book reviews

“Spray Paint The Walls” by Stevie Chick

(Originally posted on my Hedonist Jive blog, right after I finished this book in 2011)

I took a break from heavy non-fiction this month to instead lay into the story of one of the heaviest rock and roll bands of all time, the almighty BLACK FLAG. This could have been an awful book – I had to read a chapter in the bookstore just to make sure I wasn’t getting into some Vice Magazine or Behind The Music-style retelling of what I knew to be a pretty bewildering and wildly interesting saga – and once assured, I actually downloaded it onto my new Kindle (!), making for some real cognitive dissonance whilst reading of this bootstrapping, pioneering punk rock band on a 21st-Century piece of technology.

Stevie Chick’s “SPRAY PAINT THE WALLS” is a better-than-solid unwrapping of the legacy left by a band who punished themselves to create some of the most roaring, nihilistic musical art of all time. More than anything, it’s about guitarist, band founder and prime mover Greg Ginn, who’s one of the only people involved who gave the author zero to work with and completely ignored this project while it was being written.

After reading this, what was once fairly obvious became 100%, no-doubt-about-it truth: Black Flag was Greg Ginn’s band, and he ran it like a personal fiefdom, with psychological power plays and summary figurative execution of his bandmates his stock in trade. It’s not like it’s something to be mad about or anything – I mean, it’s just the story of a rock and roll band, not a nation or an oppressed people – but for a band this important to my life personally and to that of many others, it makes for pretty riveting reading as you see how Ginn’s decisions and hang-ups made the band what it was.

Now, granted, I never saw Black Flag play, which grates to this day. There’s one good reason why – by the time I was old enough to actually pay to go see them, around 1984 or so, me and my friends though they pretty much blew. And guess what? They did! Though the book still makes a valiant effort to describe thinly-produced plod-metal records like “Loose Nut” and “In My Head” with the same level of reverence and detail it does the amazing 1978-81 stuff, it’s pretty clear that the author shares my bias that the only Black Flag worth engaging discussion in is everything up until “MY WAR” came out, with everything after that being an interesting story and that’s about that.

Black Flag was a total joke to us as they were hoofing it around the country those last two years, with the straining, sweating, whining, “life-is-pain” magnum opi they’d play while dressed in dolphin shorts to baffled punks looking to slam and stagedive. Granted, that confrontational, two-steps-ahead approach to music creation is what makes them interesting to read about, but certainly not to listen to at the time.

Henry Rollins fell far deeper under the shadow of Ginn’s neuroses and ego than I’d ever contemplated previously, but it makes sense. When he was recruited to join Black Flag in 1981 – a great move, by the way, as there’s no doubt that Rollins was a terrific frontman, if only my second favorite vocalist of theirs after the mighty Dez – he seemed like a confused but goofy punk kid with something of an attitude about him. Shortly thereafter, after moving into Ginn’s parents’ house and indoctrination into the punishing Beefheartian daily practice routines that Ginn mandated for any Black Flag member, he turned into “Henry Rollins”, the musclebound, longhaired nihilist who could give physical presence to Ginn’s admittedly absurd I-hate-myself lyrics. I mean, it seemed to work at the time. Their “DAMAGED” record from ‘81 is, of course, a masterwork of demented rock and roll art, and one of my favorite records of any era. But the Rollins that emerged from that – the funny guy you see on TV – is probably a lot more like the guy who entered the band as well. The guy in between may have been pretty friggin’ intense, but I almost feel like he was “Stockholm Syndromed” a bit by Ginn after reading this book.

Black Flag made way too many missteps along the way, even in their glory years, when the fury and squall of Ginn’s guitar was absolutely magical and like nothing before or since. Think “TV Party”. Think “Louie Louie”. Think Ron Reyes as a vocalist, the band’s strong EP “Jealous Again” notwithstanding.

And later on, contemplate the damage that marijuana played on Ginn’s ability to craft a song anyone would want to listen to. This book, without going too deep on it, makes it clear that Ginn, who was already completely lost in his art, became a dope smoker of the highest order, sometimes too baked to play & who had to have everything set up for him by the rest of the band so he could shake his hair and lose himself in some minutes-long improvised lead. Yikes.

