Rollins lightens up.
By Alex Sniderman and Michael McCall
APRIL 27, 1998: Audience members probably didn't know what to expect when they crowded into 328 Performance Hall a couple of weeks ago to see Henry Rollins deliver a spoken-word performance. After all, this was the humorless, grunting, feral rock 'n' roll beast who for years fronted hardcore punk band Black Flag. But there he was, onstage, telling tales and smiling--and laughing at himself. Dressed plainly in a black pocket T-shirt and flat-black pleated slacks, the author, actor, musician, and punk-rock renaissance man was mature, self-effacing, and, by his own admission, a "spaz."
Even more surprising, maybe, was the fact that Rollins had the presence of a great standup comedian like George Carlin or Bill Cosby. In fact, it was Carlin who came to mind most while watching Rollins work the room. His facial and vocal expressions, coupled with his exquisite command of slang and profanity, recalled nothing so much as the classic Carlin bits "The Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television" and "A Place for My Stuff." The main difference between the two performers was Rollins' remarkable stamina For over three hours, he riffed nonstop without any props, breaks, drugs, or accouterments of any kind, except for a plastic water bottle and a Shure SM58 microphone.
Rollins held the audience riveted with amazing ease--all the more impressive when you consider that it was a motley crowd of dyed and pierced punks in jeans and leather, middle-aged couples in cowboy hats and boots, and mullet-wearing Billy Ray Cyrus clones. It was certainly the only gig in town besides the Bluebird Cafe where you could hear people being shushed. The three-plus hours flew by; the show was so much fun, I didn't want it to end.
Unlike Rollins' songs and writings, in which the singer routinely magnifies his angst to cartoonish effect, the spoken-word setting showed him in remarkable control. With nary an instrument onstage, the performance was more energetic than most rock shows, and Rollins put himself across as intelligent, passionate, and self-aware. He willfully, almost gleefully meditated on life's ironies and idiosyncrasies.
A couple of anecdotes were especially telling. He riffed on his workaholic tendencies and his macho persona in an extended story about a recent vacation trip to Africa. As he told it, his manager prodded him to take some time off after pointing out that the singer had racked up 500,000 frequent-flyer miles. His response? "Real men don't go on vacation!"
After disembarking from a small plane in the Kenyan grasslands, Rollins was welcomed by a couple of towering Masai warriors dressed in traditional garb. Instead of being intimidated by his muscular presence, the two men were seized with uncontrollable laughter--they'd never encountered such a strange-looking Caucasian tourist with so many tattoos. The whole trip, according to Rollins, was full of such surprises--by his own admission, the sort of mishaps that helped keep his ego in check. Camping out one night, his tent became surrounded by a group of baboons. Convinced he was their prey, he ran, terrified, back to the main campsite--at which point a smirking guide pointed out that baboons are herbivores.
Rollins' humorous raging and passionate storytelling provided Nashville with the kind of live experience that it so rarely gets--strangely warm, yet politically and emotionally charged. He said things for which I thought he'd get killed (or at least booed), yet he was met with an ecstatic reception. Regardless of the subject matter, people cheered him, laughed with him, and even smiled at him. When you get down to it, he was even inspiring. As his show ended, and he thanked the audience for their prolonged attention, I couldn't help but thinking that sometimes a moment of truth comes when you least expect it. But then, I think he knew that all along.
Moment of truth: During the South By Southwest festival last month, just before Guy Clark started into one of his most memorable songs, "Dublin Blues," the songwriter told a private gathering at Austin's Las Manitas Restaurant that this was the only song in the world where the lyrics didn't make sense. He then plucked the song's careful melody and moaned, "I wish I was in Austin/mmm-hmmm/In the Chili Parlor bar/Drinking Mad Dog margaritas and not wondering where you are."
Nanci Griffith--who joined Clark, Rodney Crowell, and David Ball in one monster of a songwriter showcase--leaned forward and sang harmony on the song, just as she had on Clark's original 1995 recording of the tune. When they finished, Griffith told a story about meeting Clark for a drink the previous evening at--where else?--Austin's Chili Parlor bar.
As the two sat there, Griffith noticed a wide-eyed couple staring at them. Finally, the young man approached them. "I can't believe you're here," he stuttered. He then explained that he and his wife were visiting from Wisconsin, and they had made the trip specifically because it was her birthday and because "Dublin Blues" was her favorite song. The man wanted to take her to Austin and to the Chili Parlor bar as a special way to celebrate.
When Griffith finished her tale, Clark said he had another story about the song. A good time after the Dublin Blues album had come out, Clark walked into the Chili Parlor bar. A female bartender approached him and asked, "Are you Guy Clark?" He told her that indeed he was. "You're the guy who wrote that song?" Again, he nodded yes. "You son of a bitch," she said. "We've had people coming in here from all over the world because of what you wrote. They order a Mad Dog margarita, they take a sip, and then they spit it out."
Turns out that Clark and his friends drank the Chili Parlor's Mad Dog margaritas because of their cheap price ($1.50), not because of their winning flavor. "They're made out of the cheapest, worst-tasting mescal you can get," Clark explained. "They really do taste like shit."
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