Rock ‘n’ roll busy bee Henry Rollins returns to Liverpool on January 20 for the second time with his spoken word tour. The city has become a regular stop for the performer, which for me is always a pretty exciting honour.
He first came to Liverpool in 1992 when the Rollins Band supported the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on a European tour, and even revived his legendary punk outfit Black Flag here for one of just a handful of UK shows in the mid 2000s. But it was only in 2008 he started incorporating spoken word dates, and it’s so good he’s become a fixture. After all, he’s got a lot of places to be.
In the run-up to his latest show, he’s been maintaining his usual huge variety of projects – including hosting his radio show, starring in HBO series Sons of Anarchy and his involvement with the hugely anticipated Flaming Lips cover of the whole of Dark Side of the Moon.
But it was getting the spoken word tour together I wanted to know about, so just before Christmas, I rang Rollins in LA for a chat about the show to come. Since then, he’s already made his way to Senegal and Mali for a bit of a nose before the dates start in Dublin. He gets around. But you knew that.
“I’ve been working hard to have what I hope to be very interesting material to talk about, and one of the ways I try and ensure that is to do a lot of travelling.I’ve found if I go into the world far enough it’s hard not to come back with things,” he said.
“This year it’s been just me and two back packs, I’ve been to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Bangladesh, India and China. From all that there’s definitely some stories, and since last time I did England I’ve been all through Burma, Laos, Cambodia and South Africa.”
This (relatively) new perspective of the last few years has totally transformed his spoken word performances, as we found out last time he hit Liverpool (amazingly and unfortunately for alt rock fans of a certain age, he played the Academy on the exact same night as Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli). He’s always been driven, had real purpose in his work – but drawing things out of the world around him, rather than just starting and ending with himself and that ‘what’s the deal with’ chatty observation, has added a new dimension to an already accomplished and entertaining act. On top of writing, he has taken to photography and plans to publish his pictures from his travels.
“When I’m figuring what to talk about on stage, if I’d have sat at home for ten weeks, I don’t have much to tell you. So in order to have the gall, the audacity to charge money to get you to shut up and listen to me, I better have something that’s really worth telling you. I really apply myself to get that information and that’s why I can justify that. I come back with stuff that’s pushed me to extremes.
“You go to a country for five days it doesn’t make you an expert on anything. I’m busy trying to cover a lot of ground. I’ve met some great people out there, their lifestyles are so different as is what passes for normal.”
It might sound a little lofty, but it’s not for Rollins to preach. His stories come layered with an irresistible humour, as daft as it can be poignant. He may not be a conventional stand up but he knows damn well he won’t get anywhere if he isn’t funny: “You’ve got to have humour, that’s the whole thing. If you can’t laugh, don’t come to the show,” he says.
The act comes together over time, some tales immediately making the grade and others coming through as a matter of inspiration. A notepad is his constant companion, to write down thoughts and connect the dots.You’re as likely to get a heartfelt tale about an experience in a far flung corner of the world, as a story capturing the thrill of a teenage Rollins seeing The Ramones live. His talent is he makes everything so easy to relate to. That, and the fact he’s simply an old hand now.
“I’m 48, for me, I’ve been doing this since I was 20, it’s what I know,” he said. “When I’m off the road, it’s nice for a few days, I look at all the cool stuff I’ve got, I play records, I’m a little bored after a week. Off the road I live very well, I’ve got a nice place, but after a while I’ve just got to put on the backpack and hit the road. I love performing, I love to see people and cities.”
He hopes, as he has done in recent years, to finish this latest world tour, which will take him across Europe, the US and South Africa, at the Edinburgh Festival. It sounds like a great place to catch him (but not as good, needless to say, as on your own doorstep).
An evening of spoken word with Henry Rollins takes place at the 02 Academy, Hotham Street, Liverpool on January 20. Tickets available from www.o2academyliverpool.co.uk.
This original interview appeared on the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo’s Comedy Blog on January 8, 2010.