Thursday night, Henry Rollins made history when he went from activist, punk, poet, author, spoken word artist, radio and television personality to magician. That’s right — magician.
Asking the audience to watch closely, he produced a stack of 10-dollar bills from behind the curtain which was admittedly not magical. What was groundbreaking was that the money was intended as a personal refund to the audience at The Great Hall. Not because he was cancelling the show, or pre-emptively refunding based on his poor magic performance, but because about five fans wrote him and “politely” complained that ticket prices were higher than usual. He explained there was a glitch and proceeded to personally hand out ten dollars to every person at the show.
While handing out ten bucks 350 times over did take 20 minutes, the crowd clapped and people yelled out thank yous repeatedly. One happy fan said he would never spend his Rollins-refunded ten spot.
What came next was a series of stories, sometimes serious, but mostly hilarious and very self-deprecating. Rollins’ experiences cover the gamut from the mundane to the extraordinary. From meeting Iggy Pop to witnessing people shooting heroin, from calling Will Shatner a friend to freaking out Dennis Hopper, and from visiting North Korea to his work with the Nelson Mandela foundation in South Africa — the stories couldn’t have been better received.
The night started out with a quick stroll through rock and roll history, where Rollins talked about going to California in 1981 to join iconic punk band Black Flag.
After seeing what he described as intelligent, artistic people shoot heroin, he said he was shocked because he thought only bad people did that drug. “I felt like I was being hydroponically grown,” said Rollins about his quick education in life outside his Washington home.
While struggling to “make this rock and roll thing happen,” Rollins talked about surviving on chocolate bars. Oddly, his love for chocolate brought him one of his first encounters with gay male prostitutes. Rollins, now an activist for LGBT marriage and equality in the U.S., was then a young man underexposed to queer lifestyles.
In yet another eye opener, when the two gay male prostitutes entered a store chatting in high tones affecting feminine voices, and were confronted by two macho muscular men with tongue catcher moustaches and Farrah Fawcett feather-dos, the prostitutes dropped the high tones and “let go a stream of vitriol unlike anything. They were like swans — graceful and pugnacious.”
From California, he transported the audience to the punk scene in New York, where he said ``every song was 90 seconds long and we played so loud you couldn`t hear the lyrics so no one ever knew if you messed up.``
Rollins took the audience to Stockholm in 1984, where he said a bunch of long-haired guys “were digging the show.” He was later told the long-haired guys were Metallica, who he took some credit for helping by giving them sound business advice.
The conversation quickly turned from rock and roll history to recent history as Rollins talked about standing in Nelson Mandela`s prison cell on Robin Island in South Africa. Although Rollins didn`t get to meet the man himself, he compared Mandela to Santa Claus, except one who brings freedom, love and equality instead of toys. After marvelling in the defeat of apartheid, Rollins recited (almost verbatim) the introduction to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, one of the most progressive constitutional documents in the world.
Then like a roller coaster that had taken the audience to the lofty heights of peacemakers, Rollins took the conversation down to the “war on education and health in the U.S.” Using his best southern drawl, Rollins discussed the compulsion to drink alcohol and eat fast food as something Americans are told to do “or al Qaida wins.”
Poking fun at easy targets Sarah Palin and George Bush, Rollins said of their books, “ghostwritten books are like Botox. Easy to spot.”
From the oppressive to the suppressive, again the crowd was transported across the globe to North Korea. Rollins said he’d waited two years to get a visa to enter the country and when he did, he experienced what he called “a week of suppression.” His hosts, who he called Kim and ‘spy chick,’ took him to Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum where he was constantly told the man “invented dirt, math, the solar system.”
In keeping with the ups and downs, Rollins told stories of his trip to Tibet. While visiting the Dalai Lama’s home, he discussed the “awfulness of what the Chinese are doing to the Tibetan people” with his host, who cried when she told him the Dalai Lama would never return.
The next stop on the whirlwind world tour was Vietnam, where Rollins’ host, Ka, commented John McCain was a terrible pilot who crashed his plane in Hanoi. Vietnam also offered the perfect segue for a discussion of Agent Orange, which continues to affect generations of Vietnamese with horrific birth defects.
While Rollins often took a moment to pause and offer commentary on his age and ensuing need for Metamucil, he also encouraged the audience saying “I’m going to stick it to the man as best I can as I go into antiquity.”