Henry Rollins inspires in many ways. There’s his work ethic, or rather his workaholicism, which sees him taking in hundreds of cities a year for his spoken word tour — Wednesday’s SOhO gig was one of them — then “bouncing” all over the world during his down time, and basically saying yes to any work offer. It’s his pure energy, which glows icy blue hot, a flame that hasn’t died down since his days as the frontman of the seminal punk rock band Black Flag. Seeing he couldn’t hold a tune or keep time, according to him, spoken word was his calling all along. At three hours, there’s no punk band that could keep up.
Without even a stop for a drink of water, Mr. Rollins held the SOhO audience in thrall the entirety of his storytelling. Part of that was from the power of his words, his charisma, and the feeling that terrible things might happen if, heaven forbid, one checked a text message or left for a toilet break. “This is going to be like the longest Jet Blue flight ever,” he said, referring to the cramped seating and his foreknowledge of our asses falling asleep.
For all his rock intensity, Mr. Rollins swears little, instead relying on sudden shouts, stomps and microphone sound effects (he does explosions and gunshots well) to shock and force the point.
The Frequent Flyer tour details Mr. Rollins’ travels in the last year, and every place finds some sort of anecdote for the self-confessed troublemaker — “I want to write (‘troublemaker’) as my occupation” he says, when confronted with customs and travel forms.
He talked of touring Canada, and winding up playing across town from right-wing mouthpiece Ann Coulter. He was disappointed, in a 9th grade way, he said, to find that while he had more people in attendance at his show, she got 2,000 protestors outside. For those Canadian Coulter fans who were inside to hear her speak, well more power to them, he said. It showed that America was not the only country with a problem.
A Rollins’ philosophy emerged throughout the night, no surprise to those who already follow him, but maybe to those who see his roiling anger as nihilist and cynical. In fact, the opposite seems true. Mr. Rollins goes in for that “Hippy dippy doo” stuff, like the idea that travel broadens the mind, questioning authority is healthy, as is freedom of speech, and there must be faith in young people to set out and change the world, as recounted in his story about delivering the commencement speech at Sonoma College. Cynicism is “intellectual sloth and cowardice,” he says, and recounted how he got to glimpse through Nelson Mandela’s prison diaries during a trip to South Africa. Mandela was never bitter in the letters he sent out during his imprisonment. He did look a bit surly on his post-release passport, though.
In a whirlwind of digression after digression, Mr. Rollins talked about the Mississippi high school student who was banned from her prom for being lesbian; the differences between the South African Constitution (bravely acknowledging and burying the past) and our own (which is written as a coming attraction, “James Brown’s emcee telling you what you’re going to see”); how President Obama speaks “in 12 point Helvetica” — true that; his father issues — anti-authoritarianism starts in the home; playing a Neo-Nazi on Kirk Sutter’s new TV series; sitting as a judge on RuPaul’s “Drag Race” show and finding his loins stirred by a particularly attractive ladyboy; and then finishing up detailing his long globetrotting trip as the world’s most troublemaking tourist.
This led to an edifying anecdote about winding up next to the military dictator of the Myanmar Republic and giving him the middle-finger salute. Childish, yes. Satisfying, also yes.
Not all the material was ace, however. His long digression about his eBay and Amazon.com habits made the same points over and over. An attack on Thanksgiving and Christmas would have worked as an anti-consumerist rant; to include everybody in as secretly hating their family was simple projection (see above: Henry’s dad).
The line between inclusion — letting the audience in on the joke — and exclusion, psychological armor everywhere, made even the enjoyable moments rife with tension. At some points it did feel like being held hostage by a very entertaining and amusing madman.
But it was also exhilarating, as Mr. Rollins’ energy is infectious. It doesn’t necessarily make you want to rip things up and start again, as the post-punks used to say; but it does make you want to hurtle toward the end of life like Seneca, the Roman philosopher who Mr. Rollins quoted, having wrung every last moment out of life, explored every possibility, and took every chance.
That’s pretty punk when you think about it, just with a longer shelf life.