Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Did You Used To Sing For Black Flag?

Going to Guitar Center used to be like preparing for war. Before entering the doors, I would pause and repeat several phrases –“Don’t say fuck off,” “You can’t control what they say but you can control your response” and “If you get arrested, take off your shirt before going to jail.” No matter how prepared I was, it pretty much always ended up the same:

Guitar Center Dude (GCD): “Yeah, what do you need?” Since it was the 90s, he had long hair and jeans with holes in the knees. They were forced to wear ties, so he had a skinny-ish black tie with a black button-up shirt. His appearance was unkempt and he sported a homemade “K-O-R-G” tattoo on his left knuckles. The tattoo already pissed me off.

Me: “I need some GHS Boomers -- 10s, ok?” I knew what was about to happen. He would grab the strings from the wall behind him, look into his computer and quote me a price that ranged from $4.50 to $11. This is where the problems started. I was prepared and my shirt was still on.

GCD: “I can give them to you for,” pausing to look into his magical computer like it was map and he was lost, “9 bucks, out the door.” His head would never look up. Right away, “out the door“ pissed me off. It was like he was cutting me a break. All the pre-shop preparation usually went out the window at this point.

Me: “9 bucks?” said aggressively. “How about $4.50…out the door.” He knew I was mocking him by saying “out the door.” He would go back to looking at the computer, typing arbitrary commands, while shaking his head and snorting sometimes.

GCD: “$4.50? I don’t know if I can do that. We’d be losing money.” Inside the right pocket of my jeans was my trump card. I had been nervously touching it intermittently throughout our conversation. It was a receipt from Guitar Center where I had paid $4.50 for a set of GHS Boomer strings. I had blacked out the salesperson’s name on the receipt in black ink. I found a lot of joy in doing this.

Me: “Yeah, $4.50.” Still holding onto the receipt.

GCD: “$4.50?” meticulously scouring the computer screen for something that could justify this price. “We’d be losing 13 cents.” It was time to break out the receipt.

Me: Without saying a word, I handed him the receipt. He looked at it, holding it to the light to see if he could ascertain the salesperson. He knew I had him. “So, $4.50…out the door?” Now “out the door” meant no sales tax and I would let him know it. He rang me up and I was on my way.

I could’ve showed him the receipt right away, but I held onto it for the years of abuse before the receipt. The years of seeing moms buying their teenage sons shitty Marshall amps for full retail price and having to go through the awkward dance of paying a fair price for everything from picks to guitars. I was common knowledge whatever price Guitar Center quoted you, you would slice it by %60 percent and bargain from there. They relied on unsuspecting customer to pay full price. For this, retribution was necessary.

I rarely have to step foot in Guitar Center these days. I buy picks, sticks, drums, guitars, amps, strings and everything else online. However, if I need something immediately or shipping is too expensive, I’m forced pay them a visit.

Maybe it’s my advanced age, or I’m making a little more money than the early 90s, or a few angry customers burned down a couple of Guitar Centers which brought about change, but it appears they’ve mellowed out. Or maybe I mellowed out. They still wear ties and awkward, big suits, watch Satriani how-to videos on in-store monitors and all look like they’re in a band, but they’re nicer and they fixed the whole arbitrary price thing. I was pleasantly surprised.

However, while the employees stayed the same age, I got older and irrelevant. Instead of walking in as a peer, I was – to them – the guy that looked like Kenny Rogers that played blues on the weekends with his buddies. I would’ve thought this too. But, not being a peer meant I was less threatening. I ran with this and took on a more fatherly role, dispensing homogenous music advice to the young musicians: “Keep practicing, your time will come, “Do what you love, keep at it” and “Fuck lawyers and managers, do it yourself.” In my mind, this wisdom was appreciated and warranted, but I knew it wasn’t.

Regardless of the improvements, I was prepared for adversity. I was going to a new section of the store - Pro Audio and Recording - to buy two microphone stands. How hard could it be?

Instead of fiddling around and looking at crap on the walls, I found the mic stands in the middle of the floor. They were cheap and what I wanted.

In my most polite voice, I said to the salesperson behind the counter, “Excuse me, how much for the straight stands?” Instead of going to computer, he replied, “They’re 20 bucks. They’re pretty good.”

The Guitar Center website listed them at the same price. This was good. I brought the mic stands to the counter and gave him my credit card and license. He looked at my t-shirt and said, “Pavement. Great band.” I looked down, unaware that I was wearing a Pavement shirt. This embarrassed me, so I just smiled, feeling a little old for a Pavement shirt.

Furrowing his brow, he stared at my license. I could tell he was thinking.

“Did you used to sing for Black Flag?” handing back my license.

Well, this was a first. I had no idea why he asked me this question. Did I look Rollins?

The salesperson was a young guy – probably born after Black Flag broke up. Like all young musicians, he was kinda of nondescript and probably played a shitty Teisco guitar through a tube amp in a local garage band.

“Who was the singer of Black Flag?” he continued.

Asking an old punk to spew knowledge of Black Flag was like asking a hippie about Jimmie Hendrix. I would gladly oblige the request and let this guy know that I used to be somebody. It was pitiful, but he opened the door.

“Do you mean Rollins?


“Dez Cadena?”




“Keith Morris?”


I was out of singers. I paused and let him ponder what he meant.

“You know,” he said, “lots of famous people come in here. One of the guys from Toto came in the other days.”

Toto and Black Flag in the same sentence? That was a first. Maybe I misread this guy. I was going to mention Greg Kihn, but I didn’t want to go down that road. It sometimes ended in me singing a few bars of “Jeopardy” (“My love’s in jeopardy, baby. Ewwww.”).

While walking to my car with the mic stands, it came to me: “Ahhh, Greg Ginn (guitarist for Black Flag)! That’s who he thought I was.”

I’ve never gotten that.

(Image: Rollins Fan Art)


  1. I seriously enjoyed this story :) thank you!

  2. Your welcome. It was fun to write. I've always had an adversarial relationship with Guitar Center.