With apologies to James Brown, Henry Rollins is truly the hardest-working man in show business. The guy has never met a spare moment that he couldn't fill--between recording and tours with the Rollins Band, he heads up the 2.13.61 publishing house, and has released some dozen of his own books along with volumes by Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Hubert Selby and Ellyn Maybe. He also co-owns the record label Infinite Zero, dedicated to keeping great but lesser-known music of the '70s and '80s in print. Artists such as Devo and Tom Verlaine are among that label's gems. As an actor, he has appeared in several "major motion pictures," including David Lynch's Lost Highway.
Turn on your television and you are sure to hear Hank's commercial voice-over work extolling the virtues of GMC trucks or Apple computers. And whenever he has some time to kill, he does a spoken-word tour.
Henry hits town this week for a "talking show" at the Celebrity Theatre. He's out in support of his new releases, Think Tank, a two-CD set on Dreamworks, and You Saw Me Up There, a video document of yet another Rollins show. His gigs are a unique animal. When he says "talking show," that is exactly what he means: one guy onstage with a microphone spilling it for two to three hours. It's an engrossing combination of humorous stories about road life as a midlevel media celebrity and rants against injustices in society. He works the crowd like a seasoned standup comic even while making deadly serious observations about the human condition.
Thursday's show is the final stop for this American tour. By phone from his Los Angeles office, Rollins promised that he'll be good and warmed up by the time he hits Phoenix. When asked if he gets fried doing two-and-a-half-hour speaking engagements for weeks at a time, he responded that it's all in the scheduling. Anything less than five nights in a row is usually not a problem. "The talking shows are much more draining than band shows."
He compares his spoken gigs to "taking a final exam on a tightrope . . . completely mentally taxing." Rollins Band shows are "like a workout, much more physical, and the physical I can handle." For the marathon monologues, he brings only a notebook onstage with reminder words to keep him straight on the direction he intends for the evening. He generally opens with several funny pieces to get the audience's attention, and proceeds with humor until he feels it's time to head to "a different place." That place can be a light story about unfamiliar food while touring Russia or a completely devastating blow-by-blow description of witnessing a friend's death at the hands of some junkie loser. Despite the laughs, a Rollins show is not a light evening's entertainment.
The self-deprecating "aging alternative icon" has often been slammed by his more hard-core fans for "selling out" with voice-over work and other extracurricular activities. He responds, "I've gotten shit before, usually by kids who still live at home with their parents and don't have a grasp of the reality of paying rent. I will not starve for my art or for anyone else's complacency. I happen to like three meals a day and a roof that does not leak. Someone is going to talk about that GMC truck, so it might as well be me. It's not an evil truck or a carcinogenic truck. . . . It's just a good truck." As for being the house punker on The Tonight Show, he points out that he has never placed himself in the underground. He's an American artist; why shouldn't he sit on the couch next to Jay Leno?
Since Henry draws large crowds for a medium that usually means intimate poetry readings and dry lectures, he has also heard whispers about not being a "true" spoken-word artist. "Thank God for that," he says. "If I was one, there would only be 35 people at these gigs! Basically, those whiners can just kiss my ass. Anyone who has a problem with me . . . please, either do your own thing or don't, but keep your complaints to yourself. Call what I do something else if you want. . . . I have no real name for these shows. The audience knows it's just going to be me. They know it's not the band and they know there's not going to be a film. And yet they still keep coming. I love this medium, and I love being on that stage."
Henry Rollins is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 5, at the Celebrity Theatre, 440 North 32nd Street. Tickets are $16 in advance, $17 the day of the show. 267-1600 (Celeb), 503-5555 (Dillard's).