Sunday, April 7, 2013

Stewart Dean Ebersole's "Barred for Life": Book Review

How "The Bars" signify not only Black Flag's relevance three decades after their career, but the impact of punk upon those who in this collection were usually far too young to have seen a gig makes this photographic and journalistic anthology compelling. As I was born the same year as Dez Cadena and Henry Rollins, and as I grew up watching this L.A. scene, I admit some surprise.

Everybody interviewed with the icon is younger (with one exception: Ron Spellman, a second-generation tattoo artist a few years older) than me--or therefore the famous Hank whose arms, torso, and back became ever more inked as his power as the band's longest-lasting singer dominated the band's image and presence. Why tattoos perch or crawl over the bodies of the hirsute or hairless hundreds in these pages portrayed, whereas earlier punks did not tend (as chronicler Stewart Dean Ebersole, Spellman, and Chuck Dukowski concur) to decorate themselves with so many or so "graphic" an array of body art remains more an observation than a consideration. Yet, the generational gap between those who come after the band who choose to don The Bars and those who heard the band in its heyday persists.

While I wish this aspect was explored more, this isn't a sociological treatise. It's an angular presentation that mingles Ebersole's own rambling memoir of life in Red Lion PA with his coming-of-age with the Flag. Interspersed are intelligent interviews with band members, Spellman, and photographer Glen E. Friedman. (Greg Ginn no longer talks to the press; Rollins talks to them but not here.) I share what Ebersole wrestles over: feeling that by the 1984 "My War" LP (if not the title track, which was punchier than most other tracks) the band's move away from hardcore to jazzier and sludgier textures did not do the ensemble justice. Ebersole returns to this over and over, and many who identify (as all tattooed do here) their favorite song, singer, and album by the band list "My War" often in both categories. The editor locates this pivotal point (before the band ended in '86; note the current revival on two tours by a version of Black Flag and one of Flag) as a very punk rock one.

That is, the band challenged its followers not to expect conformity, and undermined its own fan base. "Upon exiting, Black Flag seemed to kick down the temple." (255) They always tried to take charge. Friedman reminds readers how the band, under SST's aegis and Ginn's command, forged a collective identity itself at "The Church" and its relentless devotion to rehearsing and touring, and managing itself. While Ginn's brother, Raymond Pettibon, earns full credit for his design of their logo, I recall that its symbolism might have eluded those who first saw it on records and flyers (if not yet tattoos). The four black rectangles always remind me of a row of amps.

The band's name evokes for me--as Chuck Dukowski reminiscences--the bug spray slogan "Kills Ants on contact" famously borrowed by the band in a Hollywood Blvd. counter-PR, anti-Adam stunt, and the popular insecticide of the era. The anarchic connection appears to have motivated Ginn to change the name of the group from Panic, coupled with his brother's icon as a memorable non-verbal logo and a rallying image of its vision. Ebersole finds that its lyrics (unlike the Dead Kennedys or I may add the Clash) have not dated as much for they were not paired to Reaganesque depredations. The deeper anarchic resonance may, however, intentionally or accidentally matter less to some who don the four staggered, as if pixillated, dramatic and stark black bars.

Billy Atwell sums this up (one of nearly four hundred wearers featured) as therefore pure hardcore. "They say something without saying something at all." (89) Ron Reyes reflects: "People don't get the cereal brand they eat in the morning tattooed on them." (125) So, what does this "secret handshake" register as? As I lack tattoos, and as Black Flag is a band I like with some songs but pass by with many more from that problematic later period, I approached this volume of those who had heard this music a decade or two after me--and often far from its home turf--with curiosity.

Scanning the testimonies from band members, Ebersole and his mates (his own tattoo is via a girlfriend's birthday gift), and those inked, the whole counterculture-as-commodity connection appears underexamined. (A couple of slips on pg. 276: Kira Roessler went not to "Yumi" but "Uni[versity]" H.S. near UCLA; so did Paul not "Bean" but "Beahm" aka Darby Crash.) Rightly, many who were in L.A. around '80 lament the turn to violence that kept such as me from the mosh pits as they grew increasingly full of the jocks who used to pummel the artsier and the lonelier who tended to comprise the first punks and the band themselves (not sure about Rollins, although certainly he was less pumped up when he joined...). Ebersole notes NYC scenesters featured more tattoos but that this faded with British bands and then earlier American ones--only to return with Rollins and mid-80s hardcore. But I kept wondering if this ink-as-marker identification was less radical or subversive than its wearers often assumed. As with many features promoted by those who place themselves outside the norm, the norm tends to catch up, surround, and profit off of their promotion.

One encounter moved me. "Chaz" returns from Iraq after leaving part of his leg behind. At Walter Reed VA, he wakes from a coma and tries to get back together. He finds Henry Rollins as part of a USO tour standing there at bedside. Chaz tells him about his ambition, and he soon dons his Bars.

I am not sure how many have tattoos of the Bars on more inaccessible or intimate areas; the ratio of males to females here appears to balance that of those inked overall in American (and Canadian, British, and Continental) cultures where many get by as bartenders, skilled workers (or not workers!), artists, or creative or casual laborers a bit off the corporate or mainstream grids. I kept turning the pages--which mimic punk collage as you need to find your way around the text and images and odd juxtapositions--expecting to find a familiar face. While I did not, I saw people that I'd like to meet--an indication of Jared Castoldi and Ebersole's casual but approachable style behind the lens. (Amazon US 4-4-13;
PM Press site for title)

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