Spray-Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag
I still remember pretty vividly the first time I heard Black Flag. It was the summer of 1991, I was getting ready to go into high school and Perry Farrel had some Lollapalooza tour. I read about it in Spin magazine and remember clearly a photo of a muscle and tattoo clad angry dude named Henry Rollins, sweating profusely and screaming into a microphone. The side article mentioned that he was a former member of Black Flag.
Here is the catch, when I was eight, my dad used to own his own business. A few storefronts down from his was a record store. For years, when I would accompany my father to work, I would spend HOURS in that record store, flipping through all the vinyl covers. Before I heard the music, Black Flag, Slayer, King Diamond and many others really effected me with fantastic, frightening cover art. I really wanted to hear what was inside (or sometimes I was too scared, I still don’t own King Diamond), but being relatively small, I knew there was no way this shit was going to get past the mom filter. Poison, Warrant, even Metallica seemed on the surface harmless. But no way was “the hard stuff” gonna get in.
So it’s 1991, my friend Keith and I go to the Waxie Maxie’s in town to flip through tapes. He buys Jesus Jones or EMF or some other big name group at the time. I buy Black Flag’s “The First Four Years”. We get back to his house and I put on my tape at some point, and Keith looks at me funny. He is not into this tape at all. Me, I fucking love it. It’s the most violent, fierce, balls out music I have ever heard. The three singers all sound different wave lengths of deranged, the guitar sounds like it’s going to shoot electricity out. Everything just sounds chaotic and fucked up and desperate, just like I felt at 14.
Weeks into high school, Keith and I went our separate ways. We didn’t have a falling out or anything and at the core we were still the same kids who liked rock music and skateboarding. But Keith was into Zepplin and AC/DC and those bands seemed like a bunch of pansies to me. And they still do. Black Flag changed the direction my life would take permanently. It dictated who my friends would be, what I would read, how I would view fine art and the way in which I would play music and create art.
Having said all this, when I first saw Spray-Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag at Smash Records a few months ago, I pretty much had to read it. Sure, most of the story is pretty well-known. Henry Rollins did a good job with Get In the Van and releasing Planet Joe by Joe Cole. The former is Rollins’ account of much of what occurred during his tenure with the band. The later is a tour journal from the last tour written by the ultimate roadie. And there have been a few essential interviews and book chapters on the group. But nothing defining on the band. Spray-Paint The Walls is a first attempt at tackling this band.
However I wish I had done some research before buying this product. I’m not saying that I was dissatisfied with Spray-Paint The Walls as a story. It’s fairly well written and pretty thorough and covers a part of the Black Flag story that I’ve wanted to read more about, IE the first four years. The interviews with Keith Morris and Ron Reyes are essential reading, parts of the story that are rarely heard. It was a total pleasure to find out more about the earliest, most formidable years with the band.
There are some major problems with this book. Those problems would be the fact that Greg Ginn, Henry Rollins and Bill Stevenson were not interviewed for this book. Now, I don’t blame Stevie Chick for this at all. All three of those guys have pretty much said that the story of Flag is in the past and thus closed. None of those guys are talking about the history of the band. Nothing Chick could do about that, but the source material used barely scratches the surface and in the case of Rollins and Ginn are pretty well read and well-known. Chick uses a great deal of reference from Get In the Van to add Rollins perspective. More often than not these passages feel forced and is better used for historical points rather than interjection. And Greg Ginn basically comes off looking like an asshole, which I am sure he is in a way, but the man isn’t given an opportunity to defend himself. Further, Dez Caden and Raymond Pettitbon are also absent and only scant effort is made to include them. For me and many others, Pettitbon, whether he likes it or not, is essential to the Black Flag experience.
Further depth and analysis into later Black Flag releases are also pretty sparse. Chick does a phenomenal job with the Flag up to the Damaged LP, but after that, details about and even mention of later albums falls off. Granted, it seems most of the albums after this were recorded during marathon sessions, but jesus they are so awesome. Chick has the vocabulary to cover this material, but it feels, like many, that after Chuck Dukowski exited the band, so did interest. Of course, in my opinion, the best music today influenced by Black Flag is born from the later period, rather than people coping from the early stuff.
All in all though, I was sad when the book ended. It didn’t have everything I was looking for, but it does a really strong job of capturing the early history of punk through the eyes of one of its quintessential bands. It also tells some of the story that hasn’t been totally there. Mike Watt and Kira Rossler both contributed interviews to the story that are invaluable. If punk rock history is important to you, and it should very well be or you wouldn’t be reading this nonsense now, then it might behoove you to pick this sucker up and turn the pages while the chaos of Black Flag rages around your head.