You’re one of THEM: Black Flag’s “My War”

My WarNow is a good time to be a Black Flag fan. 27 years after the band’s breakup, 2013 has brought two simultaneous reunions. The one officially called Black Flag—led by founding guitarist Greg Ginn and featuring Jealous Again-era singer Ron Reyes—promises an album of all-new material later this year. The other is a supergroup of Black Flag alumni—Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, and Bill Stevenson, with Descendents/All guitarist Stephen Egerton completing the lineup—playing songs from the back catalog under the name Flag. I got to see the Ginn/Reyes Black Flag over the summer, and I’ll definitely see Flag if they come to town (no San Diego dates, guys? C’mon). With so much attention being paid to this influential band at the moment, I want to delve into the history one of their most memorable songs, “My War”.

Why “My War”? Most immediately it’s because back in April, Flag—as their first official piece of media—posted a video of their performance of the song at the Redondo Beach Moose Lodge, the same venue where Black Flag had its first performance back in January of 1979. Flag’s take prompted a lot of commentary, and became the opening track on a playlist of new music I share with close friends (followed by a track from Ginn & Reyes’ new Black Flag incarnation). This got me thinking about the various versions of “My War” released over the years, resulting in a cross-town drive spent listening to all of them in a row (thanks iPod). I thought it’d be interesting, and challenging, to write an article about just one song, and really dissect its origins and influence.

Secondly, “My War” has an interesting story. It was written during a period in which the band, due to a dispute with their record label, were legally prohibited from recording or releasing music under the name Black Flag. As the opening track on their 1984 album of the same title, it was their first new song to hit wax following this court-ordered muzzling . Written by bassist Chuck Dukowski, and first laid to tape by a 5-piece lineup featuring 2 guitarists, by the time “My War” finally saw release it was recorded by a very different, 3-piece Black Flag incarnation that didn’t even include the song’s author. Subsequent live recordings by different lineups provide snapshots of the band at different phases prior to their 1986 breakup.

Finally, it’s just a great song. Of the many Black Flag tunes that came in the years following the epochal Damaged album, “My War” stands out as among the best, probably the best. Certainly it’s the post-Damaged song that’s had the most traction in terms of cover versions, not only by acts influenced by Black Flag, but by the Black Flag alumni themselves.

Read on to walk through the history of this influential tune. Some of the recordings are available as YouTube clips, but to hear them all you’ll need Spotify.

“I have a prediction; it lives in my brain”: The demo

Black Flag was in a tough spot in 1982. Lead guitarist Greg Ginn, rhythm guitarist Dez Cadena, singer Henry Rollins, bassist Chuck Dukowski, and drummer Robo had recorded the band’s first full-length album, Damaged, in August ’81. Ginn, the band’s leader, wasn’t sure his independent record label SST was up to distributing the album, so he struck a deal with Unicorn Records, who had distribution through major label MCA and owned the studio where the band rehearsed. Things quickly went south when the president of MCA heard Damaged pre-release (but after 25,000 copies had already been pressed) and was repulsed, saying “as a parent, I found it an anti-parent record” and that it would be “immoral” to release it (Joe Carducci, who helped run SST, suggests MCA was looking to dump the failing Unicorn label as a client altogether and used Black Flag as a scapegoat). In sarcastic punk rock fashion, the band covered up the MCA logo on the already-pressed LPs and slapped stickers on the front bearing the “anti-parent” quote as a selling point. Unicorn got a new deal with an independent distributor, and Damaged finally hit shelves in January ’82.

The band, meanwhile, headed to the UK for their first tour outside the states. On catching their return flight, Robo—a Colombian national—was found to have an expired visa and deported back to his home country, ending his 3-year stint with Black Flag (he’d reunite with Cadena 2 decades later in a latter-day incarnation of the Misfits). His replacement, beach kid Emil Johnson, didn’t last long, and by that summer the drum stool was occupied by Chuck Biscuits, formerly of Canadian hardcore act D.O.A. and considered by many in the punk world to be one of the genre’s best drummers.

