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In the endless parade of punk rock nostalgia, there’s standard fare: the reissues, the books, the documentaries. And then there’s Henry Rollins, a walking punk rock history with a three-story house full of rare and one-of-a-kind punk memorabilia to show for it.
For a guy who’s “never looked back,” Rollins knows how to tell the story of his own role in D.C.’s music history. Walking onstage to a standing ovation at the National Museum of Natural History last night for a Smithsonian Associates discussion of D.C. punk in his honor, the former Black Flag frontman touched on as many punk milestones as he witnessed: the first Minor Threat shows, the dangerous ‘80s skinhead punk scene, the havoc that drugs wreaked on friends of his.
The event was moderated by Q & Not U guitarist-turned-journalist Chris Richards, who wisely stood out of the way while Rollins talked until his voice was hoarse. Two hours was more than enough for him to tell his life story; Rollins began the evening with his discovery of the Beatles and ended it with his opinion on the current state of rock ‘n’ roll, taking time to detail everything from high school dances to his Thanksgivings spent with close friend William Shatner and his legal battles with Black Flag bassist Greg Ginn (who’s now facing accusations of child abuse).
To those who caught his speech at the National Geographic Theater in 2011 or have listened to his radio show or attended speaking gigs, the stories Rollins told last night were very familiar. He rattled off some recurring bits: bonding with Ian MacKaye over BB guns, working at the Georgetown Häagen-Dazs as a teen, the time he sang with Bad Brains, even his love for California garage rockers Ty Segall and the Oh Sees. The frontman inevitably took multiple swings at critics who proclaimed rock to be dead, egged on by several post-show questioners who seemed intent on getting Rollins’ assurance that power chords would still be around in 2015.
But as the sold-out auditorium suggested, these are clearly stories that fans want to hear again, and Rollins is more qualified than most to tell them. He’s made a living in music, radio, and television almost entirely based on his own strong opinions delivered with sharp wit and unmatched intensity, and crowds still roar at his high school anecdotes and major label disses. Moreoever, as evidenced by the presence of several underage fans who stood up to ask questions, Rollins’s ethos of aggressive non-conformity still resonates for current and formerly angsty teens (even if Rollins long ago graduated from teen weirdo to rockstar).
As always, he had his notable quotables. On Black Flag’s subsequent reunion and implosion: “The legacy of Black Flag is that the band didn’t finish well because of the activities of the last 25 months.” On Gene Simmons: “He’s made his mind up that rock is dead. He’s put himself in his own box, and it’s probably a very high-priced box. He’ll grab about how much it costs—-but that’s his problem.”
Rollins doesn’t want to live in the past, a point he emphasized as he lambasted his former bandmates for their faux-reunion tours. Though he may not playing Black Flag songs anymore, Rollins is happy to engage in a rhetorical best-of tour, laying out the best stories of his life to the huge applause lines and standing ovations.
Photo by Flickr user ceedub13, Creative Commons