Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Spray Paint The Walls: The Story of Black Flag" by Stevie Chick

I just finished this book, and found it to be readable and engaging, although certainly not prefect.

One thing to realize going in: this book is just as much about SST as it is about Black Flag. If you cut out all of the not-Flag-specific text, the book would be probably half as long as it is. The two were pretty intertwined, so I have no problem with the inclusion of that material.

"Spray Paint…" makes heavy use of the books that came before, but Chick also conducted numerous interviews himself with many of the principal players in the Black Flag/SST scene. Keith Morris, Mike Watt, Joe Carducci, Tom Troccoli, Mugger and especially Chuck Dukowski really help to round the book out with interviews conducted in 2009. Brendan Mullen, Kira Roessler, Ron Reyes, Dez Cadena, and Mark Arm (among others) were also interviewed and have generally interesting and relevant things to say.

Main Flag man Greg Ginn was not interviewed, although I'm sure Chick tried. Instead, he pulls quotes and information from probably every interview Greg ever gave to a fanzine or newspaper to shed some light on his interpretation of events. As someone who has not read any of the previous Flag books besides "Get In The Van", I found these snippets to be very useful.

Henry Rollins was also not interviewed for this book, but fortunately his take on things is well documented, and Chick draws from a number of Rollins books and spoken word performances for background and details. And Chick dutifully cites almost every direct quote in the book - many come from the interviews he conducted, but when he does take something from another source, he gives the title or in many cases a full URL. This is much appreciated.

I do have some quibbles with the book, though. Besides referring to Misfits as a California band, Chick credits Henry Rollins' first post-Flag project to "Henrietta Collins and the Wifebeaters" when it is, of course, "Henrietta Collins and the Wifebeating Childhaters". And he repeatedly refers to Huntingdon Beach instead of Huntington Beach. These may seem like minor annoyances, but getting such basic and easily-verifiable information wrong casts some doubt over the information presented in the book as a whole. There are also a few typos (where is Irag?) and what appears to be at least one errant paragraph inserted in the wrong place.

Then we have the age-old problem of "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Chick spends a lot of space describing Black Flag's music track by track, especially Ginn's guitar playing, and the descriptions get repetitive after a while. And no words can convey the emotional impact a particular song might have on you… You can hear previews of almost everything Black Flag ever released at the iTunes Store or Amazon's MP3 section, among other places.

One last piece of criticism. The front cover features a giant photo of Henry singing, but his name isn't even mentioned for the first 200 pages. Greg Ginn, the only constant member and focus of much of the book, is shown in a much smaller photo on the back cover. This was obviously done for marketing purposes, but could be a little misleading for folks who don't already know something about Black Flag.

Having said all of that, I did like the book. The most interesting part, for me, is the early biographical details of these folks, where they came from and how their lives intersected. Again, Rollins' story is fairly well known by this point, but I enjoyed reading about the others.

An index would have been great, but Chick does include a full bibliography. I would recommend "Spray Paint The Walls" to someone interested in Black Flag and/or SST; even if you have read the other Flag books, the new interviews alone may be worth the trudge.

BONUS: Check out this infographic, Black Flag Hair: A Timeline. Ha!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Flesh Eaters - "Forever Came Today"

OK, you can find people who are much more learned than I expounding at length on this band and this record, its not hard. I'm just a fan and not a scholar, nothing too highbrow here, so take it for what it is.

My introduction to The Flesh Eaters came many many years ago via their classic first full-length record, "A Minute To Pray A Second To Die" (1981, Ruby/Slash). To this day, I still think that is one of the creepiest records ever. There are a couple of songs I don't really like, but the ones that work, work very well. The marimbas and sax really add to the swampy voodoo-roots-punk vibe and absolutely captivated me. "River of Fever" still gives me goosebumps all these years later.

Years after, I bought a later record, "Sex Diary of Mr. Vampire" (1992, SST). Except for leader Chris D., the band was completely different and it sounded different. I was not amused. In fact, I hated it for not being more like "A Minute…" Subsequently, I gave up on The Flesh Eaters, content to replay their one undeniable classic over and and over. (Even more years after that, I am revisiting "Sex Diary…," and I find it to be enjoyable in its own way. A different sound to be sure - the swamp has been left behind, but it is still rootsy with a punk rock vibe. Plus I'm sucker for electric slide-guitar.)

As it turns out, The Flesh Eaters put out a lot of good material in the intervening (and preceding) years. "Forever Came Today" (1982, Ruby) is their second full-length, and what it lacks in bayou atmosphere it more than makes up for in straight ahead punk-infused rock, with saxophone still intact. You still get slow-burners like "Secret Life" and "The Rosy Hours" but they are juxtaposed with full-on ragers like "Shallow Water" and "Drag My Name In The Mud."

Even though it only comes a year after "A Minute To Pray…" the line-up is completely different except for Chris D. and sax-man Steve Berlin. You may recognize Steve's name from his future bands The Blasters or Los Lobos, bust rest assured, The Flesh Eaters are very different from either of those groups. In fact, in the early years, The Flesh Eaters' revolving cast featured such future stars as John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake of X, and Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman of The Blasters, among others.

"Forever Came Today" is a monster of blues-inflected, doomed and rootsy punk, from when punk meant "something different and daring and a little unsettling." It is also the only major record from The Flesh Eaters that has never been issued on CD… Yep, this is vinyl only, folks. And that is a damn shame. It is a ferocious juggernaut, just begging to lay waste to today's cookie-cutter mall-punk.

Their next record, "A Hard Road To Follow" (Upsetter, 1983) amazingly has the same line-up as "Forever Came Today" and is also a left-of-center rock monster. It was reissued by Atavistic, who also gave us the killer "No Questions Asked" (Atavistic, 2004) collection of singles, compilation tracks, and demos. Both of these CDs are well worth your time.

C'mon Atavistic, scrounge up the rights to "Forever Came Today" and re-release it on CD already! And to MP3 devotees… The vinyl features the lyrics to all of the songs, not always easy to make out while they are being sung. And you do want to know the lyrics, they are often mind-boggling and beautiful and a little disturbing, all at the same time. Even if you think you know the words, you probably don't. Chris D. practiced that crazy William Burroughs cut-up method for lyrics, which makes sense when you read them. Often confusing for poetry neophytes such as myself, but sometimes absolutely transcendent.

Chris D. also has a few books under his belt. "Double Snake Bourbon" (1989, Illiterati Press) is out of print and pricey; it contains a lot of poems, dreams, and lyrics from early Flesh Eaters songs (but not all of them). A newer book, "A Minute To Pray A Second To Die" (2009, New Texture Books) is much easier to get your hands on. As far as I can tell, it contains all of "Double Snake Bourbon" plus a lot more. Certainly worth it if you are a fan.

"Forever Came Today", along with "A Hard Road To Follow" and "A Minute To Pray A Second to Die" make up an extremely compelling trilogy of dark, aggressive music. There is also a worthy live record, titled simply "The Flesh Eaters Live" (1988, Homestead) that is worth your attention. I can't really speak to the post-1990 output as I don't have much of it and I need to listen to what I do have more before rendering my oh-so-important judgment, but these four full-lengths and the "No Questions Asked" compilation are all excellent additions to any gritty music collection. So, so highly recommended.

This is a video for the first song on side two of "Forever Came Today," enjoy...