Get in two vans: Black Flag split a punk rock legacy /// tonight @ the Middle East
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]onight, a band calling itself BLACK FLAG is playing the Middle East in Cambridge. Another band, calling itself Flag, comes through Boston in September. Both are purported reunions of the legendary late-’70s/early-’80s punk band Black Flag. For those unfamiliar, here is the main component of the Black Flag mythology, boiled down:
Some Cali beach bums, headed by a weird somewhat-too-old guy who still lived with his parents, started a punk band. Eventually they built a following, but found that clashes with cops necessitated broadening their base, so they devised a plan to hit the road and tour the country on the cheap without plugging into the mainstream concert venue system, which was not available to them because they weren’t popular. The result is that Black Flag invented DIY touring, invented DIY record label distribution and promo, and spawned punk subcultures in countless podunk recesses of the American underbelly.
Most of which is at least partly true. However, this myth leaves out several crucial details: that the band’s later success was largely fueled by the growing punk celebrity of the man who became known as Henry Rollins, and that by the end of the band, almost every member, past and present, despised each other. As such, it is no shock that a) Rollins went on, in the alternative ’90s, to become a punk megastar, starring in movies, doing voice-over ads for major corporations, and touring the world for decades as a profitable spoken word artist/standup comedian; and b) that no Black Flag reunion of any consequence ever materialized.
Until this year, when, first, guitarist/founder Greg Ginn put together a new “Black Flag,” with a new album forthcoming and a tour this summer, and second, founding vocalist Keith Morris put together his own reunion band, called simply “Flag,” with a tour this fall.
Ginn is an odd figure to be such a punk luminary, if for no other reason than because, musically, he tended to eschew the sound of hardcore punk. His guitar playing is slippery and, at times, completely amateurish-sounding. Black Flag songs are filled with long guitar solos, and those solos often can sound like a child playing a guitar for the first time. As the band progressed musically, he began inserting things like long instrumentals, jazz-skronk excursions, odd time signatures, and slow sludgy plod-riffs into Black Flag’s music. Most Black Flag scholars point to the period, from 1981 to 1983, between the release of the band’s first long-player, Damaged, and their much-delayed follow-up, My War, as the point when the line of demarcation was drawn between what punk fans wanted from the by-then-legendary band and what Ginn was willing to concede.
The second side of My War consisted entirely of three over-six-minute quasi-metal dirges; when the band, by this point long since fronted by Rollins in his full-on long hair/ripped muscles/naked-but-for-black-shorts phase, played these tunes live, the audience inevitably trembled with near riotous disdain.
So it should come as no shock that a reunited Black Flag is not going to ever be what the fans wanted, at least if Greg Ginn has anything to say about it. In fact, one of the difficulties in considering the career of Black Flag is that they were more than a band — they were a small business, a cottage industry.
Ginn formed SST Records to release the band’s recordings, and by the time of their breakup in 1986, SST had become a major player in an underground record industry that the label had a large part in creating. Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Screaming Trees, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, and countless more were all part of the label’s roster. The way that Black Flag, as a band, shed members, especially vocalists, might seem alarming or unusual, especially when compared to other punk acts of its time — but if one views Black Flag not as a band but as a small business, this sort of employee attrition is not just normal but expected.
Ginn was the ringleader and taskmaster, as he demanded a rigorous rehearsing and touring schedule for his band and a grueling (and underpaying) workload for his label employees. Rollins, who by all accounts joined the band at the peak of its early popularity, later struck punk-literary gold when he published his Black Flag “diaries” in the seminal work Get In The Van. The book is an exhausting slog through his BF gauntlet: homelessness, starvation, road-weariness, poverty, mental abuse, police persecution, cult-like group-think, gulag-esque work regimens.
Rollins’ tome struck a nerve with the punk-addled public, as his tales of sleepless nights and starving days resonated with an audience looking for something authentic in an increasingly fake-seeming ’90s punk landscape filled with Green Days and Offsprings.
But perhaps Rollins and his audience alike misunderstood what the Flag was all about: it wasn’t rock and roll, but the dedication of keeping a tiny start-up going amidst tough economic times. More importantly, it’s hard to understand how the members of Black Flag had so little, moneywise, when they were, by all accounts, a phenomenally successful band and a recognizable punk brand.
In the ’80s underground, it was easy to think that a band like Black Flag was nothing, because they weren’t on the radio or being promoted by mainstream culture. But the network of independent-minded zealots was vast and growing, which in turn led to the ’90s alternative explosion that Black Flag narrowly missed cashing in on. Remember: in their first few years, Black Flag were, when they weren’t destroying punk basements, routinely playing to large audiences in cavernous makeshift venues. They also pioneered an extensive mail-order service that saw them rapidly growing their label roster. Clearly, there was some money coming in at SST; it just, perhaps, wasn’t reaching the mouths of the band members and employees.
