The hulking punk rocker listened as the former child soldier told him about being forced to kill his own sister in front of his parents.
“These kids had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda,” spoken word performer and once Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins says of the 15 to 20-year-old African victims he visited recently as part of an endless odyssey as an amateur documentarian to connect his audience to the world’s harshest edges.
YouTube sensation Kony 2012 had yet to go viral, introducing the world to the LRA’s barbaric tactics. But at a special Ugandan recuperation school, a handful of the traumatized students gave Rollins special access to learn about all they endured.
“One of them told me about hacking their sister up in front of their dad, and making the mom cook the daughter and feed it to dad … these young kids were drugged and made to do all kinds of this stuff,” says Rollins in a phone interview.
Rollins constantly wanders the world to soak up such toxic anecdotes for his stand-up-style spoken word performances. The trips are wide ranging, but similar at their core — get off the beaten path, meet the locals, tell their stories onstage. His hosts often offer intimately frank accounts, but not always.
In 2010, Rollins managed to attain a North Korean visa. His trip to Pyongyang, the Hermit Kingdom’s capital, came with a litany of regulations and — even worse — a ‘tour guide’ minder. Every day’s strict itinerary would begin not with alarm bells, but the pounding hammers of the strangest construction site he has ever seen.
“These poor bastards were working on this scaffolding of a building, with marching music playing and some shrieking woman yelling at them through a low quality bull horn — we’re talking 5:30 a.m.,” Rollins says. His minder’s explanation shocked him even more. “Kim the tour guide said, with no irony or sarcasm, ‘the woman is yelling inspirational things to help them work harder.’ What can you say to that?”
It was a bizarre moment, but one that oddly offered him a bit of nostalgia. Those laborers, deafened by mindless advertising and propaganda, balancing on fraying bamboo scaffolding, weren’t too unlike the young Henry Rollins that ploughed through dead-end jobs before Black Flag asked him to be its singer. His worst pre-punk gig of all was being a liver sample courier at a lab in his hometown of Washington, D.C.
“Once or twice a day I’d take the company station wagon to an office and deliver Petri dishes with mice and rabbit samples on them. Then I’d go back to the lab and clean out cage after cage filled with mice, mop up the floor, pick up dead animals,” he says.
At the time he did not, surprisingly, fantasize about a rock-star job that could jet-set him around the world.
“I had very little imagination then,” Rollins says. “I thought ‘Well, this is my life. It’s going to be grim.’ Because those kinds of jobs’ll kill ya, they kill your mind and they kill your spirit.”
Now that hollow outlook stares back at Rollins, haunting him on his every fringe journey — especially when he made eye contact with those former child soldiers in Uganda.
“After they opened up to me, I thanked them,” he says. “They politely nodded, kinda wordlessly got up and walked away. I think they’re fairly destroyed. I’ve seen that kind of look before, the true ten-thousand-yard stare when someone’s just not all there with you— these kids are just looking right through you.” M
Henry Rollins will perform at Alix Goolden Hall on June 1. For more information, visit Rollins’ tour page at http://21361.com.
By Kyle Mullin