The one-time Punk rocker now specialises in spoken-word shows – this one went on and on and on
What is the link between David Bowie and Lemmy? The answer, it turns out, is Henry Rollins, the musician turned spoken-word artist who has met both of our most recently deceased rock legends, and from which he fashions the hour-long opening gambit of his latest (three-hour) show.
It is a tenuous link, but tenuous would be a good word to describe Rollins’s whole oeuvre, spinning rambling anecdotes from slender sources with the prolix loquaciousness of an obsessive note-taker who just has to tell you every single thought that crosses his mind. It is the stream of conscious turned into a deluge.
The Bowie encounter, at a rock festival in Switzerland, revealed little about its subject and far more about its narrator, which actually might be true of all Rollins stories. They only met once, briefly, when Bowie outed himself as a fan keen to discuss the American’s work. Which must have been nice for Rollins but kind of dull as a story.
I did, however, enjoy his description of Bowie’s entry into a backstage festival catering tent, causing everyone to stop what they were doing and stare, until, like a commanding officer completing inspection, Bowie declared “At ease, carry on” and the room returned to life.
Rollins knew Lemmy somewhat better, and offered a pungent description of the aroma that would precede Motorhead’s arrival into enclosed spaces: “the smell of dried and vintage perspiration, leather and tobacco.” Rollins took listeners into Lemmy’s inner sanctum: a cramped apartment in LA, with narrow passageways forged between waist-high piles of books, records and half-empty bottles of Jack Daniels, and a tiny fetal-shaped space carved amidst the enormous overflow of rubbish which turned out to be where Lemmy slept on those rare occasions when he made it off the couch.
As a former firebrand star of America’s hardcore punk rock scene, Rollins chose to interpret this as further evidence of Lemmy’s mythical status as a true rock-and-roller, trying to draw from his sad encounters some valedictory notion that Lemmy lived life exactly the way he wanted. But it was all subtly undermined by the fact that what the stories actually described was a lonely, belligerent, alcoholic hoarder with the emotional development of a child.
It is possible that Rollins failed to perceive this because he is really not so different himself, albeit a tidier, friendlier, non-alcoholic version. At 55, he described his life alone in a small apartment, surrounded by his beloved books and music, with no partner, no children, and no friends he’d describe as close. He apparently spends about three hours a day in well-lit branches of Starbucks, scribbling obsessively in his notebooks. Living the dream, Henry.
Rollins speaks fast, expressively, articulately, without ever pausing for consideration. Whether he has got anything to really say is another question. He is like a stand-up comedian without punch-lines, or a motivational speaker without motivation.
When he first embarked on spoken-word shows in the 1980s, it was as a side-line to his music career (as frontman of the band Black Flag), employing shock and awe tactics to overwhelm audiences. His reputation was established as a tattooed, hyperactive rocker talking with bare-knuckle honesty and humorous spirit about how music helped him survived the the abuse, death and craziness in his life.
Thirty years on, Rollins has carved a quite unique space for himself in the world of art and performance, where he can flourish, emotionally and psychologically, and that is to be celebrated. But he has used up all his best stories, and now he is just speaking to the converted, dedicated fans who seem perfectly content to hear him ramble on. And on. And on.
Rollins’s most telling encounter with a famous person was a brief mention of meeting Leonard Cohen, in which the great Canadian bard said just one thing: “Henry Rollins: you are prolific. I ... am not.” Which is exactly why a three-hour Cohen show would be a treat and Henry Rollins needs an editor.
Henry Rollins tours the UK with his show, ‘Charmingly Obstinate’, until Jan 18; henryrollins.com/tour