In February, I was approached by Joey Running Crane of King Elephant and asked if my band Shramana wanted to perform a cover set at the VFW as part of his band’s residency. Without thinking, I instinctually replied that we would perform the music of Black Flag.
Black Flag, the legendary '80s hardcore punk band, is a touchy subject with many people, myself included. As a “punk as f*” teen, the early Black Flag releases were a staple in my musical diet. They were just what I needed: simple, fast and straightforward, with songs that truly represented the angsty spirit associated with punk: Nervous Breakdown, Fix Me, Depression, Clocked In, and I’ve Had It! were anthems known by any kid worth their weight in spikes and silly hair. As any young person can tell you, trying to figure out who exactly you are and defining your relation to the rest of the world can be a daunting task in a world that places such strange emphases on individuality without ever actually defining it. Listening to Black Flag’s The First Four Years (and a lot of underage drinking) helped me through it.
Unlike many bands that I listened to at that time, however, they’ve grown with me over the years. Founder/guitarist/only consistent member Greg Ginn recruited Henry Rollins as Black Flag’s singer in 1981. With Ginn’s rise of cannabis consumption compiled with his increasingly reclusive behavior, the band began to release their LPs. Their first, Damaged, was simply an evolution of their earlier material, but one could see a significant shift in songwriting. As the full length releases rolled out of Ginn’s DIY label SST Records, Rollins’ lyrics became markedly more morose, introspective and self-loathing than outwardly aggressive. The songs slowed down to a thudding, Sabbath-influenced crawl and became a distorted lament of confusion and anger. There were still fast punk songs, but they were meandering, THC influenced improvisations by Ginn that guitar-tablatuers for UltimateGuitar.com are still “banging their heads against a wall” trying to figure out.
When I came of age and began to play music of my own, the musical insightfulness of Ginn and sharp poetic language of Rollins began to speak to me more than the alcoholic nihilism of Morris and Dukowski. This music guided me to what I enjoy and practice currently, taking cues from the Melvins (who wore their late Black Flag influences on their sleeves and spray painted on their first tour van) and p l a y I n g s l o w a n d h e a v y.
Black Flag has come into the spotlight again, as Greg Ginn has jump-started the group and released a new album, with miserably poor results. He was a little late to the party, however, as his previous bandmates have already been touring as the popular group FLAG, covering the material of Black Flag. Ginn unsuccessfully indicted them in a case for copyright infringement. How very DIY of them all. Watching this debacle is like watching two old, diseased cats fight over the empty can of tuna.
While curating the Facebook event page for our upcoming performances, a colleague teasingly asked me, “Are you guys going to be a Black Flag tribute band or a FLAG tribute band?”
I hadn’t really considered.
I’ve always considered Shramana a unit based on personal growth (the name translates as “one who strives”); we only knew two covers in our three years in existence prior to being asked to play an hour set of non-original material. Curious, I set about asking my friends what Black Flag songs they would want to hear. I expected their picks from the discography to vary slightly, but they didn’t. Everyone just wanted to hear the same six punk songs from the first few EPs. Then I remembered: Shramana is a unit based on personal growth. The full-length releases of Black Flag contributed to my growth and the growth of the genre I so love more than any other band one could care to name. Our cover set has evolved from a few punk rock covers to a thudding, distorted sludge-fest of spacey doom contrasted with fast-paced aggression.
I hate to say it, but Ginn’s attempt to continue his legacy in Black Flag is embarrassing even for a fan to watch, and about as cheap as the crowd of ex-members cashing in on the same legacy. Would I see either if I had a chance? You bet your sweet patootie. But to speak the truth, I love this legacy for what it was, not what it has become. I’m proud to have been able to take what I love and re-imagine it in our own way.
Shramana can be seen performing their Black Flag Live ’85 set on Thursday and Friday night this week at Ole Beck VFW Post 209.