(Words by John Gentile, editing and footnotes by Bryne Yancey.)
Upon learning that FLAG–the supergroup featuring punk icons Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, Bill Stevenson, and Stephen Egerton–were going to be playing Cleveland's Grog Shop, editor Bryne Yancey and myself made a split second decision to visit these modern titans despite the 400 odd miles separating us.1 While FLAG are playing Philadelphia later on in the year, the Grog Shop show was both the smallest show of the tour and much earlier on, meaning excitement for the tour would be at a maximum.
The Yance picked me up and after a short stopover in Gladwyne, where we picked up his girlfriend Melissa, we hit the PA Turnpike for adventure. Being that the turnpike is one long road that cuts directly across Pennsylvania, slicing both Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in half, the actual ride over was relatively uneventful. In addition to many stops at service stations,2 we busied ourselves by bouncing concepts of music off of each other: Why do people not respond well to feature-style interviews?3 What makes Katy Goodman of La Sera so enchanting?4 Are Slayer still Slayer?5 Also, as you likely know, a certain loopiness creeps up on you during long drives, and we ended up inventing '70s Blaxploitation star which we named "Toolbox Jones."6 The theme song for Toolbox Jones was basically the theme from Shaft, except that the refrain was shifted from "You're damn right!" to "You're damn straight!"
After a thirty-dollar toll on the PA turnpike, we rolled into Ohio and entered Cleveland just before midnight. Cleveland, once a former prince, has been reduced to a pauper by the collapse of the industrial labor force. It's spread out, amplifying the wealth and size of the United States. But, where there was once a bustling economy, now there is one abandoned building for every one still in use. The effect is that the city, at times, almost seems to be a ghost town whose inhabitants have not yet made the final push to go to other areas. As one drives through the city, one hopes that it does not act as a harbinger for the rest of the country.
Upon cutting through the city limits, we rushed to one of the Yance's and Melissa favorite hangouts from when they lived in the area, Happy Dog. A popular young person's bar that sometimes acts as a small music venue, Happy Dog's angle on the booze market is that they also serve artisan hot dogs made to order with over 50 toppings to choose from. Although I'm usually adventurous when it comes to food, for some reason, I view the cylindrical meats as sacred, and only asked for house ketchup, spicy mustard, "alien" relish, Vidalia onions, and applewood bacon on mine. In being so vanilla, I passed on toppings including peanut butter, chow mein, cream cheese, and the mysteriously named "Derrick Rubenstein."
At the bar was The Yance's friends "Fat Nick" and "Poppin' Fresh," who goes by the nickname of a nickname, P-Fresh. Fat Nick's name is truth in advertising. Standing at about 6'4" and weighing over 300 pounds, Fat Nick was a mountain of a man. His large fists, large ankles and thick jaw testified to the fact that he was an MMA fighter that seemed to enjoy the raw violence of the sport as much as the "artistic finesse" used so often in its marketing materials. Unfortunately, earlier the evening I misheard P-Fresh's name as "Pete Fresh," so during the entire evening I kept calling the poor fellow either "Pete" or "Fresh."7 Throughout the evening, I wondered why he replied to my conversation in such an unusual manner. As I later learned, he thought that I was making some sort of bro-ish assault on his name and physique, when really, I am just stupid.
We retired to Nick's house at nearly 3 a.m. Although Fat Nick was about a nice a fellow as could be, and also despite the fact that he could tear a man in two with amount of effort most of use tear off a piece of toilet paper, I'll admit that I almost did set my hands around his neck when he insisted on watching Problem Child at the very moment that exhaustion was transforming me from a tired dude into a screaming infant.8 Still, Fat Nick, ever the gracious host, saw that we all were about four past due on the sandman and politely excused himself while I fell asleep in the standing position, not unlike a racehorse.
The next morning, we busied ourselves by visiting record stores around Cleveland. Of particular note was My Mind's Eye. A medium-sized shop, My Mind's Eye featured the perfect cross section of new and used stock, as well as several rarities. Perplexingly, although the shop skewed toward punk and alternative music, it was being run by a kind, but elderly gentlemen who was clearly unfamiliar with the bands filling his shelves. In a bit of quaint yesteryear charm, the gentleman kept sales records and receipts by hand, writing out orders in a lined notebook. After helping him spell "Bauhaus" and "Stratford Mercenaries," I was relieved that I had passed on purchasing an Anal Cunt CD.
As a bit of foreshadow, hanging on the wall, quite inconspicuously, was a photo of Black Flag from 1982.9 Although most Black Flag photos have been disseminated to the point of overexposure, I had never seen the one at My Mind's Eye and I think it may be unique to that spot. The photo featured the rare Ginn-Dukowski-Cadena-Rollins-Biscuits lineup and may have been taken during a Cleveland stop. Cadena was in the center, hiding his expression behind a pair of aviators and a lotus-like flower. Above him was Dukowski, who was actually smiling, and Ginn which had no expression on his face whatsoever. Biscuits had a grin on his face like a surfer who just found a certain type of bag. Meanwhile, Rollins was at the point where he had perfected his scowl, and somewhat uncharacteristically, had a Suicidal Tendencies-like bandana and a thin beard. The contrasting expressions of the group said more than any book could ever hope to explain.
Before showtime, we met back up at grilled cheese bar called Melt, which had as many types of sandwiches at it had drafts. I enjoyed a delicious green apple soda. Fat Nick came, and so did former Punknews editor and current AltPress managing editor Scott Heisel and his wife. Heisel and I matched wits as we argued about whether the Rolling Stones were still good and expressed excitement for FLAG, though we both had a little reservation that perhaps the band could not live up to its pedigree or audience expectations.
