, not even a drink of water. This is something he wishes us to understand and note in turn. He considers it a strength; that he can master his body and direct it to his whim for that time. His stance is one wing low, he holds his body at an angle to the microphone, his delivery powerful and pushy, yet not so demanding as it was when he was that angry young man, though the anger remains. It is, perhaps, a little smoother, focussed, less jagged, or as he describes it later, more concerned with the bigger picture of things, not individuals so much as poverty, inequality, the dislike of ignorance and intolerance, and he makes a special plea for the rights of trans and LGBTIQ+.
As the words rush out and he builds in intensity the topics tumble; some ideas on the American love for guns, and a refusal to condemn nearly half the American population as stupid, before he ponders out loud the wisdom of “carpet bombing a Nascar event” and whether reducing the population of the US to a mere one million people would be a good thing. It sounds nihilistic, yet he immediately reverses direction: “It would work but we can’t do that.” He builds into the first of his big stories for tonight, a tale from the American Midwest when he is bailed up by a chronically jealous husband who accuses him of having spirited his wife on board the tour bus.
One of the major themes for tonight is, understandably, mortality, and the story emerges of his parents, divorced, broken, and largely dismissed. Are they, though? It is clear that in not being able to tour the world he has had plenty of time to consider life’s cycle. Age and the passing of time is his dominant theme, and he talks of death. Rollins possibly considers it a weakness to care about his biological parents, and so in telling the story of his mother Iris and her second husband Les, Rollins invests no emotion, even with the passing of his mother and her final scene, a tale which involves the ducks of Rock Creek, Washington. Curiously, perhaps, this tough guy persona which Rollins enacts for himself seems the least likeable aspect of his character. Tonight it seems possible to perceive its use as a deflection, a device to shield himself. Even when he describes learning to be a street fighter as the singer of Black Flag (it is usually allowed he gave as good as he got in the many fights) he claims to have been not so good. This self-effacing claim is the shrug of irritation. He wants you to know he is a fighter; he wants you to know ‘he ain’t that good’. It is the classic shrug. He speaks of fame (“for a brief moment there back in 1983” he laughs) and tells a story of being stalked by a fan, whom he dubs ‘Finland Boy’. Another shrug.
As the show winds up, he invokes the spirit of a hero, Iggy Pop, and he considers the strength of solitude and living alone; his interactions seem largely to be limited to touring the world and being approached everywhere for selfies by his fans. His message in this final part of the show is then ‘old people stand aside and let the young take over’. Yet he gives no sign he really believes it to be true. It is he – 62 years young – standing on stage challenging the world to take him on. Does the world need another pissed off middle aged white guy (orange is the new black and 60 is the new 40, yada yada) shouting his version of the truth? Apparently so since the Thebarton Theatre was damn near full.
To see Henry Rollins in full flight is to see a human dynamo, his output apparently undimmed through time. As he rushes towards the close, he tells the story of the young woman who takes a selfie with him and immediately sends it to her father; within seconds a reply is received. Rollins, a servant of time and of no one else reads the cell phone screen: “If only your grandfather was alive to see this.”
When: 8 Jun
Where: Thebarton Theatre
Tour Bookings: henryrollins.com/tour
Continues throughout June and July to the locations in the Northern Territory, Queensland, the ACT, Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania.