Sunday, November 24, 2013
Yes, it's been a while. Nearly four months, I believe. I needed a hiatus, a break, an extended one, and so I treated myself to one. I'm back, but I don't know how regularly I'll be posting here. We'll just let events unfold as they may. I witnessed the travelling circus known as 'Black Flag' just two nights ago, and I've had several people imploring me to write a review of the show, and so I will...
There are many ways to preface such a review, most of them likely redundant. If you've been reading this blog over the past decade, you'll know my opinions regarding the band as they stood as an operational unit ca. 1976 - 1986. From their beginnings as Panic to their days as punk rock heroes and social pariahs to their later 'difficult' period - I like it all. No, I love it all. My second-fave platter of theirs is, after all, their last: In My Head. Greg Ginn's immense vision of a rampaging rock band redefining the genre through sheer discipline, hard work and an almost Nietzchean will-to-power ranks them as one of the finest musical ensembles there ever was. Throughout all their ups and downs, changes in gear shifts and musical direction, line-up difficulties, intra-band rivalries and expulsions, legal and police hassles, fan backlashes and more, there remains that band which moved mountains. What the band brought to cultural life in the late 20th century, via its own music, its progedy and its label, SST, so indelibly linked to Black Flag and all its spawn, still ranks for me as one of the high watermarks of life on earth ca. the last 41 years as I and/or we know it. And despite the travesties committed the past 6 - 12 months, I still think there is something there to behold. Ginn's recent activities don't spoil their legacy, because quite frankly, I consider them the actions of a mad man.
What has happened the past 6 - 12 months is well known: FLAG Vs. Black Flag, etc. It's all been very undignified for everyone involved, but Greg Ginn is a guy who's been slowly but surely removing himself from all sense of dignity the past 20+ years. Firstly, there was the SST label's decline from being the Sun/Chess of the 1980s to degenerating into a third-rate vanity imprint for Ginn's many irrelevant musical projects; the endless repackaging and recompiling of old material; the lawsuits; the fallouts w/ old band members, friends and employees; the lack of care given to SST's still-existing catalogue (remastering, anyone? repackaging?); and on and on...
All of that brings me to two nights ago. The band - that's Ginn, Ron Reyes (BF vocalist ca. 1979-'80), bassist Dave Klein and drummer Gregory Moore - headlined the Hits & Pits festival at the Palace Theatre, an ornate 1000+ venue in the heart of the city (or near enough), finishing the day after a litany of also-ran emo/pop-punk bands had graced the building w/ their presence (the line-up read like a Missing Link Records best sellers list ca. 1999). I got there relatively late, having absolutely no interest in any of the other bands playing (other than Ginn's other project, Good For You, who played very early on. They are essentially BF 2013 with pro skater Mike V on vocals instead: friends who saw them said they were better than 'Flag themselves, but that wouldn't be a struggle), although I did slog my way through interminable sets by Sweden's No Fun At All (cookie-cutter '90s pop-punk) and Boysetsfire (indescribably punishing emo-rock which alternated twixt operatic yodelling and death-metal grunts... you really had to be there, but think yourself lucky you weren't). I deserve a medal for that effort alone.
The venue was roughly 2/3rds full and, at a guess, it was mostly people who couldn't give a shit about Black Flag circa any time whatsoever, and thus when Boysetsfire had finished torturing all and sundry, the place cleared out pretty heavily. Some headliners. Black Flag's bad rep - they'd been stinking up the east coast of Australia to no acclaim throughout the week - had preceeded them in a major way. For the life of me, I struggled really hard to convince anyone to come along, and I am friendly with more than a few people who consider themselves fans of the band in at least some guise. I went with my brother and Bits Of Shit drummer 'Pete', bumped into our mutual friend Adam and his brother and that made it the five of us hanging out for the night. It was a strange experience attending a Black Flag show in 2013 and not knowing just about anyone else in the entire venue.
The band hit the stage late - after 12, way past my bedtime these days - and we made up our way to the front and waited for the disaster to unfold. It took 3 or 4 songs for said disaster to take place, but when it did, it didn't cease until curtain time. There are many problems with what Ginn is doing w/ his own legacy at this point in history regarding dragging the BF name through the mud, and I'll illuminate just a couple: firstly, the band he's chosen to represent his most famous creation is made up of a bunch of worthless schlubs who can't hold a beat and have absolutely zero stage presence. Case in point: Ron Reyes. A man mostly forgotten to history except for his appearance in the original Decline... film, he was always my least-favourite 'Flag vocalist, but then again, he's the only ex-member of the band who'll even talk to Ginn these days, so I guess beggars can't be choosers, and given Reyes' lack of public profile the past 3 decades, I can only assume that there was some mutual begging going on. Reyes cut a cool figure as a lean, poor, smart-arsed Puerto Rican teen emigre who lived in a basement closet in his film days (that's Decline... from 1979), and he certainly gave a spirited performance 34 years ago on celluloid, but for me he lacked the gravitas needed for a BF vocalist. BF's music is heavy, and Reyes isn't. He's slightly portly now and cuts an even less impressive figure. He screamed, he yelled, but it was all for nought. It was a sub-Rollins phone-in performance not worthy of the lamest BF covers band. But he's not the worst of Black Flag's problems, because that remains their rhythm section.
