Friday, March 15, 2013


The Guy next to me at the Record Swap Sees me pull out some punk records and goes "Hey are you going to go see BLACK FLAG, they're playing again". I go "No they're not". He goes "yeah they are, original members". "It's not the same....." it's seemingly futile to explain to some norm in a short enough time to continue record

One of the first Punk Records I ever owned was "Everything Went Black" by BLACK FLAG, bought some time in 1982 or 1983 at the "Record Bar" in the Village Mall in Auburn, Alabama.

It took me a few months to actually plunk down the $8.98 "price code D" they were asking for it, as that was a lot of paper route money and Since it was the "Censored" Version with the band name blocked out, so I couldn't even figure out if it even WAS actually a Black Flag Record. No one at the store seemed to have any idea and the two actual mohawked and leather jacket-ed punk rockers from Birmingham, Alabama I had met at the same store a few months earlier who had pointed me in the direction of MRR's " Not So Quiet on the Western Front" compilation had been beat up in a liquor store parking lot by a crowd and left town. Whatever Punk Records this small, sleepy college town in the Deepest South would get -it seems remarkable now, but this small college town of 20,000-25,000 people always had 2 or 3 records stores always in various stages of going in and out of business - would largely sit there for an eternity, so I'd make regular pilgrimages to look at them to try to decide whether they were actually, indeed, punk records and how I was going to come up with the money to buy them . A "Import" copy of Dead Kennedys "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables" on Cherry Red , priced at a hefty $10.98 ( and that's even with "No heads"!!!), sat at the Wizard of Oz Themed Record Chain "OZ Records", (The inside was decorated- I kid you not- with an actual tiled Yellow Brick road and flying monkeys ) for at least a year before I came up with the money to get it.

The college's weekly punk radio show- something so crucially vital across the US in the pre-internet era to forwarding Alternative and Punk music- is probably the first place I heard Black Flag. I had been pointed to this show in the late 1970's by it's founder, who also ran a used book store and newsstand where I bought comic books and he told us to tune in to hear him on the radio, only for my sister and I to howl at laughter at some of the ridiculous lyrics and eventually, from that, become huge RAMONES fans ( we each contributed half of $6.98 to Buy a shared copy of "Rocket To Russia"!!). Despite being singled out by Joe Carducci in his Rock And The Pop Narcotic book for replying to promos sent from SST with a "this is not a home stereo" letter, Auburn University's WEGL FM 91.1 actually had one of the longest running punk shows in the southeast, which morphed from "The Best of New Wave Rock" in the late 70's to Studio X ( which was airing right on the dawn of portable recordable cassettes and thusly "brought to you by "Tracks Record Rental!"- a short lived place where you could rent LP's to take them home to tape them ) to Studio Next to it's longest incarnation throughout the 1980's and most of the 1990's as Mystery Playhouse ( a site here detals more of it's history, including it's role with some actual fun and fantastic radio theatre) . I took over this Show in 1986 after the previous ( and so far unmentioned) DJ's got loaded ( Ironically from booze from the same liquor store the aforementioned punks got beat up at, two blocks from Campus, the place did brisk trade in refillable gallon beer jugs from a drive in window) and got fired when they lit the station on fire when an effort to destroy a giant "Blow Monkeys" promo poster went awry. Those two guys had actually interviewed Kira and Bill Stevenson sometime in 1985, regrettably I gave the reel to reel tape of the interview to KDVS' s legendary DJ Rik in the 1990's figuring he could air it sometime...But I still have the stations Unicorn Double A-Side promo of " TV Party" I had stealthily expunged from the collection and made off with once We replaced the copy of "Damaged" that had long since been stolen, and The song "T.V. Party" was probably, like for a lot of people at the time, the first time I heard the band.

While "Side 2" Purists decry the comedic novelty edge of Early FLAG, those radio-friendly songs are really a huge part of why they were one of the biggest punk bands of the 1980's. The kind of Irony that now pervades the US culturally and sarcastic Socio-political Comedy that can now be easily found turning on Comedy Central any night of the week didn't exist in quite the same way In the early 1980's. By forwarding what a lot of people were thinking and no one was saying, The early progenitors of Hardcore that all seemingly initially started off as late stage 1970's punk bands ( DK's, DOA, FLAG,etc) honed that sarcasm and wit of '77 punk to diffuse the tension of what were otherwise far more bleak, dark and unsettlingly potent world views by offering them up with a laugh.

