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.