A man tries to live forever, realizes he can't, dies. That's Damaged for you. It's an 80's punk album in the way that Vittoro de Sica's Bicycle Thieves is an Italian Neo-Realist movie: created and meant to be defined completely within the parameters of its small genre and scene, yet transcends those walls because of an unshakable reliance on the power of a personal connection with another person. In the case of Bicycle Thieves, it's a father and son. On Damaged, Henry Rollins places the listener directly in the line of fire. His name is Henry, and you're here with him now.
Very little in Black Flag's history could have predicted Damaged, despite the fact that it features re-recordings of songs Black Flag had already done. Listen, for example, to the early recordings of "Six Pack", off the 1981 EP of the same title. The lyrics are pretty much the same, but the song feels like it has to stand out on it's own. The intro is longer, the ending is more definitive. The difference is mainly Rollins, a fan the band had picked up at a show in New York after lead singer Dez Cadena had requested a move to second guitar. Rollins takes Greg Ginn's lyrics and turns them into a howling manifesto. It's not just getting drunk, it's getting drunk on immortality. WHAT DO THEY KNOW ABOUT PARTYING, he tacks on at the end. OR ANYTHING ELSE. Maybe the song was went to be a sneer at people who drink, who spend their last thirty-five bucks on beer. But with Rollins on the vocals and the destructive guitars and the unstoppable, machine-like backup vocals, answering all questions in the form of "SIX. PACK", just try to take a beer away from these guys.
The album starts with the greatest declaration of human freedom in song since "The Internationale": "Jealous cowards try to control! Rise above! We're gonna rise above! They distort what we say! Rise above! We're gonna rise above! Try and stop what we do! Rise above! When they can't do it themselves! We are tired of your abuse! Try and stop us, it's no use!" The shtick would get corny if I did it more than once, but this is an album whose lyrics are meant to be typed out in all caps. Everything is said with the utmost conviction, a common trait among punk classics of the era. What makes Damaged different is the narrative.
You can catch the change starting in "TV Party". Up to this point in the album, your protagonist has destroyed shit and spray painted walls. He's also wanted to live and wished he was dead. But he's rebounding now, there's TV on. Moreso than "Six Pack", it's very very easy to take "TV Party" as snarling sarcasm. Both Ginn, who wrote it, and Rollins describe it in sarcastic terms: "It's basically a satire of people watching TV and partying at home, which is a sickness which is very prevalent in LA" said the former, "It's about people who stay inside their house and live in a TV kinda world. And this has a very direct effect on us," said the latter. Ron Reyes, in the modarn version of Black Flag, has included Twitter and social media in the song like an idiot. But imagine that it's not that? Ignoring the simplistic "TV sux" narrative, it's not so hard to imagine Rollins' protagonist trying to relax after an intensive depressive episode by watching some of his favorite shows — The Jeffersons, Saturday Night Live, Monday Night Football. He's excited because his friends are coming over, and he knows that it's important to socialize. TV shows being on makes it even easier, since there isn't pressure for constant conversation.
But then comes the tragic twist: the TV set doesn't work! There is no party at all! Our protagonist quickly finds his coping mechanisms running out: no TV, the never-ending six pack has run out on "Thirsty and Miserable". Society's problems become overwhelming on "Police Story" and distant on "Gimme Gimme Gimme": "I know the world's got problems, I got problems of my own!" Things start to become inevitable on "Depression", a second turning point on the album that sends things to a place of no alternatives. His girlfriend from "Six Pack" has left him, as have the friends who were just interested in getting wasted. "I don't need your goddamn sympathy, depression's got a hold of me. Depression, I gotta break free. Depression's got a hold on me. Depression's gonna kill me!" On the next song, "Room 13", he pleads for help, desperately: "Keep me alive! I can't accept my fate! I need help! Before it's too late!" He starts to develop the snarl of a wounded animal, which will come into play in the album's final segment.
