“My War” is the first official media released by FLAG, the group featuring former Black Flag members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena and Bill Stevenson, as well as Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton. It’s a daring choice that underscores Black Flag's formidable catalogue as well as the inherent talent of each of the members of FLAG.
Penned by Dukowski, “My War” is one of the most enduring Black Flag numbers. Originally immortalized by a frantic, self-destructive Henry Rollins on the My War album, the official studio recording of “My War” has the peculiar distinction of being one of Dukowski/Black Flag’s greatest songs, but Dukoswki himself is not on the Black Flag studio recording. Rollins himself called it “the greatest song ever written” during a few stops of the West Memphis Three tour and even re-recorded it for his Rise Above album.
Whether Dukowski is sore that he didn’t get to record on one of punk’s most famous anthems, or whether he thinks it’s a true representation of his art is unclear. But he obviously finds the song to be something special as it's one of the few Black Flag songs that Dukowski has played in his various bands after leaving the group and also having recorded it twice with his own band, The Chuck Dukowski Sextet.
So, in one respect it’s not a surprise that the band chose “My War” to be their leading shot of media dispersal. But on the other hand, by the time Rollins recorded his vocals for “My War” in 1984, Black Flag were a drastically different group than when original vocalist Keith Morris was in the fold. With Rollins, Black Flag often dropped so far down into the concepts of desolation and agony that the songs were intense, but they were also despair physicalized and personified. By contrast, Morris’ take on Black Flag had those elements, but he also had a sort of wry humor and sense of silliness that even severe songs like “Wasted,” “Don’t Care” and “Revenge” were kind of funny and also really, really fun.
Therefore, FLAG’s issue of “My War” acts as sort of a test. Can the band merge the heaviness of the Rollins era with the manic delivery of Morris?
FLAG’s “My War” opens with the same driving energy as the original studio recording. Egerton's guitar emulates that of Greg Ginn's by keeping the sound sharp, and remarkably, is also easier to bleed from note to note, whereas a lesser player would chop away at the notes. It may merely be a matter of better sound quality, but Egerton’s take sounds fuller and larger than the original.
However, just as it did in 1984, the massively thick bass drives this song. In contrast to the thinner sound of “Dale Nixon,” Dukowski seems to fill the room when piloting his own song, flooding with the instrument and taking up any space not occupied by the other instruments. The effect is that the song seems to transfer the agony from the instruments directly to the audience.
After the slow, rising of the intro, much like a rollercoaster, the song suddenly launches forward and downward in its fastest version to date. Morris nails the vocal intro lyrics of “My War!” His scream is raw, wet and from the back of his throat. While Morris sometimes is sort of a jester, here he's communicating pure anger, spitting out the song's lyrics with enough venom to stack up to any of its other versions.
One of Morris’ skills is the use of dynamics. While most covers of the song feature a vocalist screaming at the top of their lungs throughout the song, Morris knows when to drift away and when to suddenly explode forward, making his screams seem like the only thing in the room, until the band crash downward again.
A great deal of rockers strive to “age gracefully,” updating and usually calming their music to a more dignified cadence. By contrast, Morris still sounds like he’s 18. He still has the flared eyes which, when he sings, “You say that you’re my friend but your one of them!” makes it sound like the song was written yesterday. It’s a testament that shows “My War,” which is almost thirty years old, speaks to a fundamental truth and sounds entirely fresh despite its advanced age.
Interestingly, Morris makes a curious choice for the song’s famous ad-lib section. At the songs bridge, he snaps, “I have a prediction, it comes with me every day / it lives in my brain, everyday / if I had a gun in my heart / deep down I know / If I had a gun / I’d shoot someone! / Just kill the motherfuckers! / And that ain’t cool! / Don’t make me that way!”
In an age where school shootings are a very real threat, the song’s lyrics were unfortunately a prophecy. Thus, it seems that where the song was an expression of disassociation, Morris has now also pushed it into a plea for society to help those that are disconnected. Phenomenal.
By now, the proof is on the table. FLAG are an awesome live band. So now, listeners are forced to make a choice. Will you choose to celebrate five great musicians playing great music from a great band and have some amazing fun while letting our heroes know that they are appreciated, or will you allow some ambiguous, ill-defined, abstract concept about “reunions” make you miserable about the whole thing? Frankly, life is short. I go for the fun.