Punk and politics: Henry Rollins toasts to his 50th

MR. ROCK THE VOTE: The multitalented Henry Rollins, who grew up in Washington and helped to pioneer its
MR. ROCK THE VOTE: The multitalented Henry Rollins, who grew up in Washington and helped to pioneer its "harDCore" scene, focused on political riffs during his two 50th-birthday performances on Sunday.
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By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Smile, energy, laugh!''

That Hollywood-speak command was delivered by a production assistant to the beautiful people handpicked to sit front and center on Sunday night in National Geographic's auditorium - and exemplified the evening's contradictions. Of course, the fans who turned out for the second of Henry Rollins's two 50th-birthday performances would be energetic and amused. But nothing could be left to chance, since Rollins's freewheeling 95-minute monologue was being videotaped for a buttoned-up medium: TV.

Rollins grew up in Washington and is strongly attached to it, even though he moved to Los Angeles 30 years ago. To boost the hometown vibe, he was introduced by longtime friend Ian MacKaye, who was Rollins's skating buddy back when (and even before) they helped turn the little-known local punk subculture into the internationally influential "harDCore'' scene. Rollins's music career seems to be on hold, but he remains a very successful talker and - here's the National Geographic connection - an ardent traveler.

Taking the stage in a wheelchair, which quickly vanished, Rollins credited MacKaye's influence with everything noble in his character. Then he became his own bad self, recounting tales from his recent travels to South Africa, North Korea, Tibet, South Sudan and a Costco in Burbank, Calif. Some of Rollins's observations conveyed his wonder at the random strangeness of life, but most of them turned out to be political. Even the Costco anecdote built to a parody of one of the few books available at the warehouse store: George W. Bush's "Decision Points.''

Rollins may not have mellowed that much over the last three decades, but he now speaks with passion about oppressed Tibetans, terrorized Sudanese and Vietnamese children who still suffer the delayed effects of Agent Orange. He loves to tweak authority, so he said he struggled to keep his sarcasm in check in Pyongyang, North Korea, where he was told that the 1968 loss of the USS Pueblo was devastating to the U.S. Navy. Give him a country that's trying to improve its record, however, and Rollins turns surprisingly earnest. He was agog over Nelson Mandela, and even recited the preamble to the South African constitution.

Rollins depicted himself as a bratty, neurotic, overgrown kid, motivated in part by self-loathing. He used that portrayal to deflect any potential criticism about his taking cash for work in TV and movies he described as "just awful.'' But no one in Sunday's audience remonstrated with him for doing a cellphone ad. Instead, the crowd applauded Rollins's attacks on prominent right-wingers, as well as his instruction that everyone should vote.

Another liberal D.C. crowd, perhaps, but Rollins's fans had come from as far as Cleveland and Pittsburgh for the monologuist's 50th. None of them seemed surprised by Rollins's politics. "It was actually less political than the last time I saw him,'' reported Joseph Pattisall of Alexandria. "It's amazing how fast the time goes when he's talking.''

"He's a true storyteller,'' said Liza Rudolph, a longtime fan who'd traveled from Aberdeen for her first Rollins performance. "You think he's going off on a tangent, and then he comes full circle.''

Samantha Merz, from Richmond, appeared to be one of the younger people in the crowd. "Being a 22-year-old, it was really inspiring. It got me fired up.''

In his introduction, MacKaye described his longtime friend as a scary 12-year-old, ready to stomp the opposition in Glover Park. Who could have guessed that the brawling punk would grow up to be Mr. Rock the Vote?

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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