On Sunday April 21st I ventured into the depths of Lansing's Mac's Bar to catch Good For You, a new band featuring Greg Ginn from Black Flag and skateboarder Mike Vallely. For my money, Black Flag is near-untouchable in terms of hardcore punk from their 1978 debut EP Nervous Breakdown to their 1981 album Damaged, with the record getting fairly spotty afterwards. There's a couple of choice cuts on the following albums (the song "My War," "Black Coffee," "Retired at 21"), and Ginn's guitar work does get very interesting, but there's some pretty terrible songs (and terrible lyrics - see "Slip It In" and "Rat's Eyes") and in general Black Flag just don't seem to be any fun after 1982. I've listened to Ginn's post-Flag band Gone a bit, but otherwise all I know about the guy is that he doesn't seem to retain any friends from the "old days" and that the great bands signed to his SST Records label (i.e. Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Dinosaur JR) complain that he hasn't paid out adequate royalties. For these reasons Ginn is a bit of a punk-rock supervillain to fans - smart, inventive, pioneering, but malicious, uncompromising, and self-serving. He's also essentially retired from doing press so he remains fairly mysterious. To continue with the back story, in 2003 Ginn staged a Black Flag reunion series of a couple shows in the LA area to benefit cat shelters, which is fairly unique in terms of band reunion sagas, with his lineup featuring a smattering of lesser-celebrated former Flaggers (3rd vocalist/ current Misfit Dez Cadena, Damaged-era drummer/ sometime Misfit Robo, and the guy that played bass on Black Flag's last tour C'el) and, well, not Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, or that Henry Rollins guy. Furthermore, Ginn opened these reunion shows with a full performance of the My War album featuring pre-recorded basslines, Gone drummer Gregory Moore, and Mike Vallely on lead vocals. As far as I know no footage of these shows, audio or visual, has ever surfaced but basically every review that you can find on this ol' internet is fairly scathing, particularly of the My War set. A fairly mysterious, controversial, and uncompromising epilogue to Black Flag, so it would seem.
|The glorious Black Flag "bars."|
However, in recent months the plot has thickened, with former members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski (both founding members of Black Flag along with Greg Ginn), Bill Stevenson, and Dez Cadena, joined by Descendents guitarist Steve Egerton, going on the road to play some festivals under the name FLAG to celebrate the music of Black Flag. At pretty much the exact same time SST Records announced that "Black Flag" was officially reforming with Greg Ginn and 2nd vocalist Ron Reyes, to be joined by Gone drummer Gregory Moore and a-to-be-announced bassist. Coinciding with this announcement was the forthcoming release of a new project called Good For You, featuring Ginn on guitar, Mike Vallely on lead vocals, and... Gone drummer Gregory Moore and a-to-be-announced bassist. Wait, what? Ginn does have a history of being active in multiple projects (Gone was the opening band on Black Flag's last tour) but, reading between the lines, it seems that he's formed 2 bands consisting of the same instrumentalists with different lead vocalists, one combination (Good For You) being the maligned My War reunion lineup. That Ginn is a tricky guy. About a month ago reports surfaced that the new bassist of Black Flag and Good For You was Dave Klein, then of the current lineup of Screeching Weasel, leading one to assume that there's a trade school for punk rock bassists with a specialty in dealing with asshole bandleaders. Recently, Vice writer Erick Lyle wrote a fascinating account of auditioning for the bassist position in the new Black Flag, confirming the Black Flag/ Good For You member crossover. Good For You is opening all of the dates for Black Flag's international tour, so this time it looks like Greg Ginn is really pushing for a grand musical plan, counter to the reports of the shambling, half-baked nature of the 2003 reunion. Then, FLAG played a secret warm up show at the site of the first Black Flag show ever in Redondo Beach, CA, and sounded awesome. Things are getting good.
I checked out a couple of the Good For You songs when they were first streamed on the internet, and I remember "Swinging Around" for how awkwardly bad the lyrics were, but in general it sounded like latter-day Black Flag, maybe a little less intense, but essentially the work of the same creative mind. Mike Vallely (whom I had briefly been "into" when trying to be a skater kid even more briefly about 12 years ago) has a good "Rollins" voice, so, at least the components are there for a decent formula. I wasn't too interested in this project until I realized it would be coming to my hometown punk rock dive of Mac's Bar - after realizing that this was essentially the new Black Flag's warmup tour, I was definitely in.
