Near the end of an epic three-hour performance at London’s Barbican, Henry Rollins described himself as a “tree-hugging hippie.” Strange words for the ex-vocalist of seminal hardcore punk band Black Flag, a man who was once notorious for getting into fist-fights with his own audiences. Has time mellowed the L.A. Times’ first choice for “angriest man in Los Angeles”?
Rollins has a point: most working-class punks don’t play venues like London’s 2,000 capacity Barbican Centre (which he filled not just once but twice on this recent UK tour). This purpose-built arts centre sits in the mega-rich City of London and is home to both the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company, a far cry from the seedy nightclubs and toilet-circuit venues where Black Flag made their name in the 1980s. Fortunately the surroundings did nothing to blunt his punk energy and anti-establishment zeal.
Rollins’ career is wide-ranging, taking in music, acting, writing, and performance. When he originally began to perform his one-man shows they were definitely spoken word, but as time has passed he gets closer and closer to pure stand-up comedy. Rollins acknowledged this at the beginning, saying “I’ll spend the first 20 minutes on the boring stuff, and then we’ll get to the fun stuff.” Many a true word is spoken in jest; the opening section formed an awkward political diatribe focussed on the current US presidential race–not the best way to fire up a British crowd. Thankfully, the following two and a half hours were absolutely brilliant.
Rollins has a captivating stage presence: squat and still carved from stone at 54, he assumed a power-stance for the entire three-hour set, feet slightly apart, leaning forward, gripping the microphone like he was about to start screaming, the cord wrapped round and round one fist. The other hand gesticulated wildly, veins standing out in his neck, his voice alive with genuine passion and, yes, anger. His topic of choice, once the politics were out of the way? Heroes.
Rollins’ performances have always been like peeking behind the veil of the music industry, about gaining inside access to a world many dream of and many more are fascinated by. Rollins is at his best when he is enthused, when he shares naïve wide-eyed wonder with his audience. At his core he is still the 20-year-old music fan who “won the lottery” (his words) and got to front his favourite band and join the inside track. His passion and admiration for his musical heroes is contagious.
His two biggest riffs were both timely and touching; lengthy discourses on Lemmy and David Bowie, observations delivered with genuine warmth and wit. More impressively, they were delivered only a couple weeks after their subjects’ deaths, but with the finesse and skill of material that has been honed to razor sharpness. How Rollins gets his material so smooth so quickly is astounding, especially given that he is delivering three hours a night.
This was also the funniest Rollins show to date, slick and circular, full of call-backs, impressions, and dry observations. There was still anger, and a message, but there were also dozens of genuinely funny laugh-out-loud moments. I hadn’t expected to laugh anywhere near as much as I did. Rollins makes a fine stand-up.
The true heart of the show, however, was the message, an individualistic call to arms and plea for understanding. Touchingly, Rollins told the stories of two of his fans who he considered heroes: a young man battling entrenched homophobia in the American South, and a troubled young girl who travelled halfway across Europe just to meet him. They are underdogs, everyday people who have been trodden on, ground up, and spat out by an uncaring world, and Rollins builds them up as survivors who should be celebrated, while remaining funny, compassionate, and genuine.
And this is where the tree-hugging comes in. Rollins’ set was epic in length but I left elated, buoyed up, and positive. He’s still angry: about Trump, about the environment, about our dumbed-down culture, and about all the terrible things people do to other people. But his relentless excitement and positivity had me leaving the auditorium determined to celebrate my passions and not let the bastards grind me down. Henry Rollins may be preaching love like a “tree-hugging hippie” but his message is also one of resistance and fortitude. If he is a hippie, he must be the angriest hippie on Earth.
Photos by Heidi May