Ginn is a complicated figure: resolute, ideological, idiosyncratic, and most importantly, relentlessly square in a world of hipsters and poseurs. He famously wore a Grateful Dead t-shirt at early shows, a sin in late-’70s punk culture that knows no equals today; he had Black Flag release both instrumental jazz/fusion albums and spoken word records; and most importantly, when he folded Black Flag, he refused to mine that band’s musical territory again.
Many other Flag members weren’t so reticent: Rollins, most famously, put together his Rollins Band days after the folding of Flag, comprised of members of Ginn’s Flag side project, Gone. But Ginn, in addition to running SST, continued to release solo records and projects, eventually discovering the joys of playing to a drum machine. One might extrapolate, from his solo output and his regimen with Flag, that he was psyched to finally make music without having to deal with other human beings. It’s not an entirely grounded accusation, but it does at least acknowledge that he was unwilling to put together another solid musical group to replace the rotating team he had shepherded in Black Flag.
From a fan perspective, the September “Flag” show at the Paradise Rock Club is probably going to contain the most instant gratification: Keith Morris has been playing punk music non-stop since his tenure in Black Flag, having gone on to form the almost-as-legendary Circle Jerks, and recently leading the hardcore-recidivistic Off! (that band’s name itself a shameless Black Flag reference).
“Flag” also counts among its members original bassist (and SST super-employee) Chuck Dukowski, a man that many fans consider the heart of Black Flag, as well as drummer Bill Stevenson (whose throne tenure from 1982 to 1985 contains the vast majority of the band’s most cherished output) and guitarist Dez Cadena (whose screamy vocal turn between the departure of Ron Reyes and the arrival of Rollins is considered by some fans to be the band’s most intense period). But without Ginn, it’s hard for the lineup to really be considered Black Flag. This might not bother a lot of fans: after all, I don’t think it’s sacrilege to point out that Ginn himself may be the least loved member of the band by most of the group’s faithful. First, because he killed the band, and second, because pretty much every member of the band was at some point summarily ousted by Ginn.
In 2003, Henry Rollins did a brief tour, with his then-regular backup band, Mother Superior, playing Black Flag classics. The tour and supporting album was a benefit for the West Memphis Three legal case, which downplayed the crassness of this traipse down memory lane. The shows were proficient and professional in a way that Black Flag shows tended to not be; Morris joined Rollins on the tour to lend his vocals and credibility.
Receiving less notice at the time was a Ginn Black Flag “reunion,” set up as a benefit for a local cat shelter. The show was billed as “The First Four Years,” an indicator that it was entirely pre-Rollins. Although Cadena and original drummer Robo were present, at times bass guitar and drums were fed in through a pre-programmed tape, a fact which became tragically obvious near the end of the set when Cadena and Ginn found themselves out of sync with the pre-recorded parts. It was a clear indicator of the divide between what Ginn was willing to do with the Black Flag legacy and what the band’s legion of fans consider acceptable and appropriate. Which is why most Black Flag fans, even if they plan to go to tonight’s show, are probably wincing somewhat at the prospect of seeing something that will sully not only their image of the band, but pierce the official Black Flag mythology. And how can it not?
But here’s the thing: if punk taught the world anything, it is that a) mythologies are just lies waiting to be destroyed, and b) great art is a process undertaken by those willing to risk alienating their audience. If Ginn is a difficult figure, he is also an inspiring figure: beside being one of the greatest and most original instrumentalists in the punk canon, he is also a brave and visionary creator, someone who saw a punk world filled with part-time scenesters and decided that hard work and head-down determination would be his band’s legacy.
And so it is: any band that tries hard, that sacrifices for rock, that boldly embarks on a tour that is too long and too far with too little money, owes a debt to Ginn and Black Flag, for better or worse. Further, Ginn is almost wholly responsible for breaking down the line between punk and metal, and between garage rock, jazz experimentalism, and stadium rock bombast. The best of later Black Flag has moments that sound like Sonny Sharrock rubbing elbows with Dio riffs and Sonics shriek. Ginn didn’t make the band sound that way because it was going to be popular: he did it because it sounded better than what the band would have sounded like if he played it safe. And he was right. It’s something to keep in mind when him and his band ply an audience, hungry for yet another rehash of “Slip It In” and “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” a slab of new tunes in a style that may or may not fit in with said audience’s conception of the Black Flag musical canon.