It's not your imagination: Hardcore's most iconic band (and brand) spent 2013 in a not-so-cold war with itself—its suddenly reunited factions competing for the hearts of fans and its own considerable legacy. Born rabid and wasted in sleepy Hermosa Beach in 1976, put to rest weary and dour in 1986, Black Flag (after a few titillating tribute hookups here and there between its former membership) had, unbelievably, respawned. Twice.
Last month, Billboard reported that a lawsuit filed by Black Flag's notorious guitarist/founder/Svengali Greg Ginn against his former bandmates—vocalist Keith Morris, vocalist/guitarist Dez Cadena, minister of information Chuck Dukowski, and drummer Bill Stevenson—was settled out of court. The result: The four former members (along with Descendents' guitarist Stephen Egerton) could continue to tour as the band FLAG, as they had since last April—their "secret" debut was at the Redondo Beach Moose Lodge where Black Flag had played their first show in 1979.
The indelible Black Flag logo, however—the "bars," said by some to be the most-tattooed symbol of all time, designed by Ginn's brother, artist Raymond Pettibon—was determined to belong exclusively to Ginn and his label, SST, and thus to his own official reunion lineup. This Black Flag™ had been official since January of last year, when it was announced not only that they'd be headlining the UK's Hevy Fest in August, but that they'd also be putting out their seventh full-length album. Called What The..., the album's vomitous cartoon cover and completely unmemorable singles all gave the sinking, paranoid feeling of a cruel joke no one would admit to playing on you. Whose idea was this? Why can't Ginn seem to value a decent rhythm section? Fronting this last affront was Ron Reyes, the band's second vocalist, who sang in BF from 1979 to 1980 before quitting onstage (resulting in him being credited as "Chavo Pederast" on the sleeve of 1980's Jealous Again EP).
It all used to be so simple, right? "Fix Me," Nervous Breakdown, Morris's hell-bound beach-town nervosa. Then came the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, the LAPD. Who'd declared war on whom? Black Flag, as immortalized in Penelope Spheeris's Decline of Western Civilization—squatting in the basement of their rehearsal spot, an old Baptist church in Hermosa. With Reyes originating the Cribs "This is where the magic happens" bit as he showed off the closet he slept in; Dukowski, philosophical off a quart of Colt 45; Ginn, laconic and aloof, spooling off the names of clubs they'd been banned from. Then Damaged—"My name's Henry," fist-to-reflection. "We broke our mirrors," as Kurt would say, almost exactly a decade later. Soon after, a label lawsuit stalled Black Flag—unable to use their own name or logo—for nearly two years, perhaps inflicting a mortal wound to them in their prime that wouldn't fully bleed out for a few years more.
Not that I was there for, or aware of, any of that at the time, mind you—I worked to Damaged backward from Rollins Band's "Liar," just like a lot of you probably pretend you didn't. The closest I ever got to Black Flag in a live setting was an Akimbo tribute show at the Comet—until it was announced last March that Black Flag, the Ginn-and-Reyes version, would be coming to El Corazón. By the night of that show, I'd read terrible, awful reviews about the performances, but I'd also had tickets for months, and I'm the kind of sucker who has to find out for himself. As I scoped openers Good for You, featuring two ensign expendables on drums and bass, Ginn on guitar, and pro skater/Black Flag manager Mike Vallely on vocals, I feared I'd made a terrible mistake. But the sold-out crowd all surged forward as Reyes bopped onstage, flying into each other as "Revenge" kicked in. Classic after classic shot through his shockingly strong squat-lion roar, bound in Ginn's spiky, fearless assaults of guitar and theremin. I actually left sore, soaked, and ecstatic, having finally seen one of my favorite bands—kinda.
Months later, things went off the rails for Black Flag in Australia, as Reyes was dismissed mid-set (a week before the best-left-alone What The... was released) and replaced by Vallely, who was soon after announced as the band's fifth singer. The ranking of Black Flag vocalists is a sacred and personal choice, but no one who's heard Good for You (or even Mike V and the Rats) would ride (so to speak) for Vallely over, well, anyone.
Which brings us back to today, back to the bars—found today adorning Kristen Stewart, Fergie, and Perez Hilton. Is nothing sacred? Of course not. Raymond Pettibon is bumping BasedGod and Gucci Mane—a good thing. There's something almost perverse about watching Black Flag's face-palm-inducing second act, but I just can't look away. I feel like there's a profound life lesson here about disillusionment, or getting older, that's wholly appropriate. It feels almost exactly like when I listen to side B of My War through my earbuds while walking through downtown. Now, can somebody please fucking bring FLAG to town?