The first time I see Henry, he’s tired. He’s carrying a camera case and looks punished. He’s just spent a day in the townships outside Cape Town. His bag is heavy, and he doesn’t want help. This is a theme I’ll get familiar with over the next week.
Once a son of the LA Punk scene, he’s matured into a cool uncle of culture consciousness, a perceptive sentinel. His weapon: disarming honesty – filtered through the library behind his relentless gaze. He’s quick to tell you what’s cooking in the fearsome engine between his ears.
There is a military air about him, which suits his plan to document the world. Step by step. A light traveller and voracious reader, he shows me the WalMart earplugs that save his hearing from passive overload on long-haul flights. There’s a four-dollar stopwatch that tells him where he is in the show.
He assures me that his simple backstage rider is not all necessary, “I need a knife and some string, man — that’s it.” He doesn’t want complications; there isn’t time — after answering every email himself, signing every shirt, book, CD and chest shoved in his face after the gigs, he needs a bed — simple. There are no fancy dinners, no schmoozing — just recharging. He is mechanical and soulful — and reminds me of Wall-E, a self-aware and furious optimist searching for signs of life in a desolate species.
“It’s all manual for me, I don’t just pitch up and get a crowd — I’ve got to grind through the interviews, phoners, TV spots, the mailers — I have three to answer on my laptop in the room right now.” You’d think he looks forward to a break, but time off is poison, reads his mantra — it breeds laziness.
We eat veggie burgers and shoot the breeze: Bill Hicks and George Carlin. We share a view on Nickelback and Lady Gaga. He sums up eloquently: “They are extremely not good.” His energy level lifts as he talks about the book he clutches — an expose of Blackwater, the private security company that bills the US people billions to ensure that hell remains firmly on earth. Henry picks his battles. He knows when to bank the effort and when to burn it.
By the end of the next day, we’ve put him through too much press, only a couple of the journos knew anything about him — one cocksure Cape breakfast radio jock has no idea what he’s got himself into. Having badly underestimated Henry at first, we watch the hapless guy squirm as he searches for some substance of his own, as Henry’s shines through … it’s no good, he flops around like a doomed fish on deck. Henry walks resolutely to the car and thanks me for putting him in the ring with “intellectually tepid” people. It’s a joke through gritted teeth.
He reminds me that he is an angry man, but not with anyone specific, I breathe out.
Later we wander through the Greenpoint flea market, finding meaning amongst curios. We step over muddy puddles and talk about big stuff.
“Imagine you worked your whole life and all you had to show for it was a pile of money. What an awful, hollow place to be.” Amen, Captain America.
He’s hard on himself because the alternative is a “spreading ass and a shopping mall … ” if he’s afraid of anything, it’s becoming a hypnotised suburban blob like everyone else.
Henry is a voice of reason in an age of unprecedented oppression, a lone gunman against corrupt logic and lousy ethics. He’s out there taking fire because we can’t be bothered to leave the couch and our carbohydrates and take an interest.
We don’t want to know that our fashionable takkies are made by brutalised children, it will put us off our fried chicken nuggets. Cafe society can’t be evil, because it is civilised. We can’t be perpetuating the issues we decry over lattes, can we?
Henry is the guy that’s dedicated himself to documenting the events we’ve swept under the rug. Our inactivity is what fuels him on. Is “critical mass” the weight at which we become most judgmental?
Now we’re pre-show. Backstage, the American accelerates, pacing back and forth, playing music and isolating himself layer by layer. He’s loading a three-hour marathon into his head, checking his sights and arming himself with pages and pages of carefully chosen words. It strikes me how iconic his tattoos are to so many people.
A great performer constantly asks something of the witness, a “ping” so they can reorientate themselves in each new moment. What is a hostage-taker without demands? Henry doesn’t disappoint. He moves quickly through his stories, cramming in as much as he can, flying off on tangents. It’s like watching the last show on earth and he doesn’t want you to miss a thing.
He’s a compelling distillation of anger, intelligence and wit. A graffito spraying lucid questions on the walls of authority. There is no sarcasm or irony. It’s wall-to-wall substance from the time he strolls out on stage in black pants, T-shirt with blue sneakers, plugs his mic into the cable, plants his feet and says “hello”.
The script is self-portraiture. Spartan simplicity. Nothing extraneous. The humour is surgical satire. He’s pulling photos from the album of his life and I don’t feel driven to kick a puppy, as I usually am when my neighbours show me their snaps from Easter in Plett.
On the way to catch our respective flights home, he tells me he left the stopwatch on stage in JHB. I tell him we’ve already sent it to meet him in LA. He insists that I take postage money from him — I resist and he makes a humble request that I humour him. He leaves us 21 grams lighter.
A week later and the vapour trail has gone cold, life moves on. I get an email from someone who saw the show: “After seeing Henry, I feel like I’ve wasted so much time doing nothing …”
See Henry Rollins at least once in your life.
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