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But when he joined the act, he had to quickly give up his apartment and sell his car. "It was a big change to adapt to the lifestyle of the band. Black Flag was wild, and the learning curve was very steep. I thought I was a hard worker but had no idea what hard work meant."
Rollins took the stage for his first Southern California gig with Black Flag on Aug. 21, 1981, at the Cuckoo's Nest in Costa Mesa. Dave Markey was there, filming the gig with his father's Super 8 camera. "At first, he was almost naïve," Markey says. "He didn't have his Rollins character down yet." Footage of a young, fresh-faced Rollins singing "Six Pack" with the band that night concludes Markey's 1986 debut film, The Slog Movie. The soon-to-become-heavily-tattooed frontman is shirtless, sporting a fresh Black Flag bars tattoo that he had gotten that very day.
By October the band and its new singer were ready to begin work on Damaged. They worked quickly, recording all of the music — including the now legendary flurry of guitar solos — live in two or three takes, with vocals to be added later.
The record featured the band's fastest tempos to date, introducing the patented "loud fast rules" hardcore sound, and their lurching off-kilter rhythms and guitar solos blazing in and out of tune presented an inimitable sound like nothing heard before in punk. Black Flag's signature swing derived from the internal tension between the rhythms created by Ginn's heavily percussive downstrokes on the guitar and the almost militaristic beats played by drummer Robo, an illegal alien from Colombia.
While Ginn's largely improvised solos gave the record its signature sound, Rollins provided a memorable ad lib session of his own. On the record's closing track, "Damaged I," his nearly four-minute vocal improv over Ginn's discordant two-chord funeral dirge seems to deconstruct the record's entire first half-hour, distilling its themes into this primal howl of toxic feedback and pain. Over Robo's slow and minimal 1-2-1 high-hat/snare beat — panting and out of breath — Rollins declares, "My name is Henry ... and you're here with ME now!"
His hallucinatory stream of consciousness seems at times addressed to an abusive father figure (Yes sir! Yes sir!), and at times seems a warning to anyone who would try to help. (Hold out your hand to me/Give me your hand ... and I'll bite it off!) The Rollins era of the band seems to truly begin at the record's end, and the performance you hear is the first take.
The achievement of Damaged was so great that it seemed to invent hardcore and exhaust all of the subgenre's musical possibilities all at once. The group was already heading in a new musical direction by the album's last track, and it would never look back. Subsequently the members grew their hair and Ginn confounded fans with a series of lineup changes, instrumental records and full-length rock LPs, each darker, heavier and artier than the last. Yet as challenging and ambitious as these records were, none rivals the freshness or sense of musical discovery of Damaged, which features a very good band going beyond itself into the unknown.
Black Flag video and artwork are featured in "Under the Big Black Sun," a MOCA exhibit (through Feb. 13) that surveys California art in the era between Nixon's resignation and Reagan's Inauguration. Replicas of the fliers for which Black Flag were hassled by cops for wheat-pasting on lamp posts now are for sale in the gift shop. Rollins himself performed as DJ for the exhibition's opening-night event.
Many punks likely would be outraged at the thought of Black Flag in a museum, seeing the band's works as sacred artifacts of a proud and oppositional subculture not to be taken out of their original context and kept under glass. Indeed, with its inclusion in the museum, the band joins other L.A. artists like Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman and Chris Burden, also featured prominently in Pacific Standard Time retrospectives for work that once caused them to be arrested by LAPD or censored by local authorities.
But Black Flag have much in common with these artists, and for that reason deserves to be considered alongside them. The work of each made society deeply uncomfortable, and caused them to be lightning rods for police oppression. Black Flag absorbed that oppression into their own performance, with the intent of turning the resulting chaos into persuasive theater.
In the classic tradition of L.A. noir, the band held a mirror up to a collapsed SoCal dream in the post-Manson era, intuiting the hostility beneath the sunny suburban surface and the fragility of civil society, just a decade before the city exploded in the Rodney King riots. Damaged remains perhaps the era-defining artwork of Police Chief Daryl Gates' L.A.