Something to talk about

He’s branded his current spoken-word tour Shock & Awe My Ass — but at a recent show, the volatile Henry Rollins radiated a mixed message.

True to form, Rollins predicted a dubiously motivated U.S. invasion of Pakistan and railed against many of the usual suspects: opponents of gay marriage/abortion/women’s rights; Ted Kennedy (“a f••ing coward who should have done time for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne”); the war in Iraq and what Rollins dubbed the overt corporate interests behind it; Bush’s selection of Mike Leavitt as administrator of the EPA (“He should head the Environmental F••k-It-Up Agency”); Bush’s appointment of Christian-right anti-abortionist David Hager to the FDA’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee (“Ladies, this guy is not your friend”); and Bush himself (on any number of different grounds).

But he also spoke enthusiastically about the servicemen and women he met weeks ago while on a trip he made for the United Service Organization to American military bases in Kurdistan and Afghanistan.

Rollins’ keen eye for social criticism lies at the root of all his work. Yet unlike his dour, distinctly unfunny music and writings — invigorating in their own right, but for different reasons — Rollins’ oratory approach hinges on humor.

Lots of it.

His warm, anecdotal style, anchored by keen comic timing, frequently drives audiences into hysterics. In fact, the label “stand up” wouldn’t be all that off the mark.

But Rollins is hardly a comedian.

Rather, for two-to-three hours a night, he simply goes off, often on tangent within tangent upon tangent, sometimes revisiting his original point whole hours after introducing it. As he often puts it, there is no shortage of things to get angry about; but what Rollins hooks you with is a kind of upbeat, destructive energy.

Between bouts of audience laughter, Rollins exhorts his fans to apply force and pressure toward social change where it’s most needed. The “search and destroy” slogan tattooed across his back is elucidated as “think and destroy.”

Where Rollins’ broadsides of other artists (Sheryl Crow, Moby, U2, etc.) come off as cheap and gratuitous, other targets certainly get what they deserve.

In a 1998 speaking appearance, Rollins recounted the grisly details of the racially motivated homicide of James Byrd Jr. at the hands of three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.

“In 1998, a man is dragged to his death,” Rollins told his audience then. “It’s not 1898; Intel is inside — you know what I’m sayin’? … As long as this kind of stuff is happening in this country, you cannot consider yourself free, and [cannot] consider everything to be all right in your life. … It’s no longer good enough to go with the flow.”

Printed on the back of Think Tank, Rollins’ spoken-word album released that same year, is this: “Rejoice, as we will destroy racism in our lifetime.”

So how does he think that we, as a country, have been doing since then?

“I think we’re doing quite well, actually,” Rollins reported in a recent phone interview.

“There’s always going to be racism,” is his current take. “I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of it all the way, but I do think it’s going to be harder to sell racism to young people, especially white kids, ’cause there’s so much of black culture that is attractive to them.

“Thankfully,” he continues, “the music has been a great messenger to break down those barriers. That is a great thing that happens. Maybe there’ll be something like that coming from the other end — hopefully black culture reaching out to white culture and trying to bridge that gap.

“[Take Public Enemy’s] Chuck D: Years ago, white journalists would say to him, ‘Chuck, why are you so black?’ And Chuck used to say, ‘I’ll stop being so black when you guys stop being so white.’

“I always thought that was a really interesting point to make, where everyone’s just gotta take the wall down a little,” Rollins muses. “You have to want to reach over with your hand outstretched and say, ‘Hey, let’s move past this.’ Both sides have to want that.”

By way of further explanation, Rollins mentions the CD Blues in the Mississippi Night, Rounder Records’ re-release of Alan Lomax’s 1947 interview session with musicians Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim.

“They sit ’em down in front of the microphone,” Rollins explains. “[They say:] ‘Tell a story about what it’s like being black.’ And boy, some of the stories — wow, that happened in America?”

Rollins’ optimism and surprise can be viewed either as a pat response or genuine naivete — the civil-rights movement, after all, happened during his own lifetime. Yet his outlook is hopefully more the product of a healthy impatience for progress: Let’s move past this.

He is, at least, well read.

Rollins mentions Beyond Category, John Edward Hasse’s 1995 biography of Duke Ellington:

“You see the racism this guy and his band dealt with — like when they’re playing to 3,000 white people in Chicago and they can’t stay in town, so they would have to rent trains and sleep in the train station. The irony of 3,000 clapping people — and you can’t even sleep down the street from them?”

Rollins concedes it can be confusing when artists themselves have questionable views; for him, James Brown, Ted Nugent, Ike Turner and Jerry Lee Lewis come to mind.

“You [love their work] and kinda dig ’em … but it’s like having a conversation with someone with a 9-foot spear stuck in their head. You keep wanting to say, ‘How’s your spear — I mean, how are you doing today?’

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