Henry Rollins used to send postcards to himself at his home address when out on tour. It’s an insight to the loneliness, misery and depression of life on the road. His tour experiences with Black Flag in the 80s have been exhaustively documented (by himself) in his many, many (many) books, spokenword live shows, podcasts, vodcasts, radio shows, TV shows, conversations with strangers in parking lots, and messages in bottles. It’s a cottage industry and what he does best. Black Flag’s personnel conflicts, the relentless ascetic lifestyle, and his own, er, sexual impotency have been chronicled with so much drama and angst by Hank, it’s almost become a meme in itself.
In summary: Black Flag on tour in 1984 was a serious business. A VERY serious business. So woe betide the Black Flag fan from Dearborn, Michigan who makes the ill-advised decision to approach Henry with a microphone and camera for a casual chat directly after a gig.
Plot structure: it’s the mid 80s and Black Flag are being accused by all and sundry in the SCENE of “selling out”. Dear God. What could Da Flag have possibly done? Signed to EMI? Started travelling separately in luxury buses? Demanded separate hotels suites with caviar and champagne on the rider? No. No, reader. They have evolved their sound. They have decided that they can improve on the generic hardcore in which punk rock had been mired since the late 70s. But the SCENE punks didn’t take kindly to 1984’s My War, with its doomy riffs and pioneering grunge-sludge sound. Black Flag had changed. And the punks hate change.
More recently, My War has been reappraised with the benefit of contemporary hindsight by actual grown-ups. It’s commonly considered Black Flag’s masterpiece. But in 1984 the punk puritans dismissed it as indulgent metal nonsense which therefore qualified it as “selling out”. (So you can imagine the unadulterated fury when Black Flag’s SST labelmates Hüsker Dü not only similarly matured their sound, but also committed the cardinal punk sin of signing to major label Warners for Candy Apply Grey in 1986. Even Joan Rivers gave them stick for the same reason when they appeared on her chat show, FFS.)
What’s especially galling for our heroic punk rock interviewer fella m’lad is that he’s a fan. A big fan. He’s not accusing the band of selling out, he’s just frustrated by the idiocy of the same opinion from his scene peers. So he’s attempting to give the band the chance to answer their detractors. But he doesn’t frame the question that well and Rollins – ahead of his time as usual – evidently wasn’t big on nuance.
Henry is clearly up for a fight the second he opens his mouth. Before he opens his mouth. With a stare that could cripple a US Marine at 10 paces. Not only does he belittle the kid, he downright humiliates and intimidates him. Fiddling with his hair and clothes and commenting sarcastically on his look and style, Rollins starts talking about the geo-political situation of the era to deliberately patronise the parochialism of the kid’s position. But towards the end, the interviewer turns it around and accuses Rollins of trying to insult him but failing.
The video has gone viral before and good ol’ Rollins has of course apologised and explained the circumstances behind his behaviour. Not that he needed to. We weren’t all being filmed in our 20s and we all made dick moves and got away with it. But Rollins grew up in the spotlight and is in the unfortunate position of it coming back to haunt him – three decades later. Henry wasn’t Ed Sheeran. Black Flag weren’t Coldplay. Back then, bands weren’t clinically and meticulously commercialised by a committee of digital media-trained content marketing community management pissweasels. That’s why Black Flag continue to cast a long shadow over heavy music. That lean, mean line-up of Greg Ginn, Rollins, Bill Stevenson and Kira Roessler was unparalleled – whatever anyone tries telling you about Flag’s first four years. An absolute powerhouse.
But discount the bullying if you can and it remains a historically important document. It’s a microcosmic encapsulation of the subcultural tribalism of late 20th century music. A perfect example of the passion and intensity that the art of the era evoked, one that the fans lived, breathed and defended regardless of the consequences. A lesson in semantics. Also: Up the punks!