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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Notes From the Old School: Black Flag's My War

In high school, I was, of course, a grit, a headbanger, a longhair, a hockey head, whatever you want to call it, so long as you don't affix the word "mullet," since that term was never a part of eighties lexicon.  After a year-and-a-half in fierce defense of the music I loved against our mocking school body, I found myself in an interesting position.  I was hardly Marc Price's "Ragman" from Trick Or Treat, the beaten and bruised outcast nobody wanted around.  The secret I discovered to working the high school social scene despite having little in common with my peers, was taking weightlifting from sophomore to senior years and getting to know the jocks.  The more reps I pumped and the higher my weight class went, I was accepted despite my heaving boy-shag.  Then I was able to converse with girls about anything and everything.  That strategm didn't win me many dates until I found a serious girlfriend in junior year, but I'd become a soundboard for many of the ladies in our school and in time, I had double the amount of friends outside my own kind, as it were.

If there was one sect of kids I found it hard to penetrate, it was the punk rockers.  I loved punk and was always curious about the skaters and mohawks parading around the school in their leather, bristles and acne (to call upon GBH for a moment), not to mention their records, almost all of which were carrying Black Flag.  I dug the speed and the intensity of eighties hardcore and I tripped on the brackish muck of Iggy and the Stooges.  Before you knew it, I was adding records by Adrenalin OD, DRI, Agent Orange, Discharge, Broken Bones, The Exploited, the Ramones and of course, GBH to my metalhead library.

There seemed something secretive about Black Flag amongst our punk sanction.  Maybe it was because the farmer bruisers at school targeted them more than anyone else, albeit the mousier metalheads weren't far off their radar.  I remember one legendary day when one of the punks smarted off to the FFA clique and then a high speed chase ensued out of the school parking lot with the farmers beaming down on the punks via the then-backwoods throughway of our town, Hampstead well into the neighboring burg, Manchester.  Suffice it to say from those who followed the action, the punkers didn't fare well thereafter.

It was shortly following this incident that I made a point to get to know these punk kids.  They hated me because I was metal, albeit when push comes to shove, they had their own latent affinities for Black Sabbath and even the early years of Iron Maiden, since Paul DiAnno was a punk in his own right.  It took me some prodding and nudging into their ranks and mostly I was met with "fuck off" or "go to hell."  Soon enough, though, they'd found out me and my headbanger friends were listening to the same music they were.  Elusive as they'd been in the past, suddenly we were allied.  I knew that because of crossover, we were all bound to join ranks, which is why I pushed as hard as I did to align our causes.

Finally, the ice melted and I found Black Flag in my hands as we stepped over the subdivision lines and traded records.  I had Loose Nut, Damaged, Slip It In and My War on loan and I taped all of them onto cassette. It was then when I realized just why those punkers were so protective of these records.  For them to swap these slabs of destruction with others outside of their own bracket really became a profound thing.  I laughed myself silly over "T.V. Party" and the perverse sex moans of "Slip It In."  For the longest time, I muttered the chorus of "Black Coffee" under my breath in the school hallways, even to my then-girlfriend who thought I was insane--even more so when I'd actually played the song for her.  A fond memory indeed, right up there with the time she was changing clothes in my car while I had Anvil's "Mad Dog" pounding in her poor anti-metal ears.  Yet by the time I put on My War in private, I was no longer laughing. 

If you can find an angrier song on this planet than "My War," I'm not sure I want to hear it.  "My War" is by far the most dangerous song I've ever encountered, and yet, it's strangely empowering.  If you're in control of your emotions, "My War" is full-on adrenaline to draw unimaginable power from.  If you're in a dark place, though, "My War" is likely to set you off or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, heal you.  By no means would anyone want to be the bullseye of Henry Rollins' wrath circa 1984, complete with all of the spit and the howling he tosses into "My War."  His voice in Black Flag was always the sound of writhing angst, unchained fury, a rabid, tatted harbinger of borderline nihilism.  Yet the man possesses high-end intelligence that makes you listen up, scary as the prospect may be when confronting My War in its entirety, much less the scathing title track.

If you're familiar with My War, you'll attest it's a yin and yan audile experience with the first half of songs set on an ionized, heavy-stepping pace of aggression, while the second part is slower, tempered, in harmony with punk and doom favorites, Saint Vitus and of course, Sabbath before either of them.  We can all relate to the claustrophobic, hyper agitation of "Can't Decide" and "Beat My Head Against the Wall," while "Three Nights" and  "Scream" are meticulous, scraping modes of punk drone that, frankly, have the potential to scare the shit out of even the most stoic listener upon first greeting.

Greg Ginn is a fuzz-bombed superstar on "My War."  Even going so far as to handle the bass duties under the alias of Dale Nixon while Black Flag was in a contractual skirmish during the recording of this album, Ginn's work on My War is probably the most laborious, pinpointed and harrowing of his Black Flag era.  Rollins frequently screeches like his nads are being electrocuted by Ginn's reverb, particularly on "Scream."  You understand full well why the punk rock class of '84 held this album tight upon their hypothetical chests.

Damaged is acknowledged by many as Black Flag's finest hour, yet, I pose that if you have the stones to confront My War, you'll get a better grasp of what Black Flag stood for and moreover, what they meant to their audience.  Otherwise, you're just one of them.

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