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Concert Coverage: Henry Rollins at The Westcott Theater by 20watts
March 31, 2010, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Concert Stories, Scene Around Town, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

An evening with the genius Henry Rollins

PREVIEW: VISIT Henry Rollins website.

Henry Rollins walks on stage at 8:03 p.m and does not move from where he is standing for the next three hours.

“I am in fact desperate for your attention and your approval,” he says at the start of the show. This is the type of line that epitomizes Rollins—open, honest, direct.

Rollins—singer-songwriter, stand-up comedian, spoken word artist, writer, publisher, actor, television host, radio DJ, and activist —stopped in Syracuse at the Westcott Theatre for the 32nd gig of his Frequent Flyer Tour on Saturday. During the three hour performance he discusses a blend of topics so high in concentration that one would exceed his comma quotient for this article if he tried to list them all, though they can be broken into these categories: writing, politics, war, gender equality, music, technology, history, English, acting, and travel.

Tonight the Westcott Theatre[1] smells like smoke and a barber shop, more specifically that disinfectant barbers use to sterilize their barber tools. The prevailing irony is that many of the fans present have long scraggly hair that looked like it hadn’t seen the inside of a barber shop, or hadn’t seen a barber shop at all.

Most of the people around me are drinking Red Stripe beer out of cans. There are two men in front of me dressed “to the nines”[2] as they say (which I think is partly a joke); one is wearing a plaid robin’s egg blue suit—complete with fedora and feather; another is wearing tight maroon pants, a dress shirt prettified with floral designs, suspenders, and yellow-tinted sunglasses. It seems as though all of the people who walk in front of me have at least one of the following physical characteristics: grungy sneakers, a band patch[3], a tattoo, a piercing, unorthodox facial hair, alternative eye ware, and/or unconventional headgear[4].

Dressed simply in a form-fitting t-shirt and pants, the silver-haired, moderately muscular, heavily inked[5] 49-year-old stands stationary in a southpaw-boxing stance for his whole set, amidst four monitors at his feet. Under eight white stage lights that gave him a weird Cerberus-esque[6] aura, he is positioned at a sort of I-may-pounce-at-any-time angle while gripping the microphone with such ferocity that one felt as though it might begin to bleed at any second.

Rollins’s trademark rants began with Ann Coulter’s recent dust-up at a Canadian university[7], to which an audience member yelled out, “I hate that bitch!” Off that, he delved into censorship and his love for the United States Constitution and the Internet[8]. He also reminisced over a recent occurrence in which he was “sitting in bed—alone” looking at pictures of the First Lady Michelle Obama’s wax figure[9]; Rollins soon after expressed his anger towards people who send him anonymous e-mails (“If you’re gonna bark at me, sign your name at the fuckin’ bottom”).

Many of Rollins’s diatribes concerned politicians like Sarah Palin—“She just has bad speeches and good cheekbones and marvelous hair.” He later re-visited Alaska’s former governor to talk about her sex life, which—I think—is best left to your imagination. Rollins also unfortunately dove into comedic territory that’s just plain played out now—making fun of George Bush and his English—though he redeemed himself with a Saturday Night Live worthy impression of President Barack Obama[10] before touching on John McCain’s age and Joe Biden’s lack of edge (“He’s about as mysterious as a cup of Maxwell House coffee”).

Mr. R then brought up a recent news story out of Mississippi about a lesbian high school student who requested to bring her girlfriend to their prom. The school subsequently canceled the entire thing. Jumping off from there, Rollins relayed the troubles he had growing up, which led him to seek solace in punk rock music. “I think all the people who make it to 20 should be given an early lifetime achievement award,” he says to modest laughter.

Every so often Rollins would go on short digressions, spouting lines like, “To me, war is just cowardice, “Holidays—this convention that is steeped in hypocrisy and gross American consumerism, “I’ll never be mature enough to buy a Sting record,” and “All performers should seek to destroy the audience.” My personal favorite (during a tirade on texting): “Don’t be dicking around with your thumbs.”

Most of the rest of the show concerned his relationships with famous musicians and actors, as well as his own acting career. Rollins fawned over a trip he took the National Archives in Washington, D.C. with Fugazi guitarist/vocalist/long-time friend Ian MacKaye, in which he—self-admittedly—got a bit over-excited about holding letters penned by George Washington, Davy Crockett, and John Adams.

There was a long section on Rollins and his happenings with punk-hardcore-crossover-group The Bad Brains, most of which was dedicated toward its singer H.R, who has had some no-joke mental difficulties since the mid-1980s[11]. He talked about his conversations with David Lee Roth—the former front man for Van Halen—a man he described as a serious intellectual.

Mr. Rollins would go on to name drop people like Sean Hannity, William Shatner, Michael Chiklis, Ben Folds, and Ru Paul. Although he admits to not liking football[12], he treks over to Mr. Shatner’s house for Monday Night Football when he can, and has even spent a few Thanksgivings there. Mr. Chiklis came up as a part of Rollins’s TV-talk, where he expressed his love for The Shield and described his nearly half-year stint on Sons of Anarchy (big applause at mention of this show), in which he played a “white power”[13] character.

The part of the gig that most resembled a lecture concerned Mr. R giving a commencement speech at a college recently, a situation that is all kinds of complex and ironic[14]. This was the only part of the show where he gave anything close to advice, particularly about cynicism and sarcasm, which he described as “intellectual cowardice and sloth.” He further stated that “’Why’ is the most powerful word in your language.”[15]

The night’s funniest portion came while Mr. R was recounting his stint as a judge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s amusing enough just to imagine Rollins—a buff hard-rocker—giving scores to male-dressed-as-female contestants. The real kicker came when Mr. R narrated the night he got home from taping the show’s final episode: he was looking to “relieve some tension”[16] and began to do that thing guys do when they want to “relieve some tension.”[17] However, just as about he was to finish this deed, an image of one of the show’s contestants ran through his mind[18].

