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.


(I wrote this review ten years ago for another blog. Still one of the best music books of all time).


About three months ago I finally devoured this book in a single 6-hour plane trip to New York, and at the conclusion of my journey I declared it to be one of the Top 5 rock and roll books I had ever read. I was so excited about this oral history that I was going to write a 10-paragraph oratory of my own about it for Agony Shorthand, imploring you to read it and enumerating all the reasons why you should do so immediately. Well, I plum forgot what I was going to write, and don’t have the book on me right now to jog my memory, so here we are.

I think the reason I didn’t jump on this when it came out a few years ago is because it was released mere months after BRENDEN MULLEN’s LA punk scene oral history “We Got The Neutron Bomb”, a large chunk of which concerned The Germs and their effect on Los Angeles and the greater American punk movement. Reckoning that “Lexicon Devil” would be a mere expansion of the stories told in “Neutron Bomb”, I resolved to read it in a couple years’ time. Maybe that made “Lexicon Devil” that much better, I don’t know, but where “Neutron Bomb” was merely an adequate retelling of the greatest punk rock scene in the history of the form (Los Angeles 1977-83, baby!), this book is sooo much more.

“Lexicon Devil” takes the story of Darby and Pat (Jan Paul and George) and positions it against the broader freakiness of the 1970s, and does so masterfully. The very best chapter in a book packed with incredible stories is the tale of their alternative, Scientology/EST-like high school-within-a-school at University High during the mid-70s, an experience so warped and beyond comprehension you have to figure those teachers would be behind bars if their tried their hippie mind-control BS on the school kids of today. But it sure made a man out of Jan Paul Beahm, hunh? He took these formative learnings, combined them with massive amounts of drugs & alcohol, and a deeply-repressed homosexuality that, in 1977, was definitely very uncool, and created the “Bobby Pyn” and “Darby Crash” characters of legend.

What I loved about the book, though, was just how well the interviews were threaded together to tell a much larger story than that of The Germs. Existing as it did on the edges of Hollywood flash and cash, there are many stories of the punks’ rubbing up against movie idols or mainstream rock folks and the sometimes inevitable troubles than ensued. The whole book is filled with the most seedy and depressing characters imaginable. Of the ones still alive, like the reprehensible “Gerber”, you get to read their puffed-up yarns from the old days, and almost feel drunk with enthusiasm for their heedless youth & reckless stupidity as a result. I mean, these kids were answerable to no one but themselves – very few had jobs, all were either alcoholics or drug addicts (with a few notable exceptions), and they rocked 24/7 to some of the great bands of all time – WEIRDOS, BAGS, GERMS, DILS, X, MIDDLE CLASS, FLESH EATERS etc. – and all had wild sex with each other and each other’s friends. Doesn’t that sound like a blast? Of course it does, except when you’re creeped out & repulsed by the goings-on described herein.

Characters who were very much in the center of things, like BLACK RANDY and DAVID BROWN, get their stories told better than any other account to date, and this in a book ostensibly about The Germs. Amazingly, Don Bolles comes across as the voice of reason and normalcy in this book, and as anyone who’s met the guy will tell you, those are not words that leap to tongue in his presence. But he’s a survivor, and as cliché as that might sound, once you read the accounts of the crazed lives the first-wave LA punks lived, you develop a newfound respect for the resilience of those who came out with their brains intact, and continue to play music or contribute in other ways to this day (hello, Alice Bag and Chris D.).

Darby, of course, did not, and this book does an excellent job letting others put him on the posthumous therapist’s couch to try and dissect what went wrong. I can’t recommend “Lexicon Devil” highly enough – it’s a riveting read, and can even be appreciated by audiences far removed from the rabid LA punk admiration society.


Updated with spelling corrections and a back-cover ad!

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Download The Hedonist Jive Book Review #1 here.



Made my way through this recent book by Jimi Kritzler recently, and it was like reading a stack of fanzines on a hungover Sunday afternoon. I barely know the bands covered – well, that’s not entirely true – but that’s also true of most of the ephemeral and short-lived combos covered in the fanzines of yore. Kritzler’s aim here is to take a snapshot in time, the time being roughly now (or at least 1-2 years ago), of the more brutish and punk/skronk/thug and/or experimental bands down under, with a few pop practitioners included simply because Kritzler either likes or knows them.

