Henry Rollins spins tales for the faithful at the Michigan Theater
Henry Rollins seems to have lived a pretty interesting life.
He’s been a rock star, fronting seminal bands like Black Flag and the Rollins Band. He’s had his own TV shows and he’s traveled the globe doing cool things and meeting fascinating people.
How he managed to spin those adventures into nearly three hours of random and not-very-compelling stories at the Michigan Theater on Thursday is anyone’s guess.
But it’s possible that he answered that question himself early in his monologue in front of a two-thirds-full audience.
“It’s not like you need me to tell you what you already know,” Rollins said.
But you’d be mistaken if you thought he was going to let that stop him.
Let’s see if we can get this straight: according to Rollins, hunger and famine are bad; democracy, pizza and the Ramones are good. Abraham Lincoln was a great man, the Republican primary process has been amusing, and people in exotic cultures eat food that seems unusual to the western palate.
But you already knew that, right?
Rollins took the stage Thursday as if he was still fronting a punk band. Microphone cord wrapped around his fist and leaning on his right leg—as he would for the show’s duration—he launched into a rapid-rife, slightly schizophrenic litany of set pieces that ranged from Lincoln’s 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, to watching a 500-pound stage diver crush a young girl at a Black Flag show to a self-aggrandizing story about buying soap and soccer balls for displaced families in Haiti.
The common denominator, of course, was Rollins himself; how cool his record collection is, how he’s fascinated with books and history and travel, how he’s friends with Iggy Pop and the Butthole Surfers.
On Thursday, Rollins devoted equal amounts of time to discussing how cool and evolved and smart he is, yet how little he actually knows.
It’s a convention that doesn’t work, because you end up not really buying either premise.
Unfortunately for Rollins, he isn’t insightful or compelling enough to be a truly effective monologist, nor is he funny enough to be a stand-up comedian. That leaves him in a sort-of middle ill-conceived, dissatisfying middle ground.
Which would probably be OK if his set were an hour or so shorter. Even the best comedian is going to run out of top-shelf material after an hour; Spalding Gray’s brilliant monolog “Swimming to Cambodia” is only 85 minutes, for crying out loud. (OK, I had to look that one up.)
In fairness, even though there was a fair amount of attrition by the end of his set, many in the crowd seemed to hang onto Rollins’ every word until the bitter end. And his ability to riff endlessly for as long as he did is certainly laudable.
And, of course, Rollins being Rollins, he made some controversial observations. Here are a few:
On Planned Parenthood: “Planned Parenthood is important because I want to limit the number of unnecessary Texans who are born. Because every once in a while, they end up being senators and governors and presidents."
On Mitt Romney: “He reminds me of Max Headroom in a suit.”
On capitalism: “I think capitalism is a great thing, as longs as it’s tied to a chair and nailed to the floor.”
On the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida: “I think the way that case is handled will say a lot about how Americans are dealing with other Americans.”
Entertaining? Sure. Groundbreakingly observational? Not close.
Toward the end of his set, Rollins did a lengthy bit about a long-ago encounter with some tough drag queens in Hollywood, which taught him to never judge people on how they look.
Of course, it would have carried a lot more water had Rollins not spent three minutes earlier in the evening making fun of Newt Gingrich’s wife’s appearance.
On Thursday, it was as if the words were spilling out so fast, Rollins was losing track of what he’d said and what he hadn’t. Sticking with the stronger material and weeding out the weaker—and contradictory—bits could have meant a big difference.