Vinyl Tales: Black Flag's First Four Years

                                                                             Age:  14
Old Starship Records location in Tulsa
Where:  Starship Records in Tulsa, Oklahoma
When:  1991
Growing up in Central Arkansas, nothing could've prepared me for the First Four Years' visual and aural onslaught.

In the back seat of my parent's car, incredibly bored and listening to Led Zeppelin on my Walkman.   My family was in Tulsa so my sister could visit the college there, and I was along for the ride with a Physical Graffiti soundtrack blaring away as I stared out at mile after mile of rural southern suburban landscape.  Suddenly out the window, this weird yellow pastel building caught my eye, promising records and cassettes.  In the South at that time any record store that wasn't a big chain or wasn't in a mall was pretty rare.  I convinced my parents to stop for a few minutes so I could look around. There was also, scandal of all scandals for that part of the country, a well-stocked head shop next door with bongs and pipes hanging out visibly through the front windows.
Remember these?

At the time, I had one of those cassette player / turntable combo stereos in my room at home, which for years I had used to play cassettes - mostly early rap like Run DMC or Kool Moe Dee and classic rock like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.  I would sometimes buy cassettes at the local Hastings chain store, or at the mall in Little Rock. But my biggest source of tapes was the Columbia House mail-order cassette club, which had a great selection of rap and 60s- 70s rocknroll, which were my two first musical loves.

I had never even thought about using the turntable atop my little stereo unit- the chain music stores I shopped at only carried cassettes and that newly buzzed about format of CDs (which I didn't have any way to play at the time).  Everything changed when I received an ad in the mail from the Columbia House cassette club in early 91-  announcing "Vinyl Liquidation" in huge letters.  The club was eager to cheaply sell of all of their vinyl stock in order to make room for the "revolutionary" CD format, a totally hilarious thought nowadays, but at the time seemed like an inevitable wave of a CD-controlled future world.    The ad booklet offered vinyl of all styles- most for 2 or 3 dollars (at a time when cassettes were still 9 bucks).  So for purely 14 year old adolescent budget reasons, I ordered a couple of records- the soundtrack to the Jimi Hendrix film and a Best of Chess Records album.  When the package arrived in the mail, the amazing qualities of vinyl hit me immediately.  I was used to tiny cassettes, with little microscopic print and small cover photos, and here for a fraction of the cost were these huge beautiful gatefold record covers, with big-ass photos and expansive pull-outs and liner notes.  It was immediately a hell of a lot more fun than tapes, and I was hooked instantly.

So, when I walked into Starship Records and Tapes that day, for the first time in my life I went directly to the vinyl section.  I had never purchased, or even browsed through, records at a store ever before.
Due to another recent musical conversion, I went right to the Black Flag section.  A new kid at school had shown up in my Spanish class, recently moved from California and sporting a Husker Du t-shirt.  I was wearing my tattered Jimi Hendrix shirt I had worn since 7th grade, and we struck up a conversation about music.  The next day he brought me a dubbed tape of Henry Rollins - era Black Flag, mostly from the In My Head album.    
      "This is some wild rock n roll," he said smiling as he handed it over, probably knowing how much my synapses were going to fry when I listened to this crazy shit.

I had heard a little punk before, mostly the Dead Milkmen, but good lord when songs like "In My Head", "White Hot", and "Drinking and Driving" washed over me through a little pair of Walkman headphones, everything I thought I knew about music went out the window.  What were these weirdo guitar lines?  What would you even call this kind of music?  The whole thing was like peeking into an alien world, one that couldn't be farther from my suburban Arkansas life (years later I would learn that the Flag guys were also outcast suburbanites, one reason that the connection felt so direct maybe).

I listened to that tape over and over for weeks, until one night at my local Hastings video rental section I saw the name "Black Flag" on a videotape.  The movie was Decline of Western Civilization, and I nearly ran up to the counter with it, eager to get home and see who these Flag guys were, and hopefully see some of my "In My Head" favorites rocked out on the TV screeen.  What I saw only deepened the mystery of this weirdo band.  They played songs in the movie that I had never heard, and sounded nothing like the tape I had.  Was this even the same band?  If this was a totally different band in the film, then there were now two Black Flags out there that both played some of the most mind-frying music I had ever come across.

When I started flipping through the Black Flag vinyl section at Starship that day, I was eager to solve the mystery.  The first record in the bin, "First Four Years", immediately filled in some key gaps.  Not two different bands, but one band with radically changing lineups - all mapped out clearly on the back of the album cover.   Not only were those familiar song titles from the "Decline" movie there, but there was a universe of insane flyer art.  I immediately knew this was the record I wanted, and after a minute of shy interaction with the surly stoned clerk as he rang up the vinyl, my first ever record store purchase was in the bag.

The car ride back to the suburbs of Little Rock was over four hours, and it's a testament to the wealth of wild art and info on this album cover that I was able to stare at it for almost the entire ride and still feel like it eluded me somehow.  First of all there were the dozens of other band names on the disturbing flyer collage- band names that would soon be the beginning of countless other record store and mail order catalog searches.  Then there was just the look and feel of the whole thing- the art had a dark quality that wasn't quite like a horror movie, but also wasn't like any other goofy heavy metal art I was used to from 80's rock music.  There were girls depicted, like the cheerleaders on the front, but they clearly weren't meant to be the cute vixen types I would have expected from album art as a young teenager- they were creepy scowling figures.  In fact, the whole thing was bathed in an ominous aura that wasn't quite funny, wasn't quite scary, but seemed to be mocking everything I thought a record cover should be.  There were no studly rock type dudes to be found, but there was a beefy leering naked caveman.  There was a cop with a gun shoved in his mouth. There was a long haired hippy crucifying Jesus on the cross.  I had plenty of experience with music, especially 80's metal and rap, selling me sex and violence, but what the hell were these guys selling?   What was the message behind it?  All these questions swirled through my mind as the hours passed by in the back seat of my parents' car.

Finally pulling up at my house, I raced straight back to my room to hear what music could possibly match the crazy visuals I had soaked in during the car ride.  I had gotten a bit of a preview from what I had seen in the Decline of Western Civilization video.  But even with that forewarning in my mind, the blast of pure punk rock that kicked in with the first track, Nervous Breakdown, blew my mind- it pretty much singlehandedly put me off of classic rock and onto the punk rock trail.  My teens were ahead of me, as were several years of dogged devotion to SST records and blasting noisy punk-  all kicked off by my first vinyl record store purchase.