Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements Lead Punk's New Wave

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Hüsker Dü tends to be more introspective. "I don't write about politics because I'm not an expert," says Bob Mould, Hüsker Dü's twenty-five-year-old singer and guitarist. "Some bands find it very necessary to claim they're politically relevant when in actuality they don't know shit about politics. Not informing people is much better than misinforming people. We're sort of like reporters in a way. Reporters of our own mental state. Reporters of the state of the air. Consciousness. Of the day. We make personal statements."

A common complaint heard from the bands is that they are misunderstood. "The critics equated the abrasiveness of the band and some of the harsh personal realities expressed in our songs as being negative because it wasn't all love and flowers," says Bob Mould. "I think we're trying to say something fairly positive."

Most of these neopunk bands are not signed to major labels. They do not have big-time managers. They do not have much money. Black Flag tours constantly, crisscrossing the country in a beat-up van. The group played over 200 gigs last year. On a good night Black Flag may earn $1000, which has to cover a soundman, a couple of roadies who also sell T-shirts, truck rental and other expenses. On tour the four members of the band somehow exist on $12.50 a day. At home, in L.A., they "scavenge" food and lodging. "We are the hungriest band I've ever seen," says Rollins, who grew up in the suburbs around Washington D.C. "I've never seen a band who would go to any lengths to play like we will."

On the road many of the musicians sleep in their vehicles or on any sofa or floor they are offered. When they are home, they crash in rehearsal halls, low-rent apartments or even with their parents. "We get in the van and drive to a town, play, stay at a friend's house," says Paul Westerberg. "Wake up when they throw us out. Drive the rest of the day. Play the next night. We get fifteen dollars a day. And when we're home, we don't get nothing. We're way in debt. We have van problems. We own a van, it breaks down, and you know when you play that the gig money goes to pay for the broken-down van. We're used to it."

There are also lifestyle differences between the neopunks and their progenitors. Many of the new bands avoid drugs stronger than marijuana. Some concern themselves with eating healthy food and staying fit. Some don't drink. Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, 31, and Flipper singer-bassist Bruce Lose, 26, are vegetarians. Black Flag and Hüsker Dü pride themselves on being "responsible" – a claim Johnny Rotten would never have made for himself.

Unlike the punks of the Seventies, this new generation also has some respect for hippies and the values they embraced in the Sixties. Around the Black Flag office and rehearsal room, in Redondo Beach, California, one frequently sees long-haired roadies wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts and playing Aoxomoxoa or Workingman's Dead on their boom boxes. Greg Ginn says one of his dreams is for Black Flag to open for the Grateful Dead. "It seems like a lot of the things that happened in the Sixties – freedom, having an open attitude – are being replaced by a new puritanism," complains Ginn. "It's time to loosen it up. A lot of stuff done in the Sixties was important."

If you saw Henry Rollins hitchhiking, you wouldn't stop to pick him up. He looks like a psychopathic hippie, part Jim Morrison, part Charles Manson. Real bad news. A Born to Lose kind of guy.

Get close to him – it's downright scary. Eyes that bore right through you. Hair, a tangled mess that falls past his shoulders, down his back. Ragged, ripped clothing. Lots of tattoos: skulls and snakes, ghouls, a spider, a bat. And, etched across his upper back in inchhigh letters, Henry Rollins' philosophy of life: SEARCH & DESTROY.

"I think you really got to look at it deeper than surface level," says Rollins. "I mean, the way I look – this is only skin." Perhaps, but Rollins' image – and the way it alienates him from so much of society – in many ways characterizes the relationship between Black Flag and mainstream America. "I guess we offend a lot of people," Rollins has said. "The hair length, the way we look, the way we dress isn't conducive to one-way thinking."

An aura of dark violence hangs in the air around Black Flag, like soot from a turn-of-the-century factory smokestack. Sitting in a hamburger joint down the street from Black Flag's office, Rollins wolfs down a burger and stares at several kids glued to videogames. "Life, for a lot of people, is a very surface-level experience," he says. "I see these lard-assed kids in front of these videogames. You know, as close to any kind of real destruction as they'll ever get is to put a quarter in and blow something up. When I see complacency, I just got to fuck with it. This is such a soft place to live. A lot of places to me are like a big open throat waiting to be cut. You can walk into a lot of these houses and kick the door down and just take it. It's yours. I'm not going to be cutting nothing, because that's not my life. But I'm in favor of something else for me."

Black Flag has been associated – unfairly, its members claim – with punk violence since the late Seventies. People have accused the band of being sexist, racist and fascist. The group was forced to move out of three L.A. communities. "Our whole thing has been made out to be brutal, fascistic and violent," says Rollins, who doesn't drink or use drugs. "Those are three things that we're very much not into at all. We're not violent. We're not evil. We don't like to see anybody hurt at any time. I don't like to see violence at anybody's shows. I've seen more violence at Van Halen than at any of our gigs."

While Black Flag's music no longer resembles the punk of the past, there are similarities between a late-Seventies Sex Pistols concert and a Black Flag performance. There is a feeling that outbursts of crowd violence are imminent. Sometimes the audience spits at Rollins. Sometimes he jumps right into the crowd, a swelling, moving, slam-dancing group of kids. Rollins has been known to punch out a particularly obnoxious and unreasonable heckler who wants to fight and will not let him perform. "My thing is real confrontational," says Rollins of his performances, which have, on occasion, left him with broken bones. "I mean, I don't like to go beat people up, but I like to be real close. Bring it home. If someone wants to touch me, kiss me, hit me, stab me, talk to me, sing with me, they should be able to lean over and do it!"

Perhaps more than anything else, Black Flag wants to shake up its audience. "I find it really distasteful to have a band that plays to me what I want to hear," says Greg Ginn. "That's no kind of expression. We don't play to satisfy an audience. We play what we want them to hear. If you love your audience, you try to bring them something they don't already have. You don't play to their current sensibilities and not give them anything that would threaten them. To me, that shows a total disrespect for an audience."

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