Henry Rollins walks briskly to the front of the small church, a blur of muscle and tattoos. It is a stormy Saturday night in Denver, the last stop on Rollins' three-week, coast-to-coast "spoken word" tour before his return to Los Angeles. The crowd of about 200 is an unlikely combination of neatly dressed college students, bohemian hipsters, bearded biker types and a few mohawk-crested punks. One ardent fan calls out as Rollins passes by:
The former lead singer of the hard-core L.A. band Black Flag is a study in black: closely cropped black hair, dark X-ray eyes, baggy black clothes. Images of bats, skulls and snakes creep up his biceps; beneath the black T-shirt, a brilliant sun is tattooed across his back, under the words Search and destroy. There's enough steel in the toes of his shoes to send airport metal detectors shrieking. He looks like a Marine from hell.
Rollins beckons the stragglers in the back to come sit on the floor in front, campfire-style. He hands a large bottle of Perrier to a young woman and urges her to pass it around the room.
"I've been trying to figure out why I go around and do this," he says. "I really dig this writer Henry Miller, and in his book 'The Air-Conditioned Nightmare' there's this line--I'm paraphrasing--'We don't talk to one another these days. We bludgeon each other with facts and figures gleaned from cursory glances at magazines.' Very rarely does someone try to communicate, and that's what turned me on to this kind of thing."
As the Perrier bottle bobs through the crowd, Rollins launches his assault on the communication problem. He begins with a coarse confession regarding the pleasures of masturbation, prompting a ripple of nervous laughter that swells to a guilty roar. He tells raunchy stories about life on the road with Black Flag and about crack dealers outwitting bumbling cops in his old neighborhood in Venice. He ridicules yuppies who wear Reeboks--"They're not shoes, they're little leather booties! Why be 27 when you can be 9 months old and sashay through life?"--and proposes that beer ads should depict intoxicated teen-agers throwing up in parking lots. He urges women to arm themselves against sexual harassment: "Ladies, how about a line of color-coordinated shoulder holsters? The next time some (expletive deleted) construction worker yells, 'Hey, mama, (expletive) my (expletive)'-- BOOM! "
His performance is part pantomime, part stand-up comedy, part guerrilla theater, peppered with profanity and served with faultless timing. Many of his stories are painfully funny but they are also intensely personal, in a way mere entertainment cannot be.
"People say the truth hurts, the truth is so blunt," Rollins tells the audience. "The truth isn't blunt, man, lies are blunt. The truth is cool. Lies are knives that are very sharp, that cut without blood, without pain, but your guts fall out all the same."
He dives into a surprisingly somber story about a kid who works in an ice cream parlor and hates the numbing sameness of his life. The kid cuts himself with a razor, "and the blood smells good, the pain feels good, at least it's feeling something. . . ." His listeners nod in recognition; the youth in the story is the Henry Rollins of six years ago, but it could be anyone who has ever wrestled with the dark side of adolescence.
After the show Rollins is surrounded by young admirers. Some want to reminisce about Black Flag, which broke up last summer after becoming one of the most controversial bands to emerge from Southern California's punk-rock scene. Others want to purchase copies of Rollins' writings, soft-cover books with such titles as "Polio Flesh" and "Hallucinations of Grandeur," or a cassette of previous spoken-word performances. Within minutes all his merchandise is sold, but he lingers, talking to fans.
In the past two years Rollins has self-published six volumes of his writings, which he sells at shows the way other performers hawk T-shirts. He is currently seeing three more books through the presses, including an anthology that will feature the work of other L.A. writer / rockers. An album of his latest spoken-word tour, "Big Ugly Mouth," is due out this summer. By then he'll be in the middle of a 13-country tour with the recently assembled Henry Rollins Band to promote its first album ("Hot Animal Machine") and EP ("Drive By Shooting").