Henry Rollins: Charmingly Obstinate, Barbican, review: ‘Full of love, full of length’

Henry Rollins. Picture: Heidi May

Henry Rollins. Picture: Heidi May - Credit: Archant

The ex-Black Flag rocker has plenty of insightful anecdotes, but could pack a lot more in with more concision, says Alex Bellotti.

Henry Rollins, as he often declares, has worked tirelessly to live an interesting life. Since rising to fame in the ‘80s as the lead singer of US punk legends Black Flag, he has dug out an improbable career as a writer, actor, radio host, motivational speaker and activist – to name but a few – by endeavouring to take any opportunity he is given.

Such is the reputation he holds, the 55-year-old was able to regale a packed auditorium at the Barbican with tales from this life last week over two nights. Unfortunately, as engaging and confident a speaker as he is, his happy-go-lucky spirit is also evident in the way he composes a show; after nearly three hours without an interval, the biggest impression he made was likely upon people’s bladders.

It’s a shame, because Rollins has a lot to say, and he could say a lot more if he took one sentence to set up a story instead of 10 minutes. Starting with a state of the nation polemic on American culture, the self-described ‘tree-hugger’ drew early laughs noting that “America is leading the way in the end of the world”. The bulk of the first hour then turned into impromptu recollections of meeting his heroes ‘Mr Bowie’ and Lemmy.

Ironically, these late-improvised segments were the most engaging; particularly when talking about the late Motorhead front man, Rollins’ knack of revealing the kinder, lonelier spirit behind the rock ‘n’ roll façade showed the touch of a biographer. More so, it emphasised how for much of the night he was giving a similar character assessment of himself.

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Born an only child in Washington DC, Rollins grew up caught between polarised parents who divorced when he was just three-years-old. “On one side”, he says, “there was Joan Baez, Mum, then a wall, and on the other, Fox News, Dad, then a wall”. While deeply resenting his bigoted father, who slurred his ex-wife’s supposed relationships with black men, Rollins also laments having to live with his mother in early life and hearing her having sex in the next room. When he got into punk and left home, he cut ties with both figures, and seems to apportion them with much of the reason as to why he lives alone and finds the very notion of intimacy supremely awkward.

Underneath it all, this story provided the real heart of the show – albeit smothered under a plethora of stretched anecdotes about his fleeting acting career and adventures learning to scuba dive. Rollins is a strange bundle of contradictions: an ex-hardcore punk rocker built like a bouncer, with so much love to give to the world, yet unable to grasp it in his own life.

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Perhaps it’s ultimately uplifting, however, because when he left the stage professing his faith in the good of human spirit, he did so to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. There are clearly many that love Rollins, and perhaps why that’s he enjoys being in their company for so very, very long.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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