I saw Ginn’s stoner/instrumental trio GONE play live very shortly after Black Flag broke up, probably in late 1986 or early 1987, and that was exactly my impression. There were only 5 people there to see them open for fIREHOSE on the latter’s first tour, which should tell you something about how Black Flag were perceived by most people by that point, with their important records and most goodwill long, loooong behind them. Ginn came up to where we were sitting – it was too boring for us to stand – and inches away, he confrontationally shook his ass-length hair directly in our faces as he weedly-weedlied out some pompous solo. It was either a good-hearted call to action to help raise us from our lethargy and transport us to the astral plane, or because he was totally baked beyond belief. It was pretty funny, and to this day it’s the only time I ever saw him play live and is the mental picture I get whenever I think of the guy.

Back to the book. Early on Stevie Chick almost lost me when he started in on the whole (paraphrasing here) “California is a land of sea, surf and good vibrations – but there was a dark side lurking underneath the sunny exterior” method of describing how violent punk rock came to be in Southern California. Yet he rights the ship very quickly, and in short order, does an excellent job describing the Rodney’s English Disco era, the town of Hermosa Beach, the Masque era and on and on into Black Flag’s rise as the parent-terrifying kings of worldwide punk rock.

There were some terrific stories I’d never read before, many of which are told by first singer Keith Morris, who’s always been a favorite of mine, a total clown prince with a quick mind and the classic SoCal wastoid personality. Various Minutemen, Meat Puppets and other leading lights are interviewed, with a surprising load of interviews with & Black Flag tales by Masque founder Brenden Mullen, whom I’d always read “never booked Black Flag because he didn’t like bands that weren’t from Hollywood”. Read this book and you’ll definitely get his contrary take in spades. He convincingly claims he was even asked to be in the band at one point (!!).

Once the book got going, I absolutely devoured it on my Kindle and iPhone (dork!). Sure, its material includes the source data for everything I once considered important in this world, as the music that poured from Southern California during this time was among the most powerful influences on, and succor for, my life, particularly in my late teens and twenties. But it really never lets down. Even when we’re in the “Slip It In” era and beyond, you’ve got Kira giving great interview, as well as Rollins himself and all manner of hangers-on. Want to learn more about what NIG-HEIST was? This is your book – the ‘Heist gets a lot of play.

I’d recommend this to anyone who’s read my review this far, because obviously you know what a special band Black Flag were, all missteps and badly-produced records notwithstanding. I’d imagine this will be the last word on their complete saga until Ginn emerges to tell the tale his way. Now that will be a hoot.

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There’s a “Fab Mab” group over on Facebook devoted to the glory days of San Francisco punk rock and, specifically, The Mabuhay Gardens club on Broadway.

Here are two flyers folks posted over there, showing the breadth and weirdness of the day. Roy Loney and the Phantom Movers (ex-Flamin’ Groovies) with opener Black Flag (!!?!). One can only imagine.

Then there’s these back-to-back bills at the American Indian Center at 14th and Valencia, where I believe an artisanal french toast restaurant now stands (no joke). One night it’s the Circle Jerks; the next night it’s Canned Heat. The hippies hadn’t shuffled off San Francisco’s mortal coil just yet to make way for the punx, and it looks like venues were trying their best to turn a buck or two from both camps.

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http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/108116399/stream?client_id=3cQaPshpEeLqMsNFAUw1Q?plead=please-dont-download-this-or-our-lawyers-wont-let-us-host-audio

It’s been a few weeks – how about another DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE RADIO PODCAST, what do you say? This is the nineteenth edition (#19), and this time around I’ve got some stunning new stuff from RUBY PINS, THE AR-KAICS, SIMPLE CIRCUIT, SKINNY GIRL DIET and CONSTANT MONGREL. It’s about an hour, all told. The older material includes a lot of daffy, developmentally-delayed rocknroll this time around, including messed-up sideways punk from The Silver, The Panics, Art Phag, The Keggs and The Riptoids. Then there’s stuff from Black Flag, SPK, The Bristols, Winterbrief, and Kitchen and the Plastic Spoons, too – so maybe that’s more your thing.

