Vulture recently posted this video of famed eighties punk and modern TV personality Henry Rollins having a strange encounter with some young people on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The clip is awkward and possibly amusing. What shouldn’t be ignored, though, is that it’s also a profound psychological drama — we’re talking, like, improv Shakespeare — involving some of the hottest buttons of the independent music world: aging, class, political commitment, snobbery, and Henry Rollins’s king-size hang-ups. The whole thing begs for annotation. With that in mind, here is your detailed guide to these five minutes of video.
0:01. Rollins is browsing the sold-record section at a venue called Cakeshop. He’s accompanied by Shirin Neshat, who is a visual artist from Iran. I’d like to note that if I ever get a chance to hang out with Shirin Neshat, I will show her a much nicer time than what’s about to happen in this clip.
0:16. Rollins says the music here is what “young, intellectually intense, switched-on people” listen to. But this description — especially the “intellectually intense” part — was probably more true in the eighties and nineties. Rollins likely knows this, and will soon get weird about it.
0:28. Rollins is telling Neshat about Allison Wolfe, of nineties bands like Bratmobile and Cold Cold Hearts. Fun fact: The bass player on the album he’s holding is awesome.
0:42. Someone says “HENRY ROLLINS IS HERE?” This triggers massive preexisting issues on Rollins’s part, and he immediately switches into his signature defensive/aggressive mode, which involves talking a lot and needling people with friendly-sounding insults.
0:52. He tells Neshat that everyone is laughing at him because “to these people, I’m kind of old and in the way,” or “old and normal.” This is Rollins’s main hang-up, and it’s totally bizarre; he’s entirely projecting. Maybe some folks in the punk scene are bored with him that way. Random kids at this particular venue, though, are not likely to care. They are not as annoyed by their elders as punks like Rollins used to be. And to most of them, he is just a guy who was in a legendary punk band (Black Flag), was painted red on MTV when they were kids (“Liar“), and likes to talk a lot. He is no more in the way than, say, Betty White is in the way of younger actresses. The only person in this room freaking out about Henry Rollins’s cred is Henry Rollins.
1:28. A young woman (her name, I’m told, is Meredith) calls out “GET IN THE VAN!” In order to understand what happens next, we have to cross-reference with the end of the clip, in which Rollins proudly explains to Neshat that he just knew he couldn’t walk into this place without some kind of confrontation happening. Get in the Van, he tells her, is “the title of a very famous book I wrote, where the audio book won a Grammy.” Rollins chooses to interpret calling out this title as a form of mockery; he even describes the moment — to Shirin Neshat, of all people — as the part where “the chick mouths off.” But it’s possible that calling out “GET IN THE VAN” at Henry Rollins is more like if you saw Tony the Tiger filming something at your local bar and called out “THEY’RE GRRREAT!”
1:38. Rollins in action! He runs over to Meredith and asks whether this is “where the young elitist hipsters take on the ancient, dodgy, in-the-way” guy. This is a little like going on a blind date with a woman and spending the entire time talking about how she probably hates you because you’re bald and drive a cheap car. The funny part is that it sort of works. Rollins grew up in a hardcore punk scene that prized confrontation for its own sake, and he seems a lot more comfortable once he’s getting in people’s faces, rather than feeling privately awkward. Meredith and the women around her are taken aback by it: They were just goofing around. “You’re paranoid!” says one.
2:05. Rollins drags Shirin Neshat from the other room and holds her in front of himself like a human shield, needling the young women by earnestly comparing Neshat’s life and work with that of “over-tattooed trust fund kids.” Neshat laughs uncomfortably, presumably wishing she were elsewhere and not being used as a prop. Interestingly enough, her father was a physician in prerevolutionary Iran, and her background was likely more privileged than that of anyone else in this clip.
2:44. But life is a predictable and depressing thing, and this (in addition to sheer words-per-minute verbal skills) is why Rollins wins: It’s his needling about trust funds that gets Meredith as defensive as he is. You know how older Americans get absurdly aggrieved at the idea that they’ve done something racially insensitive — as if this is the most profound and dehumanizing suggestion that can ever be made about a person? A lot of younger urbanites are reaching this point with the phrase “trust fund.” Suddenly the person who called Rollins “paranoid” about how he’s perceived is scrambling to assert that she doesn’t have nearly as much money as he does and respects Neshat “a whole lot.” In a few short moves, Rollins has turned things around: Instead of justifying himself to the young people, they’re justifying themselves to him.
3:02. Neshat realizes that a few guys have been patiently waiting behind this whole scene, carrying gear from the stage downstairs. She seems grateful to notice them, since that means the conversation has a reason to end. After they pass, she says she’s feeling a little warm — as in, perhaps, “let’s get some air” — but Rollins reads it as excitement: Sparring with people has left him “exhilarated.” He’s ready to get back into it with Meredith, while Neshat’s attempting to protect her: “You were talking tattoo without knowing she has tattoo!” The muscle-bound American punk is interested in tension and conflict, while the Iranian exile he used as an integrity-and-credibility prop is interested in peacemaking.
3:35. Henry Rollins is seen as so “old and in the way” that the record store’s owner gives him gifts and his own band’s album. In the car, on the way out, Neshat has questions about this, but Rollins is still enjoying the adrenaline rush of antagonizing someone and doesn’t give her much room to talk.