Sunday, February 21, 2010

The late, great Bill Hicks may just be the comedian of choice for stoner bozoes the world over, but since I'm often accused of being one myself, I'll use his quote from above for this post. The onslaught of rock 'n' roll-related books - specifically underground rock - hasn't abated the last few years. In fact, the tide just continues to get higher and higher, and I, for one, am glad. Beneath the dross there's bounty to be found, and over the next four entries, I'll review some which fit that bill. Clearing out the spare room a few months back, which included me having to box up all my books, I was taken back by the sheer number of tomes I have relating to the topic known as "punk rock". Putting them all together, I almost had to smirk: so this is what it has come to, a few years years off the big 4-0 and all you have to show for yourself is a veritable library on a topic you should've well and truly shut the doors on once puberty left you. That was one side of my brain speaking to me. The other side simply stood back and quietly gloated over what a cool collection of books I'd managed to amass and promised itself it would never sell them off in a bizarre fit of "growing up". A man's gotta have a hobby, a passion, right? This is one of mine. On with the show!

First on the chopping block is Stevie Chick's Spray Paint The Walls: The Story Of Black Flag (Omnibus Press, 2009/407 pages). You know the 'Flag, she knows the 'Flag, we all know the 'Flag! But does author Chick? That's a difficult one to answer. I've never read his Sonic Youth bio from years back, and whilst this is competently written and indeed far more readable and informative than I'd been led to believe by friends who poo-pooed it before I got my chance to peruse, I'd also like to know what his background is in the matter. Is he a hack writer who was given the task by a publisher to pen this, or is the band a long-running passion of his and this document something which had been gestating in his brain for a decade or more? The opening chapter, which trails and interviews some guy from the band The Icarus Line (a major label "punk/hardcore" outfit I don't expect anyone over the age of 25 to know about nor care for) talking about his love for the band, as if he represents some sort of new generation of 'Flag-fuelled mayhem, didn't get my hopes up. Call me an old fart, but I don't see the connection, except that Keith Morris probably had something to do w/ the signing of the band to V2. Said guy has since gone onto join Nine Inch Nails(!). Awesome. If Chick had done some real research, he could've nailed down a contemporary band like Annihilation Time, who not only nail the 'Flag sound down pat, but live the life, too. But I digress... That's a small matter, and if it's really going to upset you, then skip the introductory chapter and head right for the goods: the heavily detailed segments of the band back in their Panic days w/ Keith Morris at the helm. This era, so far as I've ever read, has only ever been scantily documented at best, and Chick delivers the goods in spades here. Dukowski and Morris are interviewed at length and give illuminating stories of the day, such as their infamous Polliwog Park incident (where they turned up to a family picnic day under the ruse of being a Fleetwood Mac covers band, only to terrorise all present and get showered in food and drinks for their efforts, making their mark in the local press and the eyes of the law from there on), as well as their very first show as Black Flag at the Moose Lodge, where none other than Stiv Bators was present. Their days at the legendary Church gets a heavy look-in, with lots of words from the likes of the McDonald brothers and Joe Nolte of The Last (all of whom come across well), and the early period really makes the book worthwhile. Of course the Reyes/Cadena/Rollins eras round up the bulk of the book, though perhaps they're less thrilling not because the band wasn't as good (sorry, but I still rate Rollins as their best vocalist: right up 'til the end, too), but because this has been covered elsewhere (most notably in American Hardcore, Enter Naomi/Rock & the Pop Narcotic, Our Band Could Be Your Life, The Secret History Of Rock and Get In The Van). No need to run through the details: the narrative is quick and rarely bogged down, there's many interesting tales not heard before, such as David Bowie attending a 'Flag show in '79 and apparently being impressed by the "energy" of the band; promoter Brendan Mullen fronting the group for a few shows and being asked by the band to permanently join; and Chuck Dukowski, as always, comes across as the unsung hero of Black Flag. Negatives? Chick needn't have pointed out a brief history of '60s garage punk for two pages, which came across like a '60s Punk For Dummies segment; an editor w/ a keen eye needed to go over some of the finer points regarding the 1979/'80 period of the band, as the narrative hopelessly jumps everywhere for about 80 pages, w/ some mistakes made (it's Redd Kross, not Red Kross, and Brendan Mullen recalls Jello Biafra telling him in 1980 that he's going to run for mayor: that happened in 1979. Perhaps a mistaken recollection on Mullen's behalf, but someone should've picked it up); and obviously the biggest drawback is the total lack of any co-operation in the putting-together of the story by Greg Ginn, but that's to be expected. Ginn - who was Black Flag - comes across as part hero and part villian. His musical vision, dedication, songwriting skills and organisational abilities are given due praise, but also drawn to light is his famously "difficult" personality, screwing over SST artists (well documented, you don't need me to tell you that!), "vibing out" band members on a whim and his seeming contempt for the band's audience, even the intelligent ones. On a personal note, I've had dealings w/ Ginn over the years, and he's both done me great favours (giving me dirt-cheap recording time to record Ten East, for one) and also totally screwed me over in other instances (which I won't go into here). I hate to air this kind of dirty laundry, but such stories go into understanding the different opinions people express for the man in the book, and these are always opinions expressed by people who have the greatest respect for the guy, yet are disappointed by his actions, bewildered by much of the music he's released over the last 20 years and even moreso at a loss to explain his shutting them out and constant put-downs of them in the media. Henry Rollins said he didn't really wish to co-operate w/ Chick in the book because he felt that it had all been said before, and more importantly, anything he said Ginn would call him a liar for anyway, and I can see his point. The portrait of Ginn that Chick paints here - the good, the bad and the ugly - seems pretty convincing to me. Chick also rightfully expresses his frustration that Black Flag's catalogue still remains woefully mastered on CD, with their scant packaging a poor presentation of what the band was. It's a fact: Ginn could remaster the whole catalogue, design and collate some informative and well-presented booklets and throw in a few bonus tracks here and there and sell a lot of music all over again. This is not cheap exploitation: it's about giving the band what it deserves to new listeners in the 21st century. Anything less is a total disservice to the band and what they created. In short, the struggles, conquests, failures, backstabbing and depressing end to the band is all ably documented here. It's not the definitive Black Flag book - that'd take a Byron Coley or Joe Carducci (w/ the full cooperation of Ginn) to do the job before that happens. But for now, Stevie Chick's book certainly isn't a bad place to start, and if you're really interested in the topic - and you know I am - then you'll wiz through the whole thing in a night or two.


