Once again, the internet is buzzing with news about Black Flag. This has been happening every couple of months for a year now, and it’s become disquieting. For twenty-five years, there was no news, because there was no Black Flag. Following a roughly ten-year run with guitarist Greg Ginn as the only constant participant, they had ceased to exist as a living thing in late 1986. Once in a great while, there would be a very rare appearance of a few ex-members getting together to do the old songs, but nothing to suggest the flag was truly being flown again.
Last January, that all changed. Within weeks, we were informed that the lineup of Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson and Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton would tour under the name of Flag (Dez Cadena’s participation would be announced a couple of months later), and that Ginn was simultaneously putting together a new lineup with Jealous Again-era singer Ron Reyes, working on a new tour, a new Black Flag album, and a new lawsuit.
Soon after, there were nasty words flying back and forth, though any response from the guys in “Flag” seemed pretty measured, limited to the assertion of their inherent right to play their own old songs to an audience. Ginn made an interesting decision to “retire” from doing interviews at this point, and leave the job of trashing the competing group to spokesman Mike Vallely, the former pro skater with whom Ginn had started another band called Good For You.
Many of us in So Cal remember Mike V. as the guy who fronted Black Flag the last time Ginn performed under the name, at the cat-rescue benefit show at the Palladium in 2003. That show is not remembered as an unconditional triumph, to put it mildly; Ginn insisted on playing along to a tape of himself doing all the bass parts, meaning that nearly all the songs had moments of faltering, the live guitarists, drummer and vocalist trying to sync back up with the bass line. I remember toward the end of the first set with Vallely on vocals, watching a sea of punkers holding a rather large trash bin rushing the stage from the side; wondering, would they make it to the stage? It was kind of a statement; this band that had inspired such outrage toward the outside world in its prime, was now inspiring outrage at itself, by its stubborn refusal to give the paying ($40 if I remember right) crowd anything resembling what it wanted. Even those of us safely ensconsed in the balcony were like, “Fuck the cats!” Still, I didn’t want to see Dezo get hurt, so I was grateful that the bin-hurlers were stopped somewhere around the fifth row.
Perhaps my favorite Bill Bartell joke ever was the title of White Flag’s final release, Benefit For Cats.
That’s my last memory of Ginn doing his old songs, and I wasn’t all that inclined to watch it again with most of the same lineup (though I did think about it when I heard it was Screeching Weasel’s Dave Klein on bass, a ringer). When Black Flag and Good For You played LA this summer, I stayed away. My own disinterest in seeing one of my favorite bands of all time, back to reclaim its name and its glory, kind of surprised me. By the time their tour arrived in town, I had heard some audience recordings and watched Youtube clips from their early shows, checked out the handful of new songs that they were doing. My general impression was, some of it will be OK, some of it might just be amazing, and some of it will not be very good. The drummer was a big problem – like Kenney Jones, Greg Moore sounds fine playing the songs written with him in the band, but when they try to play oldies, the differences become obvious, and unflattering.
And let’s be honest – this is not a band that could pull it off doing all new material with one or two oldies thrown in at the end, like the Flag I saw in 1986. Love the In My Head tour lineup of Greg, Henry, Anthony and C’el or hate it – plenty of people opt for the latter – but give them credit for being courageous enough to go out there and stand on their own terms, playing new songs for sixty of their seventy minutes on stage. Not everyone loved it, but they got away with it. I can’t easily imagine this lineup getting away with that for the length of a US tour. The oldies always were going to be a big part of the appeal, and weak drumming does a lot to dampen enthusiasm.
The day after their Australian tour ended, controversy stuck yet again as Ron Reyes posted a long piece on Facebook about his having been fired from the band prior to its encore, by none other than Mike Vallely, who being the good soldier that he is, had dutifully stepped right in to take Ron’s place. Reyes said then that he “wouldn’t be surprised if Mike V. becomes the new Black Flag singer.”
At the same time, the new Black Flag album What The… was released, and immediately became rock critics’ default choice for Year’s Most Unnecessary Reunion. Not just panned for its lack of musical merit, the cartoon cover art – which turned out to be a Reyes conception – attracted its own attention, almost 100% of it negative.
