Photo by James BunoanBlack Flag
Alex's Bar, Long Beach
Sunday, Sept. 14
The short story: a lot of people got fucked. The long story: a lot of people got Black Flag in every way they weren't ready for. You should remember Black Flag as one of the absolute best bands to come out of California punk, an outfit that transcended genre to create some of the most bitterly original, ahead-of-its-time music the state has ever seen. That said, you should also remember Black Flag as one of the most stupidly stubborn bands ever, a band that never figured out the difference between uncompromising and hostile, and a band—as they reminded everyone this weekend—that history may remember a bit too gently. Flag founder Greg Ginn is a guitar genius, but this show demonstrated further talents: "Wow," said one Flag apologist, watching a wave of meatheads try and find a beat to mosh to. "Ginn's like an idiot savant—at pissing people off."
After stage-warmer opening acts Mike V. and the Rats (skater Mike Vallely pulling a Faction) and D.I., a bunch of black-clad construction dudes got what they wanted—kinda: Black Flag, opening for themselves, playing the still-loathed, avant-garde, stoner-metal My War album in its excruciating entirety. Except it wasn't quite Black Flag: it was longtime guitarists Dez Cadena and Ginn, a CD player on prerecorded bass, some scrawny kid on drums, and the Rats' Mike V. giving great Henry Rollins, despite muffing a lyric here and there and changing Flag gospel to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues": "He does a great Rollins impersonation!" said one girl, who suddenly realized that could have come out nicer. "I mean . . . he's very influenced by Rollins. Very heavily influenced!" Explain it to mom and dad this way: this was like McCartney getting the Beatles back together with Pete Best, some of John's rehearsal tapes, and whoever plays Harrison in the Fab Four tribute band. And then they'd play Wings songs. People hate this Black Flag, booing like they'd been saving it up for 20 years. Even Cadena wasn't too enthusiastic: at one point, he broke a string and finished the song posing silently for onstage pictures with the bar owner as Ginn flopped around in oblivious guitar-solo ecstasy not five feet away.
By the time the real—well, most real—Black Flag came on, the crowd was simply constipated with anticipation. At least this lineup, as our Flag apologist astutely pointed out, had all been in Black Flag at one time: Cadena and Ginn on guitar, Sal Revuelta (from the last few months of the band in 1985) on bass, and—thankfully!—mostly original drummer Robo. And they still wouldn't play fair, opening with deep-album cut "Life of Pain" (Robo was so excited he kicked in early—oops!) and skipping over all the hits. "Rise Above"? "Revenge"? "Depression"? Go buy a CD, kid: this was Cadena already sick of being there, taunting the meatheads ("Monkey want a banana?" he croaked before slipping into "Wasted") and counting the minutes till he could leave; this was a set list of high-learning-curve classics and Ginn in another dimension, prancing through solo after warped solo while hallucinatory kittens (the Flag shows were a benefit for homeless cats, as proscribed by animal-lover Ginn) no doubt crawled gratefully all over him. They did 13 songs, and no one was really happy until "Louie, Louie," which forced in a guitar solo and a drum solo and lasted longer than the entire Jealous Again EP.
And it went yet on. Robo disappeared for intravenous hydration and emergency defibrillation, the scrawny kid set up his drums, Cadena slunk back from the bar stool he'd retreated to during an interminable "Damaged 1," and they started again. At this point, you forgave Rollins for all the shit he ever talked: Black Flag really does mean torture. Finally, by song 23, with a crowd ground to shreds by sheer attrition, they started obstinately cranking out the hits, albeit with the bass machine. It was so brilliantly, antagonistically manipulative it was almost genius—was this Ginn's legendarily brutal discipline applied to his public? That famous process of weeding out? Will only the strong survive to hear "Six Pack"? Because, God, people were trying hard: the AA apology letters that come out of that night will be legion, and they'll all mention the shirtless guy spasming around in the dirty spit/slime on the concrete floor, wringing every last bit of self-abasement out of his admission.
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Who knows how long they could have gone if the beer cups hadn't started flying? During "Jealous Again," Cadena had obviously had enough, plucking a beer cup off the PA and firing it into the audience. He'd been spit on—by girls, too!—and yelled at and fucked with all night, but now he was getting mean. He grabbed a mic stand—very slowly and deliberately —and sort of half-assedly raked a stage-diver. Seconds later, a bolt of ice and booze hit the side of his head. You could see every bad memory flood back, every argument he'd had with himself about whether or not this cat-benefit reunion thing was a good idea suddenly explode into his bloodstream. He dropped his shit and pushed his way offstage, settling in at the bar so angrily that not even the eight-foot skins went near him, and when the CD player started a new song, Ginn stopped it, waved the drummer to a halt and started packing up. That was it. The end. Go home. Everyone looked confused, which was weird because this was exactly like every Black Flag show we'd ever heard about. It's good to see that, after all these years, they still got it.