So not punk to begin a discussion of Black Flag by talking about Pavement. But: when “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” came out, I knew right away that it was a better album than “Slanted and Enchanted,” which preceded it. But, when The Pavement Conversations happens, I still hype “Slanted,” because it was the first one for me. It’s my favorite even though I know it’s not as good.
Black Flag is like that. A lot. They made so many mistakes and had so many personnel changes that cases can be made for or against pretty much any member of the band, or song, or record. And as much as punk is supposed to be an anathema to sentimentality, people’s choices are often based on where they were when they got in: which incarnation they saw first, which record a friend dubbed, stuff like that.
The most obvious point of debate –and the most obvious place to start – is with the band’s four singers. There are cases to be made for (and against) each: Keith Morris, singer #1, was (and is) snotty as hell, stretching syllables to their breaking point from “Nervous Breakdown” on. If you’re nitpicking –and why not, right? – maybe Morris is a little too Rotten. (Yeah, but “Nervous Breakdown” was recorded in the 70’s, I know. And Keith’s been singing more or less since then, so there’s that, too. And he hasn’t lost an ounce of steam in Off!)
Ron Reyes –or, depending on when, where and how you started listening, Chavo Pederast – was more explosive than Keith was, and was great both on and off the stage in ‘The Decline of Western Civilization.’ He’s charismatic and full of energy and generally awesome, though in his recorded output he hits bum notes in ways that don’t always work for me. (I know, I know, punk isn’t about virtuosity, blah blah blah.)
Henry Rollins is a lightning rod – depending on your take, he either ruined the band (an oft-repeated chestnut) or took him to where they are today (whatever that means). I never bought into the first argument, that he ruined the band – like Greg Ginn would let some new, admittedly green singer drive the metaphorical van. Nope. Henry improved tremendously over his five year tenure as the band’s playing evolved out of punk/hardcore and into something entirely its own. He shifted from a hoarse barker to a bona fide vocalist, though, like everyone else, there are some missteps along the way (the “it’s all in my mind” bit from “Black Coffee” comes to mind here. I’ll get back into this later on in the week).
Dez is my favorite.
Sure, part of it is completely sentimental: my first exposure to the band came through a mix tape a buddy from summer camp mailed me. “Okay, we’re rolling, you can play,” Spot (right?) says in his weird reedy voice, then there’s clanging piano for a little too long, until Ginn’s guitar finally kicks in. Dez is fucking ferocious as he belts out the first line (and, for that matter, the rest) of Jealous Again. There’s some restraint in his vocals that’s lacking in the official Ron Reyes 12” version. The Dez version appears, as does so much amazing stuff, on Everything Went Black, the comp Black Flag released while under injunction by MCA records . Dez delivers an under-the-breath, muttered quality that makes the song sound less performative and more convincing, as if it’s part of the natural give-and-take of an argument instead of a rant to an already-converted room full of angry dudes.
A common thread, when talking about the band, is to mention how much energy and work was put into it by the band members and the folks who worked with and for the SST record label. Dez exemplifies this: if you listen to his recorded output (except maybe ‘Jealous Again,’ anyway), he’s totally going for it. Not that the other guys in the band aren’t, mind you, but c’mon. Dez shouts himself hoarse! As a result, some of his stuff isn’t as dynamic as with the band’s other singers, but I think it sounds great.
Part of the allure of Dez, too, is that he knew his voice wouldn’t sustain itself, so he switched to guitar. His contributions there are part of what makes Damaged such a crucial record….and the lack thereof are what make My War such a tough one. I’ll talk about both tomorrow.