Kenny and the Exisential Penguin

Henry Rollins. The formidable hardcore punk singer, actor, prolific writer and almost constant traveler with an insatiable curiosity. On Friday night we had the opportunity to enjoy another of his talents, master storyteller.

Punk hero

The National Geographic Society is not the typical choice for a Friday night. The elegant Ondaatje Theatre was host  to his latest spoken word tour entitled Travel Slideshow. Instead of getting up on stage aided simply by a microphone and a packed arsenal of stories from his adventures to over 100 countries as he’s previously done, this time he brought along some of the photos he’s taken along the way.

It felt strange nestling into luxurious leather clad seats in an intimate theatre setting with a mostly punk/metal crowd (so many wild beards). It reminded me of going to the Palladium to see astounding Gutterdammerang, which he co-wrote and starred in. We all felt right at home as soon as Rollins took to the stage rousing enthusiastic applause from the crowd.


He humbly thanked us for choosing to ‘waste’ half of our weekend listening to him ‘talk for too long’, and talk he did; non stop at an almost blistering pace for just over two and a half hours. He delivered his tales with such charm and the infectious enthusiasm of an excited child at Christmas I did not feel the length of time at all. He initially explained that as a writer he did not usually think to take photographs of his travels, but found that sometimes words failed to adequately describe the moment. This was the first tour where he showed his own photos and seemed excited with the opportunity to give us as the audience a visual representation of just some of the people and places he’s met and seen.

Diving straight in with a photo of decaying abandoned military equipment left behind by the retreating Russians in Afghanistan, Rollins had a wealth of history stored in his brain. He proceeded to recite all known dates when the country had been invaded and defeated it’s would be conquerors. He spoke about travelling out to meet with troops and how he would move there to live for six months if circumstances were different.

He followed this with a story of soldiers testing his nerve in a helicopter flying through Iraq and segued onto a photo of a snow blanketed train platform, casually announcing ‘Oh look, Siberia!’. Regaling us with hilarious tales of travelling on the week long Trans-Siberian express (in February!) his world tour continued through Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, North Korea, Uganda, India, Haiti and Mongolia. That wasn’t even the full list of incredible destinations.

Anthropomorphising the ducks in Vietnam
An accidentally punk rock salon in Ulaanbaatar

He spoke of travelling to Antarctica and discovering how disgusting Gentoo penguins can be despite their adorable appearance (one bird being photographed separate from the flock seeming to be ‘the existential one’) and seeing the devastation in an orphan’s eyes in Haiti. He commented on the beauty and sadness of the Tibetan people and almost being ‘eaten’ by a hippo on the Niger river while travelling to a music festival in the desert outside of Timbuktu. Rollins’ outlook is refreshingly positive. Blending stories of joy, tragedy, conflict and resilience, all these experiences have given him such insight into being human and how different life can be for all of us. His curiosity comes from an innocent place of wonder that endears him to most of those he meets and warmly extends to those of us hanging on his words.

Trying, and failing, to explain to a vendor in Malaysia she was wearing his band’s t-shirt

Among many emotional stories was one in particular that really moved me. He spoke of touring in Cape Town and regularly visiting Imizamo Yethu, a township built on a mountainside next to the suburb of Hout Bay. He told us of a lovable character named Kenny he had befriended and made sure to visit each time he was in town. Sadly, on his last visit, he was informed Kenny had succumbed to AIDS which is heartbreakingly common in South Africa. I was so glad Rollins had been as far south as my hometown since I’d spent most the talk thinking how much he’d probably love it.

The infectious warmth that was Kenny

Not wanting to end abruptly on a sad note, and admitting he wasn’t sure how to end a slideshow talk, he showed us some very old photos he and his best friend had taken of themselves in their younger days skating on a homemade ramp made of plywood brazenly stolen off construction sites. Rollins also spoke of his audition to sing for one of his favourite bands, Black Flag, and how joining them totally transformed his life. He doesn’t remember the experience, since it happened decades ago, but was contacted by a photographer who took shots of the yet to be momentous occasion. He bid us farewell with one of the photos and exited the stage just as humbly as he’d entered.

How it all started

Rollins is so inspiring. He makes me want to be a better human. I left the theatre with a spring in my step and such a hope for the future. It was incredibly heartening to hear him say he also believes that people are inherently good, his empathy for and willingness to engage with all populations and reserving his judgement for the dictators and governments who abuse them. None of that time was wasted by any measure, in fact he could still be talking and we’d probably all still be sitting there eager to listen. I officially want to be him when I grow up.

Where to next?