Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fighting a war we can't win: Black Flag's DAMAGED (SST 007)

If I had a buck for every time Black Flag's DAMAGED was used as the soundtrack for some sort of hedonistic gathering or unhealthy activity, I'd never need to work again. And if I could gain a dollar for each time this same record was played by a single individual, angry and confused and plagued by solitude, staring at the walls or down at a blank sheet of paper that's purpose is to document thoughts expressed through words that somehow can't get through the haze or distortion of emotional desperation, I'd double my money. Easily. I'm sure there are people who own this record that have never punched a brick wall out of sheer frustration or looked at themselves in a mirror in disgust or stood amongst a group of individuals and felt light years away in temperament. Those people may even "like" this record. But they don't really know its power, what it's expressing so succinctly about the failure to fit into a world that shuns and shames those who can't or won't internalize or deny the sheer causticity of which daily life is capable. A whole lot of ballyhoo has been made about the legal bullshit that this record inspired, but the aspect of the whole situation that sticks out to me is what started it all, specifically MCA's refusal to release it, using the jargon "anti-parent". It's a nice tidy term that holds the messier reality that DAMAGED is like the aural essence of the quintessential "problem child". It's a seething rant to every mom and dad who'd half-assed reared offspring that didn't ask to be brought onto this planet, and also a balm to those same kids, informing each one that they were part of a multitude of fucked-up and scrawny and fat and acne-riddled teens who were teetering on the brink of implosion. It's easy to picture some well tanned asshole record executive hearing this music and being assaulted by exactly what it was/is, and immediately fearing that it could spread like a virus from pressing plant to record store to bedroom through speakers and headphones and into ear canals and oh, shit: the gig is up. Molly no longer hates the fact that she's overweight or feels inferior to the cheerleading squad. Nah, she's bought a leather jacket, cut her hair short, and doesn't hide that she's attracted to girls. Of course I'm romanticizing somewhat, but after taking in the bitter yet lovely pill that is this album, all that romantic jive slowly transforms into well earned tribute. The fact that the band plays with such feral atonal fury while always keeping a loose grip on the song's focus is still startling. The phrase "an untamed sense of control" was coined by Bob Dylan to describe the early country/pre-bluegrass Kentucky mountain music of Roscoe Holcomb. I'd like to momentarily hi-jack the compliment and apply it to this LP, because it fits like a pair of long johns. Only after a few decades of bands’ copping its moves does DAMAGED really reveal itself as the goddamned structural behemoth that it is. The rhythm hits with a deliciously pummeling elasticity, and Greg Ginn's guitar grinds, burns, and squalls all over the proceedings, reaching for twisted sounds that ring out with a "wrongness" that's just gripping. If you haven't heard the record, my description may lead you to think that its greatness is tied to a certain inspired monochromatic sensibility, ala certain first generation hardcore bands. If so, let me correct that impression. It's certainly not all over the map stylistically, but as the grooves lead to the label it displays a commendable variety, particularly on the second side: "Padded Cell" is just one example of the spastic perfection that this specific version of the band could cook up.

Black Flag live at Wilson Center, Washington DC with Chicago's Effigies and some of harDCore's finest
(almost too much of a good thing)

The record ends with a ranting Rollins presiding over a tweaked sub-bluesy lurch that points Black Flag to one of their subsequent directions. For many, the majority of songs contained herein were almost golden oldies, and it wasn't hard to see the appeal to the band of truly throwing them down one more time before moving on. Rollins-era Flag was a rapidly evolving beast, at times not even including the vocalist that for a large group of listeners is the first thing they think of when this group's name comes up. Unlike The Minutemen or even underappreciated yet championed SST groups like Saccharine Trust or Slovenly, opinions about Black Flag differ wildly. Each vocalist has their partisans, some love the pre-Rollins period and disdain the DC transplant's contribution ("Rollins ruined Black Flag"), others dig this record but think that the focus was lost with the later stuff, for a few the two live albums of the Rollins-era are where it's at, with the studio stuff falling short. The instrumental work is hated and loved by many for roughly the same reasons. This is only a few of the opinions held about Flag's discography (if I had a buck for every debate/argument this group inspired at parties or bars…..ah, you know the rest). In some ways this is unavoidable and part of the band's lasting appeal: I know I listen to MY WAR more than LOOSE NUT, and when I want a charge of primal punk rock the early stuff satisfies the need, not THE PROCESS OF WEEDING OUT. But DAMAGED stands apart (not entirely though; I've met a few stodgy Flag fans who say they don't like it) as the one document of the band that comes close to summing up what they were all "about". It has definite links to the early sound, the gunky two guitar mania (which Spot apparently hated), and includes enough off-kilter tics and weird flashes to show that they were so much more than just some ordinary punk band who happened to have a really great day in the studio. This is the sound of ‘80s style urban desperation boiled down to a science and fired like a shot from a bazooka to send the façade of normalcy falling down like the house of cards it most certainly is. It's a stone classic and one of the finest and most extreme examples of the sonic depth charge of which rock music is capable. I can only hope you're young and fucked enough to know just how special it is.

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