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.
Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 2:34 a.m.
There's always one guy at a Rollins show who doesn't "get" it. Unfortunately, this time that guy was getting paid to write a review. Rollins is always a good time. If you don't enjoy his shows, that says far more about you than it does about him.
Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 6:28 p.m.
Not liking it or pointing out its flaws does not mean "not getting it." It's nice to see actual informed criticism of things for a change.
Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 8:37 p.m.
You obviously don't like Rollins and can't appreciate his points-and one needn't be a Democrat to do so-nor do you like his sense of humor. You review him as if you are a conservative Republican. How sad. You're totally not getting what he's about.
Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 5:32 p.m.
I forgot to mention that the March 19 review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is far more well-written; obviously by someone keen enough to understand and enjoy earnest, intelligent discourse and appreciate the bonus of wonderfully sharp wit.
Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 4:40 p.m.
Wow. The last thing I would describe Henry Rollins as is "not-very-compelling" (and why that's hyphenated, I'm not sure). The writer is definitely very uninformed & petty. Rollins comes off as extremely humble and by no means did Henry's performance seem to be an excuse to name drop & extoll his own virtues. And about the Stooges tribute, if you were at the show last night, you would know he was asked to do it. It was a TRIBUTE, of course he would talk about how great a band they were. Maybe Henry didn't get the memo he was speaking to a crowd of geniuses.
Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 2:32 p.m.
Some people are so nostalgic about their (probably second-hand) punk memories that they can't take smart, informed criticism of a sacred cow. It's good to finally see someone speak the truth about Henry's tired shtick. Black Flag were a pretty unpleasant and negative experience in person. They made some good records but their importance has really been blown way out of proportion. It's been 25 years since Black Flag and he manages to still fill theaters with adoring fans who eat it up. The only bad part of the Ron Asheton tribute last year was Henry's condescending 20 minute drone about why the Stooges were cool. I really don't thing the packed house who fought to get tickets needed professor Rollins to explain it to us. Nice review.
Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 5:47 p.m.
zipcity you judge too much. I have Bukowski and others on my shelves, along with tons of stuff that are in drastically different genres. I love many of them and I have my own personal reasons for my chosen favorite. Either way it has nothing to do with a punk rock scene that I never "got into".
Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 3:06 a.m.
Malorie: If Rollins is your favorite author, you most definitely need to read more. Rollins is a hack at best, an ice cream scooper still trying to convince us he's the Dark Lord of the Apocalypse. Try some Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, or Hubert Selby Jr. -- Rollins has been ripping them off for years. You may appreciate the real thing.
Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 2:26 a.m.
I have never been a fan of Black Flag or The Stooges or any of that. Were you at the show? Have you been to any? He's my favorite writer - as you said, it's been 25 years...he has moved on, so should you.
Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 3:41 p.m.
For the record, I never listened to Black Flag. Aside from that clarification, I'm not sure what his former band activity has to do with a review of his spoken word tour.
Fri, Mar 23, 2012 : 2:07 p.m.
I'm not sure how the show was received by the Ann Arbor audience, but I had the pleasure of attending the previous night's show in Kalamazoo, where he received a standing ovation. I'm wondering if you had any knowledge of Rollins prior to your critique? To be honest, this entire piece reads like something written for a petty high school newspaper.
Sat, Mar 24, 2012 : 2:29 a.m.
I was thinking this the entire time I was reading. He can't possibly have much knowledge of Rollins with the assumptions he's made up there. I didn't see the balcony rows, but I know the bottom floor was jam packed so I don't even know if this guy was actually there! We don't go for groundbreaking observations. We go to hear Rollins' observations, in his own awesome words.