Stage & Dance

Spoken-word artist Henry Rollins doesn't lack for material

Early into his 2004 album Everything, Henry Rollins utters a sentence over the jazz rumblings of saxophonist Charles Gayle and John Coltrane's onetime drummer Rashied Ali that pretty much sums up his entire career: "I question the ground beneath me."

"Yeah, the older I get, the more I do exactly that," Rollins, 49, said in an interview.

He brings his spoken-word Frequent Flyer Tour to Buster's Billiards and Backroom on Sunday for his first Lexington appearance in more than a decade.

"As the world gets smaller and everything seems to get politicized or bought up or merged, one should do that," he said. "I was joking to a Canadian audience last night and said, 'You must look south to your neighbors in America and sometimes wonder from what great height we were dropped on our heads. So, yeah, I tend to question things a lot now in the Thomas Jefferson/Joe Strummer model."

Rollins was introduced to rock audiences in the early '80s as the singer for the California hardcore punk ensemble Black Flag and again as frontman for the equally ferocious Rollins Band in the '90s. The latter's trajectory coincided with Rollins' emergence as a spoken-word artist. His subsequent tours and albums were devoted to social, political and personal commentary delivered with an intensity that, in its own way, mirrored the drive of his band concerts.

"I've been onstage since I was a teenager," Rollins said. "And I'm almost 50 now. So it's a track I've been around a few times. Both the music and the talking shows are basically cousins to each other in that they both require focus and discipline and they both need an audience. The delivery of information and ideas is a little different in that you're yelling at them in one way and then yelling at them in a different way.

"The talking shows are much more difficult, just because there's no beat. There's nothing to hide behind when you screw up. Everyone in music screws up. But when you're up there on your own, it's just you that's dealing with everything. That's a lot of information to keep with you. And since I don't write anything out and don't have notes onstage, I really have to keep my wits about me."

The Frequent Flyer Tour got its name because much of its subject matter is built around Rollins' considerable travels. Before the tour began, he visited Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, India, Nepal, China and elsewhere. The tour's initial leg then took him to England, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany.

"That's usually what these tours are. I travel pretty far and wide and as often as I can. The tours comprise of where I've been, what I saw and what I feel about it all.

"In order for me to be compelling onstage, I need to see things that keep me on the edge of my seat. Hopefully that works for the audience, too. That's the method."

Rollins' subject matter isn't strictly a travelogue. He regularly pulls from the news and numerous domestic issues. Because of that, the material in his spoken-word shows continually changes.

"Oh, it changes during the week. Things happen. The last 10 days, for example, have been really momentous. It's been a hell of a time in America. There is always a lot to remark upon.

"I was in Canada until about 3 o'clock this morning and shared the country with Ann Coulter all week. One of her appearances was cancelled," he said, referring to the incident March 23 in which 2,000 students at the University of Ottawa protested a scheduled speech by the outspoken conservative commentator, prompting its cancellation. "She went on the news and blamed the students at Ottawa. She said they all had zero IQ and was pretty mean. I guess that's her thing. So that went right to the stage for me. Health care reform passed in America. That went right to the stage. The talking shows allow me to bring all of that stuff to the stage.

A Rollins show might seem to be dominated by foreign affairs and domestic upheaval, but there is abundant humor. On a YouTube clip from one of his performances, Rollins discusses dating rituals and confesses that he once asked a date what CDs she was listening to. Her reply was a new recording by Nickelback, causing Rollins to erupt in a gut-busting barrage of screams and obscenities. So much for counting Chad Kroeger and pals as fans.

"Without humor, you can't get through these shows. But a lot of the humor I use is basically the humor that's inherent in just being alive. These aren't outright jokes. Sometimes, though, things are just funny.

"There is humor everywhere. You just have to run into it so it can stick to you."

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