A Telling Visit to Tel Aviv for Henry Rollins

Rock 'n' Rollins and … roots.

It all comes together in a sand-swept season premiere of the rockin' "The Henry Rollins Show," airing Friday, April 13, on cable's IFC.

The alternative rocker, who alternates between muses of musician/writer/talk-show showman, brings his tattooed tawny self to Tel Aviv, where his parade of punk poetry and right-on raps on the rites and wrongs of the human condition are wrapped into a program — perfectly presented to an Israeli crowd that craves Rollins' rolling arts fest festooned with the cool and uncalculated.

He is a one-man band of banter that crackles alive with breakneck observations of broken dreams and much-needed reparations of the human heart. The one-time front man for Black Flag is not one to throw up the white flag and surrender to secrets of suspect societies; he is more apt to flag them for the hypocrites that they are.

An interviewer whose off-kilter questions often quietly invade his subjects' thoughts, eliciting responses far from rote, Rollins has written a role for himself as a postmodern metronome of an interrogator, who finds his answers in the off-beat, on the mark.

The singer/songwriter/actor once known to his folks as Henry Lawrence Garfield is cat-quick in responses, which the Tel Aviv crowd reacts to viscerally. His rants are rags on human rights that hit home in Israel and wherever he's taken his whip-like wit, which is worldwide as a rep for USO.

"Every year, we want to start out with something special," says Rollins.

And what could be more special than opening night in Israel? "I've done shows there before, but it's been 10 years, and I wanted to go back. It's a great way to start the season off with a bang."

Artistically speaking, of course. No middle ground goes uncovered in this Middle East mission as Rollins rolls out his wish list that would have a Jewish Santa checking it twice. He challenges the Israelis with in-your-face insights and face-offs that come off successfully, judging by the applause and acclaim coming from the audience.

Some consider him a post-punk Renaissance man — a Leonardo Da Vincible who's decoded what it means to go through hell and back. Which may explain why the non-Jewish journeyman can say, "I have an understanding of what it means to be an Israeli."

Honest With Himself
He certainly knows a lot about politics and literature as well, and is proud of the way he can read an Israeli crowd. "I know that if you are honest and forthright in Israel, it'll be okay."

And Rollins, most importantly, is honest with himself, offering a self-appraisal that praises what he is not: "Not being homophobic, anti-Semitic or racist, I don't have to hold back."

Telling it like it is real in Israel? "I got some letters after my second show there because I ended on a heavy note," one in which he asked the Tel Aviv crowd to take measure of what's really important in gaining a lasting peace.

Heavy mettle from a heavy metal-looking dude? "I'm in Israel. How could I possibly lighten up?"

A walk on the Western Wall side is all that's needed. "I embrace it, I dig it, I draw strength from Israel," says Rollins.

So much so, he plans a personal iron-man contest, ironing out plans to return at another date, "this time for 10 days or more, on my vacation time."

Don't cue the traveling music just yet; squeezing in a vacation with all the performances, appearances and writings — his 1994 published diary of Get in the Van is in-demand for Rollins fans ; its audio version took home a Grammy Award — this tough-talking, spoken-word recording artist with his own publishing company may have to book himself some down time on a calendar not yet devised.

Self-deprecation suits the T-shirt attired rocker well.

"I call myself a jackass of all trades," who traded in his acting talents, humming along in a Hummer, in "Jackass: The Movie."

Certainly, his talk-show guests give him plenty of street cred: Rollins is apt to get the biggest names in the business — no matter what business it is — eager to plug into a chat that may not have anything to do with plugging their latest product.

Listen to an especially revealing grill of Ben Stiller in an upcoming edition and realize he'd rather be spending this night at Rollins' place than at some museum.

And off the set, this well-toned talker is most at home … at home. Who can blame him if he considers the mundane elements of home life a life-saver after a home robbery 16 years ago? Along with his roommate Joe Cole a burglary target, Rollins survived the attack; Cole did not.

"The police found two bullets meant for me; a door jam caught one bullet, they found the other in a container of Alka-Seltzer."

No relief in memories of the unsolved crime; much of what Rollins does now is achieved in honor of his late friend.

"Maybe one day they'll solve it, and it'll be on 'Cold Case,' " he says. "Time has helped me deal with the sadness of it."

Optimally, however, he is an optimist: "I think I'm living in a great country; we are a generous and kind lot, and we will recover" from the moral malaise afflicting the nation now.

As busy as he is, Rollins always loves being buried in what he charmingly calls "the paperwork," a paean of a phrase to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, those parchment papers that parse the meaning of what liberty is about.

"You know, when you grow up in D.C. like I did, you're surrounded" by buildings emblematic of the nation's core beliefs, "all these big-ass pillars supporting the weight of freedom, and you can't hide behind it."

Rollins for one is not about to play peek-and-boo as bystander when so much is needed to be done, he says; the founder of the Rollins Band is a vocal advocate of gay marriages, and is not exactly a rocker for Iraq policy. He also considers the Bush league of administrators as self-descriptive. But then the alternative rocker always looks out for alternatives, walking into the winds of change, his hat held on to weather the bluster.

After all, reasons Rollins, "life is an alternative."


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