The Long March: Henry Rollins

Manchester has decided it doesn’t like me. Or rather, Manchester has decided it’s indifferent to me. It’s an unusual sensation. Not the benevolent disinterest of London or the jovial hostility of Leeds, but rather the sense that Manchester knows I’m here and doesn’t care. There are a million stories in the naked city and none of them are about me. This is a city that moves at its own pace and that pace is patently not mine, proved by a final train approach so slow I could have walked the final seven minutes, a train station laid out entirely unlike every single other one I’ve ever been to and the taxi driver’s charming combination of disinterest and refusal to drive at anything over twenty five miles an hour. This is, of course, is on top of hopping a train from work, falling asleep, getting beaned simultaneously in the head and shoulder by a stumbling conductor, narrowly making my connection, fighting down the negative body image I have at the moment and trying not to get nervous about the interview for a full time job I have tomorrow.

Which means I will have traveled four hours in total to see a three hour show that I can only actually attend for two of those hours before getting back in a taxi, back on a train and going back up the country to York.

I would like to think Henry Rollins would approve.

Rollins performed in Manchester on January 12th, the very first show of his The Long Marchtour. Former lead singer of Black Flag, front man of the Rollins Band, publisher, writer, poet, businessman, actor, Henry Rollins is a very modern renaissance man. A figure pathologically interested in everything and a man who, as he charmingly admitted tonight, is a work slut. Someone wants him to go do something, he says yes. After all, Henry likes to be busy.

I encountered Rollins’ work for the first time when I needed it the most, faced with tragedy. My best friend had leukemia three times. I was close to him for the last two, one bout which took place in our lower sixth year and one in our upper. He died when it returned that second time, having chosen to forgo chemotherapy. . He was given six weeks to live and of course took eight because he was obstinate and contrary. His death and the run-up to it tore me and at least five other people apart, to the point where none of us ever quite healed right. We healed, make no mistake, but we healed different. We learnt to be strong, we learnt to be resilient, we learnt to find comedy in horror. Several of us learnt to drink and drink heavily.

The thing is though, that period, his death and the aftermath, aren’t what I associate Rollins with. Instead, I remember boring the crap out of everyone else in my year by playing The Boxed Life over and over on increasingly mangled cassette and wondering why no one else was laughing. I remember doing that in the room where we took registration. The same room where I was asked to, and did, tell the entire class that he was considering turning down chemo the second time. Because my teacher was a coward. I did it. I’ve never quite stopped my legs shaking from doing that, it sometimes seems like, never recovered from the strain of having to be that strong. The only reason I was able to do it was Rollins.

The stories Rollins tells on The Boxed Life mix observational comedy and storytelling with his strange fascination for sleep deprivation and the things that happen when you travel across multiple countries to do small shows and then come back. A lot of it is very funny. A lot of it is difficult to listen to. Rollins, at that point in his life, seemed to be uncomfortable with being so well-rounded: an articulate, funny man who was also a tattooed alternative icon, a fitness nut and a role model. He railed against that last one in particular because he’d almost never had one himself. What I didn’t know at the time was he was struggling to cope with the murder of his best friend, Joe Cole, shot to death in front of him.

It’s a crass comparison, I know.  His best friend was dead, mine was dying. He was big and smart and articulate, I was fat and big and smart and articulate. But I clung to it through two of the toughest years of my life and I returned to The Boxed Life again and again. I wouldn’t listen to it constantly, but it was a touchstone for the bad days.

It’s sitting on a shelf in my new apartment right now, for that exact reason. The bad days are the days where I need to listen to someone close to me in mentality and physicality struggling with issues similar to mine. Not in the same boat, but a few boats over and rowing in the same direction. Rollins’ work stayed with me out into adult life as well, through further spoken word shows, movies, books and seeing him live seven years ago. He was a whirlwind of adrenalin in 2005, a man who revels in conflict handed the gift of a president and national mindset diametrically opposed to his own.

Henry had fun that night.

He had more fun tonight. Henry Rollins turned fifty last year and the only way you can tell is the grey hair. He strode out centre stage, dressed in black, threw us a jaunty salute and looked for all the world like a slightly alternative 1960s astronaut greeting fans on his way to the pad. He thanked us for coming, greeted us and then just started…talking. This is the genius of Rollins, that he can play a room with hundreds of people in it and make it seem like he’s talking to a group of close friends. Henry’s back in town after a couple of hours and he’s invited us round to catch up.

