Guest Blogger Marc Rentzer: Black Flag – Damaged

2 Mar

Marc “Spike” Rentzer has a musical palette as eclectic as my own, and a playing career far more illustrious.  Although we have only known each other for a few years, we have determined beyond a reasonable doubt that we were in the same loud sweaty rock venues for the same gigs a decade before our official first meeting. 

This week’s Recording is squarely in his wheelhouse . . .

—–

Black Flag’s Damaged, is a hardcore punk album from the 1980’s. It’s one of the most respected albums of the genre. No other band really sounds like Black Flag, because Greg Ginn, the founder, guitar player and main songwriter, has one of the most unique styles inside or outside of the genre. When he plays, it’s unmistakably him, period.

Very few guitar players are like that.

While it starts off with a very positive statement in “Rise Above”, the devastating ending on this album is like no other. What is the real message? Is it to “Rise Above”, or to wallow in torment and keep people away from seeing the real you?

Damaged is an album of anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness, hatred, mental illness and depression. It is about an inner life of agony. Mind you, the most popular songs on this album, “Rise Above”, “Spray Paint” and “TV Party” – have nothing to do with the rest of the album, thematically (or are perhaps tangentially connected.)

Compared to the most hellish track of inner torment, “Damaged 1”, which is the final track on side two, “TV Party” is like a joke. It’s a good song and it’s about the nothingness of an unexamined modern life, with people just drinking their lives away while watching other peoples fake lives on television. But it is one thing that “Damaged 1” is not:  accessible to more listeners.

“TV Party” is funny/dark like a weird carnival in a way. By contrast, “Damaged 1” lays bare a raw, damaged psyche, hurt and vulnerable – but dangerous.

Picture a wounded beast who has been deeply tortured, pacing in its cage, in horror.

When not pacing, it’s in a fetal ball, in the corner, moaning and licking it’s wounds.

Then you walk in: The beast jumps up, but stays in its corner, back to the wall. It bares it’s teeth at you and roars at you and reaches out to claw at your throat. Imagine it’s on a choke chain and you get to come as close as you dare – and watch the beast for as long as you dare.

Well, I did this for years, when I listened to this album. I listened by putting two speakers on the floor facing each other, only 3 feet apart. I laid down between them and listened to this album over and over again at full volume – to squeeze out every last bit of truth!

“Damaged 1” is the climax of the album. On the way there, we’ve got padded cells, depression, a life of pain, sitting there like a loaded gun waiting to go off, problems so huge that maybe an atom bomb is the best answer and a part of life so agonizing that the lyrics are  shouted and begged to “make me close my eyes!”

Let’s play a game. Here are some of their lyrics:

I want to live/I wish I was dead
If I don’t get out I’m gonna die
Its hard to survive. Don’t know if I can do it
I need help before it’s too late
Earths a padded cell, defanged and declawed
Put the gun to my head and I don’t pull. I’m confused.

Now – how do we solve a problem like that? When we experience awful, life shaping pain. The pain of betrayal. The pain of early life experiences that you know will effect you for the rest of your life.

One way to solve a problem like would be to create art and have a cathartic experience.

Playing in a heavy band – and I know this – can be perfect for that sort of thing. But, there is a danger. Reliving it over and over again and defining it on your terms can be healthy, but it is a second away from wallowing.

If it were only about a sculpture, or a painting, or the cover art of this album: a dark photograph of a man with a shaved head, punching the mirror, right where his face is, with the mirror shattered and blood pouring down the fist, which is still connected to the broken, shattered mirror – that photograph could be cathartic and could hang on a wall in a gallery and be discussed.

But when it’s the songs, which are played over and over by the band in rehearsal and on tour – it can go toward wallowing  – or at least spending time within a self created world of a lot of pain. While it is healthy to face our personal pain – to focus on it all the time and with such intensity will keep ones psyche in a challenging place…because of course, filling ones head with positive uplifting thoughts does a lot more to create a happy person.

Or….were they just able to compartmentalize the feelings they brought out in the songs from the rest of their happy lives? It’s possible, because Black Flag was one of the most positive examples around, in terms of DIY. They lived it. They created their own band, wrote their own songs, learned to play really well and to tap into and express feelings most artists could never do.

They created their own record label and signed many other bands. Greg Ginn is responsible for most of this and was certainly the visionary – but I’m told it was a team effort in many respect with members of the band working at the label, his brother doing the album and flyer art, etc…

They toured and were part of a network that created clubs where there were none [no club in your town? Rent out a VFW hall!], created their own magazines (usually mimeographed or photo-copied) and artwork (flyers, posters, etc..). So for all the focus on hellish agony – they moved forward with a vision of relentless DIY with a fanatical work ethic. Few bands toured or practiced as much as Black Flag.

Black Flag touched me like no other band and it was specifically this album, Damaged. I wanted to feel the pain. I wanted to get into Rollins’ head and see what was there because I knew I felt that way sometimes, but couldn’t tap into it or describe it so vividly.

More than any other album, it  made me feel so alive.

Black Flag’s primal scream was in the same frequency as my own. Before I knew what mine was I heard Damaged and I recognized my inner self and the unique wavelength I shared with the universe. But their screams were more evolved because they had taken matters into their own hands and were pushing the universe back, in that dark alley. They were conscious, like Neo and his team of rebels in The Matrix [A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.] and of course, once you are awake, you can never go back to sleep.

It was my rush and my salvation to hear them shouting at me.

What is my “TV Party” which keeps me passive and unaware these days? What is my current representation of spray painting the walls, to subversively beautify what’s around me and to assert my identity and come alive as my true self? Who are the “jealous cowards” in my life who “try to control”? Are they external or internal demons? Do I “Rise Above”?

Have I?

When resistance is futile, as in the Black Flag song “Police Story” or when total freedom is elusive, to what extent do I make peace with “control”?

This is an album of existentialism and deep questions. How do I give my life meaning? How alive am I? How alive…and awake, do I want to be?

—–

Spike is a punk rock guitar player from New York. He played lead guitar in New York’s legendary Letch Patrol, strongly associated with the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988. He went on to join Iron Prostate and Furious George. He has played stages such as CBGB, the birthplace of Punk Rock, where The Ramones, Blondie and The Talking Heads took the world by storm in 1977 and was a member of the New York Hardcore scene in the 80’s. His bands have appeared in books (fiction, autobiography, encyclopedias), movies (documentaries, Hollywood productions) and television. 

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3 Responses to “Guest Blogger Marc Rentzer: Black Flag – Damaged”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [100] Black Flag – Damaged | . . . To Hear Before I Blog - March 6, 2015

    […] not a part of the story in my formative years, so Damaged will never have the affect on me that it had on others, will never move me in the primal way the artists I connected with as a teen did and still […]

  2. Guest Blogger Jeff Kaplan: Boston – Boston | . . . To Hear Before I Blog - July 6, 2015

    […] I allegedly have never met Jeff Kaplan, but if our paths are anything like that of mutual friend, Mark Rentzer, then we have surely been in the same small NYC clubs watching a band at one time or another over […]

  3. [121] David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars | . . . To Hear Before I Blog - July 31, 2015

    […] I have heard cover this song live in concert (including The Diamond Dogs so very long ago, and Marc Rentzer‘s Creb’s and the Maynard G’s just this year) and realize this track would be […]

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