Beyond symptoms of rebellion – A Black Flag film and Nirvana at the horizon

Watching this really wonderful documentary on the US harcore punk rock co-progenitors, By Any Means: A Brief History of Black Flag. A charming and well told story, mostly as a documentary film about the band, while also being about the attempt by its film maker Aaron Michael Thomas to make a documentary film – about Blackflag.

Its well told, sometimes compelling, moving with a minimal, essential lean-ness along his line of voice-over narration that links interviews, talking head style recounting and a replete amount of historic images and live play footage. Often only snippets of the music itself are heard, as if realising that this, the music of Black Flag itself should have its own chance to be the centre of the specific stories of encountering and hearing it, leaving this fundament to this story alongside by absence and yet also completely at its heart.

What energizes people and situations like music? It becomes a question one might ask in response to watching and thinking about this film and its story, about a band and a man in love with their music who wanted to make a film about them. At the same time it is a film which cannot help but to make itself about the reaction to Black flag, and not so much their music, but the action of the music’s impact and relationships to what it represents and represented. At the heart of this aspect of the film, the reactivity of police and State forces triggered by Black Flag, demonstrating the real power of the live event in which they became a focus for the arrival of violent incident and the invocation of highly represseive powers. Along the way, anecdotally these same State forces instigate extreme, unprovoked violence in the face of these playing events and the musicians they see as reponsible. It would seem that when you react, or react back – sometimes its the law, sometimes its the law’s truncheons.

Wikipedia: ‘The band’s logo was created by artist Raymond Pettibon to symbolize their themes of rebellion and anarchy. As the band gained popularity the logo was graffitied in and around Los Angeles, drawing the attention of the police to the band’s activities’

In a way and at a certain point, I can’t also help but feel in this story that is often simply and elegantly put (with regular doses of extreme experiences of life recounted along the way) that what is also available is access to a highly potent counter-cultural energy of production. It is the kind of thing that gets labelled as an ‘idea’ or possibly a ‘genre’ occasionaly even a ‘way of life’ but is also probably more describable as being the realising of abstract connections to more extraordinary forms of existence (the thing with extraordinary here being that the clue of a return is in the ‘ordinary’ while also being beyond it). But it is also simply a kind of energy, that comes to inspire, to itself energise, to empower the bodies of those who are playing, listening, dancing, hearing, feeling, seeing with it as a key coordinate and becoming in their lives…

But in this very visible and confrontational speed of approach and speed of expression, there is a concommitant violence of dynamic, seemingly accepted and normalised (to a degree) even by and sometimes between those in the band, as well as their fans. The latter of which suggests a certain double-ness, that while a warrior mentality contains an expectation of force in respect of the turbulence of the task (to play – to be a part of hardcore punk rock) it also risks – perhaps inadvertently that they might become co-correlates from within, of the police, State-forces (and capitalist shiv mentalities) this film shows to have been instantiating physical and abstract violence from outside it.

This incorporated violent tendency forms something almost like a double articulation that emerges for very different reasons in the act (and acts) of the band and those who attend their gigs. As also being a way in which the strata can continue to define itself according to its base mode; reactive-control formulation that apportions to its self-importance, all available costs.

When it is genuinely instantiated, sonic-cultural rebellion as a mode, loud rebellion especially (with its immanence in sound a power differential in temporal terms as oppsed to words from books or images from paint/screen) is in an ongoing stratic exchange, a habitual choking or separation target. Perpetually being starved of the oxygen of bodies, while filling the hearts of followers with the fire of risk and the love of life (or perhaps more accurately as per Iggy ‘a lust for life’). Something that when it flares up into a consistent grouping, a named entity which is genuinely and recurrently producing energy constructs that radicalise people’s experiences of living – triggers the direct stratic response which is often connected with the agitatory impetus of the music’s inception in the first place.

It is a fiery combination as also at one with the music is an attack form of critique, a way of baiting at the monstrously hidden forces that occupy the composition of human lives, a reflected stratic dualism once more, in the form of abstract structural formations of interiorised-interiorising and exteriorised-interiorising of whose fundamental self-predicating (and thus power-making) manoeuvres is to enforce the junction of the interior and exterior as an absolute difference. It is the maintenance of the image of this difference which simultanously posits the crossing out and cancellation of the transectional (and transcendent by implication) and its realisational impetus as a force of perpetually arriving, intensifying immanence.

In this instance though, it is also striking that there is a disadvantageous side effect to needing to publicly specify in advance the location of playing as it sets up a territoriality immanent to the awareness of controlling interests. Not least of which are the bar and club owners of the band’s touring, whose actions as recounted here by Thomas included one irate owner phoning ahead to the band’s next tour destinations to advise them not to pay the band. This networked territoriality of promoter-control is an interesting contrast with the emergence of the rave scene in the UK towards the end of the 1980’s which took on a decentralised approach to space that allowed them to immediately forego Capitalism’s tendency to be in connection with regulated spaces (by organising around abandoned buildings, fields). Later on, this tendency of rave was further amplified by the use of mobile phones to relay locations at the last minute (or by pirate radio stations), further increasing mobility and evasion of these sonic-culture and dance events.


Black Flag performing in 1984. From left to right: Greg Ginn, Henry Rollins, Kira Roessler

Watching the film reinforces the ethos prevalent in UK’s post-punk scene, that productivity and producing and distributing in whatever form is at the heart of creating a connective potential that might inspire as to an intensification for those involved. But that this in itself should not be separate from the play (read work) which has to that point fuelled their journey. Black flag’s productivity included the founding and running of SST Records (primarily by key founder Greg Ginn) and at different times to varying degrees, a near round the clock application to the strands of their production, from playing, recording, rehearshing to making records with other bands to release. Most of which often in a penury of cashlessness that as per one Henry Rollins recounting, would require that those involved devour other people’s leftovers in a local diner in order to feed themselves.

