[The one and only Henry Rollins contributes a weekly column and far-reaching reportage to the music section of the LA Weekly. Look for your weekly Henry Rollins fix right here on West Coast Sound every week and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.
This installment includes Henry's thoughts on what makes an unforgettable band frontman. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
Put That Man in Front of a Band
This week, let's talk about what makes a great frontman in a band. I absolutely know that I said frontman and not frontwoman or frontperson. We will give women equal time at a later date. I want the opportunity to be representative on both fronts.
A great frontman is someone you can't imagine doing anything else. There are some guys who are just born to be in that spot. Sadly, many of them never get there, and too many average talents spend way too much time there, when we would all be better off if they had not quit their day job.
A great frontman is like no one you have ever met. He has to have something more than a memorable or pleasing voice. There are many great male singers out there, but not all of them are frontmen. If the guy has undeniable onstage charismatude, the vocal ability does not necessarily have to be stellar. Then there are those who have it all — and they are immortal.
A great frontman is able to harness and direct the band's energy and intensity and make it more than just some people playing some songs. He takes you through the entire set. He commands your attention — you are riveted, moved and utterly transported by the one who is the tip of the spear that delivers that which is more than the sum of the parts.
There have been many great frontmen in the world of music. I would like to concentrate on ones I have actually seen perform, so that I may be allowed an informed and well-intentioned opinion:
Before I get into all of that, I would like to say that my personal favorite frontman that I never saw live would have to be a toss-up between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. There's not one frame I have ever seen of either man where I wasn't fairly to completely awed.
Here are but a few. They are in no particular order, as they're all exceptional and extraordinary in their own way:
Lux Interior: Some of my earliest post-arena rock concert experiences were Cramps shows in Washington, D.C. They played small places and I could get right up front. Lux was a very tall man with limitless energy. He was a total and complete maniac. I am sure there was nowhere else for him to be but in front of an audience. Once Ian MacKaye and I were up front at a Cramps show at the Ontario Theater. In the middle of a long version of “Surfin' Bird,” Lux had the microphone in his mouth and was writhing across the stage. He was trying to get his pants off and people in the front row helped. Eventually, he was standing up, naked except for a pair of white briefs with an iron-on decal over the crotch that said, in large letters, “Creepy.” Ian and I ended up with his jeans. After their show was over, Ian and I went backstage to return the pants, nice guys that we were. We walk in and Ian holds them up. The band's guitar player, Bryan Gregory, looks at them and says, “Look, Lux, the boys had your pants cleaned and pressed!”
Perry Farrell: I have never seen someone hold the attention of thousands of people the way Perry did on many occasions during the first Lollapalooza tour of 1991. I had seen the band many times previously in front of a few thousand, but to see him engage more than 20,000 people at a time was completely impressive. I would watch from the side of the stage, and often it occurred to me that he was saying things that were going to stay with people for a long time. He was able to capture moments and say things that were on everyone's mind. I have never seen anything like it.
Nick Cave: It would be hard for me to count all the times I have seen Nick Cave perform. From the Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds to Grinderman to solo appearances, I have been seeing him live since 1983. That massive, cavernous voice of his is completely mesmerizing. He seems to be able to channel the entire band through his body. Every time I see him perform, it's like some kind of epic thing has just happened. It is interesting that he seems uncomfortable with applause, and the unease makes the performance all the more interesting and intense.
Iggy Pop: Damn. I just saw him play last week in Ann Arbor, Mich. Sixty-three years old and still terrifying. The Heavyweight Champion of Rock & Roll! I think this was the best I have ever seen him. There was a moment during the song “Dirt” where he seemed to step out of the music and stop time. It was one of those instances where you forget to breathe. I always wonder what goes through his head when he's out there and if he remembers any of it afterward. I don't think I have seen a singer so deeply inside the music. There were moments of the show that were scary in that way. It is impossible to take your eyes off him. He had the Michigan Theater in the palm of his hand. Later that night, he and the Stooges were given the key to the city. Iggy onstage, drenched, standing next to a man in a suit. Iggy gets the key, thanks the guy and just tosses the key to a roadie at stage right. One of the most amazing onstage moments I have ever seen.
HR (Bad Brains): The Bad Brains opened for the Damned in the summer of 1979 in Washington, D.C., at a venue called the Bayou. We were all there to see the Damned, of course, but were happy to find out that we were finally going to get to see the Bad Brains. They were, at that time, somewhat of an urban legend: an all-black punk-rock band that none of us had seen. We got to the venue early, and soon after getting in (Ian MacKaye with a fake ID card we had made only hours before), the band hit stage. None of us who was up front that night has ever recovered. There is nothing like HR anywhere on the planet. I have never seen so many calories expended so effortlessly during a show. The guy was all over the place, sang perfectly and showed no signs of fatigue. The music was from another world. We left the show that night completely blown away. We saw the Bad Brains play every chance we could. The man was like a gazelle on speed. There have been many imitators, but there is only one HR.
Keith Morris: Keith is the man. Best singer in Black Flag and one of the greatest frontmen of all time. When he sings, you just believe it. You don't need a lot of words to describe Keith because he is as direct as a punch to the face. When he plays, you get it — that's it. See him any time you can.
Jello Biafra: I used to see the Dead Kennedys many years ago. Jello blew people's minds. The voice, the lyrics and this incredible intensity and commitment to each song. I had never seen anyone use the entire stage like that before or since. The audience was usually in riot mode; in the middle of all this chaos, he seemed to be in his own world and we got to watch.
Joey Ramone: I remember the first time I saw the Ramones hit stage. They looked just like they did on the cover of the album. I think Joey said, “Good evening. We're the Ramones. It's good to be back in Virginia. Take it, Dee Dee!” I don't remember what song followed, it was a total overload. I was right up front and was looking up at Joey, trying to see his eyes behind his sunglasses. He was so completely cool and alien. I'll never forget that night as long as I live.
David Bowie: I watched Bowie from stage right at a festival in Europe in the '90s. If I was any closer, I would have been standing on the drum riser. Bowie was the headliner. He had a sea of people in front of him and he had them completely. Bowie's vocals were perfect, and it seemed like he could sing all night with no problem. He was completely in control of space and time. They played “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson that night, so great.
Great frontmen are like great film directors. They see the whole thing at once. They can lose themselves in the moment while remaining present, even when they are out of control and everything around them is as well. I don't know what it is but, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, you know it when you see it.