Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
We start with the proposition that nothing is sacred, and that’s pretty good. No gods, no masters, because really, gods and masters, what have you done for us lately? But eventually gods and masters show up and aren’t immediately shown the door and then oh, look, they live here again, got their jackboots up on the ottoman and everything.
I have no issue with reunion bands. As elitist as it may be, outside of tickets/albums purchased for the transaction of art, with the expectation that art of some type will occur, I don’t think fans are owed anything. Memories aren’t “tarnished” or “destroyed” (and, motherfucker, if you say “raped” I will straight-up HATE you) by band reunions. That’s not how time works. You’re stepping into a totally different river, if you know what I’m saying. If your memories are so feeble as to be destroyed by old people playing “Damaged” (either “I” or “II”) then you are perhaps experiencing dementia and my deepest sympathy goes out to you and your family. Conversely, artists aren’t owed anything either. You are all free and feral, play in your band as long as you like and go or don’t go to whatever show you like. And if you don’t believe in heroes or gods or masters anyway, what’s the problem with said anti-heroes, demi-gods and serve-the-servant types making a little cash, with, you know, the songs THEY wrote? I swear to Mitra, I feel like a need to rent a blimp that exists to say, “ART IS JUST A JOB” and fly it over every counterculture-nurturing city ’til motherfuckers get it. If my favorite carpenter ever came out of retirement, I would be delighted.
So, mom and dad are fighting again. Greg Ginn, notoriously hard to get along with, allegedly not great about paying the bands on his label, and one of the great guitarists of the 20th century, reformed Black Flag… sorta. He found some side guys I’d never heard of and rehired original but short-lived singer, Ron Reyes. In the biz, this sort of “reunion” is officially referred to as “Good Enough for the Replacements.” At (roughly) the same time, Keith Morris formed a band called Flag and stacked the deck with a mix of original Black Flag players and A-list pop-punkers. (Yes, there’s an A-list, and a canon, and a lot of rules. Punk didn’t really work out as intended. Sad emoji.) Ginn has since filed suit against Flag. He claims that Morris and Henry Rollins started the feud by trying to copyright the name and iconic bars (designed by his brother, the renowned artist Raymond Pettibon, who doesn’t seem to have much nice to say about any of the parties involved) and he’s just defending his rights and the band he founded. ANYWAY, endless story slightly shortened: Flag now has to announce repeatedly over the course of an hour-long show that “We are not Black Flag.” As stage patter goes, it’s actually not that bad.
Really though, the legal conflict between Greg Ginn’s Black Flag and Keith Morris’s Flag is only like mom and dad fighting if both mom and dad were your disreputable uncles. Uncles that were incredibly rad when you were a teenager, and in many ways still are, but as you’ve grown older, you realized that maybe your problems aren’t as bad as other people’s and that, maybe, it’s not too cool to just think of women as receivers of your sex or problems to be overcome, and maybe your uncle’s issues with each other are based more on pride and mild mental illness than any real moral underpinnings. Of course, you know they’re both probably wrong and what they’re fighting about doesn’t matter too much, because at the end of the day they both have bought you a lot of cigarettes over the years and it would seem disloyal to not pick a side.
And then there’s Henry Rollins, the rich uncle who never lends you money and only calls to tell you to get your shit together and join the army, or at least the gym. Fuck THAT.
I, being the Talkhouse’s intrepid cub Black Flag/Flag reporter (it says so in my e-mail signature), was assigned the not unappealing task of seeing both versions of the band: Black Flag in the summer and Flag in the autumn. Those inclined to see parallels between my story and the myth of Persephone and Demeter should feel free to do so. Just substitute “pomegranate seed” with “overpriced IPA.”
