by Nick Keppler
Henry Rollins showed up at the Carnegie Lecture Hall on Saturday with the same all-black garb and arms dotted with tattoos that he has been sporting for years. One thing about the appearance of the singer/comedian/actor/columnist/poet was noticeable different, though: His signature buzz cut was half-way gray.
During his performance of “spoken word” (a term that still clings to Rollins’ shows even though “stand-up comedy” is probably more accurate), the 51-year-old one-time punk rock singer made several comments about his own age. These ranged from the zany (jokes about how Black Flag, the band that made him famous, toured in the 1850s with John Adams and Mark Twain in the audience) to the existential (an anecdote about sitting in a New York City diner as the clock struck midnight on his birthday last year and wondering if black coffee and tuna sandwiches would taste any different to him in his 50s).
Rollins can still talk at any entire book page’s length a minute (so you’ll have to forgive the lack of full-sentence quotes in this blog post, as it’d be impossible to get one without bringing and then reviewing a tape recorder) and tightly packed material into his nearly three-hour performance.
He started on politics, roasting the “clown car” of Republican presidential candidates in ways that were a little hackneyed. Like, have you noticed the “frozen face” and “weird hair helmet” on Newt Gingrich’s wife? Also, ever think that gay-obsessed Rick Santorum might secretly want to hold a warm pair of someone else’s balls? Rollins had even memorized CDC statistics for the sake of shooting down Rick Perry’s abstinence policy (yeah, that and a few Herman Cain jokes were obviously written months ago), making the whole routine sounds like a sweaty Keith Olberman “Special Commentary.”
Rollins likes to talk about how often he offends people but, really, one of the keys to his success is that he always comes off as a really nice guy. In mocking Perry, Rollins was quick to interject that there are some “really cool people” in Texas and also clarified that he has no qualms with Chinese people before describing a depressing trip to Tibet. He speaks with an earnest sense of relativism when it comes to cultures, calling a recent encounter with a Pentecostal church’s blues-y gospel band as “the best rock show I saw last year” and recalling his years in the early ’80s punk circuit as a minefield of stabbings, thrown objects and near riots.
The show was a mixed bag as Rollins switched from aging to his Black Flag days to current politics to his appreciation of Abraham Lincoln to the next in his unending line of projects, a Nat Geo show for which he traveled from North Korea to India to Vietnam to Tibet to Uganda to Haiti last year.
Rollins described himself as a “fading alternative icon,” a phase that is somehow both self-effacing and self-aggrandizing. He does always seem to want to have it both ways, possessing both a forceful tough-guy attitude and pleading need to continually have his fans’ attention through a variety of projects. But all great stand-up comedians are a mess of contradictions and Rollins, as always, came out likeable and funny in the end.