The Black Flag lineup that recorded the 1982 demos. L to R: Dukowski, Rollins, Ginn, Biscuits, Cadena

The Black Flag lineup that recorded the 1982 demos. L to R: Dukowski, Rollins, Ginn, Biscuits, Cadena

It’s during this time that “My War” first begins showing up in Black Flag’s setlist, alongside several other new post-Damaged numbers. Penned by Dukowski, it alternates between full-on riffing and stop-start breakdowns, with paranoid lyrics ranting about some nasty betrayal: “You say that you’re my friend, but you’re one of them“, it accuses over and over. Over 25 years later, Dukowski admitted the song was about Ginn, who was trying to edge the founding bassist out of the band in a very passive-aggressive manner (and eventually succeeded in doing so).

The new songs were meant for the follow-up to Damaged, which was waylaid by disagreements with Unicorn: The band filed suit against the label, accusing them of not paying royalties due and of not providing the requisite sales reports. Unicorn, it later turned out, was failing financially and under-reporting the album sales in order to avoid payment. In the immediate term, however, they were able to secure an injunction legally preventing the band from recording or releasing anything under the name Black Flag for the duration of the lawsuit. Ginn and Dukowski tried to skirt the injunction by putting out the compilation album Everything Went Black without the name “Black Flag” anywhere on it, but this earned them contempt of court and a week in jail.

During this period of court-ordered silence, Black Flag discreetly recorded a batch of demos at Total Access studio in Redondo Beach. The 10 tracks they laid down in this session have never been officially released, but are the most widely-circulated bootleg among fans. In fact, they’re the only studio recordings I know to exist by this lineup (the live set Live July 23–24 1982 at the On Broadway was released digitally in 2010 and is, as far as I know, the only official release to feature the lineup with Biscuits).

Like the rest of the songs on the demo, this version of “My War” is rough. It was never supposed to see the light of day. Even so, it’s a glimpse at how devastating the band was during this period. It’s to many a Black Flag fan’s regret that these tracks never developed into the album they were intended to, as it probably would have been even more punishing than Damaged. Biscuits’ drumming is energetic, Dukowski’s bass flies around wildly, and the twin guitar assault of Ginn and Cadena is something the band would never muster again. For his part, Rollins sounds psychotic, ad-libbing the song’s bridge (“I have a prediction, it lives in my brain / Eats me from the inside out, it drives me insane / The end will come / If I had a gun, I’d wanna kill some”) and screaming maniacally at the end. The song would see a few tweaks and a significant tightening up of the instrumentation by the time it received an official studio recording, but in many ways Black Flag never sounded this intense on record again.

Of all the songs from Black Flag’s 1982 demo with Chuck Biscuits on drums, “My War” seemed the most obviously anthemic, a vicious, rancorous beast that distilled all of the angst and black feeling of “Damaged I” and its many live rewrites into a fiercely Cro-Magnon stomper that welded the low-end riffage of Black Sabbath to Black Flag’s sophisticated steamroller version of hardcore. Structurally, the song segued between full-on riffing and passages of broken-down squall, where Greg’s guitar solos wailed and roared with twisted brilliance. The violence with which the song tore from these ugly lakes of noise, lumbering dinosaur riffs tolling doomily, to the rocketing full-pelt passages, Chuck revving his bass and giving it the full Lemmy, evoked the lyric’s bipolar hurtle between hatred and self-hatred; the “war” in question was one waged on all about them, but also upon themselves.

