Saturday, May 9, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Black Flag's My War

My War was a big deal when it came out in early 1984 because it represented a U-turn. Black Flag, more than any other band, created the sound that by the early 1980s had become synonymous with Punk, and that sound was California Hardcore. With My War, Black Flag moved away from the short, fast songs of the seminal Damaged (1981) debut LP, an album that most of my fellow undergraduate friends at Berkeley seemed to own, to longer, slower, brooding compositions punctuated by Greg Ginn guitar solos. The principal members of the band, guitarist Ginn and vocalist Henry Rollins, grew their hair out long while most of us were buzzing our locks off with electric shears for the first time.

The impression created was one of surrender, of retreat to old, spent Hippie forms. This was confusing to fans, like myself, who were just beginning to embrace Hardcore Punk.

I had dutifully made a trip to the record store and purchased a copy of My War when it first appeared, and had -- along with my wife (who was then my live-in girlfriend), cousin and a couple of friends -- gone to see Black Flag promote the album when they performed at the Stone in San Francisco. This wasn't the show captured on the Live '84 album, or maybe it was; I can't rightly remember. The one we saw, as I recall it, was in the early spring or might have even been in February, just prior to the release of the record. I remember it was a cold, dark evening. And I remember that Bob Dylan's Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) was being pumped through the PA. (I don't think I caught the pun, though I appreciated hearing the album. I too was in the habit at the time of marrying on mix tapes Hardcore music with pre-electric Dylan.)

When the Black Flag came on stage, the presence of a petite girl bass player, Kira Roessler, and the shaggy Hippie heads of Ginn and Rollins, along with the shirtless, beefy, hirsute Bill Stevenson was jarring. I don't know why but it seemed self-indulgent to me. I guess I thought of Hardcore as part of a movement, and here were the founders getting way out ahead of or doing an end-around the faithful.

There were a lot of dewy, downy high school Nazi Punks from the suburbs ready to slam to "Spray Paint" and "TV Party." And things started well enough, with a fast-moving pit circulating to "My War" and some of the other tracks featured on the first side of the album, before hitting the sand with the side-two material (which Christgau dismissed as the "Three dirges that waste side two").

I remember being offended by Rollins' "Rock God" preening. During one of those  "dirges" he pulled down around his thighs the tight black running shorts he wore and displayed his genitals and gyrated his hips in front of the face of a milk-fed, flannel-clad Punk who was jammed against the lip of the stage.

I don't know if we left early or if we stuck it out for the whole show. But I do remember in the subsequent months making an effort to couple with My War and try to get my head around what Ginn was up to. Usually, depending on what my course schedule was for the semester, I would have an early afternoon hole in the school day. I would return to an empty apartment -- the girlfriend, still on campus in class or at work -- and eat lunch, drink coffee and listen to music. It was then, free of the distractions of the evening and cohabitation, that I could really figure music out.

And I did try with My War at least a few times. There was one sunny afternoon that I almost got there, almost "achieved climax." It was with one the "Three dirges that waste side two." But in the end, I never went back to My War. I never bought another Black Flag album.

Nineteen-Eighty-Four was the year that Black Flag would be toppled from its Hardcore pinnacle by three other SST Records bands -- Meat Puppets, Minutemen and Hüsker Dü. Basically, My War was the beginning of the end for Black Flag, even though the band would amazingly release four LPs in 1984.

What makes my immersion in My War this past week so interesting is that immediately upon hearing the album for the first time in many years -- if not three decades -- I knew it was good. Gone was any resistance to the material or difficulty in comprehension. The record makes perfect sense, particularly compelling is Greg Ginn's guitar sound. Something has happened in thirty years. What I tried to accept and could not at the age of 19 is now "music to my ears" at 50.

And what is that?

It has something to do with time itself. What psychedelic ballroom bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service achieved was a sonic mirror of time -- how it meanders and eddies, how there are concentrated pockets and empty gaps; what the athlete knows as "time within time." The second side of My War brings this home beautifully, and that is why I'm sure it will be played for a very long time.

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