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Coachella 2009: Henry Rollins and the killing fields

April 18, 2009 |  9:13 pm

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Square-jawed, muscled and sporting a surprisingly gray close-cropped coif, Henry Rollins took to the  Mojave Stage on Saturday to deliver a sometimes funny, often obvious, endearingly earnest spoken-word set that reminded many present why he is still one of rock's most hotly contested personalities.

People love him or they hate him, but they are very rarely undecided. Since the '80s, when Rollins fronted the L.A. hardcore band Black Flag, he has morphed from a rigidly self-righteous voice of anger at the agonies of living within a corrupt and broken America into a somewhat paternal, massively ethical funny man. Rollins, the middle-aged man, doesn't smoke or drink, exercises religiously and, as I learned during his set, expends much thought and effort in the pursuit of "learning something" about the world's greatest injustices.

During his nearly 50 minutes on stage, he touched on subjects including the perils of airline security in a newly paranoid world; the line he saw in front of the Palladium for New Kids on the Block; his trips to Iran, Beirut and Syria; and his emotions upon picking up a human jawbone from the earth in the "killing fields" of Cambodia.

At one point, he joked about how the blue gloves that a TSA agent donned to frisk him reminded him of the gloves his doctor wore when administering a prostate exam (conjuring up images I never thought my mind was capable of). "It's amazing to have a uniformed man on his knees in blue gloves fondling your testicles," he said, and the crowd howled.

At another point, he talked about seeing Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) being pulled into a back room at the airport to be searched and wanting to reach out and grab his shoulder to tell him how much he enjoyed his music growing up but holding back for fear that the authorities would think the balladeers were a "terrorist cell." If only! Most folk-rockin' terrorists, ever.

However, it was his touching, dark recollection of scavenging for human bones and teeth (which are unearthed each year when it rains, endlessly, always) in the killing fields that touched his listeners to their very core.  And for a brief moment, it was if we were all trying to learn something about the past in order to protect ourselves against similar future horrors.

-- Jessica Gelt

Photo by Michael Buckner / Getty Images

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