Henry Rollins is such a baffling figure that the things he does to make you like him never really make him attractive enough to overcome his vein-popping intensity about just about everything. To the casual observer, he may just seem like a ‘roid-raging jerk whose primary sources of entertainment all involve humiliating or beating other people. But one of the first things that gives him away as something altogether more complex is his sense of humor. It’s not a respite from his perpetual flexing, but another branch of it, one that he approaches with just as much unhinged zeal as he did as the frontman of Black Flag and the Rollins Band. Sound weird? Well, it is, especially when his subject matter includes trying to slam a toilet seat on his penis in a hotel room. And why, you might wonder, was he doing this? It’s quite simple, really: he’s Henry Rollins.
A skinny, awkward teenager, Rollins discovered the weight room and became a new man, one full of rage and intensity whose topics of choice were, as The Onion once noted, “1) you are weak, and 2) I hate you, because you are weak.” Unlike many of the punks that came before and after him, his was a message of self-empowerment. He didn’t drink, use drugs, or eat meat. He didn’t complain about how he couldn’t do things. He complained about people who felt they were too weak to do things, and he did it in all the many forums in which he’s dabbled, from music to poetry to journalism to standup comedy. Given this obsessive reiteration and his past as an ineffectual kid, one senses that there is no small amount of self-loathing percolating beneath Rollins’s assured surface, and if you’re looking for a document to support this theory, look no further than Black Coffee Blues.
A spoken word double-disc set comprised of excerpts from his book of the same name, Black Coffee Blues sounds like Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer with fewer pretensions to poetry. The relief that Morrison’s shadow falls only lightly on this set is counterbalanced by Rollins’s relentless navelgazing. His sense of humor pops up here and there, but for the most part this is a grim recitation of diary entries and other likeminded pieces, musing on life on the road, eating, stupidity, weakness, etc., etc., shot through with discussions of coffee in its different forms. The coffee conceit is particularly thin, and unless you share Rollins’s passion for the stuff (and of course, Henry’s not one to go halfway with his enthusiasms), it grates posthaste. Anyone who calls their coffee “smooth, like death” needs other things to think about.
On the other hand, when Rollins ventures away from the titular brew, it frequently makes you wish that he would stick to basic subjects rather than dispensing his special brand of wisdom, or more accurately, his special education. A choice except from the Gospel of Rollins: “How memories lie to us, how time coats the ordinary with gold. And how crushed we are when we discover that the gold was merely gold plate, thinly coated over lead, chalk, and peeling paint.” As bad as those lines look on the page, they are never less flattered than when declaimed by their author with a fierceness antithetical to the high-minded reflection the passage tries to convey. Worse still is when Rollins’s steely gaze turns inwards, where he picks at his amorphous flaws. “I find it takes a lot of strength to endure myself,” he says, sounding like the ungainly hybrid of his buff and bony selves. He has always seemed like a manchild, but never before has he sounded quite this juvenile.
The few bright spots in Black Coffee Blues come when Rollins lets his crude but effective sense of humor out to play. Reflecting on a beautiful prostitute he sees in Europe, he imagines that she’s sucked miles of cock since he’s seen her last. Elsewhere, again thinking of sex, he discusses how mechanical the act has become for him, imagining a Hallmark card to commemorate the moment when your girlfriend emerges from the bathroom with a washcloth to wipe her coital fluids from your crotch. It suddenly occurs to me—all of his best material involves penises! Skip this album, but should Black Cock Blues ever hit the shelves, snatch that baby right up.