I saw Black Flag in Brooklyn at a show thrown by the fine people at Scenic Presents. There was a line down the block of tattooed couples on dates (double dates probably, because older, settled punks are really into friendship and old times and shit) and younger facial hair skateboard types, and there were two or three actual Bushwick punx, but for the most part ideology and high ticket price kept away most for whom “punk” is still a viable day-to-day world view. I, being as punk as I’ve ever been, was on the guest list.
The crowd was adoring and more than willing to overlook the theremin, some cringe-inducing stage chatter, a 20-minute version of new song “Down in the Dirt” (which was so long and tedious that afterwards, me and the owner of the bar I work at proceeded to shout out requests to “PLAY DOWN IN THE DIRT!!!!” for the remainder of the show) and the fact that the drummer didn’t seem to have a strong sense that a snare is an instrument that needs to be abused, not caressed. The crowd was, in fact, rapturous. And when they played “Gimme Gimme Gimme” I was, too. I now know what sports is like. It was a room full of sports fans, cheering for the Cubs as they lost another pennant.
I travelled to Philly to see Flag. First, let me say that the Chinatown buses to and from Philadelphia have really stepped up their game. Cozy as hell. So I was in a good mood when I arrived. And, despite its reputation as being “the town that’s about a couple hours away from NYC” (I’m pretty sure that’s the town motto? No?), I really like the place. The staff at the Trocadero Theatre was real swell. A big skinhead in the crowd gave me a fist bump for my hoodie that I made very awkward because all rites of manhood make me sweat. I sort of half shook his hand and smiled like a dope. I’m surprised I didn’t tickle his palm with my index finger. The crowd was full of friendly scary men with terrible body ink and tough-guy band t-shirts. I’m not great at math, but I’m pretty sure I counted 15,000 Blood for Blood shirts.
Flag was… fun. I wish there were a better word, but that’s what they were: fun, good vibes, a nice time. Super-great players playing songs they knew like the back of their hands to an appreciative audience of young men punching each other in the neck. I was happiest when Dez Cadena sang and when they said good night I didn’t stay and beg for an encore because encores are for masochists. The bus ride back was lovely too. Philadelphia has some bomb-ass architecture and they really know how to light that shit.
So, which version is better? Well, for that we need to talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Obviously. For those of you who don’t know (and I’ll keep this brief), in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was a character named Xander Harris. He was ostensibly a heroic sidekick to Buffy but was, more often than not, a figure of comedy or of the “Invisible Girl” trope; there to fall in love with villains and continuously be rescued by the stronger, more able heroes. As time went on in the series, however, Xander was given more depth and became braver and stronger. In one episode he was split into two Xanders after absorbing a mystical blast intended for Buffy. One Xander encompassed all the self-loathing and slovenliness of insecure, fearful Xander, while the other was strong, confident and fun, if a bit cocky. Neither Xander could survive without the other and neither particularly worked. It’s all a bit more complicated than that but if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer then you know the episode, and if you didn’t watch it then you most assuredly don’t care, but you see where I’m going with this, yes? I am not, by nature, subtle.
Greg Ginn’s Black Flag, with a barely present drummer, a bassist who was barely in Screeching Weasel, and a singer prone to statements like “I hate this song… because it’s true!” (my boss yelled out “less truth!”) but with the best part of the original Black Flag — i.e., Ginn himself — has all the self-hatred and arty jitteriness that made Black Flag such a compelling downer. Even if it seems like Ginn picked his sidemen more for their ability to tolerate his notoriously prickly personality than their ability to, you know, play Black Flag songs, his guitar playing still has more character and, god help us, soul than any well adjusted alt type will ever be able to approximate. And, honestly, the lack of shine of the rest of the band only adds to the Bad News Bears aspect of the band. It’s hard not to root for them.
Flag, with all the sublimely competent other ex-members (except Hank of course, who I honestly don’t much care about), on the other hand, is actually fun to watch. They have the actual intensity and propulsion of hardcore. Bassist Chuck Dukowski is a national treasure. I actually think there are several federal monuments that could be torn down with Stalinist statues of Dukowski erected in their place without anything but a positive effect on the character of these United States.
