An interesting book landed on my desk the other day: Barred for Life: How Black Flag’s Iconic Logo Became Punk Rock’s Secret Handshake by Stewart Dean Ebersole, with photos by Ebersole and Jared Castaldi. For those of you who aren’t members of the club, Black Flag was (and sometimes is) a band that started in southern California in the late 1970s and is credited with pioneering the hardcore punk genre. There’s not much else I can say about Black Flag that its fans won’t argue over. Suffice it to say, they’re an easily-agitated, often-alienated, always-opinionated bunch, but they’re also united in their love of the band and its DIY ethos, if not its individual members. You see, throughout its tenure, Black Flag cycled through numerous singers and musicians, the most famous being Henry Rollins, who went on to some degree of fame as a spoken word artist, writer, actor, and crank. Ebersole’s tome gets into the history, joys, and sorrows of the band’s years, landing on the one point every fan can agree on: their awesome, four-bar logo that so many have had permanently inked onto their bodies.
It’s probably the most recognized logo in all of punk rockdom, four simple black bars that represent the waving of a black flag, signifying attack rather than surrender. You could easily call it a marketing success story, though marketing is the antithesis of what the band stood for. Regardless, legions of fans, probably numbering in the thousands, have inked their bodies with it, at once becoming members of a fraternity recognized around the world. I’m no fan of tattoos myself, being of the belief that putting an image on your body doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more hardcore about what it means than those who didn’t (star-bellied sneetches and so forth). After all, some people live and breathe the collective works of Shakespeare, but see no need to tattoo the Bard’s name to their biceps.
And yet, the Black Flag bars feel like the exception to the rule. It does have meaning. It’s a signifier that unites the band’s diverse group of fans, spanning ages, races, genders, and backgrounds. And so it’s with fondness and occasional sympathy that I flipped through the pages of this book and read the stories of the dozens of fans who proudly show their body art for the camera. Each portrait includes the subject’s name, age, home, occupation, favorite Black Flag singer, favorite Black Flag song, and favorite Black Flag album, along with a quote about what the band means to them. Many of the stories involve not fitting in as a youth, and finding strength and affirmation in the band’s music, which encourages listeners to be themselves and reject the mainstream if it’s not working for them.
Among those featured: my friends Seth Fineberg and Marissa Levey (above), true punks if they ever existed. Seth’s in one of New York’s most enduring punk rock bands, Blackout Shoppers, and the fact that he has a day job doesn’t take away his punk cred. Blackout Shoppers are gigging constantly, and if you want to get a great feel for the high energy and fuck-it-all attitude of an old school punk rock show, you should see them.
Among those not pictured: Me. Okay, I don’t have any tattoos, but I did go to high school in the ’80s, when there really was a difference between the jocks and the skaters and the punks, and the term "alternative music" actually meant something. While the girls who wouldn’t date me were woo-hooing to "Living on a Prayer," I was blasting "Rise Above" out of the tinny speakers of my car stereo. The music had power. It spoke to me where hair metal failed to. It felt real.
And so does Barred for Life. It’s a book with heart. It also avoids the trap that similar single-subject photo books fall into. There’s actually a narrative arc, thanks to a series of interviews with former band members (though not founder Greg Ginn or Henry Rollins) interspersed throughout, telling the story of the band and its fans. The book will be released on April 1, 2013 and you can pre-order it here.
And if it inspires you to experience the punk scene, go check out a Blackout Shoppers gig, or just hang out at New York’s punk-friendly bars, like Otto’s Shrunken Head, Double Down Saloon, Trash Bar, Manitoba’s, and the Second Chance Saloon. See you in the mosh pit. (I won’t be in it, but I’ll see you there from the bar.)