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General Interest

HENRY ROLLINS, AMERICAN AT LARGE

There’s a guy out there in America screaming at the top of his lungs about human rights. He also has declared himself the avowed enemy of the Bush Administration and their vile and illegal war of aggression in Iraq, all the while entertaining American troops at USO shows (7 war zone tours) and frequently visiting grievously wounded soldiers in Veteran’s Hospitals. He never declared himself the enemy of American soldiers or citizens. As a matter of fact, as American citizens, he’s one of the best friends we’ve got. His name is Henry Rollins.

He started his public life as the lead singing front man of several punk/alternative rock & roll bands, most notably Black Flag and the Rollins Band. He’s actually a gifted singer/songwriter and can deliver a song in several different styles. He performs music with an intense passion and a manic, angry stage presence that well serves his chosen musical genres. His bands were critical successes but never really blockbuster breakthrough stars, probably like a lot of seminal acts in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, earning more respect from their peers than money and influencing countless younger musicians.

Somewhere along the line, even before the breakup of Black Flag, Henry began recording spoken word records and touring to support them. They were an eclectic lot, excerpts from tour diaries, observations on America and comedy, all of them compellingly honest, thoughtful, intelligent and original. An important American voice was born. I’m not sure when his political activism began, or if he is even aware of when it began or if it has been something that was always a part of who is Henry Rollins. Whatever the case, his is a welcome voice and a strident reminder of what America is supposed to be.

I was especially impressed by a show he did in Tel Aviv, Israel that was shown on the Independent Film Cable TV station (IFC on your dial). He said some things about wounded soldiers and American foreign policy that were both very funny, if you can believe comedy can be wrenched out of such grim topics (I do now), and also very poignant. He also had the balls to inform a paying Israeli audience that it was their responsibility to stop the endless cycle of hatred and violence in their country that had been handed down to them by their parents’ generation. He asked them if it was a proper legacy to their own children to hand this cycle of death down to them or do they end it here and now.

They listened somewhat uneasily as he expertly threaded his way through a powerful monologue with this message as his finale and Henry wound up receiving a thunderous standing ovation. Powerful and courageous messages aside, I could not help but admire his courage as a performer to take such a risk with his closing number! As a fellow performer I know very well that you close with your biggest crowd pleaser, then take a bow and leave them wanting more. I thought this crucial message also resonated very strongly in regards to the American electorate and the upcoming momentous decisions we face in 2008. As well as being deeply impressed with his message I said to myself: “This guy’s got balls!”

He also has brains too, and a unique talent that’s hard to describe. Is he a latter day Will Rogers? Well, if Will Rogers had a bunch of scary tattoos and a muscular, menacing physique and used the words fuck and motherfucker frequently onstage and was strident and angry a lot of the time instead of mellow and laid back, then yes, he’s a lot like him. Like Will Rogers, Henry Rollins gives people a lot more than a laugh or an entertaining story. He always gives them something to take home with them and think about. There’s a lot of meat in the funky stew that both these gentlemen have managed to cook up for our mental dining pleasure. And again like Rogers, Henry Rollins is a quintessentially American voice making very American observations about the things he sees around him in a country he loves very much.

Henry Rollins is also very aware of maintaining his personal integrity, something rarer than it should be in a performer and rarer still in political activists and social commentators. He campaigns for the rights of people that he has no vested interest in and are not necessarily a part of his fan base, like the gay community and American soldiers (whose Commander-in-Chief he frequently lambastes). He does it because it is very obvious to him the right thing to do and for no other consideration.

By his own admission he is a driven workaholic that lives a fairly Spartan existence and is probably the only celebrity living in Los Angeles who does not own a car. He tours frequently, maintains several busy websites, hosts a music radio show and host the Henry Rollins show on IFC. It is the Henry Rollins TV show that made me a fan of the man and his eclectic talent and broad intellectual interests so I reverse-engineered my knowledge of the man and looked up a lot of his work. He is not anything what you’d expect him to be like and I love that. He follows no popular political agenda like a Pavlovian Pooch mouthing the words of others. He doesn’t do what he does to please people otherwise he’d be a rich man and a household name. Compromising his principles for money or popular approval doesn’t seem to be his long suit.

When a subject interests the man he researches it diligently and draws his own conclusions. His half hour show includes an opening monologue, an interview with a very interesting person about which Henry has taken the trouble to learn much about, concluding with a musical performance by a guest band or solo musician and perhaps a short closing video piece by him. There are no commercial breaks and it’s one of the few talk shows you wish were longer.

So check out the important American voice that is Henry Rollins. He has a lot of important things to say and a very engaging an original way to say them. If he is not exactly what you expected, well, like Santa Claus once told me: “That just goes to show where you can stick most expectations.” You may love him or you may hate him but you will not be somewhere in the middle about Henry Rollins. And when you hear him speak you will have something to think about that you didn’t have on your mind when you woke up that morning. I can think of no higher complement. Keep your eye on Henry Rollins. I have a feeling he’s just getting warmed up an really honing his voice and his best is in front of him. That may be asking a lot of a man who has given us so much but I think he’s more demanding of himself than any fan could ever be. Keep up the good work, Mr. Rollins.

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