If there is a problem implicit to the mode of hardcore punk rock, it is that its speed as an approach, almost seems to be predicated on a relativity of duration. It is beneath its surface a burn-out mode which requires a certain fixity involved in the production of the energy of the performance and the reaction of the body. In this sense it veers to a prescriptiveness. But in its transiency it is also inherent the transformation which it is – as an agitation of what it is (sometimes unknowningly) toward – that is transformation itself (the other side of which is expressed as part of this exchange from an NBC show in 1980 – shown briefly in the film “change scares anyone who’s part of an existing structure).

It is interesting that the film demonstrates this as after some years the band face reactivity to their own changes of approach and output, while later still its members have moved off to different forms of production, different explorations and forms of engagement, the band initially finishing as an active entity in 1986. The film also naturally threads in reference to the evolutions which have since been active, the inspired sonic modulations and re-modulations of those other, futural intepolators of hardcore punk rock’s spirit including Sonic Youth, Pixies, Husker Du, Nirvana among others.

It is fitting then, and with the necessary nod towards his own journey of intent with the group (and his film about Black Flag), that Aaron Michael Thomas finally takes us through his own personal and resonant return. As he describes how his film returns from nothing into existence, which we now see to have been an inspired and spare return – complete and empty in all the appropriate unplaces, as it also reflects Black Flag’s own return years later, as a live playing intenty (coincidentally probably the longest unbroken clip of the band in action). It is a lesson in the potency of alignment and the power of an approach to the simplicity of telling a story well.


As a post-script, In terms of those who have picked up the abstract machine of hardcore punk rock in the time since, none would be more resonant for me than Kurt Cobain, who did this along with other and certainly earlier musicians such as Husker Du. How I think Nirvana differ (if in any discernible way) was in their capacity to get to tunes which had the vibrant high intensity energy of hardcore punk rock, but with a simultanous slackness pervading their demeanour which became a defining feature of Grunge’s visual coding (Gus Vant Sant’s influential underground film Slacker was made in 1991). This incorporation in behavioural terms also allows for an ongoing partial deflection to be made away from the pointedness of the critique which is still inculcated within the sonic. Although it should also be pointed out that by now the corporate music entities are far more comfortable with the return of this strand of the rebellious, shorn of the violence and with a more pop-calibrated sensibility.

There is the sense of duality to the spirit of Nirvana music, that it is inspired by the energy of this attitude (a word for an intent) as to the ontological conditions of our living but also now by the mode of expression of a different melodic sensibilitity – the effectively intensified pop-tune (think Cobain’s stated love of John Lennon). There is also however (and I would say crucially) the sense that something else is breaking through, a rejection of the mode (as it appears) of dominant male power and associated conditions of reality. Even if one thinks only of the line from Territorial Pissing ‘Never met a wise man, if so its a woman‘ there like a gem in the middle of this sonic storm (the switch from past to present tense in the middle genuinely submine) ‘a way… a better way…’ suggesting as it also does, that it predicates a wiseman becoming-woman.


In effect the narrative that emerges in the context of Nirvana then, is as a hardcore punk rock inspired group (and songwriter) following a line of flight of the music – the high energy of hardcore’s sonic of intent, melded with rock’s most powerful pop mode.

In its molar form of attack, the populous melodic language of delivery can be connoted as a sentimentalised, often sad – but then also, secretly faux-triumphant melodic expressiveness. In the instance of Nirvana and the Beatles, this mode is actually smashed and replaced by something which has not been pre-fabricated in intent but is an expressive instance of a lived intensity (or mode of intensity) that can reach outside the interiorlogical mode of subjectified, chronic time (a spacetime of stifling productions). Something which expresses encounter and experience and emotion and their realisations of the moment that has little in the way of habitualised-limitation and grasps simultaneously, the unseen dance of being, in exposure to the body-freeing (energising) sonic reality of a ‘live’ (live or composed-live) performance. That this might seem like any experience of loving a song and what it might do should be moot, except that one needs take responsibility for what is being connected with in the context of the expression and its consonant-dissonant relation of one’s being.

Alex Petridis recently pointed out Cobain had taken the first component of Beatle George Harrison’s phrase ‘Something in the way she moves‘ and realised it as the form of the obstruction for the Nirvana song of the same name Something In The Way (‘There’s something in the way…’). Except while in its new form it is referring to that which is obstructing from ‘the way she moves’ it also simultaneously becomes as to the becoming-female beyond it. In effect, the obstruction of something being in the way – and blocking us (or Cobain) from the thing which is in the way that ‘she moves’ It also becomes implicitly about the fact that there is a becoming-woman in moving in that direction in the first place, in being in love with a woman and in seeing, loving, feeling what it is that is in the female movement.

Curiously, it has also always seemed to me that there is a second element to this, defined in this iteration as now also having the possibility to invoke the Way of the song’s lyric as of being the Way pertaining to Daoism.

It would seem apropos of Daoism to appear where it is being defined in the same words as that which it is not (i.e. the obstruction). While it would also be necessary to understand that yes, there is Something In The Way… but it is also that thing which is The Way itself. A difference that becomes as a medium for intent. Like the intent of Black Flag, whose openness was also to the knowledge that return is as much like change as anything else.

dust falls silently…