November 16, 1996
Damn. I wanted to rip into Henry Rollins so bad I could taste a bloody scrap of his black Gap tee shirt on my tongue. Power Book ad-posing, 7-Eleven coffee-chugging, "Baretta" guy in better days, stunt-double-looking, Charles Bukowski rip-off bad haiku writing, underground hard-core hero turned mainstream pop icon, rivet-chinned punk.
Yeah, I was amped. Unfortunately, Henry didn't hold up his end of the bargain. He didn't orally manipulate the sexual appendage of a bloated goat onstage at Electric Ballroom November 16. Matter of fact, Rollins put on one hell of a solo show for the Tempe portion of his "Public Insomniac: An Evening of Spoken Word With Henry Rollins" tour. We need to have one point clear, however:
Henry Rollins is not a spoken-word artist. Henry Rollins is Jay Leno for the Gen X set.
When he finally took the stage at 9:32 p.m., two and a half hours after the doors opened (the opening act was a loop tape of What Hits? by Red Hot Chili Peppers played at fluctuating volume), Rollins immediately launched into a hilarious, 30-minute diatribe about a gig he recently missed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because of various airport debacles and a cover-band drummer named Eric who got Rollins into a single-prop plane on false pretenses and took him on an unscheduled, white-knuckle joy ride through the night skies of the Midwest.
Eric, it seems, was a huge Rollins fan who answered the phone at a small plane charter service in Tulsa (called "Million Air") when Henry's manager called frantically looking for alternative means to get Rollins to Tulsa in time for that night's show. Several commercial flights got fucked up for various reasons and a private jet was grounded because of engine trouble ("I wasn't having any of that mechanical-problems bullshit," said Rollins. "I looked at the pilot and said, 'What, do they give you those wings for being a pussy? Let's go!'). So Eric answers the phone at Million Air, realizes he has a chance to meet his idol, passes himself off as a pilot (a refueler at Million Air, Eric sort of knew how to fly, but didn't have a license), commandeers a plane and buzzes off to pick up Henry and get him back to Tulsa.
Because their flight wasn't registered with the authorities, Eric and Henry had a few close brushes with commercial airliners. They also ran out of fuel and had to land in the farm town of Grove, Oklahoma, where Henry called his manager, discovered Eric's deceit and retreated to the only place open in Grove, a Qwik-Mart, where he was recognized by one local youth who quickly spread the word. End result: Rollins winds up posing for pictures with the MTV-converted alt. youth of Grove, ". . . all the local boys and girls in their freshly pressed Marilyn Manson tee shirts."
It was rich material, and Rollins mined it well. He's a smooth, natural storyteller with an intuitive sense of cadence who makes good use of voices and microphone sound effects. Yet, 30 minutes into his "spoken word" performance, what had he essentially served up? Airport jokes. What was next, Henry's answer to Bill Cosby's dentist-office routine?
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No, Henry riffing for five minutes on why New Yorkers are so cranky, and another 15 on his first night in a lower-Manhattan apartment. The radiators, the roaches, the snoring downstairs neighbor, the whole bit. Again, he was really good. He had about 1,000 members of cynical youth in stitches. But, again, it was standup comedy. Same for his routine on touring with Ozzy Osbourne.
Henry sprinkled his performance with several brief forays into intensely political commentary, but even then, the white-hot anger of Rollins past yielded to the funny guy in black of Rollins present. On gay rights: "I don't care who parks what where. An orifice is an orifice is an orifice." Only with a chilling description of touring Auschwitz he busted out two thirds of the way into his impressively long two-and-a-half-hour set did Rollins finally get to a point of any real ideological import. To his credit, he drove that point home with a vengeance. Those same 1,000 kids were silently hanging on his every word, and you could see the dawn of understanding break on their faces as Rollins led them through to the conclusion that, if the Religious Right ever comes to power in this country, there will be an oven waiting for the likes of them--figuratively or otherwise.
David Holthouse is now wired.
The Web site is Mothership. The address is www.phoenixnewtimes.com/extra/holt/index.html. The options are myriad (multigenre criticism, archives, rave data, freak links).