—Stevie Chick, Spray Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag

“All I know is what you’re not”: The album version

“My War” didn’t get an official release until March of ’84, and by then Black Flag was a very different band. Biscuits had quit, frustrated by the Unicorn embargo (it finally resolved when Unicorn went under), and was replaced by the now-legendary Bill Stevenson of the Descendents. Cadena had also split to start his own band, the DC3, and his exit ended the group’s 2-guitar dynamic. Most jarring, however, was the ousting of Dukowski: He was asked to leave, “vibed out”, fired, or quit, depending on who’s telling the story. Ginn insisted Dukowski’s playing was too unskilled, that without Dez holding down the rhythm he needed Chuck to be the anchor, and the bassist’s playing was too wild for Ginn’s vision. Ultimately, Dukowski was out of the group, though he stuck around to manage the band and help run SST. “My War” was his composition, but the version of Black Flag that made it the title track of their second album was a trio—Ginn played bass himself on the recording under the pseudonym “Dale Nixon”.

There are two major problems with the studio version of “My War” that I can’t get over. First is the recording quality. The band’s in-house producer, Spot, was assisted by Ginn and Stevenson for the recording. Though Spot was an integral part of the SST family, and behind the boards for many of the label’s most significant releases, I’ve never liked the sound quality of the albums he produced. Maybe they sound better on vinyl than on my CD copies…certainly, if any band’s catalog needs and deserves a digital remastering, it’s Black Flag’s. The whole affair sounds muffled and distant.

Secondly, the recording sorely lacks the character of Dukowski’s bass playing. Ginn’s playing as Dale Nixon is steady but uninteresting, providing a reliable rhythm but little else. Ginn is known as a passionate, emotional lead guitarist prone to improvisational jazz-like solos, and Chuck’s bass playing had a similar character; though he would occasionally miss notes, his speeding up and slowing down in flow with the feelings of the music provided much of the song’s emotional release. “On My War,” says Black Flag biographer Stevie Chick, “the bass playing lacks his idiosyncratic heft, his crashing sense of drama; certainly, the title track suffers for the absence of the anarchic cacophonies he delivered on the 1982 demo.”

Still, there’s no denying the song’s vicious strength. The bridge lyrics had seen some smithing, resulting in a version Rollins would use pretty consistently for the rest of the band’s run: “I have a prediction, it lives in my brain / It’s with me every day, drives me insane / I feel in my heart that if I had a gun / I feel in my heart, I’d wanna kill some / I feel in my heart the end will come”. His manic howling at the end still evokes psychosis. Where Biscuits’ playing on the demo had sounded fast and chaotic, Stevenson’s is more powerful and memorable, particularly in the opening and bridge where he alternates between quick riding of the cymbals and beating of the toms (I think…I don’t know drumming terms, I just think it sounds cool and kind of evil; he’s my favorite Black Flag drummer). Really though, the song could have been so much better if the 5-piece lineup (with either drummer) had gotten to do a proper studio version.

“It’s with me every day, drives me insane”: Live versions

There are a few live versions of “My War” in Black Flag’s discography. The first is from the Live ’84 album and features the 1983–85 lineup that is both my favorite and the band’s most prolific, having recorded 4 albums and 3 EPs together in just 16 months. Ginn, Rollins, and Stevenson are joined by Kira Roessler, who replaced Dukowski on bass and was Black Flag’s only female member. A tomboy type, she’d been kicking around the LA punk scene since the late ’70s; her brother Paul played keyboards in bands like the Screamers, and Kira was a regular at Hollywood punk club The Masque. She’d played in several short-lived bands and even dated Henry Rollins for a bit. At the time she was asked to join Black Flag she was in her third year at UCLA and playing in Dez Cadena’s DC3.

In contrast to Dukowski’s chaotic playing, which was more akin to a lead, Roessler was more disciplined and would get into a groove behind the beat. It’s visible in photos: Where Dukowski is seen leaning forward into the audience, pummeling his bass, his face and neck strained and contorted, Roessler is leaning back, bass against her pelvis, digging into the beat of the song.

[Chuck’s] thing is — and you can see it physically, when he plays — it’s this jumping, this galloping, this attacking… FORWARD! FORWARD! FORWARD! And it’s almost the opposite of how I play. When I play, it’s like I’m laying back, I’m way behind [smacks her hands, grunts along to the beat]. We would sit there and work at it really hard, where to sit on the beat, driving it home, in the most heavy way. Chuck either didn’t get it, didn’t want to get it, or it wasn’t communicated to him. I think he’s a great bass player. I know what I was doing then was what Greg wanted, or my best understanding of what Greg wanted.

