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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(this is a piece I originally wrote in a 2001 edition of Tim Ellison’s MODERN ROCK MAGAZINE print fanzine)

RICHARD MELTZER : “A WHORE JUST LIKE THE REST – THE MUSIC WRITINGS OF RICHARD MELTZER” book

There’s a school of thought – which I pretty much subscribe to – that says that it doesn’t necessarily matter which side of the social/political/cultural fence you land on, it’s the force and passion and contrariness of your convictions that matter – or at least that make for the best reading. Putting it straight, those with loudly-expressed opinions that fly in the face of what our man Richard Meltzer might call the “hand-as-dealt” are far more entertaining and thought-provoking than the writerly “whores” that cough up 99% of the purple prose out there, no matter how much their positions contradict what you and I might hold dear. In the political and social commentary realm two of the most refreshingly agitating are Camille Paglia and Christopher Hitchens; in rock and roll writing there is/was Byron Coley and of course Lester Bangs, and then there’s this woman Ingrid Schorr now writing in the digest Hermenaut who is one of the funniest new bare-knuckled critics I’ve had the pleasure of chortling to.

Standing right there with and possibly astride this pantheon of modern critical “wit” is Richard Meltzer, a guy who boldly and not without some embarrassment proclaims he flat-out invented the whole rock & roll writing shtick that spawned Bangs and Coley & a bazillion others. It’s a shtick he’s been spending 30-plus years trying to find a way to get away from, and which he spends the greater part of this collection attempting to justify.

For Meltzer, even having to put this music-writings thing out is a tremendous let-down and something of a sellout, but as he himself reminds us time and again, you gotta pay the bills – and besides, Meltzer needs above all else – what? – that’s right, his DUE. I’ll begin on the premise that those reading this piece are already somewhat familiar with Richard Meltzer and his work, and then admit that I have been a big Meltzer skeptic for as long as I’ve seen his stuff. What wasn’t a total drag to try and actually READ (think every fourth word chopped and punctuated just because, capitals screaming and squirting all over the page, etc.) was full of adolescent sexual longings and untold messy confessions about relationships gone sour. Not the sort of filler I wanted in my long-playing record review, but then, as I found out in the course of reading “A Whore Just Like The Rest”, reviewing records straight-up is about as far from where Meltzer wanted or wants to be as John Updike is from writing Wu-Tang lyrics. I’m not going to say I’m eating a bunch of crow over this, because there’s still a ton about the man and his writing that annoys, but I will say I misjudged his oeuvre pretty harshly and that this collection is a darn good read.

Best of the almost-600-page bunch are the pieces that bookend the collection, starting with his initial forays into writing about his then-passion of rock and roll – writing that is so addled, deliberately ridiculous and mocking of the business of rock that it’s easy to see why Meltzer was a total conundrum to the promo-mailing record labels of the day. A lot of it is just piss-your-drawers funny, too. A late 1960s piece called “Marty Balin: Artist as Madman” is an exclamation-point-riddled jester’s tale of non-sequiturs that takes the wind right out of the Jefferson Airplane’s Balin, who Meltzer nonetheless described as a personal friend and drinking buddy:

If no one’s ever called him a raving maniac let it be said right now. He doesn’t like to hunt with a shotgun but if he did he’d rather go for polar bears! Unlike most San Franciscans, he wears a full complement of underwear! It’s a quarter to ten and he’s still not asleep in bed! He’s out carousing! What a wild guy! He’s even been on boats! His hobby is reading! He is approximately 27 or 28 years of age! And yet he believes in astrology and the zodiac! For $7.95 he could have himself an electro-plating kit! Yet he’s never purchased one! He played defensive cornerback for the football team and never made an interception! In the early days he used to guard Grace from the male fans! You couldn’t get near her if you tried, unless you became Marty’s friend!…More than slightly crazy is what he is, crrrazy man!

Unlike Bangs, who gets an entire chapter of reminiscence from Meltzer here, or Byron Coley, you can’t really judge Richard Meltzer by how many cool bands he hipped you to. Record reviewing as consumer’s guide – well, that belongs to Bob Christgau and all those dorks. By the time Jim Morrison was sporting facial hair, Meltzer was just about checked out of writing about this stuff in any way that resembled meaningful “modern” rock criticism, which makes the stuff he did write all the more entertaining and unique. A caveat would be his excellent take on the late 1970s LA punk rock scene, when his brief faith in rock music’s potential is restored for a short time, only to be dashed by the usual twin suspects of stupidity and greed.

One is reminded time and again in this collection that Meltzer has seen through the art vs. commerce bullshit long before most of his peers, and he has no qualms with fully taking them to task for it. Anyone who could be derided as a sellout whore in this game is called onto the carpet, sometimes so viciously that you wonder if Meltzer’s been personally burned or cheated by the person in question. Turns out that he’s all-too-willing to let you know when he has.

Robert Christgau and Sandy Pearlman’s crimes come up so often in this collection, and with such searing hatred – and remember, this isn’t everything Meltzer’s written, just a selection – that you start wondering when it becomes time to begin “considering the source”. But when he keeps the bitterness at bay and instead heaps a big helping of ridicule on rock’s lesser lights, all the while filtered through the events of his own ludicrous involvement in “the scene”, his writing is transformed from the absurd mess I once saw it as and into a consistently great and laugh-out-loud style that has all the hallmarks of a true original.

