Henry Rollins runneth over

Spoken word artist Henry Rollins

A self-described “spastiqué” who lives in a “utilitarian hovel” in L.A., Henry Rollins ventured west and spent nearly three hours talking politics, humanitarianism, and issues of discrimination (packaged with a bit of self-deprecating humor) to a crowd of nearly 400 at the Babcock Theatre on May 19.

Dressed in black, a glimmer of neon blue color showing on his skate sneakers, the 49-year-old Rollins delivered a powerful dialogue with his extensive vocabulary and sharp wit. With quick dictation, Rollins displayed humor and shared relatable family woes, yet the undercurrent of his speech was much deeper.

A punk rock icon, occasional actor, and spoken word artist, Rollins current tour brought him from America to Australia to New Zealand to South Africa and back to America. Ninety-five shows and 14 countries later, when Rollins landed on the stage in Billings he was bubbling over with stories from his travels.

Rollins marveled at the amazing amount of space Montanans have. “I’m a born and bred city boy,” he admitted. “Here, you have road kill you can live off of for six weeks!” He hadn’t been to the Magic City, “not because of lack of wanting to go to Montana,” said Rollins, pointing out one of Billings geographical flaws (when it comes to attracting musical and cultural talents): “There is no where to get from here. Montana is really not on the way to anything.”

Rollins didn’t break for water, was derailed only slightly by boisterous audience members, and after little time warming the crowd with discussion of humorous encounters with road kill and his friend’s recent suicide attempt in a hybrid, Rollins dove directly into an elaborate parallel of the South African apartheid to current bigotry and tension towards gays and lesbians in the U.S.

In the complex and profound discussion of American and South African politics, Rollins recited both the South African and American preambles to their respective constitutions. As he recited the American constitution, he gave equal weight to the South African constitution, contrasting it with our own.

“Civil rights have been slow to come to the table. There are things that drive me crazy about my country—you love it, I love it, but there are things wrong,” Rollins said.

Rollins was recently recognized by Nelson Mandela’s global HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention campaign for his work as a humanitarian and social equality activist. While in South Africa, Rollins was granted access to Mandela’s handwritten journals and also visited Mandela’s prison cell.

“It made me feel like a real poser,” Rollins said of being able to visit and leave a cell where Mandela spent the majority of his life. “To end apartheid in South Africa, he paid an unimaginable price.”

Using Constance McMillen (the Mississippi teen who was denied her senior prom for wanting to bring a same-sex date) as a catalysis for his discontent, Rollins said, “This country needs some work. I’m officially pissed off.” His dialogue, at times delivered on what seemed an overgrown and winding path, led eventually to the cornerstone of his speech: “Consider this century a human being. It’s 10 years old, pliable and we can influence it. Leave (this century) a bit more forward thinking than we found it.”

Rollins continued to describe cynicism as “intellectual sloth,” spurring the audience to fight cynicism and take action within their own communities and abroad. His advice for broadening ones’s knowledge base: to get as far away from America as possible.

“Not to worry, we’ll leave the lights on,” he said. Rollins, who self-admittedly spent a good part of his youth harvesting cynicism, also discussed his childhood, including his parent’s divorce and the idiosyncrasies of his family.

During his grade school days in D.C., Rollins said he was one of few white children in his elementary school. He was relentlessly picked on, and his mother advised: “If you smile, no one will notice you’re crying.” Watching bullies target the school’s outcasts and students not of the norm, Rollins said, “I was one of those guys waiting for punk rock to be invented.”

Rollins experiences led him to the California punk band Black Flag, instrumental in progressing DIY values and pioneering the west coast hardcore sound. Decades later he’s still harnessing a fan base from his days as a wildly outspoken frontman for the band, but his tone has changed. Bringing intellectualism to a largely anti-intellectual fan base has its challenges, and the audience seemed restless at times.

“My fear is that you think I’m being disingenuous or feed you a line,” Rollins said. With no tools, no gadgets, not even a notebook, the extensive vocabulary Rollins possesses is stunning, his vast knowledge even more imposing. That he’s never been to college seems a mockery to the institution, yet Rollins is highly supportive of the pursuit of higher knowledge. Calling illiteracy our “national shame,” Rollins spoke utopian ideas of ceasing war and spending money on the homefront, investing in young people’s educations.

“More is required of you in these times,” Rollins said, prodding the audience to consider, in this new century, their obligation to a personal utopia by eliminating hatred and discrimination, and to say, “Not in my century.”

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