Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, 7 January 2018
It’s a fire sale at a Books-a-Million that led me to Henry Rollins. I found an audiobook of Get in the Van, his stories from his time with Black Flag. It was on cassette, even. (Kids, ask your parents.) I discovered that Rollins had what would later be used to describe John Wick–“sheer fuckin’ will”–and I have admired that ever since. From there, it only made sense to see him live on stage with a microphone, talking instead of shouting.
If you have never seen Rollins give one of his spoken word shows, I advise you: I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s part storytelling, part stand up comedy, part travelogue and part “meeting down at the docks.” If you only knew Rollins from his time in Black Flag or Rollins Band, you might not ever know that the guy is funny as hell. Not to mention inquisitive, well-read and owner of a well-used passport.
With his latest tour, he’s showing everyone yet another thing that he does: photography. If the idea of someone showing you travel photos is boring…well, you’re right. Under normal circumstances, it absolutely can be. But having heard Rollins’ stories of travel before, the idea of having a visual to go along with his completely mental adventures…well, turns out it was not to be missed.
And I’m glad I didn’t miss it, despite this cold that has been trying to beat the shit out of me since before New Year’s. And Rollins brings a lot to process, even if your head isn’t Congestion Central. His mantra has been: get out in the world, see for yourself, most of what you’ve heard is bullshit. See for yourself. And he has.
From the moment he walks out and begins to talk, it’s two and a half hours of him on the mic not stopping. I don’t even think he took a sip of water in that time. And since he has mentioned multiple times over the years about how he had been put on Ritalin as a child…I cannot imagine this man on prescription stimulants. And this is me talking. I think if we could figure out how to tap into whatever fuels him, we could power the Eastern Seaboard for…well, weeks.
There’s no overarching narrative besides urging everyone to live life and see things firsthand. In one section, he’s showing us pictures of Antarctica and giving us a decidedly un-Attenboroughian overview of penguins. In another, he’s telling us about the charity he works with (Drop in the Bucket) that drills wells at schools in Africa so that kids will be hydrated and will learn. In yet another, he’s showing us the wreckage of the Iraqi army from the “Highway of Death” in Kuwait. There’s no telling where the next picture will take the audience…and I think he basically hit every continent but Australia, though it was certainly mentioned.
Rollins takes very few landscape photos, he says, because he wants to have to engage with people, get their permission to take photos of them. He wants to get into the moment, walk around the cities, see and learn everything. His knowledge appears to be encyclopedic, whether he’s talking about music when he gets to host a radio show or whether he’s discussing the history of Afghanistan. As he says, “I’m that guy.”
That being said, he takes great pains to not come across as judgmental, or somehow holier than whatever because he’s been these places. He goes, he photographs, he records, he comes back and tells us the stories. Even when the subject matter is dark–as when he’s talking about The Killing Fields or showing pictures from a cremation ceremony–while what he’s reporting about can certainly be disturbing, the presentation makes it feel very factual and not (for lack of a better term) overdramatized. It’s certainly a more mature presentation than you would get from The Alien Nazi Channel (formerly The History Channel).
I found the presentation to be absolutely fascinating, partly because the material was so compelling but also because Rollins makes for an excellent guide. His drive to know and experience is insatiable and it shows.
I honestly don’t know anyone I wouldn’t recommend this show to. I will say that it’s probably not appropriate for young kids, just because you are seeing some images which could be considered disturbing (though not many that are overtly so without the commentary). But even if he came through and did the same damn slideshow, I’d go again. It’s refreshing, though exhausting, to be in the company of such a maniac with a camera.