Thursday, January 26, 2012

All Caught Up With...Black Flag, Part I: Tangents

So, a month has passed since I started this project, and I can say that I have come out on the other side of my experience with Black Flag.  If that sounds particularly vague, you're right.  I was thoroughly surprised by a lot of what i found.  Before i get to my findings next week, a few tangents:

Tangent #1 - New Ideas > Old Ideas

I'm not breaking any new ground with this, but I think it is important to realize just how monumentally new all of this was when it was happening.  "Nervous Breakdown" is a song that practically caused riots when it first debuted, and yet, 15 years later, this could've been a minor alternative radio hit.  

Listening to a lot of the Black Flag stuff, i was shocked at how not shocked i was by it.  This was punk rock, a little faster at times (a lot slower at times), but not all that different than the hundreds of punk bands i have encountered before.  Again, i know this is because i grew up in a post-Black Flag world - i was 9 years old in 1991 - "The Year Punk Broke" - so most of my music-obsessed life came after you could see Nirvana videos during the day on MTV and hear "Blitzkrieg Bop" on classic rock radio.

So, a lot more time was spent lowering my expectations (of having my mind blown) and trying instead to judge the material based on merit alone.

Tangent #2 - Importance Does Not Equal Greatness

Black Flag are no doubt an important band, and would be even if they never released anything after Damaged.  They were truly trailblazers in the DIY ethic - they formed their own label, booked their own tours, retrofitted their own instruments, made their own flyers, etc.  Musically, they slowed punk down, let jazz influence seep in, weren't afraid to admit they loved metal (and, in Ginn's instance, the Grateful Dead).

But one of the impulses i fight against as a listener is equating importance with greatness.  This is tough; on one hand, i want to celebrate pioneers justly.  No one should think that Nickelback is doing anything important or new - they are just mining the worst parts of grunge and making more money than any of the bands they're aping did.  On the other hand, there are many bands that aren't reinventing the wheel, but making incredibly great music.  They shouldn't be penalized for not starting a new genre, they should be celebrated for making good music.  And finally, there are bands who did important things without making life-changing musical contributions.  Link Wray's "Rumble" is one of the first uses of distortion on an electric guitar.  This is important.  "Rumble" is a cool song.  "Rumble" is not "Strawberry Fields Forever," or "My Girl" or even "Rise Above" - it is a cool song that influenced people by its sound, not its merit as a song. Link Wray is not a great artist, but an important one.

Tangent #3 - The Picture Frame Argument

The following two paragraphs are taking from Ben Sisario's Doolittle, a book about the seminal Pixies album that you really should buy.  Thompson, mentioned below, is Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black aka Black Francis:

The plastic bag from our trip to the record store the day before lies crumpled beside him on the seat, and he holds up I’m Your Man, the Leonard Cohen CD he bought along with Doolittle. The cover design of I’m Your Man is ridiculously simple, just black on top with LEONARD COHEN in big, thin white letters, and a field of textureless gray on the bottom. In a passport-size black and white photo, Cohen stands in black shades, his left hand in his pocket and his right holding a half-eaten banana. Thompson looks at the cover and grins wide. “This album is sooo great,” he beams. Really? I say, embarrassingly ignorant of most of the Cohen catalog. He says something about how Cohen started off as a writer, a poet, and did some albums, and...He gives up and just sticks the CD in the machine, and it begins to play. 

Released in 1988, it is a cold Eurosynth concoction, a prison made of neon. Cohen’s weary baritone sounds trapped there, the only sign of humanity. Thompson sees my puzzlement and smiles as though he’s letting me in on something. “Think of the production as just the frame around the picture,” he says, tracing a rectangle in the air. “And just look at the picture.”

To say that the Black Flag records sound like shit is an understatement.  Now, granted, i heard them all digitally, so i don't know if the problem is the transfer from vinyl to digital, or if the problem is that they were poorly recorded.  The comments of some seem to indicate the latter, but in many spots these are muddy messes or over-compressed/reverbed out.  I'm trying to ignore the production/engineering and focus on the songs, but that isn't always so easy.

Tangent #4 - Separating art from artist

Henry Rollins is a guy i respect a lot, but reading Get in the Van has made me really, really dislike the way he wrote/thought during this time.  He toggles between bullshit moral-relativism and self-hatred pretty much non-stop for 300 pages. You can see a real person peek out from underneath the ego every few pages, but much of what he is saying is just so boring and self-absorbed.

Similarly, Greg Ginn seems like a pretty insufferable guy as well - i mean, can anyone equal parts Dead Head and Dio fan be anything less than terrible to hang out with?  The people in the band who seem the coolest are Dez Cadena (quit), Chuck Dukowski (kicked out), Bill Stephenson (quit after fighting with Ginn constantly), and Kira Roeseller (quit and pretty much verbally abused/sexually harassed by Rollins on the way out), also known as the people who no one really cares about.  I think those people would tell a far more compelling version of the story than the two main guys, one of whom expresses his side of the story through masturbatory journals, and the other who keeps his comments terse and dismissive of the other members of the band.

So i am trying my damnedest to not let these grating personalities change the way i feel about the music they made as Black Flag.  But it can't be helped when listening to Family Man and just wanting the two sides to stop being so boring separately and do something interesting together.

Come back next week for what I actually thought of their music.

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