Shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday at the Barrymore Theatre, Henry Rollins jogged on stage, grabbed a mic, wrapped the cord five times around his knuckles, assumed a boxing stance and pinned the crowd their seats with a barrage of nonstop words for almost three hours.
No water breaks. No question and answer period. No coughing or hoarseness. No pauses, except for a sharp inhale at one point between the words "Sri Lankan" and "death metal." From Sarah Palin to Bad Brains to RuPaul to the LOL-ity of "thumb-driven devices," he emitted an exhausting but entertaining stream of stories.
The 49-year-old former Black Flag frontman and elder statesman of punk is manic in his desperation to please. One of Rollins' biggest fears is that he'll let down his fans, he said, and that he'll be perceived as phoning it in. He analogizes putting on a show to making an omelet -- and it's either served up resentfully or lovingly.
"My life has been leading up to making you an omelet," he said.
That's a high-stakes omelet.
After a few shout-outs for the benefit of the senior scenesters in the audience (a reference to Merlin's got lots of cheers), Rollins riffed on politics for the first hour or so, including a condemnation of the Itawamba County School District in Jackson, Miss., which canceled prom after a lesbian student named Constance McMillen asked if she could attend with her girlfriend.
He proposed that we "take this century for our own," arguing that it's an impressionable 10-year-old kid and can be molded without the ugliness of the past: "Homophobia -- out! Misogyny -- out! Thinking with your damn gills and tail -- out!"
It's the meanness and divisiveness he sees in politics and society at large that bugs him the most.
"Nobody in the Klu Klux Klan needs a baseball bat upside the head, they need an Al Green record," he said.
The funny lines came fast and thick. The Declaration of Independence is a "punk-rock ‘n' roll-funk" document and the Preamble to the Constitution sounds like James Brown's emcee pumping up a crowd. Abstinence-only education fails because teens have hormones that are "howling at the moon" and, given "roadkill, four feet of dental floss and a shoe" to survive, they'd still find a way to have sex. Barack Obama speaks in "perfect Helvetica 12-point" ("Who is this guy, a narc?"), and John Biden "is about as mysterious as a box of Maxwell House Coffee."
From there he launched into the stories of seeing Bad Brains for the first time in June of 1979, judging (and getting turned on by) the lady-boys of RuPaul's Drag Race, touring opulent Saudi Arabian mansions, introducing the Stooges to a Sri Lankan teenager, and why he flipped off Burmese leader Than Shwe to his face.
He ended with an anecdote about riding in a taxi in Beijing with a driver who blasted an extended dance remix of Europe's "The Final Countdown" while showing him around the city and barking "Hello!" every time he wanted to get Rollins' attention. (His farewell, which Rollins said was the funniest one-liner of the entire trip, was "Hello! Goodbye!")
The intensity of that taxi ride barely matches Rollins' show.
Because singer-writer-actor-activist-comedian-publisher-actor-icon is too cumbersome, Rollins awkwardly goes by "spoken word artist" these days. It's not exactly incorrect, but his delivery doesn't always share the tight and artful poetry of most spoken word. He rants, he crows, he expounds on his ideas ("slathered in patchouli and kicking hacky sack").
He's a sharp observer and colorful storyteller, but he could have used an editor to trim it down to maybe two hours Friday night. Brevity would punch up his work-for-change message. His relentless attack ends up being more exhausting than inspiring, so that the substance of his storytelling rises up like a wisp of smoke in the explosion of his nonstop talking. I thirsted after a cold beer afterward, just to calm down.
But when Rollins is on, he's on. It's still a damn good omelet.