It boggles the mind that Greg Ginn - the man who made dedication, craft, hard slog and the idea of musicianship in punk rock a good thing - could settle for these two beatless bumpkins. Gregory Moore - the cosmic shoeless one behind the skins - has a strange knack for fucking up just about every song he plays. If he's not behind the beat, he's screwing up a fill. BF songs are all about tension/release, and that's what made them so different to many of their HC contemporaries. Ginn has always said that he considered his music in 'Flag as a sort of modern blues (BB King's his hero!), and he is correct. Not only aesthetically were BF a form of urban, white-man blues, but the music was unusual for punk rock in that it had swing, it had form. Other than the Ramones-damaged Nervous Breakdown EP, which was mainly whiter-than-white 4/4 punk blitz, BF's music was about building up the tension then releasing, the moments in between, the fills, the rolls. Ginn's new band masters none of the above. Moore can barely even perform a basic drum roll or hit hard enough to create said tension (think of the way 'Depression' ebbs and flows: there was none of that, the song flatlined), leaving the songs totally neutered in their impact. As for bassist Dave Klein, he ballsed up the start of 'Six Pack', has a terrible bass sound which lacks the Dukowski/Kira-level grit the songs require, and has all the stage presence of a substitute high school teacher.
Then there's Ginn himself. He seemed to be in a very jolly mood when he first hit the stage, goofing off, smiling, hamming it up w/ guitar poses and flipping the audience the bird w/ a big grin on his face, and his opening solo was a gas. When he wants to, he can still wrestle those six strings like a genius. In fact, the performances of roughly the first 3 or 4 songs had me thinking the show was going to be a whole lot better than originally expected. For a guy pushing 60, he looks good, too, almost like a retired basketball player who hasn't let himself go. The band nailed the Nervous Breakdown EP relatively well, Reyes emitting a decent bark and the rhythm section not flubbing it too badly. Ginn tore into a few ludicrous and badly-handled Theremin solos, but things were still kept together as a reasonably functioning unit. Theremin, I hear you say? Yes, you've probably heard the stories. I have no beef w/ Ginn playing the Theremin per se - I like the instrument itself and the fact that Ginn, as always, likes to fuck w/ given formulas by placing this instrument into the context of well-known songs - but let's get something straight: Greg, you don't even know how to play the damn thing. Simply waving your hand in front of the instrument to create a noise doesn't add musical value, it just makes a noise. This fact was made painfully clear when, later in the set, a guy on stage (Mike V.?) had a go mid-song and did create a sense of accompanying melody which complemented the song.
So where/when did it all go so wrong? Possibly when the band played some new material, although for myself that wasn't a big problem. Yes, I've heard the new album w/ the terrible cover and it's as non-eventful as we all expected it to be, but the new tracks didn't sound as rubbish in a live context: they were, at a generous stretch, almost on a par w/ In My Head's angular 'rock' material, and not painful, at least to these ears. And then things started to go horribly wrong. They started delving into some Damaged material, screwing up pretty much every single track along the way ('TV Party' and 'Six Pack' were atrocious; Reyes even 'modernised' the former's lyrics to include references to Twitter and Facebook: "No more Twitteeerrrr!!", he screamed. Yikes...), and Ginn appeared to lose his sense of joviality. In fact he seemed to lose interest altogether, messing up his playing or not playing at all, fiddling w/ his amps and generally doing everything but getting down to business. Whatever audience was left started to get cranky. Cans of booze and plastic bottles of water were thrown at the band from disgruntled fans, security was on the rounds and tensions rose. My compadres and I just stood there in befuddlement, watching the band embarrass themselves further w/ more appalling versions of back-catalogue classics ('Black Coffee' was almost beyond comprehension), scratching our heads and wondering why - OH WHY - was Ginn doing what he was doing...
Ginn clearly doesn't need the money. I hear he owns a nice pad in LA as well as the warehouse space in Texas, and has been asked several times by famous rock outfits to guest on their records for considerable amounts of money (people such as Korn, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), knocking them back because he simply isn't interested. He also employs (and I heard this from a reliable source) the legal aid of infamous entertainment-biz heavyweight Herb Cohen's son to look after his affairs, a litigious hard-arse who keeps him out of harm's way. So I don't view this travesty as a cash-in. Is it sheer bloody mindedness? Possibly. I could forgive such a motive if the results weren't so dire. The fact that Ginn seems content to humiliate himself nightly w/ a band which sounds like a bunch of amateurs messing about in a rehearsal studio, night after night w/ nothing nailed down tight, has me baffled. I was about to posit that such actions don't appear to be in his nature, but who am I to assume such things? The man is an absolute mystery. Did I mention that they finished off w/ a rendition of 'Louie Louie' which sounded like the 'Jazz Odyssey' scene from Spinal Tap? I guess I just did. There were probably under a hundred people left by that stage. The band had once again successfully scared everyone off, just as they had, state by state, throughout the land.
After tolerating the sets by No Fun At All and (particularly) Boysetsfire, Black Flag's first couple of cuts were like a massive breath of fresh air. The opening jam was a beautiful sludgefest w/ Ginn wrenching strings over the top - equal parts Sonny Sharrock and Flipper, if you will - and it brought a massive smile to my face: Now this is punk rock. Good old Ginn, always fucking w/ expectations, messing with any given formulas whilst all these factory-line bands just collect pay cheques and deliver the rote goods. I really thought I was in for a very good surprise indeed, but by show's end he proved himself to be a flake and a fraud. Do I feel cheated? Nope. It was worth every cent of the $84(!!) I spent to attend. It was a train wreck I will never forget. Some people were really pissed about the night's events, as if all notions of BF/Ginn's righteousness had been spat back in their face. Fortunately, perhaps, I'm not still that naive. You really should have been there: people will talk of this show, probably for all the wrong reasons, for years to come. After the last note was hit, Ginn once again hit jovial mode and went up the front of the stage, shaking hands, doing high-fives and autographing LP sleeves. I could only stand there watching this fallen hero of mine, thinking, What the hell are you so satisfied about? Did you hear that set you just played?