Graded on a Curve:
Black Flag,

I hate being human. But human I am, which means I make approximately (scientists have demonstrated this with lab rats) 74 mistakes per day. Nor does it help that I have a big mouth. Not only have I been “dismissed” by the Washington City Paper a record three times, I’m also the guy who unleashed a fire storm of condemnation from Little Feat fanatics (and they are Legion) for implying that their live LP Waiting for Columbus was too slick by a country mile. And guess what? I just listened to Waiting for Columbus again, and it’s damned good. It’s still a bit too slick for my likes, but overall it rocks balls.

The same, I’m sorry to report, goes for Black Flag’s 1981 debut LP, Damaged. For decades I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that Black Flag ceased to be a great band at precisely the moment Henry Rollins—who in the interests of full disclosure threatened to punch me in the face about 10 years back, after I penned an ill-conceived screed (yet another faux pas!) against Fugazi—entered the picture.

But last night I listened to Damaged on a whim and I’ll be damned—wrong again. I still wish Dez Cadena had handled vocals, but Damaged is a great LP—the band’s only great LP if, like me, you were less than enthralled by the albums that followed it, which were more genetically similar to Black Sabbath than early Black Flag. There’s no denying that such clubs to the head as 1984’s Slip It In and My War have their moments, but they’re too cumbersome, macho, and dinosauric (a word I just made up) for my tastes. What’s worse, they’re not funny. Black Flag’s early songs were frequently hilarious; but as guitarist and band leader Greg Ginn put it, Rollins’ tenure meant “We couldn’t do songs with a sense of humor anymore; he got into the serious way-out poet thing.” Gee, there’s a shocker—a straightedger from DC lacking a sense of humor.

The Black Flag story is a familiar one. Formed in 1976 as Panic, the band went through members until 1978, when they changed their name to Black Flag, which may well have been the best band name change in history (it beats the Quarrymen to Beatles switch by miles.) Early members included Ginn on guitar, Chuck Dukowski on bass, Robo on drums, and Keith Morris (later of The Circle Jerks) on vocals. They quickly made a name for themselves in Southern California, at least in part due to the violence that accompanied their shows, and were in effect the world’s first hardcore band.

Black Flag’s only problem, besides finding venues that would book them and the police who often showed up to shut down the gigs they could get, was their lack of a permanent vocalist. Morris left and was replaced by Ron Reyes, who in turn was replaced by Dez Cadena, who fucked up his voice and took on the role as second guitarist, leaving Rollins to assume vocal duties. Many of the Damaged tracks had already been recorded by SST producer Spot with Black Flag’s earlier singers, and had to be re-recorded with Rollins at the helm. There was some debate over the LP’s sound; the two guitars gave it a murkier sound, which some blamed on Spot, who in turn claimed the band wanted the LP to sound that way. Me, I like it murky. But muddy or not, Damaged—which I remain convinced would have been better served by a cover by Ginn’s brother Raymond Pettibon than by the macho photo of Rollins punching a mirror—went on to become the pivotal document of So Cal hardcore.

The band was tight, and Rollins’ vocals work better than I’d like to admit, but the truly brilliant thing about Damaged is Ginn’s guitar playing. It’s said he evolved the style during the period when the band was playing without a bassist, but all I know is he plays perhaps the most frenetic and feral guitar this side of, well, anybody. He goes utterly berserker, shredding the guitarist’s handbook and playing twisted tangles of notes on every tune except the bass-dominated “What I See” and “TV Party.” I’ve heard plenty of people put Ginn down for various forms of malfeasance, but he played the guitar like he was possessed or something. He also wrote the band’s funniest songs, and the subsequent takeover of Rollins as lyricist turned the band from hilarious satirists to (yawn) the kind of rage-mongers hardcore already had in rich abundance.

Damaged is most definitely a hardcore LP, but a few of its songs are slow starters: “No More” opens with a slowly throbbing bass note and takes its good old time in speeding up, but once it does it’s great, what with Rollins coming out of nowhere to bark out the lyrics while Ginn’s guitar is a buzzsaw gone berserk. “Padded Cell” follows suit, with Rollins contributing some great vocals and Ginn delivering a mad cacophony of truly gnarly and tangled notes. Like “No More,” “Life of Pain” opens slowly with some fractured guitar, and then speeds up as Ginn delivers up some ominous and angry guitar while Rollins comes on at his most enraged. The openings of both “No More” and “Life of Pain” prefigure, in their way, Black Flag’s later more monolithic sound, as does the opening of “Depression.” As for, “Damaged 1,” it was a definite sign of things to come. No hard and fast rules here; “Damaged 1”was a midtempo number, although Rollins does some great primal screaming on the tune while the band cranks out a big, menacing din. As for “Room 13” I just don’t like it much, either because it bums me out or because its melody and propulsion do nothing for me.

