I want to preface this review by saying one thing – I have a fair amount of reverence toward Greg Ginn. Music that he was involved in, as composer, guitarist or record label executive changed my life forever. Literally, it changed my address; I moved from New Jersey to LA in 1988 because SST was here, along with lots of the bands I liked, and what seemed to be a community of people dedicated to their art and willing to take it to extraordinary lengths. I tried to get a job there. Everything about it had seemed so inspiring from my vantage point on the east coast, especially the music of Black Flag, my favorite punk band. 30 years after I first heard his stuff, I still feel like I owe Ginn something, not money or blind loyalty but, at least an open mind and open heart for sixty minutes. If he’s in town playing music, I can’t not be curious about what it might be like.
And so, despite some reservations, I decided to check out this summer’s LA show by the current lineup of Black Flag and try to bring a sufficiently open heart to gain some enjoyment. Because I would love nothing more than to see a killer Black Flag show. Reports and taped evidence that last year’s shows were kinda weak-ass would be swept to the side; except for Ginn himself, this was now a completely different band. And if he did it right, there was no reason why this couldn’t be a great show. We’d already been assured in pre-tour interviews by new singer Mike Vallely that he would not be performing any of the songs from last year’s puzzling and disappointing album What The…, so it seemed safe to assume we were in for a night of classic Black Flag tunes. They’ve certainly got the repertoire to make for a nice night out. All they had to do was deliver it properly.
I admit it, I’m an old guy that goes to see the same bands a lot. I’ve seen a lot of punk bands in their past-prime years, and fairly quickly, it becomes obvious that there is no hard/ fast rule when it comes to reunions or regenerations of these bands. Some are pretty good, making some allowance for being a bit older (Fear, Dickies, Rocket From The Tombs), some are every bit as good as I ever remember them (Buzzcocks, Refused, Napalm Death), some even make worthwhile new records (COC, Mission of Burma) but once in a while, you get one where, despite favorite songs being played in a technically OK way, something is really wrong. The entire spirit is off, the aura needs to be color-corrected. These are shows you watch with the horrified facial expression of Roddy Piper in They Live after he first puts the glasses on.
When this show began with a formless instrumental jam featuring Ginn on theremin, I said “oh shit.”
Let’s begin with the least of the offenders, the new rhythm section. They seem cute and nice, and they play their instruments well. Drummer Brandon Pertzborn is probably closest to Anthony Martinez of all the former Flag drummers, busy and highly precise with a light touch. Bass player Tyler Smith sings along with enthusiasm and plays his parts well. There are moments that feel a little bit fluttery compared to the solid punch in the face one always expected when Chuck and Robo were in charge, but that’s a style thing. You can’t really blame them for some of the slack new arrangements.
In a way, you can’t really blame anyone but Ginn for anything that happens in this band, because if there WAS someone onstage ruining everything, it would be because Ginn let him ruin everything.
For his own part, Ginn plays some of those old songs very well. There’s something about the sound of that guitar that is printed in my DNA, it’s easy to respond to it. The rush of “Rise Above” into “I’ve Had It” into “Six Pack” sounded pretty impressive down on the front of the floor, which churned like a flushing toilet all night long. He provided most of the raw power on offer, but also seemed determined to throw a wrench in his own machine during parts of the show. Every once in a while you’d get this chainsawing guitar solo, with the rhythm section locked right in, and you could feel it working. But nobody wants to hear “Slip It In” collapse into a wall of freaking theremin. Outside of sci-fi conventions, and Beach Boys concerts, no one wants to hear theremin period. Theremins are for science class and documentaries, not for actually performing rock music. And there is absolutely NO reason to subject any audience to the later-period Black Flag outtake “Kicking And Sticking”, one moronic riff jammed out like “Sex Bomb” for way too long while Vallely hollers the words, “Fucked up! Fucked up!” like some brain-dead mantra.
I’m thinking that the key to enjoying a modern Black Flag concert appearance is to stay in the pit and never stop slamming. Keep the circle going even through the theremin solos. If you never look up and listen, you’ll never have to ponder the visage of Mike Vallely and his creepy flesh-colored beard, crooning lyrics of deep pain and anguish with the intensity of a man whose garage door opener has ceased to function. The Black Flag singer he most resembles on a shallow plane is Henry Rollins; he has the minimal range and speak-sing-screaming style down pat. But it turns out Rollins left bigger bare footprints on this band than he sometimes gets credit for.
Rollins was the singer I got to see in Black Flag, in 1986 on their last legs, and that show meant the world to me at the time. I wasn’t clued-in enough to know that Loose Nut and In My Head weren’t supposed to be good albums, I liked them even though they barely resembled the early stuff. That was OK, It was maybe a good thing that they weren’t the same after eight years. And the main image burned into my head from that show is that of Rollins. Sweaty, stringy-haired Manson looking guy with tattoos in black gym shorts, thrusting his hips like he’s fucking a chick from behind, and when he really screams into the mic like he means it, it raises the hair on the neck. Even those who found his shtick kind of corny would have to admit, he was 100% behind it. There was no question that the guy was for real, dark poetry and all. And he’s the last in line, the one that stuck with it as Ginn got experimental and tried to make it work. Considering the musical direction the band was going in, it’s impossible to imagine Keith Morris, Ron Reyes or Dez Cadena being able to mutate into that. And it’s not that I necessarily want him back in the band – he gave up music, I assume for good reasons. But that’s the aura that somebody stepping into that spot that is not Keith, Ron or Dez is going to have to fill.
I once saw the Jello-less Dead Kennedys in the same room, and observed a similar Jello-sized hole on stage that the band – and in that case, it was all three original musicians – couldn’t make up for, even though they were playing well. It was weird, to hear those songs and realize I didn’t feel a single thing about any of it. It just felt weird and cheap and wrong, even if it was kind of cool to hear that guitar part played by East Bay Ray. And those feelings all came flooding back watching Vallely perform his signature move of slouching slightly to the side and shutting his eyes, over and over and over again.
The closest thing to new information was a performance of the song “Life’s Too Short Not To Hold A Grudge,” from the album of the same title by Good For You, Ginn and Vallely’s band that opened for Black Flag last year. In it, Vallely castigates an unnamed assailant who “fucked me over” and “plowed me under”, when they “said goodbye.” Black Flag lyrics never used to ask “why don’t you like me?” – it was assumed that any “you” in the lyrics probably didn’t like the “me” singing them.
Far be it for me to tell Greg Ginn what he can or can’t do. He can start an all-theremin band and call that Black Flag if he really wants to. In a way I’d respect that more, to really put it out there and not just sell his old records to new kids. If all he’s offering is a chance to hear the old songs, his own operation is running a distinct second to the competition. It would be nice to believe that quality new material was forthcoming, but frankly neither of his 2013 releases does much to inspire hope.
So what are we left with at the end of this show? Neither a positive sense of the way forward, nor high-quality nostalgia. We’re left with a terminal “Louie Louie” jam that was pathetic enough to send one attendee into a deep funk, wondering “is THIS what I dedicated my life to all those years ago? This sucks!” No, I assured her, that thing so many of us dedicated our lives to was BETTER THAN THIS.
I really hope those kids on bass and drums don’t have to spend too much time sleeping on the floor at the SST office in Texas.