Better Than: Flag, Black Flag and Possibly White Flag

Barred for Life: How Black Flag’s Iconic Logo became Punk Rock’s Secret Handshake

By Tony Rettman
Village Voice Blog
June 23rd

In the summer of 1981, the Southern California band Black Flag went on a monumental tour of the U.S. where they unconsciously became the Johnny Appleseeds for the American Hardcore scene. From the Midwest to Manhattan, every fuck-up kid who witnessed their sonic assault and ‘Tough crap if you don’t like it’ attitude on that tour more than likely started a band.

It is now the summer of 2012 and what do we got? Two different versions of the band touring the country. One playing the hits everyone wants to hear. The other playing a thermin. Where punk’s past seems magical and organic, its present just comes off just bat shit whacky, no?

Outside the fug of old man reunion drama, we find ourselves at the NYC release party for Barred for Life, a book consisting of images of various ne’er-do-wells and miscreants from around the globe who don Black Flag’s iconic four barred logo on their flesh like an official rejection stamp from humdrum normality.

The entertainment for tonight’s event consists of an all-star band including not only Black Flag guitarist and vocalist Dez Cadena, but Todd Youth of Murphy’s Law on guitar, Steve Soto of the Adolescents on bass and a Scissor Sister on drums. Yeah, still haven’t figured that last one out…

But the fun thing here was the rotating line-up of vocalists for the night. A bevy of infamous NYHC front men got to take a stab at their favorite Black Flag tunes. Starting off the festivities was the chairman of the NYHC board, Jimmy Gestapo from Murphy’s Law. In between his frenzy soaked renditions of “Nervous Breakdown” and “Wasted,” he sat cross legged Masterpiece Theatre style on a crate whilst cracking jokes on the notorious gym shorts Henry Rollins used to don in the later years of the band. Within the three or so minutes it took to belt those songs out, he was out of there riding on a cloud of bravado and cheeb smoke.

The other highlight of the vocalists was Walter Schreifels from Quicksand. With all his wiry motion and angst ridden delivery, Walter seemed the closest in delivery to Black Flag’s first vocalist (and current FLAG vocalist) Keith Morris.

But the cake taker of the night was definitely Paul Bearer of Sheer Terror. Prior to his spot on stage, I spied Bearer near the bar looking like his usual sullen self. At some point, two females flanked him on either side, smiled and greeted him. He still stood stone cold still whilst having a staring contest with oblivion. He eventually walked off to wait his turn to rock the mic. As I watch him do that trot to the stage, I knew that we were in for something special. He spoke about the darkened aloofness of Black Flag prior to launching into “Depression,” a tune almost too fitting to Bearer’s demeanor. The whole time he delivered the lines, he jerked and quivered and seemed to be the total embodiment of everything Black Flag stood for: lament, freedom, despair and twisted joy.

All the vocalists mentioned above and the others who sang throughout the night were set on a path of outlaw living by the various swings Black Flag did out to the east coast throughout the ’80s. Watching these dudes celebrate Black Flag’s music in this manner was way more exhilarating and true than any reunion you could be dragged to. But hey…maybe that’s just me.

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