Henry Rollins, Exene

Cervenkova, Michael Gira, Don Bajema & Tricia Warden

Vic, June 16

By Jack Helbig

Onstage Henry Rollins looks too perfect, as if he’s been digitally enhanced by some west-coast art director: dimpled chin, high cheekbones, intense eyes, major eyebrows, angular haircut, muscular neck. And his body–shirt stretched tight across his broad shoulders and pronounced pectorals–glides with the eerie fluidity of a computer-generated character.

Even when he speaks, this once-upon-a-time punk rocker drones in a smooth, robotic voice that flattens the scenes of LA-style decadence and urban violence that spice up his otherwise undistinguished spoken-word prose. Imagine HAL, the computer in 2001, reciting a college freshman’s well-meaning but not very successful imitation of William S. Burroughs.

Last Sunday night at the Vic, Rollins performed a single 80-minute piece and never seemed to come up for air. He just plowed through, stark-white manuscript clenched in his hand, only occasionally stressing words for effect: “Anywhere you hang yourself is home.” Behind him a band–a drummer and saxophonist, who also doubled on violin–played mildly dissonant jazz.

The story he read–really a paranoid meditation on the end of the world as reflected in America’s sickest city–never quite came together into a coherent narrative. Instead Rollins presented a seemingly endless series of degrading scenes–rent boys giving blow jobs for cash, policemen smashing in the faces of suspects for the fun of it, trips to convenience stores that end in unfortunate encounters with gangbangers– punctuated occasionally with a bitter observation clearly meant to be witty: “The Everyman is a Nowhere man. So where are you?”

Rollins has been performing this spoken-word stuff–along with fronting the Rollins Band and running his own publishing company, 2.13.61–since the mid-80s, when Black Flag broke up. So how come he still isn’t any good? On the performances collected in Rollins’s CD Sweatbox, he delivers introductions that are much livelier and wittier than his flat, dreary attempts at creating literature. But that was back in 1987-’88. Gone now is the wild, funny, wounded punk boy. Too bad–I liked that angry half-articulate kid.

What we get now is LA Man, toned and coiffed and looking so unnatural he could pass for an airbrushed photo.

All of the lesser lights on the bill–Tricia Warden, Don Bajema, Michael Gira, Exene Cervenkova–easily outshine Rollins. Even Bajema, who was so unnerved by reading aloud to an audience that his hands shook and his voice kept slipping into an academic drone, filtered through enough of his powerful, angry, rantlike prose to show he was no Rollins but the real thing: a naturalistic writer in the Algren mold, interested in capturing the rhythms and violence of working-class life.

Michael Gira, leader of the proto-industrial band Swans, comes across as a fortuitous mating of Bajema and Rollins. More polished than Bajema but capable of writing and performing the kind of lively, multilayered prose Rollins only thinks he’s writing, Gira projects so much menace as he reads his dark, gothic, Sadean fiction that I kept wishing he’d toss aside the lazy spoken-word convention of reading from a manuscript and actually perform his story, the way good slam poets do. Certainly Gira’s carefully crafted stories of graphic violence and cruel eroticism would only be enhanced by freeing this charismatic performer from the prison of a desk and chair. The Swans performance at Lounge Ax last summer showed Gira’s considerable stage presence.

New Jersey-based poet Tricia Warden performs as if she’s channeling Valerie Solanas, spitting out her nasty, nihilistic, hilarious poems with a thrilling fury–much of it aimed at men, rapists or otherwise. As the first performer on the bill, Warden had the unenviable task of getting the audience in the mood for what turned out to be a three-and-a-half-hour program; she did this with remarkable ease. Warden can outrant even Karen Finley. In her darkest and angriest moments–like when she snarls “The most important meal of the day is the one you get!”–she comes across as a younger, angrier Finley.

Warden is that rare performance poet who is both performer and poet. Her send-ups of haiku show she really understands the economy and power of the form: “Thru a car window / I saw a man picking his nose / with no remorse.” This is true of her longer works, in which she displays a poet’s word-drunk playfulness with language. At times, though, Warden allows her rage to get the best of her–and her words.

But Exene Cervenkova really made the evening. Former lyricist and vocalist for the seminal, recently dissolved LA punk band X, Cervenkova performs her poetry with disarming ease, speaking directly to the audience as she recounts her many adventures during and after the punk era. Her work is not particularly polished, nor is it very literary–she definitely doesn’t write like someone who’s read a lot of poetry. Yet she makes up for all that with a gutsy power–at times she out-rages Warden–and an openness that makes even her minor pieces riveting, like the short little angry thing she dashed off in 1980 after she caught her husband, fellow X member John Doe, with another woman.

When Cervenkova turns her attention to modern American decadence, her jeremiads have an Old Testament fury to them, like when she chants again and again the line “There is a war coming in the future!” until it reaches your heart’s core, a place Rollins couldn’t touch on his best day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Tricia Warden, Exene Cervenkova and Henry Rollins by Randy Tunnell.