Henry Rollins, The Long March at the National Theatre 18th April 2012


When I was in high-school, Henry Rollins was a one-man factory of awesome. A friend had turned me onto Rollins Band, a heavy blues-based hard rock outfit that was a powerful antidote to the generic grunge bands at were washing up on the post-Nirvana tide. Rollins, in addition to having the most ball-tearing back tattoo I’d ever seen, was not only a singer, but a writer, a publisher, and punk philosopher, having led the seminal Black Flag through the hazy hardcore squall of 80s punk (the journey of which is painfully, powerfully detailed in Get in the Van – mandatory reading for any band today who think they’re hard-done-by). Hank strong-armed his way into my consciousness in a way that few have since. And it’s always interesting to hear what he’s been up to…

With Rollins, naturally, the answer is – a hell of a lot. No stranger to Australia, Rollins returns again with The Long March, an extensive tour of the states and territories. After a gently funny support act from a long-haired gent in a purple mohair jumper, who’s name I unfortunately missed but who zinged out classic low-key stand-up observations in the Eliot Goblet mold, Rollins bounded onto the stage in signature blacks, looking somewhat muscularly-diminished from his powerhouse days but still vibrating with a seething, coiled energy. Winding the mic cord around his fist, he launched straight into things, kicking off with an encomium to Australia’s sexy kick-arsedness and segueing from there to some comments on the American republic, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln’s insight from the Lyceum Address that the only threat to America is from America itself. If ever we need cheering up, Rollins suggested, we should tune in now and then to the daily dog-and-pony show of the American presidential primaries in the lead up to their November election.

Barely shifting position and rarely seeming to breathe, Rollins shared some fan stories. A man of Rollin’s legendary intensity doesn’t get your average fan-mail, as may be expected. A surprisingly powerful moment of the night came early with the story of an American soldier in Iraq, instructed by his CO to shoot at a building with no intelligence to suggest there was a threat inside. As every other squad member stood down from the order, one took the command and open fired. On entering the building, a freshly-killed child was discovered, evidently the result of the soldier’s volley. The soldier, racked with guilt, subsequently shot himself in the hand as penance and was sent home, later writing to Rollins begging him to say something to convince him not to shoot himself. In another instance, the mother of another soldier killed in action writes Rollins to thank him for having given her son some laughs through his spoken word DVD’s, and adds him to her Christmas card list.

Rollins, for the most part, is an engaging storyteller. His energy never flags, but sometimes he can caught in little cul-de-sacs – he knows where he is going, but sometimes forgets how to get there quickly. Despite this, though, he is relentlessly entertaining. If ever Texas secedes from the American union, Rollins is going to be there to make sure that Austin is stolen and brought back into the fold. On advice for young melancholics, he espouses the wonders of Tom Waites and omelettes. Age is now a running joke for the self-confessed ‘former alternative icon’ – he mentions Mark Twain as a fan of his old band Black Flag, and constantly references his hey-day in the 1850’s. After reflecting on his 50th year over a

tuna sandwich in a New York diner, Rollins takes us on a travelogue of sorts – South India, where he hunts rats and snakes for a National Geographic special (and graphic it is, as he describes eating the wildlife); the American south, to a Pentacostal church with a bad-ass blues pastor and drum-mad granny; North Korea, closely shepherded by the regime; Haiti, buying bulk soap supplies and soccer balls for the slum towns; and Vietnam, under the guide of the hilarious history expert Mr Car, a tale of dogmeat and the downed plane of former presidential candidate John McCain. His Nat Geo cameraman, Australian Chris Denton, is amusingly parodied by Rollins, seemingly there at every step to puncture Rollins’ tough guy persona.

With Hank, there’s always a lot of ground to cover, and these days he does so in the manner of a motormouth old friend regaling you with everything he’s been up to since you last caught up. He’s likley not interested in winning new fans or audiences, though he manages to do so regardless – as he himself admits, he says yes to anything as any good ‘work-slut’ does, which keeps him in the eye of culture’s storm. But the fire and brimstone of earlier years has given way to a somehow gentler Henry, one who is passionate about humanitarian concerns and driven to seek, and do, what he can while he can. Neither a comedian, nor a motivational speaker, nor a prophet, he is still capable of encouraging people to do great things with their lives, and though a little greyer and crooked of frame, he bears a fearless optimism that is infectious.

originally featured at everguide.com.au