Pig State Recon said...

Ok ok: as you point out, Chick's book does have it's merits - all the early Panic-era info, the balanced take on Ginn's complexities/weaknesses - but I still was wrankled by Chick's "pro" (i.e. sorta patronising) writing style. I guess I felt Chick was the wrong man for the job. Somebody with a more intimate connection to this stuff (somebody like Dave Lang!) coulda made this story 100 times more compelling.

BTW: have you heard the new REACTIONARIES LP that's now out on Water Under The Bridge Records? Great stuff. Who knew them funky whiteguys could actually play straight ahead, raging punk rock when they wanted to?

Dave said...

Hey Michael,

I don't disagree w/ you here. I don't think Chick was the right guy for the definitive book on the band. Fact is, I don't know who the guy is at all, but on the other hand I didn't want to drag his name through the mud w/ this review simply BECAUSE I don't know (plus there's a chance he'll read this review himself)! As you pointed out, his style of writing sometimes has me questioning his knowledge of the subjects he writes about, such as Grateful Dead and Minor Threat (both of which DID look like they'd been pinched from Wikipedia or Rock Writing 101 Class), but his piecing together of the basic facts, along w/ illuminating interviews, certainly didn't make for a bad read. Like I said, I think it needs someone really close to the action to write the ultimate book on the band, not an outsider. I think if you treat it as a supermarket paperback version of the BF story and not the ultimate insider's story of the band, it works surprisingly well as a page-turner.
As for the Reactionaries, yep, I'll be getting it. I see they launched it last week w/ Saccharine Trust playing "Pagan Icons" in full as support. I wish I coulda been there...

boy moritz said...

Nice review Dave. I know Stevie from Plan B. He likes guitar bands. He’s English. I wish I could be of more help.

Anonymous said...

Another Henry Rollins project....I am working on this one now....If there is anything you can do to help to get the word out, or contribute otherwise, we appreciate your help.
Good review. I enjoyed reading it.

Project of Love From the Fans of Henry Rollins

Thanks to Hank
WANTED: Personal stories from the fans, a.k.a, ‘fanatics’, of Henry Rollins. If Henry Rollins has moved you, inspired you to reach higher, helped you in some way, or just makes your life better by way of knowing he is out there, living art and inspiration, and you are willing to share your story in a future publication of Fanatic Stories of Thanks to Hank, please send your story!

The target goal is to complete the project by February of 2011, Henry’s 50th birthday. All potential proceeds will go to the charity of Henry’s choice.

Fanatic and novice writer, Angela Bennett, commented on the project, “Henry has made such a profound contribution to the lives of many thousands, perhaps even millions of people around the world. He is an inspiration to so many people regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic class. This is an opportunity for fanatics to share their stories with, and thank Henry.” During the first month of this project, fans and media are responding from across the world; from 15 year olds to 50 year olds, from the U.S. to Australia.
It’s one thing to be a fan of a band, or an actor, but often it’s about more than that when it comes to Henry. Henry moves people, he is a catalyst in people’s lives. There’s a quote from The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde, that captures Henry well, “…the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us."

People can contact Angela Bennett with stories, or artwork, at, through the Facebook Group, Henry Rollins – Thanks to Hank Project, or Angela does not work for, or represent Henry Rollins, other than being one of many grateful fanatics in the global neighbourhood.

Anonymous said...

Check it out - two good sounding live sets from the 5-man Black Flag lineup from 82.

Dave said...