Finally, the hour had arrived and we made our way to Grog Shop. Despite being located a "hip" district of the Cleveland area and directly above a pinball-themed nightclub, the Grog Shop is a typical punk bar with a gloriously low stage, tons of graffiti, bartenders covered in tattoos, and a very high dude-to-girl ratio.
During the opening acts10, members of FLAG would walk through the audience and whispers of "There's Dez" or "That's Chuck" would trickle through the crowd. Energy was building, but you could also tell that the audience was apprehensive. Everyone was expecting one of the greatest shows of all time. What if the band was only "pretty good" or worse…
Finally, FLAG nonchalantly took the stage. Although the house was packed, people busied themselves with conversation and modern technologies. Whereas, say, the Stranglers might have taken the stage to rapturous applause. Really, FLAG walked on like they were just any other dudes.
After a few minutes of FLAG tinkering with the onstage equipment, Morris turned his back to the audience, and gave a nod to each member of the band. A hush swept over the crowd. Morris then turned around and whispered, "It's not my imagination…" And then he erupted, "I'VE GOT A GUN IN MY BACK!"
The place went crazy suddenly. There was a pile up in front of the stage. Drinks were hurled all over the place. A mosh broke out in the center of the room. The band exploded onstage.
Morris sounded as fierce as ever, that high pitched, razor voice tearing through the air. His eyes were as wide as plates and the words shouted from his stomach out through his mouth, as if the police were roughing him up right there and then.11
Dukowski was in constant movement, whipping himself downwards and back up, and to a great degree, resembling someone under a voodoo spell. Dukowski was so injected by the music that he seemed to have little control over himself as the bass lines shot from his fingers, contorting his face into all manner of expressions.12
Cadena, on backup vocals and guitar, added both the thick undercurrent of FLAG's sound as well as that extra oomph that only comes with a second guitar. Cadena took the band from being a being to being a wall of sound.
Stevenson chopped away on the drums with the energy of a man half his age. His energetic but heavy stomp hurled the band forward throughout the night and shifted the energy onto the audience, who really didn't slow down the entire night.
And of course, many eyes were on Egerton, who had the unenviable job of taking up Greg Ginn's spot. Honestly, he crushed it. Understanding that the music of Black Flag is both power and position, Egerton was able to play those twisting guitar lines in Black Flag's music so that you were never quite sure when the music would strike, always catching you off guard. And, when he did set down on the juice, and applied pure force to the riffs? It was like a tank was running over you. "Rise Above" has perhaps never before had such a rapid, powerful execution.
Simply put, FLAG sounded fantastic. The songs were short, sharp, and powerful. Spending little time on ceremony, the band banged out song after song, not letting up on energy but always keeping that unique, unquantifiable bend in the music which elevates it so far above its contemporaries. It was a true joy to hear Morris take on most of The First Four Years, but it was an even bigger treat to hear him do songs from Damaged and My War, some of which he sang live back during Black Flag's original run, but never recorded in the studio. The Morris renditions of "My War" and "Rise Above" were magical. The band and Morris were able to merge Morris' style with the later musical style so that the songs felt like they could have come right after "I've Had It."
But even more surprising was Cadena's vocal delivery. Cadena took the mic for about six songs, including "Six Pack" and "Louie Louie," and he was as explosive as he was during the band's original run.13 Cadena, who is as interested in rock history, prog rock, and funk as he is punk, often opts for a more soulful take in these modern years. But, perhaps in a deference to this wonderful music, he brought back the vocal chord dynamite and exploded. There is no other way to say it. The Morris/Cadena vocal tag team is one of the greatest vocal combinations in all of live music. Man!
The show ended with a marvelous, savage version of "Damaged I." But quite perfectly, to show that FLAG was not all about pain and distress, the band left the stage as Cadena gave humorous nod to Jimmy Durante with "Goodnight Cleveland, whatever you are."
Simply put, FLAG delivered on expectations. These are not men looking to relive the glory days (they all have active modern music projects, too, you know). These were not men looking to phone it in. These were men who are still in their prime (even though their prime has lasted 30 some odd years) and who can still kick out the jams like none other, who still understand the fine balance between heart and skill, who changed the face of punk itself, who each have an entirely unique skill and style, playing some of the greatest music–maybe THE greatest music–ever written. Songs were meant to played, right? Not filed away in some drawer? Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. What a way to pay tribute to those that are still around to be able to appreciate it. What a way to just be blown out of your skull.14
1 There's something really special about driving hundreds of miles to see one of your favorite bands. However, there's nothing special about driving across Pennsylvania. What a gigantic, boring state to drive a car through.
2 I have a weak bladder. Shaddup.
3 Punks hate/fear change and anonymous jokers on the internet love to complain about shit that don't matter. Sorry punks, but you do.
4 Her music is great and she's delightful on twitter.
5 No. no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
6 The context is that John was trying to remember the name of a certain guy who started a certain punk gang. "Is it Toolbox Jones?"
7 This was far too funny to correct.
8 One thing you should know about Fat Nick: He loves to entertain houseguests, even at 3 a.m. That means the TV comes on even if everyone is dead from exhaustion.
9 It was this lineup, though I can't find the same photo anywhere online.
10 The first band sounded like they'd won a radio contest to open. No bueno. The second band were a little better.
11 As great as Keith Morris is, sometimes I feel like he's still underrated somehow. He's arguably the greatest living punk frontman, and easily one of the best punk frontmen ever. Anyone at this show who left saying they missed Rollins was just posturing.
12 Despite this, Dukowski still has very kind eyes.
13 He also sang "Thirsty and Miserable" and nailed it.
14 Seriously, this was one of the best punk shows I've ever seen. If FLAG come near you, go. Don't be a dummy.