All of this sounds pretty depressing, no doubt. But the trick, the trick that separates Damaged from any other music, including the later Rites of Spring-era emo, is that Rollins sings in such a way that isn't sad. Damaged is a radical break from previous depictions of depression as melancholy. Depression is a physical battle for Rollins, no different than a brick wall or a pack of rabid wolves. There's not a point on Damaged where Rollins is sad, at least in the traditional sense. There's more to depression than acoustic guitars, there's black-out noise and high moments that can lead to drug abuse and lashing out at anyone who tries to get close. It's a disease with many fangs, and Rollins gives the listener the experience of them all biting down at once.
In his now infamous and correctly maligned "Fuck Suicide" op-ed for LA Weekly (which he subsequently apologized for and said he was "trying to evolve" from"), Rollins describes the depression of a former roommate: "When she wasn't in her small bedroom with the lights off, crying for hours, she was bright and hilarious. Anywhere we went, we laughed our asses off. She fought her depression with everything from bike rides to drugs, prescribed and otherwise. Years after the last time I saw her, I guess she could no longer keep up the battle and killed herself. No one who knew her was surprised. When she was in her deepest misery, she was unrecognizable.The hardest part about being around her was you knew there was nothing you could do to help." It's a narrative that's stunningly similar to Damaged.
Is there a darker suite of songs than the last four on this album? A locked room, the walk of through the eternal city near the end of Catch-22, horrors confronting in every direction. The song structure of earlier has devolved into the jerking arrthymic notions of a body without control. Songs start and stop seemingly at random. He just starts hurling degrading insults at himself, "Maniac! Maniac! Maniac!" He starts to mock himself on "Life of Pain", where halting guitars build anticipation but offer no sense of compassion: "Look what you've done to your arms! I know you don't care who you do harm! I know you'd never get the girl next door, but now you're worse than before!" His earlier revelation on "Depression" offers no help either. "I can understand your problems," says Rollins, speaking for the untold masses who have been proffered the genius advice of Just Be Happier, "and I can even figure out the reasons why! But I can't help the way I feel." It's a moment of clarity about clarity which just leads back to self-hatred as he rambles on "And I can't accept what I see. And I just can't stand watching you! Self! De! Struct! Self destruuuuuuuct!"
And then, a pause to catch one's breath. The human physiology demands it. Our protagonist has devolved from "Damaged II" to "Damaged I", as pure an image of desperation and hate and fear as has ever existed in popular culture. There's always been an urge to paint mental illness in terms of winners and losers. In that false framework, winners get the focus. Rollins shines his light on the losers. The drums move in time with his breath. "My name is Henry," he says. "And you're here with me now." The guitars creak once again, and Rollins growls like a dog. He considers himself beyond feeling, beyond reasoning. And what, you're gonna tell him otherwise? "My life! It's a song daaaaah" he moans, snarling. He can't even complete a sentence, stammering out "You won't", "I just want another thing", "Damaged!". You can see him staggering, melting like a Terminator caught in a fire. He mocks you and your value system, "Yes sir yes sir yes sir yes sir oh yes sir yes sir yes sir Arrrgh!!!" The only thought that he really get out is that you need to leave, right now. He's better off without you. On paper, it looks a bit like William Carlos Williams: "It's nice and cool here where I am, it's nice, it's my mind, it's mind that's off guard. And no one comes in. Nobody comes in." The guitars go silent, their screeching into the oblivion has stopped. It's just the drums again. "Damage. My damage. No one comes in. Stay out!"
And like that, it's over. Total isolation, absolute zero in a lab where lasers separate all the molecules, complete separation from society. If it's a suicide, Rollins doesn't let on, but there's clearly been a death here. The person from "Rise Above" is long gone. Rollins forces the listener to feel that loss, apathy isn't an option. It gives permission to feel anger, to feel larger than life, to feel you're both larger than and undeserving of life. There's no one straight line, Damaged tells you. There's just action and reaction. Through it's one narrative it's able to get across that depression has no such thing, that its boring consistency is perhaps the most anger-inducing part. Good things happen? It's still there. Bad things happen? It's still there. Damaged gives its listener the freedom to understand this permanence. That may not be enough, but it's a lot more than nothing.
All art by Matt Lubachansky