The term "spoken-word performance" is one of relatively recent vintage, and it's worthy of a skeptical glance. What does this phrase convey, exactly, that words like "lecture" and "poetry" and "comedy" and "sermon" can't? As it turns out, however, there's probably not a better term than "spoken word" to describe Henry Rollins' performance in Durham this month, except perhaps "free-associative, self-aggrandizing, television and phallus-obsessed ramblings with an occasional decent punch line."
A large crowd of 30-somethings applauded as the lead singer of the 1980s hardcore band Black Flag strolled out onto the Fletcher Hall stage. He was carrying a bottle of water and several sheets of paper, leading to expectations that this buff, square-jawed man with a gift for red-faced invective would read some eloquent rants against the imperial ambitions of the right-wing cabal currently running the country. Surely this punk icon would give voice to the anxiety, confusion and raw disbelief of citizens who lately had been instructed to stock up on duct tape in order to guard against gas attacks.
Rollins picked up the first sheet of paper. It contained a crowd-pleasing rant all right, but one at the expense of a college journalist who had asked him a silly question. Obediently, we laughed and cheered.
When Rollins did finally turn his attention to current events, his top story turned out to be Clara Harris, the woman in Texas who ran over her cheating husband, an incident that was captured on video. In the context of purporting to denounce television's exploitation of the crime, Rollins said, "You know you've seen it ... c'mon, c'mon!" He was greeted by a collective shrug. My companion and I looked at each other. We hadn't seen it.
It turns out that there's a lot we haven't seen, and Rollins denounced it all for us. He mocked the fat trailer park denizens who appear on Jerry Springer. He theorized that right-wing television ranters such as Tucker Carlson and Bill O'Reilly are angry because they can't bring their wives to orgasm (a funny enough crack, but as pathetically inadequate as calling Jeffrey Dahmer hungry). Amid more television gab, and two long anecdotes concerning movie director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (insert dumb action movie of your choice), Rollins described the highlight of his year so far: getting invited to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne's New Year's Eve party.
Back in the early 1980s, Rollins' band would tour with labelmates The Minutemen, a smarter and funkier combo. D. Boon, the band's revered and sadly deceased singer-guitarist, often sang of the individual's responsibility to attain a collective, global consciousness. "What of the people who don't have what I've got/Are they victims of my leisure?" he wondered in the ruefully titled "Maybe Partying Will Help."
In another song, D. Boon mused, "Should words serve the truth?/I stand for language/I speak the truth/I shout for history." But in this critical historical juncture, Henry Rollins only shouts for himself. (Tickets to hear his spoken words cost $20, and the show was promoted by Clear Channel, the entertainment monopoly that controls the vast majority of commercial radio programming--which makes them the natural enemy of punk rock.)
After three excruciating hours, and with a stagehand hissing at him from the wings, Rollins finally reached for a second sheet of paper. It turned out to contain nothing more than a list of smoking and obesity statistics, and the chiseled and tattooed ex-punk duly scolded us for these transgressions.
Then the show was over. As we walked out, I mulled the moment when Rollins declared his fealty to George W. Bush and his anti-terror strategy. Rollins even said that he would, if duty called, give Bush mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I found myself thinking about the none-too-concentrated oxygen that would pass through the locked lips of these two gentlemen, and wishing that they would keep their mouths closed.