—Kira Roessler, Spray Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag

In Kira, Ginn had found a bassist with the technical skills to hold down the rhythms he wanted while also playing heavily, fitting the slower, Black Sabbath-esque vision he was pursuing. It didn’t hurt that she was eager to please, submitting herself to Black Flag’s punishing rehearsal schedule which could be 5 hours a day. Stevenson called it “trudging”: They’d play the entire set at half-speed, hitting every note as hard as possible, then slowly increase the tempo while continuing to play heavily. “If you have to play fast, the default instinct is to lighten up,” says Roessler, “because to play fast you have to play light; that’s why typical hardcore drums sound light and tinny, like ‘ning ning ning ning ning’, because to play fast you have to play lighter. What we did in rehearsal was to start out slow and and play it hard, digging into every beat; we would keep playing over and over, gently speeding up, but never going so fast that we weren’t also playing really hard. So even though it got faster, it was still really hard.”

Roessler quickly developed a strong musical relationship with Stevenson; as the rhythm section, they felt a great deal of physical pain from these rehearsals. Bill’s kick drum leg swelled to nearly twice the size of his hi-hat one, and he developed astigmatism in his eye from the constant slamming of his snare drum. Kira ripped a tendon in the middle finger of her right hand and was told not to play for 6 weeks; not wanting to let the band down, she played anyway, and has played in pain ever since. Her talent and dedication were noticed: “Kira was spot-on perfect every time”, says Black Flag roadie and SST mainstay Tom Troccoli, “She would plant her feet in the ground, she would put that bass up against her pelvic area, and then she would start to hit it with her fingers, and every single attack was exactly the same as it would be the night before, and the night after, it was always perfect.”

The intensity of Black Flag’s mid-80s performances are captured in the “My War” cut from Live ’84: Stevenson’s hammering drums, Roessler’s digging into the beat, Ginn’s scabrous leads, and Rollins’ psychotic wailing are a testament to how heavy the band was during this period. There’s also a live-in-the-studio version recorded for Radio Tokyo that’s appended to some versions of the 1982 demos bootleg and features the same lineup.

In 1985 Black Flag underwent another lineup change when Bill Stevenson exited the group. According to Stevenson, the split was a mutual decision: “Greg and I weren’t getting along, and things were getting ugly … I just felt like I wasn’t really focused, so Greg and I talked and he was just as glad for me to go as I was to go. It was definitely mutual.” He also notes that the band “had just gotten to where it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. There was a whole lot of ‘vibing’, and the band proceeded to fall apart after that. There was a whole lot of personality things going on, which none of us cared to sort out, so Greg just started replacing people. Greg and I talked about the fact that in Black Flag I was just the drummer, and secretly I wanted to be more than just that, so it was mutual but at the same time it was difficult.” Rollins, however, has said that Bill left the group “crying and screaming”. Certainly Ginn had a knack for edging members out of his band…except Rollins, who proved intractable.

Stevenson’s replacement was Anthony Martinez, and Roessler struggled to get him up to par for the tour that’s captured on Who’s Got the 10½? “Anthony was really a challenge for me, at the beginning. I would get really frustrated with him, kick my amp, smash my bass against it and stuff, because it physically hurt to try to hold him in time. It wasn’t his fault, but I would get frustrated. It wasn’t like with Bill, where I would lock in with him. Anthony only had, what, two weeks’ practice? So he would do the ‘Chuck Biscuits’ thing — I don’t know what else to say — of speeding up and playing lighter. And I would be holding him back, physically digging into every note, harder and harder, trying to pull him back, because he was taking off.”