The formula is repetitive but comfortable. Intro, interview, finished. “Noises In My Head” does this upwards of twentysomething times, to bands both known (Eddy Current Supression Ring, Total Control), unknown to me (most of ‘em) and loved (again, by me: The Garbage and The Flowers, Fabulous Diamonds). Here’s what I learned: drugs are freely available and consumed in rocknroll circles in Australia, and just as when I was in my 20s, talked about in far greater proportion to how interesting they actually are to the reader. Drugs drugs drugs, overdoses, mental illness, fallen comrades (to drugs), etc. Seems as though drug celebrations didn’t cease in underground Aussie rocknroll the moment Nick Cave left the island.

All funnin’ aside, I learned that Kritzler’s got a good ear to the ground in his homeland, and is definitely one of those man-about-town gadflys who seemingly knows everyone & is excellent at connecting the dots between bands, scenes and sub-genres. He writes well and with passion. There are a few grunters in this book whom I’ll need to follow up on. Hey, he missed just about every favorite rock band I personally have down there, from Constant Mongrel to King Tears Mortuary to The Clits, but that’s why it’s his fanzine-cum-book, not mine. It’s a hefty tome, skimmable when it needs to be but also full of good musical ore to be mined. The folks who live and breath in these Melbourne-, Sydney-, Brisbane-, etc.-based scenes will have something very well-done to show their progeny somewhere down the line.


Here’s a thing on this book that I wrote on my Agony Shorthand blog 11 years ago…


I’ve now completed two posthumous books and one entire magazine (Throat Culture) written by, and another book written about, Mr. LESTER BANGS. I guess you could say that I, like many, am an admirer of the guy who truly put the rrrr in rock critic. Someone made the point in the forward to the “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” collection that a lot of Bangs’ pieces read even better as straight-up prose than as vanilla “rock criticism”, and I whole-heartedly agree.

It’s probably redundant to make the point that this guy, when ON, was one of the finest and most funny writers of his century, all genres included. That he also had strong and well-defined taste in outside-the-lines rock music as it was being created was a nice side benefit, given that Bangs was cheerleading for the Velvet Underground, Stooges and MC5 (after his much-celebrated false start with “Kick Out The Jams”, which is included here) in the late 60s/early 70s with the same bug-eyed intensity that people do today. Finally, Bangs had the humility to write follow-up articles proclaiming his initial ignorance whenever he’d slam something that later grew on him, as he did with both “Kick Out The Jams” and, in this collection, “Exile On Main Street”. And his plaintive justifications for “mis-hearing” them actually held water, too.

One of the surprises of this recent collection of essays and scattered writings, circa 1967-1983 is that Bangs was one of the few writers I’ve seen who could write about jazz with the same amount of feeling and passion (and knowledge! Bangs was no dilettante) he brought to rock and roll. Some of the best work in here is his cold dismissals of MILES DAVIS’ 1970s fusion and funk meanderings in comparison with the glories of the 50s and 60s, and his willingness to call Davis on his callous and ornery disdain toward his fans.

There also a few riotous essays and/or reviews on Bob Dylan, Wet Willie and their shy search for groupies, more LOU REED worship/baiting, and a fantastic piece on THE DOORS deflating the Morrison myth while keeping his longtime love for the music intact. The 1979 CAPTAIN BEEFHEART essay, which includes snippets of interviews with the good and good-hearted Captain, is easily the single best thing I’ve read on Beefheart anywhere. Bangs also makes up for his slobbering CLASH obsession with a correct (i.e. mocking) take on Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys in real time.

Finally, there’s a well-mannered travelogue of Bangs’ paid junket to Jamaica along with a bunch of other rock journalists, there to report back on reggae culture and interview Bob Marley. Bangs approaches the whole thing with a great deal of healthy skepticism and comes away marginally impressed, if not a changed man. It’s terrific reading, and arrives at the perfect intersection of music fandom and gonzo travel writing.