I don’t know why I never liked this album before, because not one of its offerings suck and many of them are bona fide hardcore classics. “Rise Above” is an anthem with a great guitar riff and a really rad chorus (“Rise above/We’re gonna rise above”). I don’t know if it’s directed against the LA police, chicken-hearted club bookers, or society as a whole, but it’s one of the more positive songs on an LP that, taken as a whole, is pretty damn bleak. Black Flag can hardly be accused of walking on the sunny side of the street.

“Spray Paint” is a brief and explosive burst of sheer wall-defacing aggression, while “Six Pack,” which boasts a great opening bass line by Dukowski, is one of my all-time hardcore faves, even if it is a slam against drinkers. That was the irony of Black Flag; they made fun of heavy boozers, and all the heavy boozers I hung with loved it. Ginn’s lyrics may have been satiric, but they spoke to me every bit as much as Gang Green’s “Alcohol”: “I got a six pack and nothin’ to do/I got a six pack and I don’t need you.” Combine that with, “My girlfriend asked me which one I like better/Six pack!/I hope the answer won’t upset her,” and you had my philosophy of life in a nutshell. Meanwhile Ginn is producing an anarchic noise on guitar, although it’s nothing compared to the guitar heights of “Thirsty and Miserable,” which in my opinion is one of the greatest guitar performances ever. Fuck Jimmy Page; this is guitar played the way it was meant to be played, with no quarter. I don’t how he does what he does, but I’ve never heard its equal in the shredding department. As for being “Thirsty and Miserable” I’ve been there, to the extent that I once broke into my own brother’s apartment to steal—talk about pathetic—a bottle of melon liqueur.

“TV Party” is a great laugh and another poke at drinkers wasting their time getting fucked up, and my friends and I, drunks all, loved it every bit as much as “Six Pack.” Dukowski’s opening bass line is great, as are the group vocals, and that “Why go into the outside world at all/It’s such a fright!” has never failed to crack me up. “Police Story” is a hardcore take on “I Fought the Law”: the band hates the pigs, but they know the bottom line: “They hate us/We hate them/We can’t win.” Which Ginn follows with some monstrous feedback and a guitar that is almost as great as the guitar on “Thirsty and Miserable.” “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” is an archetypal slice of pure punk petulance; Rollins wants what he wants and he wants it now, and he’s like a loaded gun ready to go off.

“What I See” opens with bass and drums and then Ginn comes in with some monolithic chords, while Rollins struggles with despair and confusion (“I wanna live/I wish I was dead!”) and just wants to close his eyes. “Depression” opens with some gargantuan guitar riffs by Ginn, before exploding into a high-speed discourse on how depression has got a hold on Rollins. Robo and Dukowski are at their best, while Ginn plays some truly fucked-up guitar, notes twisting around one another like a tangle of poisonous snakes in a pit you definitely don’t want to fall into. “Damaged II” opens with an almost Zep-like riff, then veers in and out of speedcore, and next to “Room 13” it’s my least favorite song on the album, despite Rollins shouting “Stupid feeling, stupid emotions,” which always makes me laugh although I’m certain that was not Black Flag’s intent. As for “Damaged 1” it’s a caterpillar slow crawl across the straight razor (get the movie reference, anybody?) of despair, with Rollins opening it by saying, “My name’s Henry, and you’re with me now.” He then proceeds to laugh, utter guttural cries, and repeat “Yes sir” while the rhythm section pushes silence out of the way like a monstrous snow plow and Ginn tones down the caterwaul, but just a little.

Its tenure may have been short, but Black Flag remains the best hardcore band of all time, and Damaged—along with such songs as “Nervous Breakdown” and “Wasted”—proves it. That Black Flag ended up going the heavier, more metallic route is no surprise; so did dozens upon dozens of other hardcore bands. If you can’t play faster, say the way Husker Dü did on Land Speed Record, evolution dictates that you play slower. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I still think Rollins contributed to the decline of Black Flag; all of his dark and poetic musings don’t add up, to my way of thinking, to the hilariously defiance of “Six Pack,” the boozy agoraphobia of “TV Party,” or the wonderful urgency of “Nervous Breakdown.”

I saw Black Flag once and Rollins was an intimidating front man, but his songs and general attitude betokened a guy who takes life way too seriously. And intimidating intensity and earnestness just aren’t my thing. I’ll take Shannon Selberg, former Cows front man, any day. He knew how to intimidate and crack you up at the same time, and that’s no mean feat. Still, Rollins kicks ass on Damaged, and that’s enough. Plenty of bands only had one great LP in them, and Black Flag is one of those bands. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go turn on the television. Hill Street Blues is about to come on.


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