He’s been busy too. Rollins is clearly delighted to be National Geographic’s newest, most rock-and-roll presenter. A good chunk of the time between this show and the last has been spent filming a show about man’s interaction with animals.  As he talked about this – about going to the rat temple in India and further south, spending time with the Irula tribe who hunt and cook rats in a manner simultaneously efficient, disgusting and hilarious – you could see his eyes light up. Rollins is the epitome of the rock music stereotype, a man with close cropped hair, tattoos and muscles to spare but what he loves, what he embraces head on? Is knowledge.

He was as enthusiastic about his trip to North Korea, where his long standing fondness for speed walking down moving walkways nearly got him in trouble at Kim Il Sung’s tomb. He was even more enthusiastic about his time spent in Mongolia and Vietnam. Vietnam clearly left a lasting impression on him, especially his time with Mr. Ka, his guide and a man who was seemingly incapable of talking quietly or not mocking John McCain at every opportunity.

Each person he met Rollins talks about openly and respectfully, and he’s clearly delighted by new experiences and new places. This is a man who, by his own admission, has toured for thirty years and as a result has a tremendous respect for the road and a tremendous need to be on it. He tells a story about meeting a monk who asked what he thought of a large statue of Buddha and specifically about the bird shit on it’s head. Henry admitted to having no idea and the monk smiled, saying ‘If you don’t keep moving, the birds will shit on you. Even if you’re Buddha.’ It’s difficult not to see this as the closest thing there is to a core Rollins operating philosophy: Keep moving. Keep working. Keep your eyes open.

It’s that last quality that tripped me. Early in the evening he told a story about attending a free gallery showing of Captain Beefheart’s artwork with his best friend, Joe. Broke and bored, they decided to attend because they thought they would be the only people in the area who knew who the Captain was. The place was, of course, packed.

This was the year Blue Velvet was released , so when they saw Denis Hopper, riding high on his role in the move, leaving the show, Joe dared Henry to act out. Henry, of course, did and the articulate, eloquent way in which he describes his thought processes on what to do only makes his eventual decision, to scream Hopper’s character’s almost rabid threat:

‘HEY FUCKER! I’M GONNA SEND YOU A LOVE LETTER FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART, FUCKER!’

at Hopper’s back, and the ensuing shriek of terror and rapid escape of the Oscar winner, all the funnier. It’s vintage Rollins, so vintage that it’s only after the show that I realised something. He talked about Joe, his mate.  Not about Joe’s death. He talked about something funny that he and his friend had done and did so with fondness and humour and affection and no visible pain.

He’s healed. This is, for all his fondness for a good fight, a gentler, more compassionate Rollins than ever before. A man who wants his life and wants it to be as exciting as possible, as fast as possible. It was genuinely moving to see, this man who has hurt so badly for so long able to not only look back happily but seemingly not realise he was doing it. Aged fifty, happy and setting off on The Long Match Tour to Estragon, Bologna, Henry Rollins is stronger than he’s ever been.

My own Long March will be over a little sooner. My escape from Manchester was completed with relatively minimal fuss: a late taxi and a surprisingly complex game of three locomotive monte. I’m writing this en route to York where, in less than twenty four hours, I have a job interview, running shoes to pick up, a bed to assemble and a room to finish unpacking.

I’ve left with a parting gift too. Blowing through the doors at the venue, I found myself in front of the merchandise stall in the process of being assembled. The only thing up was a sign saying:

T-SHIRTS WILL BE AVAILABLE FIVE MINUTES AFTER THE END OF HENRY’S PERFORMANCE

I had to leave an hour early because the only train I could get after that would get me into York fifteen minutes before I need to be at work tomorrow morning. Normally, I would have looked at the stall, accepted I was out of luck and moved on. Tonight, I explained I had to leave early and asked if I could buy a shirt. The vendor said yes almost before I’d finished talking.

What I didn’t realise until later was this was the first night of the tour, and the shirt I have in my bag is the first one sold on the entire tour.

To me. The fat teenager who clung to his words like a life raft and the man he’s still becoming. I intend to finish unpacking in that shirt, to attend my first kickboxing lesson in that shirt, to go running in it. I intend to work hard and be happy and they’re both things I know Rollins would approve of. The Long March goes on, and long may it continue.