Greg Ginn--the founder and creative force behind the pioneering Los Angeles punk band Black Flag and now an accomplished solo artist--has never backed away from a good fight. And he's not about to start now.
"If somebody takes money from me in an agreement, I'm not supposed to do anything about it?" he asks. "If they really looked into the situation, I think anybody would."
Ginn has had plenty of opportunities over the years to exercise this philosophy. When, during the early Eighties, Black Flag--formed in 1978 and credited with jump-starting a scene that eventually spawned bands such as X--got into a dispute with Unicorn Records, Ginn and company sued. And that's not all: Although Black Flag was not supposed to release any albums adorned with its name and/or logo until the lawsuit was settled, the group put out a compilation, 1983's Everything Went Black, featuring a jacket identifiable by the bandmembers' names. Unicorn might well have retaliated against this spiteful gesture had the company not gone bankrupt the next year.
More recently, the members of the Meat Puppets sued SST--which, along with Cruz and New Alliance, is one of three record labels owned by Ginn--over what they alleged were false copyright registration and unauthorized diversion of royalty payments due from sales of ten excellent albums released mainly during the Eighties. In addition, the Puppets' management concocted a petition critical of SST that eventually came to Ginn's attention. Ginn responded with a countersuit that charged the Puppets with libel. The upshot of this confrontation was an out-of-court settlement that the Puppets won't publicly discuss. Ginn, on the other hand, claims victory. "That worked out well for us," he says. "We've still got the [rights to] the records, and we'll have them for a longer time than we initially would have."
And then there was the biggest battle of all, involving Ginn and another SST act, Negativland. The trouble started in 1991, when Negativland released an EP entitled U2, which sported a parody of the real U2's song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a sample of DJ Casey Kasem criticizing U2 in a profanity-laden rant he didn't know was being recorded, and cover graphics in which U2's moniker was far more prominent than was Negativland's. U2's label and publisher (Island Records and Warner Chappell Music) promptly slapped SST and Negativland with a lawsuit that ended when Ginn agreed to destroy all the remaining copies of U2 and assume some $90,000 in legal costs. Negativland was not chastened, however: The band subsequently issued a magazine called The Letter U and the Numeral 2 that included reprints of an SST credit report and other company documents dating from the time of U2's appearance. Ginn was so amused that he sued Negativland for, among other things, copyright infringement. This spat was settled a few weeks ago: Negativland wound up with the ownership of four albums originally released by SST, while Ginn received over $30,000 and a new Negativland live platter, Live Stupid, that he asserts was the real reason for the lawsuit.
"Basically what happened is that we advanced them some money and had a deal to put out a live album, and they refused to do it," Ginn says. "They wanted to get out of their obligations and skate off with a bunch of money and say, `He's rich, anyway.' But I'm sorry--$7,500 is a lot of money to me. And I wasn't going to just let them take it."
Negativland's version of this settlement is quite different, of course--but no matter who's right and who's wrong: This and other lawsuits tend to obscure the fact that Ginn is a musician as well as a businessman. Moreover, he's on an artistic roll every bit as impressive as the one that fueled his best-known creation. Following the mid-Eighties breakup of Black Flag, Ginn says, "I didn't release any recordings or play live for about seven or eight years. But during that time, I never stopped playing music, and a year or two ago, I just decided that I wanted to get a band together and start working and putting out some stuff."
The result of this decision has been the emergence of three Ginn solo albums in the span of approximately a year. Better yet, 1993's Getting Even and Dick, and the brand-new Let It Burn (Because I Don't Live There Anymore) are as brutal, intelligent and rhythmically fascinating as practically anything Black Flag ever made. To suggest that Ginn has not mellowed is an epic understatement: New tracks such as "On a Roll," "Venting," "Military Destroys Mind/Body" and "Exiled From Lame Street" are stunning pieces of punk theater that are as angry as they are effective. Ginn is not an exceedingly distinctive shouter, but his trademark guitar riffing and (on many cuts) propulsive bass work powers over any objections. By alternative-music standards, he may seem grandfatherly, but he sure doesn't sound it.
One of the reasons Ginn's new work seems so fresh is that it really is new. "I'm always writing songs, and I've been writing them all along," he reveals. "But a lot of those songs I didn't release--I just decided to discard them and move on. Some of the things on Getting Even I started working on quite a while ago, because I worked on them kind of gradually. But everything else is pretty much where I'm at now."
While the latest material doesn't ape Black Flag, it does serve as a reminder that it was Ginn, not vocalist Henry Rollins, who wrote the vast majority of the music and lyrics for that band. In the time since Black Flag dissolved, Rollins has been a much more prominent presence than Ginn, recording albums with Wartime and the Rollins Band, appearing at the first Lollapalooza festival and Woodstock '94 and, through his frequent interviews, TV appearances and advertising work, earning the enmity of those who consider him deserving of the title Whore of All Media. Ginn is unlikely to leap to his former cohort's defense; while dispelling the notion that Black Flag was Henry's baby, he cannot even bring himself to mention Rollins by name.
"Actually [Rollins] was the fourth singer in Black Flag," Ginn notes, "and really, the ground was broken earlier. The group was actually pretty established when he joined, and we were bigger in cities like L.A. and New York before he was in the band. People who were around at the time know what was going on, but there have been some efforts by, uh, some people to rewrite history a little bit."
What's inarguable is Black Flag's influence on the current alternative and grunge movements. On the act's 1984 album My War, Ginn audaciously combined punk and metal styles--and received excoriating reviews for his efforts. But what was seen then as musical heresy has become the sound of young America, as heard in the work of bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Ginn has been cited as an inspiration by members of these and many other groups, but while he appreciates the credit, he doesn't make a big deal out of it. "There was always a big metal influence in punk rock," he says. "That didn't invalidate the music then, and it doesn't now." He adds, "Some people think that if you're influential on something that sells millions, that's flattering. Well, it is to me only if it's good. If somebody takes something from us and makes something good, that gives me a sense of accomplishment. But if they don't, but they sell a lot of records, that doesn't mean anything to me."
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Besides, Ginn is focused more on the future than on the past. He's touring behind Let It Burn; developing a syndicated radio program (Screw Radio) that should start appearing on public and college outlets later this year; working behind the scenes with Confront James, a new act that should have its first album out soon; and overseeing the day-to-day operations at his SST, Cruz and New Alliance labels, whose catalogues include everything from classic discs by the Descendents, the Minutemen, fIREHOSE and Husker Du to T-shirts that bear the phrase "Kill Bono." And yet he insists he's still living the punk-rock lifestyle.
"Negativland attempted to excuse what they did by saying that I have this gigantic income--which is not the case," he says. "In 1990 they said I made something like $800,000. Well, I looked at my income-tax return for that year, and I made about $4,000. I was living and sleeping in my rehearsal room, and I didn't have a shower or a car--and I was living in L.A. If that's success, I guess I've got it made."
Greg Ginn, with Transition and Gladhand. 8 p.m. Monday, September 12, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $8, 830-2525.