Kickin’ ‘n’ Stickin’

26 Nov

Have now made it through all 402 pages of the new BLACK FLAG biography written by Londoner Stevie Chick, entitled Spray Paint The Walls. I had high hopes for this, oh did I ever. The short intro piece – describing the author’s vain attempt to locate hallowed South Bay punk places of yore in the new millennium – had me grinning wide. The self-effacing tone of it was most welcome; here, a Brit was attempting pilgrimages I’d made 20+ years ago, and coming up nearly as empty! But once the book got rolling proper . . . well, let’s just say I was underwhelmed.

For starters, there’s Chick’s lazy decision to begin by contextualizing this story within wider, modern myths: “California has always been the stuff of dreams . . .” Maybe, but however you slice it, Hollywood ain’t the appropriate starting place for a book about gangly, ham radio weirdo Greg Ginn. Then: there’s those irksome place/name/factual errors strewn willy nilly throughout. Oh so you so used to hang out in “Huntingdon” Beach, did you? And THE MISFITS are from the west coast, you say? Yeah sure . . .

Chick has a tendency to pad the book out with tiresome, often superfluous details, slowing everything down and adding an unnecessary 100 pages or so to an already-long book. There’s a lengthy, yawn inducing bit on the post-FLAG career of Rollins, not particularly interesting info about dozens of SST artists with only vague connections to the larger story, and sorta patronizing, Wikipedia-like descriptions about everyone from MINOR THREAT to THE GREATFUL DEAD sprinkled throughout. Stevie, I agree that not all Deadheads are gonna know who BF roadie Tom Troccoli is – but that all FLAG wavers are gonna know who Jerry G. was? I guarantee.

Such things I can forgive, had the author more fully acknowledged his cultural distance from his chosen subject. Chick’s more of a “lyric” guy – as opposed to an “instrument” guy – which bothers me. Clearly he’s read and loved Joe Carducci’s writing about the rock core in FLAG, and he’s definitely written alot about FLAG’s music here too. But the endless attempts to read deeper meaning into Ginn’s lyrics seem misdirected to me. I’ve come to believe it was the incredible musical power of the band that still means much in 2009, and I don’t always get a sense that Chick has digested the full significance of the 100 or so changes Ginn led his FLAG through during their time. Certainly, I don’t always agree or relate to his assessments of the relative merits of various FLAG recordings.

What is impressive is the extensive collection of interviews Chick has amassed here. No he didn’t get Ginn or Rollins on board, but dammit if the lengthy words by Dukowski, Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, and Kira aren’t all amazingly insightful – while contributions by more peripheral guys like THE LAST’s Joe Nolte, REDD KROSS’ McDonald brothers, Mugger, and the aforemention Tom Troccoli are equally eye opening and vital to fleshing out this often very private, suburban picture. Had he decided to pattern this book on Brendan Mullen’s Lexicon Devil or We Got the Neutron Bomb, as straight oral history – this woulda been un-putdownable, as the story itself is a great one. But since Chick’s writing is merely journeyman, his book provided few real revelations for me. Which is ironic, since every BLACK FLAG record has continually blown my mind all down the line.

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7 Responses to “Kickin’ ‘n’ Stickin’”

  1. mark November 27, 2009 at 6:36 pm #

    Oh, damn. I guess I’ll save my dough for the book on the Process Church of Final Judgment that my pal Jason hipped me to last night. Darn it. I had such high hopes……..

  2. mrowster November 27, 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    Mark: don’t just take my word for it – I might simply be too close to all of this SST stuff to give it a fair shake. I need people like you to read and give it an objective, second opinion :)

  3. d. November 27, 2009 at 8:21 pm #

    i’ve been waiting to hear some opinions/reviews this book for a while now (as well as a N Amer. release). I’ll definitely be picking it up as soon as i can. btw your blog is one of my favourite places for SST reading.
    misfits/west coast? ouch…

  4. Max D. November 29, 2009 at 1:14 am #

    Great review of an apparently not-so-great book. Who is this Chick? And who put the book out? From the cover, it looks like someone actually paid money to have a handsome book on FLAG out. Not the most likely event in the world.

  5. mrowster November 29, 2009 at 9:44 am #

    Thanks, Max. I don’t know much about Chick, other than he’s an established UK rock writer – he wrote a bio about SONIC YOUTH a while back.

    But that’s part of what I reacted to: Chick seemed like someone who’d discovered all this stuff posthumously (i.e. post-NIRVANA) and not like someone who was following the band and its wake back when they were actually around. Unlike that of THE FOO FIGHTERS, BLACK FLAG’s story was a pretty intimate one, never the stuff of major rock press. Perhaps someone with a closer take on things coulda done a better job.

  6. Dave Lang December 8, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    Damn, I was looking forward to reading this over the Xmas break. I guess I shouldn’t have expected so much!

  7. ptolemny July 17, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    In the middle of it right now. I basically agree with your assessment, but it’s still a worthwhile read. Way too much filler for the punk historian, but I guess some 18 year-old kid (or two) will benefit from all the explanatory stuff. I also don’t care for the rock-crit style, describing the music in purely subjective, “hip” terms; in typical rock-journalist style, he is completely ignorant of music theory. The interviews are quite enlightening (who knew Robo had such kick-ass cocaine?). The best thing about this book – so far – are the Chuck Dukowski excerpts, where he rails against Ginn and expresses regret at he manner in which BF tolerated violence at the shows for the sake of the media exposure it provided. Structurally, the book is weighted in favor of the pre-Damaged years; the rest of BF’s career gets a comparatively cursory treatment. Perhaps the most valuable insight so far is the degree to which – even at a very early stage of the band’s development – Ginn connived to reach a wider audience through any means available in a similar, but more “punk” manner than he had made SST electronics a viable enterprise. Sometimes this meant lying to promoters, as when BF secured their gig at Polliwog Park (and encouraged others to do so on their behalf in their “Creepy Crawler” newsletter), sometimes it meant inviting the “Tomorrow” show to Bace’s Hall and then (according to Brendan Mullen) inciting a riot for the cameras. Needless to say, Ginn does not come off smelling like roses, but we knew that already.

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