I moved to San Luis Obispo, California in the fall of 1983 for a year, a few months after BLACK FLAG had played there for the second time and ironically when the band began to regularly tour through Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta's 688 Club, roughly 2 hours in either direction from Auburn. A classic set of Photos by Bill Wilson of Flag playing live in Birmingham, has Alabama punk legends and old friends Spike Rogers and Chris Hendrix, who would later form part of the Nucleus of one of Alabama's first and most infamous hardcore punk bands, GROSSEST NATIONAL PRODUCT, screaming along on the front row ( Spike, shaved head, Chris Dapper in the headband and Cut off vest) and punks from there would often talk of Rollins holding court post-gig and reading Spoken word in their usual weekend hangout in Five points.

The Punks of San Luis Obispo were far more non-plussed by the time "My War" came out in 1984, largely urging me to steer clear of the LP because "they suck now and went metal". The lines between the metal and punk scenes were a lot more defined then, in the same year I also saw the same crowd pelt CORROSION OF CONFORMITY's "Eye For An Eye " tour van with Beer cans outside the SLO vet's hall as they blasted SABBATH pre-show. "Turn that shit off!". The 45 of "Six Pack" was one of the first records I bought once freed from the Heart of Dixie and I wound up with a copy of "DAMAGED" as a heavily pleaded for Christmas present from My sister before we moved back to Alabama the following year.

In retrospect, In a way I can see now but was not self aware enough to realize at the time, I returned to Alabama really, really angry. San Luis Obispo seems like prosaic, or at least sleepy College town when I've visited it since, but it actually had punk shows ( Black Flag Played there for a third, and final time the year after I left), cool record and comic stores, girls with new wave haircuts....and Alabama had... bumpkins and rednecks who waited all year for Football season to start back up. In the five subsequent years of living in Alabama there were a lot of soundtracks to that anger, but uniquely, the copy of "damaged' was the only one eventually rendered pretty much completely and totally unplayable from being played over and over again, as my favorite songs shifted from "Six Pack" and "Gimme Gimme Gimme" to "Damaged Part 2" and "Room 13".

2 hours in either direction to some of the great, classic punk bands near or just past the peak of their momentum seems like nothing to ask now, But at the time I'd often pass on shows by bands I truly loved, but who's latest records fell short of expectations and hopes and gave little motivation to overcome numerous hurdles of no car, no ride, limited funds and often scattershot information of what, when and where shows were actually happening to go see them. "Pleasant Dreams" is a C+, by "Too Tough to Die" I'd lost interest, Pass on seeing the Ramones. Bedtime for Democracy? Pass on seeing the Dead Kennedys again. I had one final chance to see FLAG, in 1986 on an after High school graduation trip in Chicago on their final tour ( the C'el / Anthony line up), but My friend and I took a pass as it WAS eight whole dollars... and that was money better spent at record stores we still had to go to, plus DRI "Dealing with it" tour was playing the next day. It totally made sense at the time.

BLACK FLAG -or at least Rollins- has well documented their mythology and in recent years as waves of punk nostalgia flow past, it's legacy has been canonized. As and as much as early BLACK FLAG seems to demonstrate a band determined to push past barriers thrown against it, later black flag seemingly pushes against or at least defies creative barriers imposed upon it, and I think both struggles and their output are WHY the band is so meaningful to people and why it's legacy has grown. Mainstream Outside media points to Black Flag as one of the "first" hardcore punk bands, and if anything they were vanguards of a zeitgiest that through an immense amount of touring and hard work took their music and by extension, "the" music national.... and with Damaged produced an album that shed the lyrical poetry of GERMS "GI"- a Post Mortem document yet arguably hardcore punk record that predated it by two years, focusing instead on raw, relatable anger that tapped easier into a vein of suburban angst. When I worked Mordam in the 1990's it was filled with people who'd seen the band early on, put on their shows when Dez Sang, and one related how even the reaction to the heavier, two guitar sound of "Damaged" was seen as metal to some punks at the time. With what came after it, You can't even hear that in it now.