Parents may find it somewhat challenging trying to explain this music to children, so please share this with the utmost in caution. There are 18 other episodes to download as well – you’ll find those all below the playlist.

Download DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE RADIO PODCAST #19
Stream Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio Podcast #19 on Soundcloud

Playlist:

THE RIPTOIDS – I’m Wired
RUBY PINS – Chariot
THE PLAYTHINGS – Sit Down (Stand Up)
WINTERBRIEF – Love Seat Sofa Charade
BUTTER UTTER – Soho
THE SILVER – Do You Wanna Dance
THE AR-KAICS – She Does Those Things To Me
KEGGS – To Find Out
THE BRISTOLS – The Way I Feel About You
RIGHT ON – Buried Alive
ART PHAG – A Boy and His Gun
JACKKNIFE – Teen Dance Debbie
CONSTANT MONGREL – In The Courts
THE DWARVES – Eat You To Survive
THE PANICS – I Wanna Kill My Mom
SIMPLE CIRCUIT – SOS
THE MINUTEMEN – History Lesson
BLACK FLAG – Clocked In
KITCHEN AND THE PLASTIC SPOONS – Blatta
SPK – No More
THE FUSE! – All Across The World 
ERASE ERRATA – Harvester
NUMBERS – Drunk With Pain
SKINNY GIRL DIET – Homesick

Past Shows:

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Just received one of those newfangled cassette-transfer contraptions in the mail recently, one of those things that lets you take ancient cassette tape recordings and transfer them into new, improved digital versions. Even figured out how to use it. Just in the nick of time, too – I mean, I have a garage full of 1980s mix tapes, live show recordings, and radio shows I once did in college moldering and decaying. Another year or two and they’d be sawdust. This post is the first of several rescue/reclamation projects.

On June 14th, 1989, a 21-year-old version of me did his final “White Trash” radio show on KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara, CA, as he graduated from college that very week. It was taped, and after festering in aforementioned garage for 24 years, was transferred this evening and uploaded for what interested parties there might be to then download and listen to. Having listened to the tape for the first time in at least 20 years before digitizing it tonight, it naturally brings forth much embarrassment – so please humor me and let me add a few careful disclaimers in case you wanna listen to it (and you should – the music is smokin’). 

After doing a radio show at KCSB for four years, and having had access to all the records in their library (and being a rabid music hound/record collector of the most obsessive order), I got to be fairly knowledgeable in the limited punk rock/heavy underground rock genres I’d permitted myself to like. My dismissive, albeit very studied, insecure cockiness is on display in this show. I’m not sure I’d actually like this DJ right now as a human being if I was hearing him on the radio for the first time. Though I love every song I played in this, “My Top 40 favorite songs of all time” show, I can’t believe how dudely it all is. For the 1989 version of me, it was all dudes, all punk, all raw and all aggressive. The only chicks allowed were those rare cool ones from The Bags, The Avengers and Sonic Youth. That’s it. The Fall sucked already, and The Lazy Cowgirls were the best live band in the world.

It’s also preposterous that someone with such a limited musical life experience and frame of reference could even deign to determine a 40-greatest-songs-of-all-time list. As you might expect, approximately 37 of mine came from the 1980s. One of the highlights/lowlights of this show is the recording that starts the show, a nervous, mealy-mouthed 16-year-old me doing a “guest DJ” slot on KFJC (on the “Ransome Youth Show”) in 1983. Then the 21-year-old me mocks him mercilessly, with all the wisdom and experience that 5 years of perspective and deep life experience brings. 

Now that I’m doing a fake radio show podcast here in 2012/2013 – Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio  – I was startled to see some identical on-air back-announce mannerisms crop up from ‘89 that mirror the blather I’m doing today. Hopefully you’ll enjoy forty dudely 70s/80s songs from the likes of The Pagans, Mudhoney, Black Flag, Scratch Acid, Die Kruezen, Electric Eels and more. I have even worse shows sitting in the garage ready to be rescued and maybe even posted at a later date. 

Download “WHITE TRASH” Radio, June 14th 1989, KCSB-FM