Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Henry Rollins at Belfast’s Empire Music Hall

For 30 years, Henry Rollins has toured the world. He enjoys a seemingly nomadic existence, rarely in his native America, more commonly flitting from venue to venue, relentlessly performing. Word has it he performs for more than 100 nights a year.

A musician, writer, actor, TV presenter, activist and spoken word king, Henry returned to Belfast for a sold out show on Sunday, which was his first visit to Northern Ireland since 2008.

His stage for the evening was the beautiful Empire Music Hall, which, despite appearances, is not a lovingly maintained Victorian music hall – but a Victorian church that was renovated into a live venue in 1987 in the style of a Victorian music hall. You would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though. Bedecked in classic fittings, the Hall boasts an ornate Victorian back bar mirror, padded music hall seats, huge murals of absinthe-esque damsels on either side of the stage, and small tables nestling on the upper balcony. It’s a spectacular venue.

With no fanfare or announcement, Henry burst on stage at 8pm, a hulk of muscle, shaved head and tattoos, and with an excitable, irascible pleasure at life’s little wonders. And for two hours, he stands with his feet almost rooted to the spot on the stage, and fires off anecdote after reminiscence after goodhearted banter, with such confidence, such self-assurance, such a clear mind. He never stops talking, he never uses ‘umm’s and ‘ahh’s while his brain catches up with his mouth. He’s unstoppable.

Henry’s chosen topics cover a broad range. He starts with celebration for the West Memphis Three, who were released from jail only two days before after 18 years for alleged murder. Henry, along with many others, has noisily campaigned for their release, firmly believing in their innocence. Feeling vindicated, Henry states that their release proves that “if you stay on it hard enough, you can make some change. It’s been 48 hours since they were released and I’m still in shock.”

Less intense is Henry’s spiels about the perils of politeness, which saw him eat a glut of roasted rat livers “with gusto” while filming a National Geographic documentary, in order to avoid offending the local people. More blunt is his bewilderment about why people would pay for sex: “Renting an orifice or a cavity? Eww!” Although he concedes admiration for the rent boys he used to pass on Santa Monica Boulevard when he lived there in 1981, describing it as an “avenue of men for sale”, adding: “They looked amazing. They looked like punk rock on steroids. I couldn’t not respect them.”

There is a long, but in every way entertaining, diatribe about Henry’s first ever visit to Costco. Tackling the simple mission of buying a ladder, Henry becomes fanatical about the dregs of American humanity that he finds inside the superstore. He says: “Americans need to buy many things, because the more things we buy, the better we are than you.” On his bewilderment at the amount of fast food scoffed by shoppers in Costco’s dining areas, Henry states: “This isn’t dining, this is feeding. As they eat, they die.”

And so it goes on. As the show progresses, Henry’s clean, dry t-shirt, becomes drenched with his sweat – which goes from being a small patch on the front, to becoming a perfectly formed heart shape across his entire, mammoth chest. What this means, I don’t know. But it certainly strikes me as impressive. Just like the man himself. A mountain of a man, with the sort of physique that makes you want to cuddle him just to find out what it would feel like.

Henry is deeply impressive. Rapid fire wit, fast thinking, no time to hesitate. If you want to see him for yourself, be advised that he’s coming to St George’s in Bristol on 17 January. I suggest you buy your tickets soon, and you can buy them from here.

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