Like a lot of rambling stories I tell, this one’s mostly about me, music and my tee-shirts. A few weeks ago I found myself doing “front desk” duty at the JG-TC, and there I was, sipping my coffee at reception and doing my best to help folks when I found myself discussing music with one of the last customers of the day. She had her smartphone out and was telling me about how she tracked down the title of a well-known classical piece from the soundtrack of the movie “Excalibur.” I said to her, just to be a showoff, “You mean the 1981 John Boorman film ‘Excalibur’?” As if I didn’t know the movie.
As for the classical music, I told her, “It’s nice and all, but The Ramones it ain’t,” which is usually the band I bring up when I want to sound contrarian. I’m going to guess maybe a third of my reading audience knows who The Ramones were. You remember…the four dudes in leather from the ‘70s who played the song that went “Hey…Ho! Let’s go!”? I know someone in Mattoon besides me likes The Ramones because earlier last fall they were stopped at an intersection on one of those weird three-wheel Spyder bikes blaring that song while I was at the car wash. Nothing wrong with trying to seem cool by blasting some punk rock, but here’s some tips, bro: one, having only the one Ramones song on your “I’m still cool” mix makes you sound like a tourist, and two, there’s nothing less punk rock than a guy on a Spyder.
But hey, it’s not like I don’t get the impulse. For trying to stay cool by repping those things that I remember thinking made me cool “back in the day” has been on my mind a lot. It mostly started with a friend getting me a vintage “Black Flag” tee-shirt for Christmas a few months ago. Talk about losing folk…however many of you know The Ramones, I’m guessing an eighth of that amount has heard of Black Flag. Long story short, they were an American “hardcore” band of the early ‘80s, “hardcore” being punk rock but played real loud and usually listened to by angry skateboarders. While I wasn’t an angry skateboarder, I did own many thick “record buying guides,” and all of them told me I should be buying Black Flag to vent my teenage frustrations. Which I did.
And you know who else in Mattoon knew about Black Flag? How’s about Journal Gazette “Rock Critic” Kevin Zimmerman with a field report from 1986 about his trip to see Black Flag guitarist, founder, and songwriter Greg Ginn, who was in Charleston at the “Page One Tavern” not with Black Flag, as I had hoped to find, but his all-instrumental power-trio side band Gone.
And what a picture Zimmerman paints: an almost empty venue with Ginn milling around near the bar before the gig waiting for anyone to show up to hear a full set of what at its most charitable could be described as “free jazz” and at least as ear-splitting electric-guitar noise. Certainly had to be a reality check for the guy; out on the coast Black Flag were kings of the hardcore scene, cranking out four albums in 1984 alone, and then boom, you show up in Charleston, Illinois, and you’re lucky to play some heavily distorted diminished chords to some barstools. Just for perspective's sake, this article ran directly underneath one of Ricky Ferguson’s country music columns about Reba McEntire’s then-recent near sweep of that year’s CMA awards.
Although as Zimmerman notes, by the time Gone’s set was over, around 50 people were there, and mostly into it. Which proves a point, I guess. Just as there are country fans in Los Angeles (anyone out there remember Dwight Yoakam?), there are punk rock and obscure music fans here in Coles County; guys like Kevin Zimmerman back then, and guys like me now; dudes who can say they both have spent good money on Black Flag’s lone all-instrumental album “The Process of Weeding Out."
Time does things like that. It was my birthday last weekend, and after a lousy week I decided to spend some birthday cash just like the old days -- by going to the local record store over in Charleston. And by the time I was done I had bought the new Bob Mould CD (another influential ‘80s punk who some people here may know of), a stack of used vinyl records, and a nifty cleaning kit with brush and special cleaning solution; and trust me, I’m really going to need it to get a few of them playing right. As I slammed it all up on the counter I felt compelled to inform this year’s model of record store worker that there I was, on my birthday, at the exact same record store I shopped at when I was a teenager, buying the new release from the exact same guy I was buying new releases of back then, and still frustrated that I couldn’t find a parking space anywhere close to Fourth Street.
“Hey man! Time sure does fly, doesn’t it?" he said. Sure does…and time sure did fly me all the way back to Castle Clint, where I brushed off, wiped-down and played my newly purchased vintage copy of Foghat’s 1975 record “Fool For the City.” Funny, I used to think Foghat was reserved only for old cassettes left slowly to demagnetize in the glove compartment of your weird uncle’s old van, but there I was, air guitar-ing to all eight minutes of “Slow Ride”…in front of an open window. To anyone who saw the show Saturday night, you’re welcome.
So yeah, there’s the latest news in my world of music and of my constant attempts to stay young through my tee-shirts. It may not make a whole lot of sense, but if there’s a better birthday present to myself than using my own column as just a way to entertain myself for a week, than I can’t think of one…well…other than naming myself the current “Rock Critic” for the JG-TC, that is.