It wasn't until reading Eric Lyle's L.A. Weekly piece - expanded and annotated in a recent issue of SCAM fanzine- on the making of "Damaged" that I fully understood how the aftermath of the band's relationship with Unicorn Records basically stifled and put them on Ice for a few years after issuing it's most definitive and creative statement, only to emerge into a world filled with mystic records generic thrash and people who'd copied and imitated what they'd done. A different band-both in members and intent- emerges. It was a dichotomy that I think was hard to understand an afar fan at the time as a teenager, that the "leaders" of "the movement" didn't want that role or even have that intent, and didn't want the kind of uniform, support the scene social movement that many people at the time promoted and forwarded - particularly out of here in San Francisco, where a lot of people who arrived too late for or had been heavily influenced by Hippie culture were interested in seeing a new Youth Movement take hold to instigate progressive political change against the overwhelming tide of Conservatism in Reagan's America.....even if it meant generic thrash tunes and legions of people who looked, thought and sounded the same. I went to go see Rollins do Spoken word this past Thanksgiving, because, well it's hilarious that He would do a gig on Thanksgiving ten minutes from my house, and was taken aback that the core of his spoken word was largely political. It seemed contrary to the BLACK FLAG and Rollins of my youth who rejected the political punkers of the time, but that was probably more a flat rejection of their codifying sets of rules than their broader ideas.

The diversity, weirdness and willing to take chances of SST's roster and The band's left turns lyrically and musically kind of attests to all this. Punk in it's purest sense, even if it means moving on from a comfortable place. "Side 2" inspires a whole different set of musicians onto a totally different set of ideas.

Reunion shows are a real mixed thing, Some people are just really great musicians who know what they're doing and time hasn't passed.The Reunions I've enjoyed the best ( D.O.A. in the early 1990's, NAKED RAYGUN's chicago homecoming in the late 1990's and various Japanese hardcore bands that are going to kill it no matter what, an unexpectedly lethal RATTUS in LA a few years ago) I've gone into with no preconceptions or expectations and been pleasantly surprised to hear expertly delivered song after song that I know by heart, and for most people who've put aside that part of their life, they take a reunion show as a chance to revisit that time in their life and hear songs they love -in a sense to BE in a comfortable place- it works. With the splintered nature of music now, there's often limited opportunities to be in a room, where you and everyone in the room knows all the songs, can anticipate them to move and sing along. There's not a broader deeper meaning to it, and it's why say, the "FLAG" " performing the music of Black flag" with Keith Morris ( At his worst, transforming into the talking-head-on-camera Wavy Gravy of the hardcore punk generation, at his best someone who brings the irony and fun of early hardcore full circle), Bill Stevenson ( one of the greatest punk drummers ever, who's kept his abilities sharp with decades of playing, it's the time changes in his playing and the uncanny ability to change tempos), Chuck Dukowski and the proficiently solid guitarist of The Massacre Guys and ALL doesn't bother me as much as something touted as a "BLACK FLAG" reunion, as the implication of Nostalgia and just having fun is at the outset.

But the expectations of a recently announced actual "BLACK FLAG" reunion seem like something that could never be met, because of what the band has come to mean and represent to it's core fans, that makes it seems so profoundly - or at least potentially- disappointing. I think why almost thirty years later BLACK FLAG is still important personally is it was a really transformative band on so many different levels, personally, culturally and musically. Those personal meanings are different to different people, but to such a broad extent there's a entire book documenting it and people's willingness to get the band's logo tattoo'd on themselves, one of the most self-transformative things you can do.

There's also an inherent set up for failure if it's just nostalgia, because BLACK FLAG is a band that was about pushing barriers. There's a set up for failure if they drop into the vortex of musical exploration Greg Ginn has played for the last 25 years - HOR, MOJACK, JAMBANG, EL BAD, GONE, TEXAS CORREGATORS, CONFRONT JAMES and many others I'd never even heard of.... Which all seemingly launch out of the instrumental "Process of Weeding out"...... because that isn't BLACK FLAG or at least what it's come to represent to many people, Despite Ginn's obvious talent, ability and musicianship that were driving forces behind BLACK FLAG. It's a gamble to potentially throw that away that reverence with disappointment, make another disasterous misstep like it's 2003 "reunion" with a programmed bass tracks. From the outside, a band's motivations aren't always understood - the frustration that you play the same way you've played music for over forty years, but people only want to hear the music you did 20+ years ago, that there's bills to pay and punk rock has no retirement plan, that the offers are ridiculous and the total impact is negligible. Similar Creative legends and musical heroes the BAD BRAINS cough up a soft baked reunion or still loaded with musical chops but always off kilter new record every four or five years with no serious repercussions to their broader legacy of also issuing defining statements of both Hardcore punk and alternative rock, but there is a gradual sullying of the brand or just plain bumming your fans out when it's presented years later at an even further distance from the place of it's original impetus. I don't want to see BLACK FLAG - or it's reanimated corpse- at a hippie/country/whatever Jam Band festival. I don't really even want to see them at a huge rock festival with similar bands, and you have to honor the Al Barrile and Ian Mackayes of the world who leave somethings sacred to their time and place and people's remembrances, or at least their projected inferences, from it. Life goes on.

