Henry Rollins: The Column! Henry on What Makes a Great Band Frontman
[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.