Henry Rollins popped into my head the other day. He does that every now and then. Just pops his bulky self in there, throws his shirt on the floor, and says, “Hey man, I bet you wonder what I’m doing these days, huh? Huh? HUH?!?!” And I’m all, “Wow Henry, that’s amazing. Now that you mention it, I am wondering what you’re up to. How’d you know?”
My quest, like many of my quests, began and ended with the internet. According to Henry Rollins dot com, the sunny-backed punk is wrapping up a speaking tour in the UK at the end of this month. Well, guess that settles that.
I’m too young to have experienced the Black Flag version of Henry Rollins while they were still alive and touring. In fact, I don’t think the names Black Flag or Henry Rollins entered my awareness until years after the band was dissolved. I have, however, seen him perform on two separate occasions. The first time was in 2001 while he was on one of his speaking tours. I had no idea what to expect, I had never listened to one of his spoken-word albums, but paying ten bucks to hear Henry Rollins talk about whatever Henry Rollins had on his mind at the time seemed reasonably reasonable. It took place in a dingy now-defunct heavy metal club called The Back Room that was located right down the street from my apartment on the not-so-great side of town. The place normally consisted of little more than a bar, a huge open floor, and a stage, but on this particular night, the floor was covered with neatly aligned rows of folding chairs. It was like seeing your death metal buddy in a suit for his sister’s wedding. I don’t remember much about the show other than that I thoroughly enjoyed it. He opened with a description of the massive dick drawn on the wall of the club’s dressing room, comparing it quite favorably to the graffiti of other dressing rooms he had seen. The sound was all fucked up at the beginning, and he promised that he would carry us through on the sheer force of his will if necessary. He had turned forty that year, so he spent a fair amount of time talking about the experience of being a forty year old Henry Rollins. He talked about working out in the hotel gym, and I thought “Wow, Henry Rollins working out in a hotel gym.” He mentioned something about driving around in his car blasting Slayer, and I thought “Wow, Henry Rollins in a car. Driving. Blasting Slayer.”
After the show, he hung out in the parking lot outside the club, chatted with fans and signed autographs. I had brought along my copy of Eye Scream to get signed, but I was cautious. See, I had just finished reading Get In The Van, his diary from his days of touring with Black Flag. To summarize, motherfuckers busted ass. In numerous entries, he details a whole host of negative feelings towards fans and audience members, particularly people who asked for autographs. Dude could get downright violent. “Am I going to get punched in the face by Henry Rollins?” I thought. “Because that might hurt.” But no. He signed my book, said my name, shook my hand, smiled. What’s that one word? Gracious? His hair was flecked with gray and his tattoos looked freshly touched up. I walked home.
I don’t think it was even a year after that show that he came back through town on tour with his band. Having seen him as a speaker, I wanted to see him as a musician. The difference between the two performances was so much more than just talking verses singing. More than just a difference in volume, or standing in one spot verses jumping all over the stage. Black tee-shirt verses bare chest. It was…well, you know how when you’re hanging out with somebody that you know is a werewolf? And there’s that weird vibe because you know this human being sitting in front of you, the one with the nice smile and the closely cropped haircut and the quick wit, you know that they sometimes turn into a raging animal and totally tear shit up. And even in human form, there’s this burning quality about them, know what I mean? And then one night, hopefully from a safe vantage point, you actually get to see them in their element in full-on wolf form, and no matter how many times people tried to convey to you how intense it is to watch, nothing in the world could have quite prepared you for the sights and sounds currently burrowing themselves into your memory. And you realize, oh yes, this is what they were talking about. This is why his name is said in such tones. Yes, it was kind of like that. Details are fuzzy, I just remember a room filled with energy and music, this nearly naked animal-man person with mic cable wrapped around his forearm bounding all over the place. He wasn’t so much singing as he was shoving lyrics out of his face hole. I’ve never seen so many hands reaching up out of a crowd to touch a performer, or a stage so completely owned.
I remember thinking at the time, holy shit, that dude is FORTY! Now here it is nearly a decade later, and while my own four-oh is not exactly right around the corner, I’m starting to see its outline against the horizon. And in February of next year, Mr. Rollins will hit the half-century mark. Wow. Henry Rollins. Being fifty.