It is a little bit shocking, staring at the wreckage of so much accumulated good will. I can’t be the only person who once believed that Flag, and SST Records, and thus Ginn himself, were all some kind of positive force for good in rock. But it seems the writing was on the wall in 2003, that this music was a thing that was best left for dead, that any possibilities for new life were best left unexplored.
I finally brought myself to listen to this album just the other day, and I’ll say this much for it: it’s not completely terrible. I think if perhaps it had been an EP of “The Chase”, “My Heart’s Pumping”, “Down In The Dirt” and one or two others, it might have been positively received. I have always been a sucker for Greg Ginn’s sharp, angular solos, and on some of these tracks, he really delivers. He sounds OK playing his own bass parts in the studio. Reyes is often buried in the mix, but sounds pretty good, mostly in a double-tracked, slightly lower register holler than the one we remember from “Revenge.” Even the drumming isn’t bad. The impression at about the five-song mark is, this is better than I imagined it might be.
At about the ten-song mark, it’s obvious that most of these songs are pretty much the same tempo and intensity level, and that the lyrical angst being channeled is less “I’ve got a gun at my back” than “Get off my lawn!” (Hey, as one of the Descendents once said, “It’s ironic but all I really DO want is a suburban home.”) Theremins appear like tribbles, apropos of nothing, and at first they’re cute, but they gradually become unbearable. By the fifteen song mark, one begins scratching one’s forehead, wondering how much longer this is going to go on, glancing at the list, seeing eight more titles, and shuddering deeply inside. This samey-sounding repetition hasn’t been a problem on prior albums, possibly because their other albums are all a lot shorter.
But even the good moments to be cherry-picked from this album are likely to be ignored in the wake of the massive meltdown of support for Ginn personally that has taken place in the past year. It’s not a brand new phenomenon among people close to the musicians that once made up the SST roster. I saw the premiere of the Minutemen doc we jam econo in San Pedro, and a brief talking head appearance by Ginn was audibly booed, by an audience largely made of the band’s friends and relatives, people that been giddily cheering every time local fixtures like Nels Cline and Joe Baiza had appeared on the big screen.
That disdain went national in 2013. It was evident in almost every review and internet comment I’ve read. But unlike the Pedro theater audience, this was not an act of solidarity for musicians hurt by SST’s business practices; this time, the audience recognized itself being treated with contempt, and walked away from the experience, like Tommy’s former disciples. Reyes himself acknowledged that things weren’t quite up to par – evidently he’s not a fan of Greg Moore’s drumming either – and even official-camp cheerleader Vallely could only concede to Rolling Stone that What The… was “…a pretty decent record,” going on to blame any problems with “dysfunction” on the now-departed singer.
Let’s come right out and say it: a lot of us had admired Ginn for refusing to half-ass a Black Flag reunion for so many years; to watch him do it and, sure enough, half-ass it, was kind of tragic.
So this week, news comes that Mike V. is indeed the new singer in Black Flag, with new material to come. This followed the official notice the same week that bassist Dave Klein has split the scene for good.
For Mike V., it’s a dream come true and the chance of a lifetime. For the fans, we have now seen every single character that was kind of likeable disappear from the Black Flag scene completely.
Will Ginn, Moore and Vallely find the true Black Flag groove in their next work together? That remains to be seen. It now feels like they’ve now got quite a lot to overcome when it comes to using that name, rather than a lot to live up to. They might be better off not using it.
PS, having the opportunity to see “Flag” at the Moose Lodge last year still ranks as one of my most brilliant lucky moments of all time, and one of the most soul satisfying gigs I’ve seen in my life. So, you should go see them, if you ever get the chance. Greg Ginn is not there doing guitar solos and making it authentic. Other than that, it’s 100%. Bill Stevenson is still one of the greatest drummers in the world. Chuck is still SCARY to watch as he rips into those songs. Keith and Dezo are raising the roof. Egerton knows his part and plays it flawlessly.
Let’s admit that we don’t necessarily want this lineup to write a lot of new material, that it’s enough to come out and give us a little “American Waste” and “Fix Me” in person once in a while, because we need a little bit of that in our lives. It was cool that Black Flag resisted the urge to go retro during its ten-year run. Now that we’re between the thirty-fifth and fortieth anniversaries, it’s OK for those guys to go there now. Ginn should stay in there too, I can’t bring myself to wish failure on him, but he’s going to need to get his game up if he wants to compete against guys that are repping his legacy better than him.