You can hear the difference between Stevenson’s drumming and Martinez’s by comparing the Live ’84 and Who’s Got the 10½? versions of “My War”. The latter is competently played, but lacks the punch of the prior version. Gone are Stevenson’s memorable parts in the intro and bridge, and the attack doesn’t sound as pummeling. “Greg was leaning on Kira and Bill too much”, says SST co-owner Joe Carducci, “That band could’ve been better. He wanted this rhythm section that did a minimal kind of thing; he seemed to want a floor upon which he would play, and that floor was flatter than it should have been. He should’ve let them be a little freer.” The standout part of this performance, however, is Henry’s ad-libbing at the end: “Yes! Annihilate! Yes! Annihilate! Destroy! Yes! The discipline! I am! I am the discipline!” I don’t know what he means, but it sounds intense.

The final Black Flag lineup, which saw Roessler ousted in favor of C’el Revuelta, didn’t issue any recordings and broke up in 1986. But the story of “My War” doesn’t end there…

“I feel it in my heart; the end will come”: Covers

“My War” has had quite a life beyond Black Flag, having been covered by many different artists. A few of those covers are notable enough to warrant covering here. First is a version by Santa Cruz hardcore mainstays Good Riddance that’s probably my favorite version of the song:

After Black Flag, Bill Stevenson got the Descendents back together, who later evolved into ALL. Since the mid-’90s he and cohort Jason Livermore have become prolific punk rock producers, running their own Colorado studio, The Blasting Room, where Bill has worked with bands like Lagwagon, Rise Against, No Use for a Name, Anti-Flag, NOFX, The Bouncing Souls, and Alkaline Trio, among many others. In 1999 Good Riddance were recording their fourth album, Operation Phoenix, there with Stevenson at the controls, and took the opportunity to lay down a cover of “My War” as a hidden track, with Stevenson playing drums and additional guitar. The collaboration proved fruitful: Good Riddance would record 3 more albums at the studio, and Stevenson and GR singer Russ Rankin started a hardcore side project together, Only Crime.

Henry Rollins, meanwhile, wasted no time in launching his own band after Black Flag: The Rollins Band. In ’98 he replaced the other band members with LA trio Mother Superior, and in 2002 got the urge to do a benefit album for the legal funds of the West Memphis Three. The Rollins Band (aka Mother Superior) provides all the instrumentation on the record, while Henry and numerous guest singers—including Black Flag alumni Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, and Kira Roessler—provide the vocals. Rollins himself is the only one to tackle any post-Damaged material, which makes up the last 4 proper tracks (Roessler backs him on “Annihilate This Week”). The Rollins Band take on “My War” sounds like an updated version of the original My War album cut, but with much better production value. The band delivers ably on the instruments and Rollins sounds as fierce as ever. On the album’s supporting tour, Rollins called the song “the greatest song ever written”. There’s a certain closing-of-the-loop quality to this cut, as it’s the last track on the album proper and the Rollins Band hasn’t issued any new material since, Henry remarking in recent years that he’s uninterested in doing music again. Ginn trash-talked the album, saying “It’s studio musicians playing Black Flag songs, so basically it has no balls.” I say balls to that, this album is awesome.

In 2002 Initial Records issued a tribute album, Black on Black: A Tribute to Black Flag, with a number of metalcore groups doing takes on BF songs. It was reissued 4 years later by Reignition Recordings with 6 new tracks appended, including a version of “My War” by OC group Bleeding Through. I don’t care much for metalcore, nor for this cover, but I’m including it in the interest of being thorough.

This is where things really get interesting. After leaving Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski stayed active in other SST acts like October Faction and SWA. In the 2000s he started the Chuck Dukowski Sextet with his wife Lora Norton on vocals and son Milo Gonzalez on guitar. Their debut album, Eat My Life (2006), closes with an intense version of “My War”, with squealing horns in place of the lead guitar and Norton screaming her head off on the lyrics. This is certainly the most adventurous of the song’s many versions, and finds it coming full circle back into the hands of the man who originally wrote it 24 years prior.