Sadly, Flag also has the Orange County party vibe of hardcore too. Drummer Bill Stevenson and guitarist Stephen Egerton, both of the Descendents, are both excellent musicians and the Descendents were great in their way, also very “fun”… but they were also pretty much the start of the “girl=enemy, cum in your gym sock” aspect of pop-punk that continues to this day.
Dez was always my favorite Black Flag singer but he only sings a few songs with Flag, and the band’s other lead singer Keith Morris is… well, I enjoyed Shit Hits the Fan-era Circle Jerks well enough… and OFF! is cool enough as a subsidiary of the Converse brand… but they aren’t a hardcore band, so Keith Morris, while beyond capable as “historically accurate front person for current Black Flag re-enactment” isn’t terribly convincing as a purveyor of angst, pain, childhood trauma; all the things one would look for in one’s Black Flag art product. But he’s fine. I mean, I sure as hell couldn’t do it. But he also said again and again when I saw them in Philly that they just wanted to have a good time. And I have never, ever, wanted to party and have a good time. Fun is for squares.
Anyway, point is: I enjoyed watching both bands. But never for a second did I think: “Oh, cool, Black Flag.” For that to happen, the bands would have to combine. And that’s not ever going to happen.
So, what’s the solution? Well, first off, one isn’t needed. Two bands, both perfectly acceptable as aspects of one great band, a bunch of grumpy dudes making rent in a manner that is well within their rights, thousands of reasonably satisfied fans and morally gratified naysayers; generally a win-win situation.
But what if I have a solution in search of a problem? What if I have a suggestion that will make the world an infinitely better place? Tell you more? OK, I WILL.
While researching this piece I got an invitation to the book release concert for Barred for Life. The now sadly deceased Perla Cabral had organized it. There was a Black Flag cover band performing, made up of Dez Cadena, Todd Youth, Steve Soto, and, from the Scissor Sisters, Randy Schrager. The singers were a large rotating cast of NYHC ne’er-do-wells that included (among others) Jimmy Gestapo, John Joseph, Admiral Grey, and Paul Bearer. It was, despite my previous claims of despising fun, fantastic. Especially Paul Bearer doing “Depression,” as I’m a Sheer Terror fan, but the whole night was great; loose, sloppy, jokey but in the knowing way that comes with a collective history of dozens of dead friends lost along the way through suicide, overdose and just bad luck, which made the night feel special in a way that the other Flag shows didn’t. It undoubtedly helped that it was a one-off. Which brings me to my solution to this problem that does not exist; go form a Black Flag cover band. Play once. And never do it again.
Black Flag was an amazing band. Black Flag had amazing songs that meant everything to thousands upon thousands of people. The ex-members have every right to perform those songs. So do you. Already, bands like Rorschach, the much-missed Pollution, and, uh, Camper Van Beethoven have made superb versions of their songs, so why not you? Get some barely competent friends (except the drummer, kids. Really, the drummer has to be at least OK) and learn “Six Pack.” Play a house party, break the kitchen and then break the fuck up. You can be the bummer Ginn Black Flag, or the fraternity row Flag. You can flip the script and have a pug sing. (Just kidding. Don’t do that. Bringing dogs to concerts is fucked, but YOU can dress like a pug and then sing.) Black Flag was amazing and your cover band will be too. At this point it’s almost a responsibility. By this time next year there should be damaged kids doing a poorly executed version of Damaged in every municipality. A hundred schools of thought or whatever! Oh, but this is very important: NO CUTE VARIATIONS OF THE BARS. I can’t stress that enough. But, really, do what you want; I’m not your stupid dad.
Most vital thing? There’s nothing magical about either of the currently existing versions of Black Flag. And that’s FINE. Because there’s no such thing as magic. Or gods, or masters; you’re an adult. Go form your own Black Flag cover band.