– Bill McMillian

*Note to You: This review will not even begin to “do any justice”[19] to the three-hour-machine-gun-barrage-of-a-performance[20] Mr. Rollins offered at 8 p.m. Saturday, Westcott Theatre; the amount of area he covered during this event deserves at least one encyclopedia-sized book. If You’re wondering what it’s like to see Mr. R, check the YouTube[21].

*Addendum: Imagine trying to speak for three hours straight with no guests or intermissions or commercial breaks or Q-and-A sessions. OK now imagine trying to speak for three hours straight under the same circumstances in a coherent manner with the goal of entertaining and informing people the whole time. Part of the triumph of Rollins’ performance is his ability and—more impressively—his willingness to do just that. Most bands don’t stick around any longer than two hours; Rollins does three all by himself[22]. One gets the feeling that Rollins could fill a few days time by himself, which is less about him liking to sound of his own voice and more about his limitless intellect and ever-deepening interest in everything[23].

*Addendum II: But people really must think that you have something worthwhile to say when they pay over $20 just to see and hear you speak, especially those who bought standing only tickets[24]. However, more and more patrons start to get that let’s-go-already-I-need-a-cigarette look on their faces at about the hour-and-a-half point; one boyfriend/girlfriend pair walks out about 45 minutes in, with the male saying to a comrade, “This guy is boring as fuck—I got better stories than this guy.”[25] This is the only component of Mr. Rollin’s act I would change—to give it a two-hour ceiling.


[1] For those who have not been to “The Westcott,” it’s a 700 capacity venue with lower-/upper-level seating, standing area, and bar.

[2] The number nine comes up in many clichés—“cloud nine,” “the whole nine yards”—and is said to come from the theory that the more material a tailor used to make one’s clothing, the higher on the social ladder one was. “Nine” has all kinds of other etymological meanings that cannot be discussed adequately here.

[3] This applies to mostly older folk in denim trousers.

[4] I’m talking about those caps most often seen on Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Jordan when he’s golfing, and/or the late Payne Stewart. Also seen: fedoras, top hats, wide and narrow cowboy hats, old beat up denim Velcro hats which sport company names one wouldn’t normally see on old beat up denim Velcro hats.

[5] Mr. Rollins has many tattoos, but the most prominent are: a back-piece of a sun with the words “Search and Destroy” above it (this is the graphic he uses for his t-shirts), the Black Flag logo (four vertical fat black bars, like a really crude barcode) on his left bicep, a Misfits logo (a skeleton in a hood with its arms crossed) on his left forearm, and a tribal snake-like shape on the outside of his left calf. There are even a few pictures online of people who have gotten Rollins’ face or one of his quotes tattooed on them.

[6] In reference to the three-headed mythological creature, also seen in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in dog form.

[7] This is a long story, but the gist is that Coulter was lined up to speak at the University of Ottawa. Knowing how controversial she is, the school’s vice president sent Coulter an e-mail asking her to be mindful and respectful of Canada’s tradition of mindful- and respectful-ness; Coulter was slightly annoyed as a result. She also once said that Canadians “are lucky we [Americans] allow them to exist on the same continent.”

[8] It’s important to note that Rollins speaks with auctioneer-like rapidity, which could be a result of his history with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (he suffered it as a kid). None of what he says is unclear however, and he’s definitely not trying to sell you anything (besides his merchandise, which he doesn’t talk about).

[9] The crowd lost it when Mr. Rollins said this, but it exemplified the type of—I’m afraid to say—average comedic ability apparent in his shows.

[10] In which Rollins joked that Obama’s English if so perfect that he speaks punctuation (i.e. “The White House is white comma but it’s hardly a house semicolon it’s more like a one of those mansion dash hotel dash monument dash hybrids period.”)

[11] For anyone who hasn’t seen The Bad Brains in recent years, H.R. will do things like sing half a song and sit down and wave to the audience for the remainder of it, or wear things like motorcycle helmets with the visor down onstage, or bring his luggage out with him.

[12] He says he likes to watch people watch football instead of watching it himself.

[13] When told by the show’s producers that they were looking for a white power character and decided upon him, Mr. R asked them if there was anything they saw in real-life that would make them think that he [Mr. R] was in fact some sort of skinhead. They said, “No.”

[14] Namely that the faculty and administration at said school did not know Mr. R was speaking, and did not know who he was once they found out he was speaking. He said it went extremely well though, going so far as to point out that the school’s chancellor whispered a few compliments in his ear after he’d left the podium. Apparently said chancellor rarely has anything good to say to anyone, which in turn made Mr. R feel doubly good.

[15] This mantra might explain Mr. R’s curiosity about literally everything.

[16] Sexually.

[17] Sexually.

[18] This was difficult for Mr. R, who is neither homosexual nor homophobic, to come to conclusions about.

[19] I’ve put this phrase in quotes because it is a cliché, and therefore I don’t want you to think that I’ve come up with it right here.

[20] It’s not even a “performance” per se—no actors, no music, no prehistoric animals coming out of the PA system, etc.; it’s essentially Rollins talking about his past experiences with a mix of opinion and comedy.

[21] Specifically check out a video in which Rollins writes a personal note to Madonna.

[22] And I’m not sure if this was a uniquely long show, but I’d guess each is about three hours.

[23] Ev—ry—thing.

[24] And anyone who has stood in one spot for more than an hour has experienced those awful leg-and-lower-back pains and/or gluteal numbing sensations.

[25] I somehow doubt that the man who said this does have better stories than Mr. Rollins. If this were the case, chances are this man would be the one doing most of the talking.

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