By Rory Winston
Look forward in anger: a fitting battle cry for stand-up raconteur Henry Rollins, the punk patriot who continues to wave his symbolic Black Flag behind enemy lines. Though the band of that name has retreated into history, Rollins refuses to surrender to either unfocused rage or age. Instead, he has become a lean, mean, top-billing comic machine, who has vented his outrage into a spoken-word performance that has taken much of Europe by storm.
Though his recent Scandinavian tour is part of a promotion for his IFC network show, “Henry Rollins,” the unflagging Renaissance man successfully exports more than just a TV show. He is a self-described “bad boy goodwill ambassador” who reassures the wary: “The U.S. majority is not synonymous with the moral majority; and our pop culture is not as feeble as our incumbent president’s speaking skills.”
Bombarding a grateful Helsinki audience with nearly three hours worth of nonstop sets, Rollins juxtaposed political lampooning – complete with Robert Klein-like voice modulations – with more pensive performance monologues reminiscent of Eric Bogosian’s work. At odd intervals, Rollins ranted about society in classic George Carlin mode: “In Scandinavia things dating back to the Bronze Age still come with active warranties while our products – like our bombs – are lucky to last beyond delivery.” Other more sensitive moments – about injured soldiers and retired rockers – had the tone of Billy Crystal classics like “Face and the Jazz Musician.”
Though never fully abandoning his punk edge, Rollins occasionally launched into post-modern parables – moral tales curtailed by self-consciousness. If Will Rogers were alive today and, of course, more manic, this might be what he’d sound like. Reputed never to have taken drugs or even much alcohol, Rollins is a workaholic whose intellect and energy run the gamut between melodic to jarringly coarse.
Rollins also riffed on how Europeans often speak English in addition to their respective languages: ‘“Do you speak English?” he recalls asking a gypsy living in a Transylvanian cave surrounded only by candlelight. “Yes, of course,” she answers, as if talking to a child.
To localize his act, Rollins altered his segues for the specific home crowd. “Finland is the sixth happiest nation in the world – at least according to one of those enigmatic surveys whose verity I am not certain how they ascertain,” stated Rollins many times over at his Helsinki gig.
Harmonizing disparate themes and styles of delivery into a cohesive unit, Rollins ensured that the term “constructive anarchism” did not smack of oxymoron. It is a testament to both Rollins’s discipline as well as his eclectic sensibility that the show never came off sounding derivative or preachy.
In a sense, Rollins seemed freer in Europe than he does at home. He allowed himself comic excesses such as corny jokes and wordplays – devices that expose his vulnerability and make him far more charismatic. Perhaps he had wanted to be the “king of comedy” all along. While inadvertently evoking hidden comic legends of the past, one wondered whether it was his punk rock past that informed each spoken-word performance, or whether it had always been stand-up comedy that informed his singing career.
As a writer, performer and critical talk show host, Rollins touches many. Ironically, the avowed misanthrope who rails against abuses has an optimistic take on America’s future (presidential policies notwithstanding). As Rollins lovingly mentions Ozzy Osbourne – his there-but-by-the-grace-of-abstention-go-I hero – it is that other Osborne that comes to mind. Back in 1956 John Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger” described the plight of an intelligent, if rebellious, young man. Rollins is what happens to such young men when everything goes right. As the intelligent and rebellious older man, Rollins attests to the fact that “wiser” need not feel “older.” In fact, wisdom, in his case, remains as it first appeared onstage: endlessly energetic, enduringly bold and ever-inquisitive.