FFF6 in review: Henry Rollins is your cool punk rock uncle now
Henry Rollins opened his set on the Yellow Stage at Fun Fun Fun Fest on Sunday with a simple request of the audience: “Don’t be offended and don’t take anything I say about Texas personally.” It’s a good idea to make that sort of announcement, given how prideful we can be, but he needn’t have bothered—most of Rollins’ trademark ire was reserved for other, weirder places, like Ohio and North Korea.
Rollins’ material is always rooted firmly by a sense of place. Call it a side-effect from a lifetime spent largely as an itinerant wanderer, whether as the frontman for the punk band Black Flag, whose non-stop tours are the stuff of legend, or as the host of National Geographic travel documentaries (his current gig). It makes for an interesting set, when the man gets a mic in his hand and begins talking.
It’s probably fair at this point to call Rollins’ act “stand-up,” although not all of his bits have punchlines. It’s evolved over the past two and a half decades from a hybrid of poetry and storytelling, often with material that was deadly serious, into something that more comfortably resembles what we’re used to from comedians—funny stories about air travel and riffs on current events. Whatever you call it, it’s funny and engaging, and Rollins demonstrated on Sunday what makes him different from other stand-ups working the circuit.
Namely, it’s the travel. His opening bit, about going to India with NatGeo Wild to film a documentary about rats, came from a very definite viewpoint—that of a guy who’s actually been there, had his feet covered in rats at a temple, and then eaten roasted rat around a campfire. These aren’t the sort of stories you hear from a comic who spends his time playing video games.
That’s what’s always been unique about Rollins, and what’s helped him develop his devoted cult following—it’s basically a guy living the most interesting lifestyle imaginable getting on stage and telling you all about it, with jokes. Even his “air travel is weird” bits come from a distinct viewpoint; on Sunday, he talked about the absurdly long list of items specifically banned from flights in India, including box cutters and hand grenades.
Of course, this being Fun Fun Fun Fest, it wouldn’t be complete without a trip down nostalgia-lane. Rollins’ act has not spent much time in the past decade focusing on stories from his days with Black Flag, but maybe sharing a bill with The Damned, Danzig, Youth Brigade, and Negative Approach had the guy feeling a bit reflective. He pulled out a handful of old tales from the road, including one more-or-less punchline-free anecdote about watching a girl lose an eye during a failed stagedive at a Black Flag show in New York, and another (funnier) bit about being introduced to a very young Metallica by their slick, music-industry manager.
All of these stories, and all of this travel, add up to more, in Rollins’ estimation. While he may comfortably wear the title of comedian these days, he insisted on leaving the Yellow Stage with a poignant message that attempted to tie it all together: “Life is short. You’ve got to get as many of these stories as you can.”
Rollins has long had the demeanor of a punk rock drill sergeant, but at Fun Fun Fun Fest, he came off more like a cool visiting uncle, here to make you laugh, and give you a few things to think about. It was a breezy set (his last Austin show ran around three hours, so cramming everything he had to say into 60 minutes made for a new experience), but a funny and compelling one.
Rollins dropped the lectures and switched to advice years ago, and the crowd at the Yellow Stage seemed like one that was very ready to listen.