Hoisting the Black Flag
Nostalgia vs. evolution as hardcore legends return to the stage
By David Cotner 07/18/2013
When word spread that Black Flag had returned as a band after 27 years, two reactions occurred in tandem: surprise and expectation. Since ceasing function as a going concern in August 1986, Black Flag has existed mostly in the hearts and souls of faithful hardcore fans that act, whenever Black Flag reforms as a one-off to save kittens from trees or whatever, as though, ironically enough, a second coming is at hand.
Black Flag is a band that has become shorthand for a lot of loaded concepts.
Hardcore. Opposition. Protest. Black Flag kills ants dead (a reference to punk rock’s superiority to new wave). Its latest version — founder/guitarist Greg Ginn, vocalist Ron Reyes (the second in a series of four singers for the band, not counting pro skater Mike Vallely), drummer Gregory Moore (of Gone, another Ginn band) and Screeching Weasel bassist Dave Klein — closes out its latest West Coast tour with an evening in Ventura, a halcyon seaside town that might as well be the backdrop for the subject matter of any given Black Flag song.
Alienation. Middle-class hypocrisy. Garden-variety greed. There is a self-avowed Black Flag “tribute” band also running around in the world today. Flag, made up of Black Flag alumni Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, Dez Cadena and Descendents drummer Stephen Egerton. And yet that “tribute” is not one of Black Flag’s later “In My Head” years — too artsy, too intellectual — but (as seen at the Goldenvoice 30th anniversary live actions of 2011) of things like the 1978 Nervous Breakdown EP. It’s tempting to compare and contrast the two — you know, just like those high school exercises in lifting leaden classics of art and literature — but the difference is that Flag gives you what you want as a fan. Black Flag gives you what Greg Ginn wants as an artist.
Neither is necessarily at odds with the other, but the difference between Flag and Black Flag is the difference between nostalgia and progression. Nostalgia for hardcore is an exceptionally difficult proposition because, when you feel that nostalgia for it, you summon up the whole of your self as a younger person. The strength you had. The passion. The intent. Some or all of these things, in the past 30 years, might have, so to speak, flagged. Nostalgia begins to feel like a knife in the back at that point. What did you do with your life? Where did you go? What are you for?
With Black Flag, Greg Ginn’s vision for the band is a bit like free jazz; occasionally you will hear some melodic favorites. With Reyes as a singer, it’s not as though they’re going to saddle you with dowdy Black Flag songs like “I Can See You”; and yes, there are some new songs from an as-yet-untitled, forthcoming LP due later this year, some of which can be heard on the Black Flag website. But, as with free jazz — noisy and unctuous and difficult as it tends to be — Greg Ginn isn’t really interested in giving you exactly the song you heard when you heard it first. That’s what the merch table is for. Punk was always about subverting expectations. The old rallying cry of “no future” is a multidimensional turn of phrase coming truer with every year of annihilated pensions and assaults on Social Security, and Black Flag was always good about doing the worst things to that sense of expectation, of entitlement. They didn’t even keep the same haircuts. Punks don’t have long hair, do they?
Hardcore is like obscenity: you know it when you see it. At least you think you do. And yet what do you think you’ll see when you see Black Flag?
Black Flag will perform at the Ventura Theater on Wednesday, July 24.