Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thanksgiving With Shatner and Other Stories

This is Henry. You may know him. He sang in some bands called Black Flag and The Rollins Band. He's starred in some movies, written some books and hosts a show on IFC. He visited the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto last night, and we visited him.

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When I was sixteen, seventeen tops, I went to a bookstore that used to be on Park St. called Borderline Books. This is back when the Norwich Block was still around and great indie bookstores in the city were plentiful [a moment of silence for South Shore Books. Ask your parents]. And among the hard-left and world literature on the shelves there were a few titles by Henry Rollins. As the grunge and punk resurgence was still in full force back then, I knew the guy's name, knew he had been in Black Flag and knew he did spoken word, but had never seen any of his books before, published on his own imprint. So I snagged a copy of Black Coffee Blues and let it have more of an influence on my young poetry than I should have.

A couple years later I directed my parents to buy me the hardcover of Get In the Van, a collection of Rollins' journals during his time in Black Flag, accompanied by amazing photos of the early-80s hardcore scene in America [if you're in a band, it's required reading]. So I've been a fan of the man for years, yet have never seen him live, despite the incessant touring the man does. So to say I was looking forward to last night would be...inadequate.

Shortly after 8.00 the lights in the theatre dimmed and suddenly the man himself shot onto the stage, no fanfare, no introduction, just an blast of energy through the curtain, and he kept up the pace for a full three hours. Among the topics discussed:

-Spending his first real Thanksgiving dinner with William Shatner and his family, since Henry dislikes holidays on the whole, since they keep him from working.

-Do's and Don'ts for listening to Slayer [Do: Work out. Don't: Shop for groceries. You won't know what happened until the cops are pulling you over to discuss the children lodged under your back bumper].

-Politics, obviously, and the potential future of his country, including his...shall we say intense dislike for Sarah Palin?

The bulk of the evening concerned how he spends most of his time when he's not touring or working: traveling to places most Americans don't get to go to. He talked about being in Islamabad, Pakistan the week Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. He talked about standing in Nelson Mandela's former prison cell in South Africa. He talked about talking to former IRA members in Northern Ireland. He talked about picking up human ribs in the killing fields of Cambodia and his talkative Laotian tour guide [who called him 'Mister Curve' for no real reason].

And he talked about why he travels: to see what's what and walk the streets and talk to people he's just met. And then he goes on tour and tells people what it's really like. So he can tell you that even though anguished Muslims in Pakistan were burning tires in the streets after Bhutto was killed, no one gave paid him any mind, and no one chanted 'Death to America'.

This is the Rollins I find most interesting. To say the man's intense is an understatement, and it's fascinating to see him transform himself into what he says 'punk rock should look like as it hurtles towards fifty.' He's become a sort of punk rock Bono, with a focus on eliminating world hunger, since he sees it as the root of most if not all of the serious challenges in the world.

I won't say it was all sunshine and orange juice; my attention span is so shot I can't keep up most activities for longer than 90 minutes, so three hours of Rollins' travel stories came eerily close to watching your relatives' vacation slides. It also becomes apparent listening to him that even though I may be a fan of his, I doubt he'd be a fan of mine, with my decorated house and my enjoyment of Christmas and appreciation of vacations. It's a little conflicting to laugh at a guy's jokes when you're pretty certain he would hate you.

That notwithstanding, it was amazing to watch him go for the whole three hours with no stopping, no stammering and nary a sip of water to soothe his throat. And he does this every night. It's impossible not to respect that sort of ethic.

Below, a video of the man discussing one of the reasons he thinks the rest of the world hates America [NSFW].


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