Henry Rollins

The rocker turned scribe on his love of travel and campaign to free the West Memphis Three

Henry Rollins doesn’t mess about. From the moment he marches onstage at the Empire until he strides off exactly two hours later, the man’s mouth never stops moving.

Sporting his standard uniform of black trousers and black t-shirt, Rollins the performance poet has no truck with intervals or glasses of water. It’s heads-down, no-nonsense verbal warfare from beginning to end.

He launches straight in with a 20-minute spiel about the 'West Memphis Three', a trio of heavy metal fans who were recently released from a US prison after serving 18 years for a triple murder many believe they did not commit. Rollins has campaigned long and hard on their behalf, and it’s a treat for Belfast to be the first audience to hear him speak about the release.

That out of his system, it’s on to lighter, though no less fascinating or unusual, fare. Rollins, a seasoned world traveller, relates the tale of an expedition to India, where he visited a rat-infested temple, helped catch deadly snakes and feasted on rodents’ livers.

He also reels off a list of items barred from being taken onto a plane in India – everything from ‘martial arts devices’ to ‘materialised matter’. It’s truly odd, and properly funny.

Elsewhere, there are anecdotes about his former punk band, Black Flag (the one about the New York fan who lost an eye at a gig, the one about a fledgling Metallica coming backstage to meet Rollins and Co), as well as some local colour.

Rollins spent the previous night in Belfast observing the natives, and his description of the city’s tottering, scantily clad women and privates-scratching, acne-picking men gets a lot of laughs. On the subject of sex, however, Rollins is less convincing.

He is a man of contradictions – a crop-haired, tattooed hulk, who babbles camply about having no mechanical know-how (‘Just fix the toy’), a pro-vegan subversive who is content to dine on exotic meats and schmooze with Hollywood stars (names dropped tonight include Matt Groening and Dennis Hopper), a left-of-centre punk who isn’t afraid to give a shout-out to the military or to encourage people to vote.

It would be nice to hear more about his offbeat home life, where even a visit to the local Costco store can turn from a simple trip to buy a ladder into a public reading of George W Bush’s autobiography.

Relentlessly mocking his fellow Americans (‘The future dead’), Rollins sardonically spoofs their love of bad food ('If you don’t eat like this every day Al-Qaeda wins!') and cheap booze ('If you don’t drink a lot of it Al-Qaeda wins!').

But it’s on the subject of travel that he comes most alive. The 50-year-old loves to leave behind his ‘utilitarian hovel’ – where he lives alone, eats out of a microwave and drives a Subaru – to explore places like North Korea, Tibet and Vietnam, revelling in the colourful characters and challenging predicaments.

His speech about working with the Drop in the Bucket charity in Southern Sudan is truly affecting. ‘All they want is to eat, sleep and breed in peace,’ says Rollins. ‘Amen,’ says Belfast.