Moore Theatre, 206-682-1414, $21-$23.50
8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 10
"TO ME," SAYS Henry Rollins, "the way to really get close to the material is to go at it from almost an insane or an absurdist angle. If you just go for the straight facts, you know, they kind of come up to meet you with a fist in the face. It's like the idea of us getting into a war with North Korea. I can't see it happening, but the way for me to internalize it is to envision these old guys running around the war room with hard-ons, looking for some payback for when they had to bail out of Pusan in the '50s. Or Donald Rumsfeld's thing: 'Yeah, we can handle two wars! Absolutely two wars! How 'bout fuckin' three? Come on, you motherfuckers, we'll start two half-wars over at your house, and we'll have another one on the White House lawn right now, bitch!'"
To quote at length from Rollins' interview-opening diatribe would be to give away the store—he is, after all, about to embark on a 50-date spoken-word tour—but suffice to say that 30 minutes in Henry Rollins' phone presence plays like a mini-concert unto itself. As well it might: The man who once self-deprecatingly billed himself as the Big Ugly Mouth now has almost two decades of talking shows to his credit.
It was a practice that was very nearly without precedent in the mid-1980s, when Rollins began making solo speaking appearances between gigs with Black Flag, L.A.'s standard-bearing hardcore punk outfit. Rollins' talking shows of that period were much like his lyrical work—brooding, intense set pieces, rooted in a nearly maniacal and always unsettling self-awareness. Detractors who dismissed him as a hypermasculine poseur aimed extremely wide of the mark, seeing only the thousand-yard stare and the tattooed biceps and missing the raw, red heart beneath. At his best, which was remarkably often, even the very young Henry Rollins was a word artist in the vein of '60s iconoclast Brother Theodore, whose ferociously delivered monologues about life in the modern city gave voice to a culture's largely unspoken feelings of frustration and alienation. If his shows often made for uncomfortable listening, it was because Rollins—like the Beats—believed that all topics, including his own considerable pain and rage, were suitable subject matter for public discourse.
After two decades in the trenches, Henry Rollins hasn't lost his anger or his formidable timing. His marathon speaking shows, however—which frequently run to the three-hour mark—have gradually become less self-antagonizing, more finely attuned to the possibilities of survival through damage, and not simple damage itself.
"That's how you try to keep your head through it. You want to stand there and be able to laugh—not at it, and not with it, but close to it. Like one parking lot away from it. Otherwise you become a Wolf Blitzer type: 'Well, the Amurrican people,' blah, blah, blah.
"You look at Dr. Strangelove," he continues. "That, to me, is the perfect movie—perfectly cast, perfectly written, perfectly directed—and says a lot more about war than even a film like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket. With the exception of Peter Sellers as the young R.A.F. captain, who's the only one trying to hold it together, everybody in that movie is completely insane. And recognizing that absurdity allows you to get close without getting shut down, to where you can no longer get the material or really assess it."
HENRY ROLLINS has always kept a full work slate, but perhaps the most remarkable of his recent projects is the Rise Above compilation album, whose proceeds benefit the defense fund of the West Memphis Three, the trio of Arkansas teens who were convicted of murder in 1993 under exceedingly dubious circumstances (see the group's official Web site, www.wm3.org, for a full recounting and updates).
Rise Above features 24 Black Flag songs performed by the Rollins Band and guest vocalists such as Chuck D., Iggy Pop, and former Flag vocalist Keith Morris, and represents the first time Rollins has performed Black Flag material since the group's breakup in 1987.
"I thought it would be fine," Rollins says of the album. "I didn't think it was going to come out that smokin'. The record really whups that ass—but it's great songs, well played, sung by cool people. You can't lose. But we all were kind of surprised. We just kept listening to each playback, going, 'O-kayyy . . . I guess that worked.' But it's Greg [Ginn's] and Chuck [Dukowski's] writing. They wrote some great songs."
Likewise, a series of sold-out shows at the Whisky a Go Go brought Rollins together with former bandmates Morris and Kira Roessler. "We opened with 'Nervous Breakdown,' and Keith walks on. People damn near shit. We go into 'Annihilate This Week,' which Kira was a big vocal part of, and she comes out onstage—no one in the venue knew she was there. I hadn't played with Kira since 1985. Everyone in the place freaked. And we raised $10,000, which is going to be put directly towards DNA testing in the West Memphis Three case."