A Tale of Two Black Flags

A Tale of Two Black Flags

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a myth originally told by the ancient Greeks but best-preserved in Western culture through the Roman poet Ovid, generally is interpreted as a cautionary tale about the perils of living in the past. Orpheus, a famous Greek bard, loses his wife to a snake bite, goes into the underworld, persuades Hades with the gnarliest of jams to let him bring her back to the land of the living, and gets his wish under the condition that he doesn't look back. He does look back and loses it all.

While the story is rooted in the idea of a romantic relationship, it's easy to look at its musical implications. Orpheus himself comes off like a brooding Mediterranean Bon Iver figure consumed by his obsession with a lost love. You can also see the analogues between Orpheus and musicians who try to recapture certain points in their careers. But the most relevant aspect of the Orpheus myth to the landscape of contemporary music is the near-futility the listener has in experiencing the past in the present.

What brings Orpheus to mind is the recent announcement of two reformed Black Flag lineups, one under the Black Flag moniker featuring founder and trademark holder Greg Ginn and Jealous Again-era vocalist Ron Reyes, and the other simply under the name "FLAG," fronted by Nervous Breakdown-era vocalist Keith Morris. Both are scheduled for various summer festival appearances.

See also:

-Keith Morris of OFF! On That Time The Band Got Arrested For Taking Used Cooking Oil in Phoenix

My reaction to these reunions is neither thinking they are blasphemous nor something to be stoked about. I understand that Black Flag wasn't some kind of sacred cow of a band with infallible artistic credibility. I have heard "Slip it In" and think it is corny as hell, but I also know that in the grander scheme of '80s hardcore, it was right along the trajectory of tastelessness that happened with bands that stayed together for more than two years. Whatever these reunions produce -- be it good or shitty performance, or good or shitty new material -- probably won't sully the Black Flag name as much as anything they did after My War.

Greg Ginn of Black Flag
Greg Ginn of Black Flag

However, I think the reason I am not keen on the reunions is that the idea of Black Flag is more appealing than the reality of Black Flag. I don't really know what people expect to get out of a Black Flag concert (not "show," in the slightest sense) in 2013? The old people who saw them in the '80s probably aren't going to relive their glory days. There probably will be less glass and spit (oh, God, all the talk about spit when you read anything about Black Flag sounds horrid) flying around, and I don't think that girl in the striped shirt from The Decline of Western Civilization who looks like she is on Quaaludes will be swaying back and forth in the corner. She's probably got a career and kids by now. The same can be said for a lot of the members of the reunion lineups. They aren't the same angry kids that Penelope Spheeris filmed decades ago.  

Kevin Scanlon

For the current generation of angry kids (maybe even striped-shirt girl's kids), the reunited Black Flag lineups won't bring them back to the glory days -- glory days that they've only heard about. Again, they will see Black Flag in a sterile environment, relatively free of glass and spit. The danger they heard about is probably more authentically re-created or reinterpreted at shows of bands made up of their peers. There is no crisis going on that demands the former members of Black Flag to swoop in and show the youth what's up. The kids are all right.

The state of things makes me wonder why it is even important or necessary to bring back Black Flag. Who cares if "original" members are playing the hits? The band obviously didn't when it was active, rotating 18 members (including four singers) in and out of a four-piece lineup over the course of 10 years. Greg Ginn employing a bunch of Tupac holograms as scab musicians would be more fitting than any "classic" lineup. At least it would complement the novelty the band seemed to be about.

I think these reunions and their public demand are reminiscent of the hubris of Orpheus, not because they will cause us to lose Black Flag. We undoubtedly will witness some incarnation of Black Flag this summer. It might even be good, but it will feel more like a museum exhibit than a trip in a time machine. Our hubris is thinking that we can resurrect the conceptual things the band stood for, the sincere rage, the nonconformist attitude, the DIY work ethic, etc. We don't need to drag Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes out of whatever subterranean abyss they were living in in order to find that. That legacy of Black Flag lives on and continues to evolve today with all kinds of bands. The Orphean tragedy would be losing touch with that as we look back rather than ahead.

See also:

-Keith Morris of OFF! On That Time The Band Got Arrested For Taking Used Cooking Oil in Phoenix -Henry Rollins on Occupants, the Occupy Movement, and the Radio

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