The later Albums of Black Flag took awhile for me to warm to - the lyrics weren't particularly as relatable as Early Black Flag (always a problem when a band begins to spend the majority of it's time in a van, living a drastically different life than their fans) the music at times more indulgent when there was faster and faster thrash being cranked out, and while they have fine recording, for the sound, it's a dream they would be one day re-mixed and re-mastered to give the recordings more depth, impact and volume. There's an epic amount of live and demo recordings - like the relentlessly bootlegged and awesome "1982 demo" ( who's versions of "MY WAR" tracks are largely superior to the actual album) that I'd love to see get properly released ala' the torrent of MC5 and STOOGES Re-issues of the last ten years, but the fractures within the band would probably have to heal....or like the MC5, key players , uh, removed from the equation for that to happen, which is kind of sad. The takeaway of Dead Kennedys royalty lawsuits of 1990's is a lot of band fans who signed on to believe in a band for broader reasons get really bummed out to see you squabbling in public about money, regardless of cause, as it transforms something that held broader ideals - or at least aspirations to them to their fans- to being like anything else in society. Still doesn't stop people in Buenos Aires, Australia and Russia from showing up to see the ridiculously Jello-less band, but the people who still pour over the time period...seemingly take them a little less seriously as a result.

In 1987 I saw the first ROLLINS BAND tour, completely by accident as I think the ACCUSED, (who I'd actually shown up to see on the "More fun than an Open Casket Funeral" tour, see the "faster and faster thrash" I was talking about, ) were opening this surprisingly sparsely attended gig at Atlanta's legendary METROPLEX. Early ROLLINS BAND really sharpens focus in it's leap from where late BLACK FLAG was, and I remember being really blown away by the entire show. The following year I put on my first show, for ALL on the "Allroy For Prez" tour in Auburn, and was so hyperactive at the time, I completely forgot to ask Bill Stevenson any questions about FLAG. I've since worked with bands that are made up of a lot of strong personalities that compete and fight with each other, and it makes sense that BLACK FLAG would have so many and continue to generate spin off bands years later, and some would emerge stronger when they could push in their own direction without any internal resistance. It's still hard not to have complete skepticism about the Prospect of "BLACK FLAG" in 2013.

Well, you'll always have the records.In 1992 as I finally was about to Leave Alabama, an old friend - Man Or Astroman's long time roadie Stuart, who's apartment had hosted most of of the punk shows I'd put on the previous two or three years that ignited a brief scene in Auburn and had opened up my escape hatch to California, presented me with a going away present. He knew my copy skipped relentlessly and presented me fresh new sealed copy Of "Damaged" for the road. It still serves me well.


Harvester said...

I love this...primarily for the pic of Spike in the front at the Black Flag show...but for the rest as well.

Unknown said...

Hey Ken, great piece. I think we have a similar musical heritage, even down to seeing good bands while intending to see the accused. I too started out with Everything Went Black, Let Them Eat Jellybeans (my favorite version of police story) and Not So Quiet on the Western Front.
I saw a piece in the seattle times a few days ago, ranting about how much the guy hated punk. It was written by someone who had clearly never understood the humor and sense of a grand prank that underlies so much good punk. I'm glad that you mention that humor in your piece, I think it's one of the things that punk has done very well.
It's great to see you writing!


Unknown said...

Hey Ken, great piece. I think we have a similar musical heritage, even down to seeing good bands while intending to see the accused. I too started out with Everything Went Black, Let Them Eat Jellybeans (my favorite version of police story) and Not So Quiet on the Western Front.
I saw a piece in the seattle times a few days ago, ranting about how much the guy hated punk. It was written by someone who had clearly never understood the humor and sense of a grand prank that underlies so much good punk. I'm glad that you mention that humor in your piece, I think it's one of the things that punk has done very well.
It's great to see you writing!