Wrapping Old Ironsides, Sacramento, CA Fred salutes goodbye, La Guardia, NYC No Life Records, LA
Wrapping Old Ironsides,
Sacramento, CA
Fred salutes goodbye,
La Guardia, NYC
No Life Records, LA


Why would a tuxedo-clad trio of lounge musicians cover hardcore punk songs? Rolling Stone magazine polled their staff and voted Black Velvet Flag "Critic's Pick for the Best Unsigned Band for 1994." Lauded by the Village Voice and praised by music critics in New York City, Black Velvet Flag performed to roaring applause and barbarous insults from the hardcore punk faithful. Disc jockeys played their music on alternative radio stations in college towns across the United States. Yet, Black Velvet Flag's ambitions and the circumstances that unfolded as their fame rose, became a story that every want-to-be pop musician has endured.

The music of Black Velvet Flag consciously mocked the audience's craving, not for resisting conformity, but for the nostalgia of resisting conformity at a time when "alternative" culture was more marketable than the mainstream. Strangely enough, the band members themselves played for a variety of changing motives whose conflicts expressed the very contradictions that made them interesting. And onsequently, these opposing motives of fame and creative purity set the scene for capricious conflict in this documentary about the rise and fall of one unusual band.

How did Fred Stesney (singer), Jeff Musser (bass player), and Jason Zasky (guitarist) come together to make their music? Why did they gain such attention? How did their brief and limited brush with fame dissipate and dissolve?

The Rise and Fall of Black Velvet Flag documents the experience of three quirky young men who desire to make a mark in the world of popular music, while trying to hang on to their impulse to remain simply middle-class. Their story is an example both of the process of the commercialization of youth culture, and of the experiences that ambitious musicians must endure. While this band made people think about how Punks grew up, it was also a band that attempted to reconcile the contradictions of their lives, and their generation.

More About the Documentary

The Rise and Fall of Black Velvet Flag begins with three young men in a Chinese restaurant mulling over their promising fate, plentiful local fame, and lack of fortune as musicians. Together they must garner the energy and courage to get on a plane, go on tour, and share their music with the fans where two of the band members grew up - Los Angeles. Will they find more fame and some real fortune, or will it be a lark, a last hurrah of youth? But wait! What kind of music are we talking about? Who are these guys? And has anyone really heard of them?

"Ever feel like telling the world to fuck off? Well sit back and have a drink. We're Black Velvet Flag and we're here to entertain you."

Fred Stesney (singer) opened their shows with this line, as Jason Zasky (guitarist) and Jeff Musser (bass player) unwound their jazzy groove with mellow angst from two strange bed-fellows of popular music - lounge jazz and hardcore punk rock. The place and time was New York City in the mid-nineties. Martinis and cigars were hip, former punks eased into the thirty-something age bracket, and the internet boom made young people flush and ready to spend it in clubs around the city. This moment was fifteen years after eighteen year-olds started slam dancing to thrashing guitars and subversive lyrics that put into question the values of Western Civilization.

Our humble Chinese meal came after Black Velvet Flag staged a series of early well-publicized shows. The trio performed in small New York clubs - Mercury Lounge, Wetlands, Brownies, Fez and even the sizeable club, Tramps. And in just a few brief interludes with the club-going public, the music press celebrated their performances and their cleverness.

Comedian and TV host Jon Stewart hosted them for an appearance on one of the pilot shows created for television. Invitations to play at parties and clubs were abundant. And the ultimate stamp of New York scene ascendance arrived only four months after their first public appearance - a show at CBGBs recorded live for a release on the small independent label, GoKart Records.

Their rehearsals were not always easy as the fame and opportunity exceeded the depth of each of the band member's working relationships. Jason, the consummate and well-trained guitarist, wanted the best possible arrangement of music to secure a career as a studio musician. Fred, the witty and charismatic singer, searched for the most interesting dysfunctional character he could create with every song. And Jeff, the conceptual thinker behind the band's creation, wanted to keep his ideas pure and simple, regardless of commercial pressures.

Felice Ecker, the band's publicist, had the clearest sense of what this trio was about. For her, Black Velvet Flag was an "art project": an expression of the anxiety of youth giving way to adulthood, of punks cum grown-ups seeing their ideals compromised by their middle-class desires. And most on the mark, Felice asserted that the parody of punk that Black Velvet Flag expressed so ironically, was really a declaration of ownership of what was once theirs - punk music and culture itself.

Record producer Greg Ross kept the CDs burning as long as the interest was strong. With an impressive performance on the College Music Journalist charts, and mostly praise from music critics around the country, Black Velvet Flag's debut album, Come Recline, a parody of the classic punk documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, put the band on a publicity roll. At the moment of their Chinese meal, the band's impending tour on the West Coast looked promising.

On their last evening together before departure, the lurking questions arose about what the tour will bring:
Would they get chicks? Up to this moment, so many opportunities were blown. Girls would hang out with them, drink with them, and take off their clothes on stage with them. But when it came down to it, the groupies all seemed a little too dangerous (and young) for their tastes. Or was the band just too old to really party?

Would they score a real record deal with a major label? So far, they flirted with larger labels after abundant college radio play. They were even voted the "Critic's Pick for the Best Unsigned Band for 1994" by Rolling Stone magazine. But why? Great music or clever concept? Would a record company take a chance on a concept?

Would they still like each other after they come back? The motives for the tour were very different among each of the band members. Jason wanted a music career as a studio guitarist. Fred wanted as much press as he could get. And Jeff wanted to see his ironic concept find its audience. As different as each of their objectives were, they still had the hunger for adventure in California, the home of the music that inspired the band. If anyone would "get" the band, Fred proclaimed, they would have to be ex-punks of their own generation.

The tour and the subsequent studio record would prove to be the test of their fortitude and desire. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Orange County, San Diego - all these cities would meet them with curiosity and sometimes astonishing praise (or sometimes indifference). Their will to live and commit themselves to their art and their ideas would be tested, along with their friendship and talent.

In the end, this trio lived an unforgettable journey that made them discover what they really wanted in life, and what they did not. The Rise and Fall of Black Velvet Flag ultimately documents the experience of three average, but quirky, young men, caught up in the conflicting desire to make a mark in the world of popular music, while still hanging on to their desire to remain middle-class. And as we join them on their curious, and at times hilarious adventure, we realize just how some Punks grew up, and how they reconcile the contradictions of their lives, and of their generation.