Then, once Meltzer has thoroughly rejected his rock-crit past and is delving into lengthier non-rock pieces, not to mention his several “under-appreciated” (just ask him!) works of fiction, he gets this call from the San Diego Reader saying they want his name on the masthead, and all he has to do is pretend to review upcoming shows in the San Diego area, even for bands he’s never listened to or heard of. This almost always involves Meltzer writing about something wholly unrelated to rock music and plunking the band’s name in at the end. The result is so fantastically stupid I wish he’d included a ton more of these gems. Here, from a “preview” of the upcoming 9/5/98 show by a band called the Cigar Store Indians:

Just got back from Biloxi, where I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the National Soup Museum, and lemme tell you it is a lulu. Featuring more than 80,000 soups, the pride of such acclaimed purveyors of canned pottage as Campbell’s, Stouffer’s, Heinz, Progresso, Eat-Rite, Soupco, and Ethel Mermen’s Gourmet Kitchen, this thousand-acre edifice is a marvel of exhibitional enterprise.

Most fascinating, perhaps, are the displays in the Extinct Wing, devoted to flavors which for various reasons have through the years been removed from company rosters. These include:

Olive and Watercress, Homemade Gull Chunk, Dawg, Marachino Kidney, Cream of Pupa, Turkey Glutton, Olde Fashioned Gruel, Chicken With Starch, Scrod Gill, Striated Mutton Pulp, Sour Barnacle, Horse Nuts (yes – it’s what you think), Rat Specks and Gouda, Lentil Banana, Gizzards with Talc, Prenatal Chimp, Tartar Control Moth, (Meltzer enumerates about 50 more)…and not one, not two, but three Cigar Store Indians: Painted, Unfinished, and Kaw-Liga (with a full-color likeness of Hank Williams on the label).

Great museum!

This isn’t to say the man doesn’t occasionally miss the mark so badly you want to slam the book down. If his pal and sometime-collaborator Nick Tosches has a bit of a problem with overstating his sexual prowess, Meltzer has a far worse problem with particularizing his hatred for the cruel world outside – and hatred for himself. It’s not enough to be bitter about a few things – not making much cash as a writer, not getting any more than sub-underground kudos for being a very good writer, the triumph of consumer culture, whatever. No, Meltzer seems to only be able to find redemption in picking apart how poorly he and his fellow travelers have been treated, and then reflecting that ill will right back on himself, without seriously asking if maybe his condemnation of everything outside of a narrow sub-stratum of coolness is more than a little self-defeating. And when you tar and feather a broad group of diverse human beings with the same brush, you’re inevitably going to sound whiny, cloistered and just out-and-out mean.

Easily the worst piece in the book is called “One White Man’s Opinion”, written just after the LA Riots. Meltzer sounds like the fourteen-year-old who’s just been to his first Rage Against The Machine concert and about to hit the head shops for the perfect Che poster as a result. This piece – in which Meltzer takes a rational premise of pride in the pure fuck you-ness and rage of the riot and then carries it into ridiculousness – reads like it came from a verrrry bored writer hoping for a few hostile letters to the editor and a little reverse ego-stroking. I’m sure he got them. Ostensibly, if you believe his intro to the piece in this book, it’s really an apology from Meltzer on behalf of white musicians for ripping off black musical culture. I mean, DUH. The few “No shit, Sherlock” points he makes about the criminal treatment of American blacks throughout US history are obscured by the worst junior revolutionary twaddle and statistical inaccuracies imaginable:

The language of this country is BLOOD. In the last five years, more blacks have been killed by American authorities than the total of all Americans killed in Indochina…..The white American family is a nest of coiled serpents, a den of rabid wolverines…..this country cares about NO ONE without a white face, a home in the suburbs, $75,000-plus a year, and a job that brings death to the planet…..By no stretch of the imagination can the federal government even hypothetically want drugs out of the ghetto…..There is no drug as harmful – as lethal – as television….

And on and on and on. Conclusion drawn from this piece, had it been the only one I’d read: Richard Meltzer doesn’t understand politics, race relations, history or humankind in general, and should not be allowed to write about them with any seriousness. I’m glad he’s got rock & roll and pop culture to fall back on.

“A Whore Just Like The Rest”, to its credit, is constructed in such a way that allows warts-and-all viewing of the history of Meltzer’s rock writing, with several non-rock pieces thrown in, as there’d probably be no other way of getting these takes on a variety of topics (wrestling, a tour of San Diego’s seedy side, a trip to the opera) widely published otherwise. So certainly there’s going to be a measure of bad to take with the good, and I have to say overall that it’s a pretty minuscule measure.

I think his sheepishness about a lot of what he’s written that comes out in the intros to many of the pieces here is genuine, which is also quite refreshing when even the best writers fall down on the job from time to time. So hey, maybe he was the first guy to write about rock and roll in any meaningful, critical way, but like the guy who first married the word “punk” to “rock” – BIG DEAL. It’s what you actually wrote that counts for anything, and I don’t believe Meltzer deserves many kudos as a “rock and roll writer”, since he was then and he is now more inventive, interesting and idiosyncratic than that.

For a guy who essentially writes like we’ve all pretended Jack Kerouac did – words and thoughts spewing out quickly, totally unedited and then rushed into print – Meltzer’s style is coherently funny and contrarian to a fault. It just works. I’ve struggled to say it myself, but after reading this collection – yes, warts and all – I’m ready to come out and proclaim Richard Meltzer, a guy I used to loathe, is now Richard Meltzer, a guy I kinda like.