When Henry Rollins speaks, it’s kind of amazing how many – and which – people listen. His background – longtime lead singer of seminal punk act Black Flag, provocateur, film and TV star and the epitome of prolific when it comes to writing – is nothing to balk at, to be sure. But he hasn’t always been seen as the erudite, polite-alomst-to-a-fault, 21st Century renaissance philosopher that he’s grown into over the past decade.
I’ve seen Rollins innumerable times as a skinny, long-or-short-haired (or bald) screaming ball of unending adolescent anger, with multiple bands backing him up (most often in black shorts and tattoos – and nothing else – in front of Black Flag), and he’s always been exhausting, and surprisingly poignant in those settings.
The last three times I’ve had the pleasure of watching Rollins, though, have been in sit-down theaters as he pontificates about anything from his near-inability to say “no” to any project someone hands him (which is a good thing, actually), to the perils and progress of being a nearly 100% self-made man, to travelogues of some of the most dangerous places on the planet. Never, in all of the musical settings that I’ve seen him, have I emerged from the shows as exhausted – and nervously inspired – as I have, consistently, from all of his spoken word acts.
“It would be the height of rudeness for me to imply – to even suggest – that I care who you vote for. That’s your right, it’s your decision. But – but our democracy is fairly begging you to participate…. “
Rollins booked the famous Paramount Theater in downtown Denver last night for his stop on the “Capitalism” tour – wherein he is scheduled to speak in each of the 50 capital cities of all 50 US states between September 6th (in Honolulu, Hawaii) and the night before the general election, November 5th (in, fittingly, Washington DC) – and his appearance didn’t disappoint.
Like he has every time I’ve sen his speaking shows, Rollins started exactly at the advertised start time – in this case he literally ran from back stage to the mic at the front at exactly 8:00PM – and spoke for nearly three solid hours. And I mean solid: no stops to catch his breath, not one sip of water, and rarely were his piercing eyes not leveled directly at the audience – whether he was laughing, scowling, preaching or pleading. It was like having a multi-volume set Dostoyevsky, all the collected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and a semester of comparative Western History from the American Revolution to the present day administered directly into the cerebral cortex via shock therapy, in successive, convulsing doses.
And, like shock therapy, the show left me exhausted, yet calmed, by and about the human condition, and Democracy in particular.
He began his set with a pleas to everyone to vote in this year’s upcoming elections. No attempts to endorse one candidate over the other, or to recommend at all who any of us should vote for – just that we should vote. “It would be the height of rudeness for me to imply – to even suggest – that I care who you vote for. That’s your right, it’s your decision,” he pleaded. “But – but our democracy is fairly begging you to participate! Those of you who think ‘Well, my vote doesn’t count,’ you’re wrong. You’re wrong, and I’m right. It does count.”
This would be the last time he took on an attitude of request. From here on out, Rollins displayed his opinions, stories about projects, anecdotes about other shows and experiences – all of that. But, more than anything, he exemplified the power one person can create, or the levels in society one person can reach – completely self-taught, unflinchingly and insatiably curious and focused – if one chooses to believe in oneself, and never stops or wavers in fear. Some sentiments that many of us – too many – could really use a healthy dose of right about now, in my opinion.
“Loud, ridiculous pains-in-the-ass with teabags tied to their long beards and carrying signs decrying the injustice of having the cost of health care forced upon them – NOT rugged!”
Rollins took on the gay marriage controversy, which, he pointed out, won’t go away any time soon (not because it’s actually controversial, but because the argument makes for good fundraising), by uttering “Gay, straight… aarrghhh! It’s like laundry to me!” His arguments make perfect sense.
He presented the antithesis to the recently powerful, Ayn Rand-inspiired, “Tea Party” rugged individualists by pointing to the fact that hot and cold running water, paved roads and roofs over one’s head does not a “rugged individualist” make. “An emaciated woman in Sudan, with two cherry buckets, walking four miles to a misquito-larvae-infested water hole, to fill those buckets and walk them four miles back to share with her village – that’s rugged,” he said. “Loud, ridiculous pains-in-the-ass with teabags tied to their long beards and carrying signs decrying the injustice of having the cost of health care forced upon them – NOT rugged!”
He went on to suggest that those who claimed to be such John Galtian, self-sufficient and no-helmet wearing people simply resign to dying alone, and to quit making the doctors and emergency rooms – and us as taxpayers – pay for their “rugged individualism” when they inevitably wreck or become sick. And his logic was tough to disagree with.
To show that he wasn’t all about politics and the seeming mis-steps of some of our neighbors in the USA, Rollins also travalogued a bit, too. He spent a good third of the show telling the packed house about recent experiences in North Korea (a visit that took no less than three years for which to get an entrance visa), Haiti and Tibet, among others. He also described a few episodes of a new show he’s been filming for National Geographic Channel called “Animal Underworld,” one that features Snake Handling in Southern Kentucky, and another that involved his having to drink quite a bit of cow urine – for medicinal purposes, of course.
The man knows how to keep busy.
He went on to explain things like Lincoln’s concerns – so well outlined in his “Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois” from 1838 – that the only enemy that could ever destroy what America had become even then, would have to come from within the country.
Rollins is doing what he can to make sure that end doesn’t come to this democracy – with his words, his passion and his intelligence. It was great to see so many rapt audience members listening so intently to every word.