For Record Store Day 2012, Dukowski’s Sextet did a split single with Mike Watt + the Missingmen; Watt was the bassist in another SST act, the Minutemen, in the early ’80s. The CD6 once again tackled “My War”, only this time they’d shed members (they could’ve more accurately been billed as the Chuck Dukowski Quartet) and took a guitar-driven approach to the song. There’s a loose, jazzy feel to the opening before the band locks in for the first verse. Norton sounds even more furious than she did on the album take, while Gonzalez does some squalling, experimental stuff with his guitar toward the end that sounds like he’s pulling a bit from ’70s funk and psychedelic rock.

Finally, the Flag version: I was lucky enough to be at the GV30 shows in December 2011 celebrating the 30th anniversary of concert promotion company Goldenvoice. Known mostly for putting on big festivals like Coachella, Goldenvoice got its start putting on punk and hardcore shows around LA and OC in the early ’80s. GV30 was a 3-night celebration featuring many bands from those days who are still around: The Adolescents, X, Social Distortion, TSOL, Youth Brigade, Bad Religion, The Dickies, The Vandals, the Descendents, and several others. On the 3rd night, just before the Descendents, Bill Stevenson and Chuck Dukowski took the stage with original Black Flag singer Keith Morris and Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton to perform as Black Flag, playing all 4 songs from the Nervous Breakdown EP. It was a brief set, but it sparked an interest in doing more shows of Black Flag material.

My shot of Egerton, Morris, Stevenson, and Dukowski performing as Flag in 2011

My shot of Egerton, Morris, Stevenson, and Dukowski performing as Flag in 2011

Once Dez Cadena got onboard, things really got rolling and the group decided to tour as Flag. In April 2013 they played their first real show at the Redondo Beach Moose Lodge, chosen for its significance to Black Flag’s history: it’s where the band played their first show as Black Flag (they’d previously been called Panic) back in ’79. A video of Flag performing “My War” from this show was chosen as the band’s first official piece of media, an opening shot to show what these 5 punk rock legends could do with this classic material. There’s a review at PunkNews that covers the video quite well, and better than I could, but I’ll pull a few observations from there:

Where Henry Rollins was known for his intense, angry delivery and muscular, imposing stage presence, the diminutive Morris is known for a more manic, wild-man-jumping-around type energy. His time in Black Flag was also marked by short, fast songs laced with wry humor, like “Wasted” and “Nervous Breakdown”, as opposed to the slower, heavier, more desolate depths the band would plumb in their years with Rollins, a trend many fans saw starting with My War. Both Morris’ manic energy and sense of silliness were qualities he’d carry over into his post-Black Flag bands the Circle Jerks and Off!, so it’s interesting to see him take on a song as dark and full of psychodrama as “My War”. He takes some liberties with the bridge lyrics, turning them from a vision of violence to a plea for sanity: “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!”

Flag’s playing on the track is pretty phenomenal. It’s a combination of many of Black Flag’s best qualities: Stevenson’s heavy drumming, Dukowski’s thick and unpredictable bass, and the twin guitar attack provided by Cadena and Egerton. It’s amazing to see this electric of a performance from guys whose median age is 53. They may be elder statesmen of punk rock, but their “My War” performance shows that their icon status is well-earned. Now I just wish they’d get down here and play San Diego.

I got to see Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes’ new incarnation of Black Flag over the summer, but “My War” wasn’t in their set. I was kind of hoping it would be, so I could see Ginn’s variations on it. It makes sense, as it’s not one of Ginn’s compositions and he was saving a lot of room in the set for new tunes, but I wanted to see how he and Reyes would deliver on it with their new band. Maybe next time.

The Ginn/Reyes Black Flag lineup in 2013. Lots of great songs, but no "My War".

The Ginn/Reyes Black Flag lineup in 2013. Lots of great songs, but no “My War”.

There you have it: A walk through all the versions of “My War” in my library. If you stuck it out this far, I appreciate your dedication.

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One response to “You’re one of THEM: Black Flag’s “My War”

  1. Pingback: Black Flag – What The… | meep[zine]

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