Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Black Flag: My Rules/My War

Black Flag, fall 1982. Photo: Glen E. Friedman
A hot June night returning to the 1982 Demos, the Black Flag material that should’ve been an album but wasn’t, and the last recorded material with Chuck Dukowski on bass I believe.  I’ve read that the reason Greg Ginn ousted Dukowski from the band was somehow to do with his playing, but he sounds pretty good to me here.  And his “My War” lyrics are some of the band’s best. My favorite lines from “My War” are, “Tell me that I’m wrong/ Try to sing me your ego’s song/ You’re one of them!” There was also the short, poem-like version of the lyrics that appeared in the My Rules photozine, with Glen E. Friedman’s shot (above) of the five-piece lineup which included Dez, Chuck, and Chuck Biscuits (a great drummer) under a palm tree.

It is too bad that band didn’t record a “real” album then. The My War album that we have is great (and the original lyrics survive), but I think the ’82 lineup with Dukowski and Biscuits would have made an even better one. As it is, in terms of recording history, sound quality, and actual album releases, the Damaged album is probably the most fully realized Black Flag record that exists.  I got Damaged shortly after it came out in 1981.  For me, the signature song on that album is “Rise Above” (rather than the oft-cited, catchy, but lighter pop-culture parody “TV Party,” in retrospect a complete anomaly for the band).  After the anthem-like choruses of “Rise Above,” “Spray Paint,” and “Police Story” on side one, side two gives way to Henry Rollins’s guttural screams on “Depression,” “Damaged II,” “Damaged I,” etc.  Damaged embodies two different responses to late twentieth-century American society, the transcendence of “Rise Above” and the violent animality of “Damaged I.” At the time, however, it just was what it was; I don’t know exactly what language I would’ve used to describe it.

It’s fashionable now to say that Henry was the least of the four singers.  Even he himself claims that the First Four Years compilation is the group’s best work.  But, although the earlier records are indisputably great, for me Henry really defined Black Flag (after Ginn’s guitar playing).  The first of many times I saw them was May 30th 1982, in Mt. Vernon, New York.  It was the tour with Emil on drums, the tour from which the American Hardcore footage of Henry punching some asshole in thecrowd is taken.  At the Mt. Vernon show, I remember Henry suddenly tackling a guy who’d gotten onstage, and sort of wrestling him down; he was completely wild at that time it seemed.

I liked the violent aspect of Black Flag shows at the time.  On the whole, it sprung out of a primal but intelligent response to the frustrations of being subject to a kind of oppression (wow) emanating from the surrounding culturea feeling also, and perhaps more succinctly, encapsulated lyrically on side two of the Six Pack 7” in the songs “I’ve Heard It Before” and “American Waste,” or in “My Rules” from side two of the TV Party single.

Another thing about that 1982 show — the band appeared onstage with varying lengths of hair.  Henry had a scruffy beard.  I and most of the audience apparently still expected them to be sporting skinheads, the emblematic look of the hardcore scene at the time.  I actually overheard somebody wondering out loud, “Who are these guys?” — not realizing it was Black Flag.  Even at that early time, though, I dug the fact that they weren’t trying to live up to expectations or to some standardized image (even a punk image) in their lives or music. One of the lines in “My Rules” goes, “I don’t like anybody who’s got all the answers for me.”

And with the elapse of time, it is that, and their music that lasts.
[A while back I was asked by Stewart Ebersole, editor of the forthcoming book Barred for Life, to write a short piece on Black Flag. The book eventually went in a different direction and it wasn’t used. The above is largely based on what I wrote for that project. The book, by the way, will be great!]

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