(Re)Collection #4: Black Flag
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
I went to St. Aloysius Gonzaga for high school from 1980 to 1984. It was in the shadow of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Right across the street from a housing project. It was a Catholic boys school. Punk rock did not exist in my school.
I arrived there fresh from 8 years of DC public school. I went to Ben W. Murch Elementary School from 2nd to 6th grades. It was about a mile and a half from my house. Murch could have been any suburban school. It was fairly homogenous. Middle class white kids from the surrounding neighborhood went there. There was a little economic diversity but, other than that, not much else. I did ok in elementary school. Girls liked me, my teachers liked me, I stayed out of the principal's office, I was really good at kickball and I only got in one fight. I fought a sixth grader named Danny Strickland when I was a fifth grader and I won the fight. I was a made man after that. It wasn't the mean streets of Washington, D.C. by any means.
I transitioned across the street, rather across a very large park field, to Alice Deal Junior High School. It was a very big shock. It was 1978. A different world awaited me. D.C. was trying to integrate its public schools and bussing was instituted. Kids from across the city were brought to Deal every day. I didn't know anything about that. DC was a majority black city. "Chocolate City" as it was referred to in a few go-go songs. Now I was a "white boy." It wasn't too traumatic. I got used to that name. I would hear it fairly often as life progressed.
I soon found my crowd and did not engage in any of the black against white against hispanic fist fights that would kick off at lunch or after school behind the main building. My friends did. I was not of a fighter. What Deal did offer me was a chance to meet kids from outside my little neighborhood. Some of those kids became semi-luminaries in the Washington, D.C. punk rock scene a few years later. I did not get that chance. My mom made sure I was taken far from the school where I was apparently having so much fun. She thought the Jesuits would make me smarter. I was interested in staying in a place where people accepted me. I found it at Deal. I was in a few musicals (West Side Story for the first time. I would be in that musical 2 more times). I had girlfriends. I wasn't bullied. I loved the music I was exposed to. I first heard the go-go hit Bustin' Loose by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers as well as One Nation Under a Groove by Funkadelic at a school dance. It kind of blew my mind.
The normal path for me should have been to go to Deal from 7th to 9th grade then go across another really big field to Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and finish out my public school career. Many things happened my 8th grade year. Most were not good. Another divorce, a vanished sister, a very traumatic personal experience which I will talk about later as well as the death of my father from something that was not disclosed to me at the time. And I was exiled to a Catholic boys school.
My grandmother was very happy I was now at a Catholic school. She wanted desperately for me to be Catholic. She thought my mom was ruining me. She had me take my first Communion and wanted me to be confirmed. I wanted her to think I was special so I went along with it. I thought she was amazing. The only problem was that at Gonzaga you didn't think about being Catholic. You just were. That was my issue. I thought a lot about everything. That made me unconfident. The Catholic wolf pack sniffed that out, and I was relegated to outsider status from day one. And, to cap it all off, I was a late bloomer.
That brings me back to unpunkrock Gonzaga. Just as my former classmates were discovering Bad Brains, Government Issue, Minor Threat, the Faith and Void (all bands that I would later love!), I was stuck in an Irish-Italian Catholic mafia high school. Sadly, I was not even cognizant of what I was missing. I ran cross-country, played hockey and soccer. I was a very athletic kid. Yet something in me was fucked up. I was lost in my self. I didn't grasp how messed up my family was and how it eclipsed everything in my life. I felt like I had no heart. I had no fire. I lacked that aggressive teenage male thing that my classmates and teammates had.
The closest thing to punk rock I had was the yearbook, german club and theater crew. Totally not punk rock. That is where I found the relatively free thinkers I could identify with. Among those misfits were Dan Parker and Pat Padua. Both of them had older brothers at the school so they had some level of insider status while I stuck out.
Dan and Pat were responsible for me hearing David Bowie and the kind of punk rock that preceeded DC hardcore. Dan loved David Bowie. I thought Dan was smart so I gave Bowie a shake. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was played so often in the yearbook office. I had it memorized. I went out and bought my first Bowie record, the greatest hits LP Changes.
Pat Padua came to school one day and handed me a black BASF mix tape with a beige, handwritten j-card. It was a gift to me from his older brother. On it was a laundry list of pretty much every group that would later be important to me: Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Iggy & the Stooges, David Bowie, the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, and Wire to name a few.
The song that struck me the most was Nervous Breakdown by Black Flag. This was the original 7" version with Keith Morris sneering and snarling his way through the song. It was about as raw of a song as I had ever heard. The crazy, ultra-nasal guitar and growled vocals. I loved it. The sentiment was obvious. "I'm about to have a nervous breakdown, my head really hurts, if I don't find a way out of here, I'm gonna go berserk cause I'm crazy and I hurt." It spoke to me. Gee, I wonder why? I had no idea what they looked like, where they were from, how old they were. It was a transmission from somewhere really, really far away. It is often said now in the telling of stories from back in the day that there was no internet to look anything up. There was no internet to look anything up. There was no internet to look anything up.
Black Flag existed only in my mind for a fair few years until I got a record of my own and saw the Raymond Pettibon drawing, the black bars and the SST logo. That whole minimal, brutish and scary thing that I now take for granted.
Pat Padua's brother didn't know me. He never came up to talk to me about the bands, the songs or why he had picked me to give the tape to. It is a mystery to me to this day. But it was an amazing gift. Perhaps the best musical gift I have ever received.