The show wasn't really promoted that well - the little blurb in the City Pulse barely mentioned the whole Black Flag connection, which on its own would have probably doubled the 50-some person crowd if, well, mentioned. It was also a Sunday and Good For You played a free show the night before an hour away in Grand Rapids, so that probably killed the potential for people traveling a ways to the show. Maybe all the Black Flag fans watched FLAG on youtube and decided to stay home. Anyway, the show was far from dead but I expected some more people to be there - watching Greg Ginn play guitar right in front of your face is at least worth one paid admission from me. When I got to Mac's I was somewhat surprised to see Ginn and Vallely just chilling in the main part of the bar, happily chatting with fans - granted, the rumors about the nasty state of the Mac's basement "green room" may have contributed to this, but they could have definitely hidden if they wanted to. Opening up the show were locals BerT and The Plurals, who both sounded really tight. I've seen both of these bands a bunch of times, but I thought they complemented the show well with BerT following the strand of later, drony, sludgy Black Flag and Plurals embracing the frantic chaos of early Black Flag, though both bands carry little resemblance to either. Maybe I was just overthinking. Mental blogging. I knew this would ruin my life. Anyway, I hung out on the perimeter of the bar for most of the show, content to observe things, and I noticed Ginn and Vallely both engaged with the opening bands and enjoying themselves. After each band was done I saw Ginn approach them and audibly introduce himself - "Hey, I'm Greg, thanks for playing tonight." I don't think a single member of either band could wipe the smiles from their faces. Was this guy really the controversial and difficult man that he's been portrayed to be?
Good For You set up their own gear; they didn't have any crew and Mike V was selling T-Shirts when someone approached the table. This really was a bare bones affair and I had to keep reminding myself that these guys were basically 4/5 of the new incarnation of Black Flag (Mike V has been reported to be Black Flag's co-manager and band spokesman, despite not being a member) and not just some touring band playing Mac's on a Sunday night. The band did a soundcheck of sorts that turned into a jam that turned into their first song, with Vallely tossing around his strawberry blonde mane, getting into the seemingly semi-improvised groove laid down by the musicians. With no pretension or fanfare they kicked out about 45 minutes worth of music, Ginn shaking his head around with his eyes closed as he peeled off one atonal guitar lick after another. I was fairly mesmerized and the whole thing seemed very surreal; the completely-engaged crowd seemed to be on the same page. How much of this was just novelty at seeing Ginn up close I'm not sure, but the songs that sounded fairly unremarkable when recorded had a nice live energy and was engaging at the very least. The guys seemed to be having a great time playing and kept smiling at each other - again, not what I would have expected. There seemed to be a lot of open passages in these songs with the guys veering into messy jams and then quickly tightening back up into their hardcore riffs, with Klein and Moore being a particularly groovy rhythm section. The band played what I think was every song off of their album (of which they had sold out of copies earlier in the tour) and then ended things with a jam, Vallely going on a monologue about "getting fucked up" while the others noodled around noisily.
After their set the musicians all just walked offstage and hung out with everyone. Ginn was predictably kept busy with greeting the fans, but he seemed happy to be there. I briefly said hi to Mike V, who seemed down to chat (I heard him say to a guy at the merch table that he was surprised they sold any records, let alone sold out of records), but otherwise I stayed out of the way and mused over a beer about what I had just seen. While I initially felt that Ginn pursuing a new Black Flag with the least prolific Black Flag singer and some other dudes was pretty lame and that FLAG would be the way to go for a 2013 live experience of the music, after witnessing this show I'm pretty much down for either incarnation - Ginn's band will likely be more experimental and tense, while FLAG will be more of a tribute/ revival show. I don't know if Ginn has the songwriting inspiration for new music up to Black Flag's standards, but he has the chops to at least play the stuff, and Moore and Klein seem up for the job to back him up.
|"Aw gee, happy to help Mr. Ginn!" photo :|
The bar continued to have a party vibe, and eventually Ginn sat down at a table to roll a joint, with shots being taken by the whole band. Clearly things were going to continue in this vein for awhile, and I was feeling the pull of my morning assignments so I decided to call it a night. As I settled up at the bar and prepared to make my way home, I caught a glimpse of the villainous side of Ginn. Moore and Klein were happily chatting with the people at the bar, Vallely seemed to be "in charge" of the band and alternated between merch duties, talking with bar staff, and getting the other members to start getting their gear around, and Ginn was on the prowl for any female that would provide him some company. I alternately saw young women come up to say hi to Ginn and Ginn do the approaching himself and then quickly start grabbing and rubbing rather ungracefully with those masterful guitar playing hands. I even saw him trying to, I don't know, frisk the female drummer of The Plurals, who quickly dodged the situation, before Ginn found a girl probably about half his age that was at least okay with occasionally kissing him. Vallely looked over a couple of times, perhaps preparing himself to step in and get Ginn to leave these women alone, but ultimately nothing seemed to happen and the situation blew over. I don't know what Ginn's personal life is like at all, maybe he's lonely and seeking some sort of companionship and not every night is like this. I do know that as I walked out the Mac's Bar door I thought, definitively, that there was no trace of irony in the moronic lyrics to "Slip It In" after all.