Dialogs: Airports, Origin Stories and RuPaul Unite David Sedaris and Henry Rollins

Quirky, prolific memoirist David Sedaris lived for a time in Chicago, and frequently comes back to the Windy City to read his writing to appreciative audiences. He’s famous for spending lots of time chatting with fans in his post-show, book-sign line, mining those conversations for future lectures and writings. He straddles the line between gratitude for his rabid fans and making fun of their foibles for his own fodder. He’s a genial genius, but also an oddball on the inside as well as the outside (he loves shopping for and wearing Japanese man skirts), growing more eccentric by the day. He’s told a story about an untrained audience member surgically removing a benign fatty tumor from his back. Strange enough, but then he froze the tumor to eventually feed it to a snapping turtle he knows near his North Carolina beach house, the Sea Section.

Henry Rollins. Photo by Timothy Bischoff

For his 2023 visit to the Auditorium Theatre, Sedaris (brother of wacky actor Amy) brought along another iconoclast, Black Flag punk rocker and spoken word artist Henry Rollins, whose large back tattoo encourages observers to “search and destroy.” This event was surrounded by Arts in the Dark, an ebullient citywide Halloween parade in the heart of the Loop.

The unconventional coupling works: two older white men, one partnered gay and one happily alone, both Boomer cultural touchstones, telling tales with poignant and wry observations. A logical, evolving outlet for Rollins, who has moved from scream-singing to writing, acting and activism. He’s declared “I wouldn’t go back on stage with a band for anything.”

Author and educator Caleb Bouchard introduced the evening as “a meeting of the minds,” including the fact that both men were guest judges on RuPaul’s Drag Race, which Rollins references and Sedaris celebrates. Rollins started his portion of the evening solo in the middle of a cluster of floor monitors on a stark black stage. He used his enthusiastic rapid-fire delivery to share his origin story. Born in 1961 in Washington, DC, his parents divorced early on, so he shuttled back and forth between both dysfunctional houses. His dad worked for the FBI and had guns; his mother liked poetry, jazz. drinking, and dating abusive alcoholics.

Black Flag.

Rollins’ upbringing was harrowing, and he fell into the Black Flag lead singer role after following the band as a fan in his late teens. He left his job as manager of a Haagen-Dazs ice cream store in the District, and talked of the “innuendo, ashtrays and litigation” that followed him on tour. “No one in Black Flag smiles,” Rollins said. But they took the work shirts from his duffle bag when they were trying to scrape by.

Henry Rollins.

His relentless delivery wove a darkly funny shaggy-dog story, as he covered over 60 years of adventures with his three half-sisters (who facilitated his parents’ funerals), his “emasculating manager” Heidi, and his life on tour, on the East Coast, then Los Angeles and now Nashville. He also waxed poetic about his lifelong best friend Ian MacKaye, who co-founded DC’s Dischord Records, as well as seminal punk rock bands Minor Threat and Fugazi.

David Sedaris. Photo by Benjamin Wick.

Sedaris then took the stage in front of a simple lectern, explaining the eccentric pairing. He’d often cross paths with Rollins at various airports, and thought they’d make a good match (and increase their respective bank accounts). He read from his books, essays and the diaries that he’s been keeping for 45 years, and test-drove some new material gleaned from those notorious post-show audience chats.

Sedaris recalled encouraging a teenager who was struggling to write a college application essay to declare that she had given birth to a child, which she then left in a “no-questions-asked” baby box. He thought that might spark college admissions interest. He also mused about political correctness, the death penalty, and walking his toenails off with a good friend who accompanies him on many tours.

During the audience Q&A, read on cards by Bouchard, Sedaris recalled his favorite Chicago memory, where he was surprised to NOT be blinded by the close proximity fireworks on Montrose Beach. Rollins remembered two nights performing at the Metro, as well as the Windy City’s nice people and good food.

When asked who is his favorite sibling, Sedaris replied “now it’s Gretchen, because she has cancer.” He also said he’s shared Jell-O recipes with Bill Maher. Rollins reflected on why punk rock is so political. “Because DC punk is dipped in politics,” he said. His hardcore music and stance has influenced his acting and activism, including for people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ community. He’s on several NGO boards because he wants to continue to “stand up for people.”

The event ended where it began, with a tribute to the mother of modern drag and a sprawling queen empire. Rollins said, “people are alive because of RuPaul.”

Check out these upcoming Auditorium Theatre events:

Rush bassist Geddy Lee talks about “My Effin’ Life” on 12/3

The Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus Celebrates The Big 4-0, ho ho! on 12/8

RuPaul Drag Winner Jinkx and DeLa bring their holiday show on 12/10

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.