Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats. -H. L. Mencken
Each of the big hardcore punk bands from the eighties had their own appeals. The Sex Pistols were perhaps the angriest, The Dead Kennedys the most political, Bad Brains had their unique fusion of reggae and punk, it was these skills that set those bands apart from the rest. Black Flag too had something that they were particularly skilled at, and that was getting under the listeners skin. For them, it was not enough to be angry, their goal was to get the listener angry. They could bother the listener just enough, either by using ultraviolent imagery or by screaming lyrics, and then transform that uncomfortable feeling into actual anger in way that few others have ever been able to do. This was a band that had everything you could want from a punk outfit, the attitude, the look, the songs, and while many other bands also had these qualities, Black Flag had an artistic aesthetic that was untouched, and ultimately flew under what would become one of the most iconic symbols of any band ever. It is that artistic aesthetic that has made me so eager to write this segment, and the fact that Black Flag was able to create such an image out of themselves when most other bands in their genre barely had the sense to look beyond their haircuts.
First Work: The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes (Graphic Novel)
The Death Ray is a story about a young disenfranchised boy growing up in the sixties trapped somewhere in suburbia who, after sneaking a cigarette discovers that nicotine gives him super strength and speed. On top of that he discovers that his father who had died along with his mother in a car crash had left him a death ray. The main characters name is Andy, and throughout the novel he debates whether or not he should help people by killing persons that are causing them trouble. Ultimately he goes through life wandering about killing people with his death ray simply at his own discretion, and while he usually has no real ill will towards these people that he kills, their crimes could hardly be enough to justify death. The first and probably most obvious reason why Black Flag relates to The Death Ray is because of the comic imagery that Black Flag continuously used. Promotional material for the band drew heavily from comic strip art, usually depicting either deplorable murders or sex acts. Death Ray too draws on the unexpected pairing of what could normally be considered a tame medium with violent or unexpected images.
It is interesting too that both works draw heavily from the aesthetic of the nineteen sixties. For Black Flag, sixties music whether it be prog rock, psychedelica, or plain rock n’ roll, was exactly what they were trying to attack with their music. They, and most other punk bands, viewed the lengthy musical breaks and concept albums of bands like Pink Floyd, and the neverending jams of live bands like The Grateful Dead as the ultimate expression of self-centeredness and as being the music of their parents, and sought to make music that was less pretentious and better served the needs of what young people, marginalized young people especially, wanted to hear. What’s more is that the sixties and seventies were when most of the punk artists were growing up, and it was an age they associated with their parents and the beginning of whatever political plights they disliked. It seems Clowes tries to draw on some of that same anger when describing Andy’s experience, although Andy is far less angry than anything Black Flag ever produced and is far more apathetic and detached from the world around him.
Another thing that very much reminds me of Black Flag in Andy is his inability to control the world around him initially, and then the way in which he tries to regain some of that control. When I think about Andy I see someone who could very much relate to people like Henry Rollins of Black Flag. I imagine that the punk rockers of the eighties must have been a little something like Andy in the seventies and sixties, detached, separate, and isolated, never really fitting in. And in turn, when I look at punk rockers and I compare them to Andy, these are both characters that very much have totally been able to shape the world around them after coming into their own identities. In the case of Andy he uses his death ray to carve out a little bit of control for himself, taking out his frustration 100% of the time without reprisal. Persons in punk bands and specifically members of Black Flag were really able to shape their environments in a way that Andy was unable too. By dressing in a certain way and acting a certain way, and then by spending a great deal of time with others who also dress that way and also talk that way, one can very much form their own world in the image of some ideal, and no real subculture did that to the extent to which punk was able to do it. In a culture where Identity was so important, many punk bands would have symbols or monikers so that persons could easily tell a Black Flag fan from someone who liked the Subhumanz, or a Minor Threat fan from someone who was really into M.D.C.. Without really having anything to do with the music Black Flag easily stood apart by having such a damn sexy symbol. In this way you could easily identify with a band by say having a patch on your denim jacket (with the sleeves ripped off of course) and then others could identify you as a member of their in-group simply by your appearance.
Second Work: Rebel Without a Cause (Movie)
Now I wanted to discuss Rebel Without a Cause to highlight more of its differences from Black Flag. As we all know James Dean, probably one of the sexiest men to ever grace a movie screen was the embodiment of a bad boy, someone who didn’t play by the rules and couldn’t care less about societal expectations. Throughout the film he skips school, drinks in excess, gets into a knife fight, and almost drives his car off a cliff. And while there are certain aspects of the film that I could point to and relate Dean’s experience to Black Flag the differences between the two are what really define each respective party. For one lets look at Deans appeal. James Dean as I said before (and will probably continue to reiterate throughout this piece) was a sexy sexy man. His character in the film, as its name would suggest was indeed a rebel. But he was not anything like the men that would get up on stage and scream their lungs out for hours on end for crowds of similarly minded people. People’s respect of Dean’s character in the film was derived from the fact that, while his ideals were different than the ideals of others around him, they were still for the most part in the moral right. There was nothing ethically ambiguous that Dean’s character did in the movie, except for perhaps in the first scene in which he is depicted as staggering drunk, which by all accounts is hardly a great sin. On the other hand Black Flag earned their respect in a different way, not by being morally in the right (although for certain they did embody an ideology that had its own moral standards), they earned their respect by simply being more fucked up than the people around them.
While fundamentally Rebel Without a Cause and the character it depicts is different than Black Flag and the people that they actually were, there are some similarities that can be made. The obvious one would be the disconnect between Dean’s parents in Rebel and the perceived disconnect between Black Flag and their parents (Im not sure if any of them actually had problems with their parents but I would assume so citing the culture and of course some of their material like Family Man), and certainly the disconnect between the majority of punk fans and their parents. Where Dean’s problem comes from his weak father figure and the refusal of his parents to understand his perspective, they are eventually brought back together at the end of the film and most of their differences are reconciled. With Black Flag however, the donning of the punk look, the constant listening to the music, and the physical fleeing of home that often accompanied the punk lifestyle, all served as wedges meant to sever ties to parents and as a result no reconciliation ever gets to occur.
The level to which persons could identify to the character Jim and to Black Flag were similar in a way, the red jacket that Dean donned in the film is probably one of the most iconic symbols in popular movie history. It is hard not to think of the jacket and not compare it to the jackets that punks would don every night. And of course the red leather is symbolic much in the same way that a Black Flag sticker or patch is. In terms of what I discussed earlier with the punk movement being a way of shaping ones own environment, we see this too in Rebel Without a Cause, particularly in the scene where Deans character, his love interest and their young friend who is picked one rush off to an abandoned mansion to pretend to be husband wife and son. In case you haven’t seen the movie it is about as weird as I just described it there, but it relates to how acts like Black Flag completely redefined their own life experiences by shaping the culture and refusing to be a part of anyone else’s vision of how the world should be.