punk rock changed my life, kinda
Black Flag Live in Houston, 1985

I was 14 when I saw my first punk rock show. It was the summer after my 8th grade year, 1985. Black Flag were playing in the Montrose area of Houston at a two-story venue called the International Club. My best friend and I were dropped off at the show by my parents. The stage was upstairs, it faced out towards a huge plate glass window, which covered the entire back wall and looked down on Westheimer Street. The upstairs had hardwood floors and resembled a small ballroom. One of those sort of old hippie SST bands opened up. I remember the singer kept introducing songs by intoning things like "this is a song about my dog" in a flat voice. I didn't like them much and neither did anyone else. The crowd was very sedate during their performance, sitting on the floor, which fit nicely with the hippie vibe the band was laying down. However, it didn't prepare me in the least for the furious pit that would erupt later in the night, but I don't want to jump the gun.

First some context to set the scene: Man, I stood out like a sore thumb at that show. I had no idea how to affect any kind of even remotely "punk" appearance (I still don't). I was dressed in corduroys, sneakers and a button down shirt, which most likely I had tucked securely in my cords. Come to think of it this isn't far from how I look today or how Greg Ginn looked then (too bad the Pastels never played Texas, I might have found my niche).

Now in retrospect I feel I was perhaps the most punk rock person there, at least by my definition; my definition being that it's not at all about a look or style but instead its being yourself 100% and not giving a shit what other people think. But at the time I probably felt as awkward and out of place there as I did anywhere else. All my previous experiences of punk rock had been strictly vicarious; records, mail order catalogs like Toxic Shock and in particular Thrasher magazine. By 8th grade I was a total bedroom convert. I remember being both naively idealistic about the whole punk thing and very over the top nihilistic (useless attempts to deny that I had emotions and trying in vain to read and understand Nietzsche). Yeah, looking back I was charmingly na¥ve about my nihilistic punk rock stance, too bad Jonathan Richman didn't enter my life till much later, I could have stood some modern suburban romance. There's a certain extreme form of adolescent negativity that tends to flourish in young, white, male, virgins, that if not addressed can get very ugly later in life, usually its remedied in part by getting laid and lightening up considerably in the process, but I digress.

I had a camera with me that night and roamed around taking pictures of Henry Rollins before the show. I was pretty much in awe of the whole milieu and made no attempt to talk to anyone. I don't recall Rollins acknowledging either my presence or the fact that I was taking pictures of him. I can't remember if I asked permission, snapped the photo like an anxious tourist and scurried off or just stood gawking at him. He was busy chatting up some bushy haired young lady, no doubt charming her with that nascent Rollins' wit that he would later unleash on the unsuspecting masses through his countless vanity press books and Spin Magazine.

Anyway, when Black Flag finally went on the place went fucking crazy. I'd never seen a pit before, this was the circular whirlwind variety, and it scared me shitless. The circle kept widening, threatening to engulf bystanders like myself and venturing closer and closer to the all glass back wall I mentioned earlier. I was sure someone was gonna go flying out that window any second. The visceral impact, the raw power, of the band and the crowd's reaction is impossible for me to relate. It's also difficult for me to evaluate now if it was really that fierce or if it was just the intensity of this first impression on my admittedly milk toast nervous system. I imagine some combination of the two. Either way it was a mind-blowing experience for me.

My other lingering memory of that night is of an old guy selling SST product downstairs. He was very obviously intoxicated and was rambling at the top of his voice about how the "Meat Puppets are the greatest fucking band in the world!". My only knowledge of the Meat Puppets at the time was the tracks on the Blasting Concept, which hadn't impressed my young ears much. However, his words would prove sage like a year or so later when my friends and I discovered Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun and felt a similar if somewhat more realistic enthusiasm for the band.

Otherwise I was soured on the rest of the Black Flag's catalogue after getting home and listening to their current tape that I purchased at the show. Even at 14 songs like 'Annihilate This Week' seemed corny to me. I wish I still had my shirt though, bright orange with a Raymond Pettibon drawing, it was carelessly left in the hands of an old girlfriend who no longer speaks to me. Maybe I should send for it.

© William Crain 2002

Go here for a review of the Phaidon book on Ray Pettibon