Henry Rollins talks for 2.5 hours at Pantages
Henry Rollins talks like deep sea divers explore--he dives in, he brings you with him, and he puts the pressure on right away and never comes up for air. This skill's been honed by over 30 years of live performance, from his early days in the DC music scene and his years as the most mercurial lead singer of hardcore legends Black Flag to his present-day multipurpose resume as an actor, talking head, writer, and (at least part-time) myth creator. The aggressive drill sergeant of his old days has given way to a somewhat more self-reflective, smiling personality, but the "Rollins thing," as it were, hasn't changed: he gets started, and he doesn't let up, no matter what the topic.
Rollins doesn't do pieces as much as he gets started and then finishes when the lights come up, and Friday evening at Pantages was no exception. Clad in the standard black pants, black t-shirt get up with just a microphone and some white lights in the middle of the stage, he began as I picked up my ticket--no cushion from the 8:00 PM start time--and by the time I got to my seat he was already in full gear. The next two hours plus were a steady stream of thoughts, observations, stories, and tangents ranging from the political to the mundane, never once coming up for air.
His very first bit was a lengthy discussion of discrimination that touched on the history of apartheid in South Africa, civil rights history in America, and the young gay woman in Mississippi whose desire to bring her girlfriend to prom sparked outrage, cancellation of the dance, and national attention, each aspect of the subject of discrimination flowing tangentally from the other, sucking the audience in, unsure of where exactly he was going, but enjoying the ride. While there were a few exceptions--a lone ignored heckler sitting directly behind me grumbled about Rollins' politics and yelled "I heard you were a fag!" but eventually left--the crowd, a mix of old punk rockers and people most familiar with Rollins' work on FX or IFC, all seemed sucked in as Rollins moved from topic to topic.
There's something entrancing about creating that degree of intensity from the get-go and maintaining it for an entire performance, but there's something problematic as well. The hook and the appeal of the show becomes less about the words being said and more about how they're being delivered. This is not to say that Rollins isn't a skilled speaker: he's charming, plain spoken, and he knows when to crack a joke or make a remark about how he likes to hear himself talk to break the tension. But while Rollins in years past told uniquely heavy stories about his struggling days as a wayward punk rock youth, his performance Friday night afforded the same amount of intensity to discussing how he got cast on his latest TV show, and I couldn't help but search for a greater, overarching point. Historically, Rollins has made his own difficult experiences and uniquely challenging personality relatable through sheer force of will. Friday night, he was just talking. Engaging, yes. But not much more.
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