In the beginning, in the crucible of the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the ‘80s, there was no mistaking what Black Flag stood for: Opposition. To everything. I don't care what you have to say/ It makes no difference anyway, sang Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers, with jaunty nihilism. Whatever it is [BOMP!] I'm against it. Or to put it in Black Flag's terms: I wanna live/ I wish I was dead. The riffs were prophecies, the solos were freedom, the shows were bloody, and the lyrics were the wound of existence itself: Depression's got a hold on me/ Depression/ Gotta break free. Unbearable sensitivity was expressed with unanswerable power.
The songs broke their own toppling, tearing momentum with catastrophic time-slumps. Between songs, bassist-bodhisattva Chuck Dukowski would walk in tight, furious circles, silently shouting. The band didn't look like punk rockers; they looked like recently fired janitors. But L.A. is a horizontal city, and Black Flag's music blew holes in the ideological field, such that everything in a 30-mile radius that wasn't nailed down—every surfer/skateboarder, druggie, skinhead, indigent artist, curious soul, and every rejected emotion—came rushing into the breach. The LAPD took an oppressive interest, regularly —and violently—shutting down shows. (This fucking city/ Is run by pigs!) Black Flag worked very hard, penitentially hard, somehow combining vast amounts of not giving a fuck with a non-stop underdog campaign of snarling self-promotion.
And behind or below it all was the riddling, inaccessible intelligence of the artist Raymond Pettibon, Ginn's younger brother. Pettibon had given the band its name, its logo—the infamous and ubiquitous bars, four black rectangles offset to represent the rippling of a (black) flag—and, via the flyers that he designed and that were then splattered all over L.A. to advertise upcoming shows, a graphic identity that amounted to a kind of poetic molestation. Weird sex jokes; hideous boisterous cheerleaders; Jesus figures; Manson figures; authority figures; a black man with a demonically erect penis hoisting a terrified little white cop over his head: In Pettibon’s flyers a personal netherworld of imagery seemed to conjoin with the Californian id at its most chaotic level.
Doesn't it all sound like another world? It probably was. To foist your bohemia on an indifferent public, to harrow the complacent, to shake it up ... Joe Carducci, the outsider intellectual who helped run Black Flag's label SST, takes the long view: “Our closing frontier,” he writes in his 2008 memoir Enter Naomi, “was the sixties cultural revolution as it died out in the seventies and early eighties. In retrospect the Black Flag/SST story looks like a cultural analogue to the Manson-Weathermen-S.L.A.-Black Panther-Nixon White House-People’s Temple endgame—art just had more life in it than crime or politics or religion.”