Interesting article in today's New York Times about Henry Rollins, who's apparently done six USO tours in a year and a half. Check it out here.
Rollins is an unusual relic of the punk era, one of the few celebrated stars who stayed clean enough to remember it. (He is also articulate enough to analyze it as cultural history, something he frequently does as a talking head in VH1 or IFC documentaries about the era.) Of course, as faces of the U.S.O. go, he's even more unusual, an antiestablishment rocker whose hero is Iggy Pop, not Bob Hope. Most of the soldiers greeting Rollins at the base that day probably knew him for his cameo appearances in two recent films that practically constitute required viewing for young men in the military - "Bad Boys II" (Rollins plays a narcotics cop who barks orders like "Rock 'n' roll, let's go!" to his men), and "Jackass" (that is Rollins screaming profanities and driving a bucking Humvee as someone else in the vehicle tries to tattoo the willing participant howling in agony next to him). A slightly smaller proportion of the soldiers knew Rollins from his frenzied, raging frontman performances with Black Flag. A hard-core group that played a caustic kind of punk, the band had a cult following of mostly angry young men. Rollins, who often performed bare-chested, got in so many brawls with audience members that eventually the band learned to keep playing until he could get back onstage and resume singing. Local police officers tended to follow the band, which took its name from the symbol for anarchy, whenever they rolled into town. Nick Cave, a fellow rocker, once complained to Rollins that his own performances left him bruised; Rollins responded by showing him a series of small round scars on his shins, where his audiences had a habit of stubbing out their cigarettes.
Black Flag eventually fell apart, but Rollins still tours with his own group, the Rollins Band, which continues to play to young men hooked on its adrenaline-pumping sound. A charismatic performer, he is also adept at giving what marketers call spoken-word performances, in Rollins's case, a cross between stand-up comedy, Spalding Gray-style storytelling and political commentary. The shows have been recorded for DVD and sell well. Rollins reserves a significant portion of each performance for his favorite material, the foibles of President George Bush, a subject he attacks with relish and no small amount of venom. The war, and what he perceives as Bush's doublespeak about it, fuels much of his rage toward the president. "So many Americans, when the president speaks, we hide under the table," he told a Montreal audience in March 2003. "What is his malfunction? He has a devastatingly dangerous unconnection to what we call the world."
A few months after that performance in Montreal, Rollins got his first call from a U.S.O. recruiter. She wanted to know if Rollins would consider visiting the troops on behalf of the organization. Rollins was immediately interested but also confused. Before he was willing to get any further involved, he wanted to be sure the recruiter had done her homework. He had to ask her one essential question: "Do you know who I am?"
I've been a Rollins fan since about 1988 or 1989, when I first heard Life Time. That album and its follow-up, Hard Volume, knocked me on my ass. Until then I hadn't really made the connection to Black Flag, who I'd listened to without worrying too much about who was singing (my favorite song of theirs was "TV Party" anyway, not the ultra-dark stuff like "Nothing Left Inside" or "Damaged II" - back then at least). I saw the old lineup of the Rollins Band three times. Once at CBGBs in 1990, right after Hard Volume came out, once at City Gardens in Trenton some time after that, and once on the first Lollapalooza festival. And I was at the video shoot for the "Tearing" clip, at the Ritz Theater in Elizabeth, NJ. Between takes of the song (which the band mimed to a playback), they played cover tunes through their plugged-in instruments. They did "Kashmir" and "Black Sabbath," and Rollins displayed a surprising (given his output) command of his voice's upper registers. I saw the second lineup once, too, at Irving Plaza. They were just as good, in a very different way.
I've also interviewed Rollins twice, and he's been incredibly cool and interesting to talk with both times. The first time, we did the standard 45 minutes on the band, the new album, the perfidies of the record industry, blah blah blah, but it was clear that I was a knowledgeable fan who shared some favorite artists with him, so after I shut off the tape recorder we spent another hour or so talking about jazz. The second time was shorter, and more tightly monitored by a label publicist, but it was still a fun and informative exchange. I'd talk to him anytime, and I'll still pick up his albums out of loyalty and feel somewhat rewarded by them. (The double live disc The Only Way To Know For Sure, from 2003 or 2004, is great and well worth hearing.)
Anyway, go check out the piece.