There are also areas of this book that call for a quick breezing-through, rather than a deep read. Bangs wrote much of his material while high, drunk or both – and was legendary for first-take-is-the-best-take, stream of consciousness blabbering. That so much of it so intelligent, funny and insightful is in itself amazing. But much of it isn’t, and editor John Morthland was smart to include some of the more rambly and difficult stuff to help keep a sense of perspective in check. So even though a good chunk of the book is unpublished material, I wouldn’t get too lacquered up about it. A lot appears to be drugged-fueled journal entries on nights when things weren’t going so well, some of which hits brilliance in places, but much of which begs for the same sort of half-hearted speed reading as the spirit in which it was written.

I was also surprised to see an over-intellectualization of the ROLLING STONES in places; at time Bangs succumbs to Ivy League navel-gazing about this most primal of rock groups, then veers off into gossip about how much he dislikes Mick’s wife etc. Yeah, Bangs was a pretty tortured guy with a lot of inner demons, but he appears on whole to have been a very decent and at times lion-hearted man. It would have been great to grab a beer with him, ask a few strategic questions and just watch him go. Consider this collection an adjunct to the superior “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”, but if you loved that one, there’s no reason to think you won’t dig this too.


A book about punk rock in late 70s/early 80s Southern California – absolutely impossible for me to resist. I did hold off for three years on Dewer MacLeod’s “KIDS OF THE BLACK HOLE” because, at first flip, it appeared to be a dissertation-level sociological study of suburban evolution in Reagan-era Los Angeles, threaded with warmed-over punk rock history – a history I’m well-familiar with, given that LA punk & its offshoots circa ‘77-’83 is my favorite era of music anywhere, ever. My initial take on this was not very wide of the mark, I’m afraid, though it was just interesting enough – and I mean just – for me to finish it all the way through. It’s not that MacLeod’s a poor writer per se, because he’s not. He just writes like he’s needing to turn this in as a paper to a professor who could never understand the paradigm-busting pleasures of Southern California punk rock, so the book is larded with all sorts of half-baked sociological theory in parts, when it’s pretty clear that what MacLeod really wanted to do was give you a slam-bang killer overview of the music he loved and loves.

So what you get is a conventional start-to-finish chronological story of how LA punk developed out of the glitter/glam mid-70s, exploded in Hollywood, branched out to Orange County and the Valley, got violent and faster, and then fizzled out. What bugs me is how much MacLeod relies on second-hand source material, like old Slash Magazines and the oral histories already written about this scene, and adds so little of his own recollections and stories to it. The interviews he quotes aren’t, by and large, interviews that he did, but rather interviews from Flipside, or Slash, or NoMag. I mean, that’s a book that you and I can write tomorrow, assuming a decent-sized heft to our personal 70s/80s fanzine collections.

I’ll admit, there was at least one new-to-me nugget in here that hadn’t popped up elsewhere. My pal Jerry from Orange County has told me some pretty hilarious stories of a goony early 80s punk rock gang from the small OC suburb of La Mirada called the “La Mirada Punks” – the “LMPs”. They made this book! Hooray LMPs! Chris D. and the Flesh Eaters, one of my all-time faves as well, also merit a couple of short paragraphs, which is a goddamn miracle considering how shut out they’ve been from previous texts. I truly wish there had been more insider dope and less haven’t-I-read-that-somewhere-before moments.

That’s not the worst of it, with all due respect to MacLeod. The book will start talking about hardcore punk pit fighting among bandana-wearing morons at TSOL and Adolescents shows, for instance, and then screech to a halt for an overview of gangs in America – “greasers” and Zoot Suit-wearers in the 50s and so on – to put it all in its sociological context. It’s boring, it’s unconvincing, and again, it reads like a college essay. Then the book gets back on track again with some cool Germs and Black Flag stories or discussions of the Great Punk Scare of 1981, before the cycle repeats itself. In no way would I recommend this book as your intro into LA punk history; for that, I’d follow a path through “Hardcore California”, “We Got The Neutron Bomb”, “Violence Girl” and the outstanding “Lexicon Devil – The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash”. THEN, if you’re not satiated – I’m still not, by any means – then you should find a used copy of this one, and approach with caution.