Soapbox: So Many Roads with Mike Vallely
Trixie Garcia, Mike Vallely, Annabelle Garcia (l-r) (photo by John-Ryan Lockman – Showlove Media)
A pro skateboarder straddles the line between Black Flag and the Good Ol’ Grateful Dead.
When I was 14 years old, I saw Black Flag at City Gardens in Trenton, N.J.—Greg Ginn, Kira Roessler, Bill Stevenson and Henry Rollins. They played like it was the end of the world and this was the last thing they had to do before it was all over. It was a life-affirming experience for me. From that day forward, I was determined to give 100% to anything and everything I did, especially skateboarding.
Thirty years later, Greg Ginn asked me to be the band’s fifth vocalist. By then, Greg and I had been friends for many years. We had written over 40 songs together for our band, Good for You, and performed together all over the world—starting with the 2003 Black Flag reunion at the Hollywood Palladium where I did a guest vocal set with the band. I didn’t grow up dreaming that one day I’d sing in Black Flag. How could I have ever dreamt of such a thing? But it was something I knew I could pull off. And, I knew I could add my thing while still having a great respect for the vocalists that had come before me.
Being onstage and performing with Black Flag was my first experience with improvisational music. We would jam into, out of and in the middle of songs. As a vocalist, I learned to go along for the ride, to let the music take us where it wanted to go. And, they were some of the most exciting moments of our set every night—for us and the audience.
Greg always said Black Flag is more spiritually aligned with the Grateful Dead than the other bands in the punk genre. I started to understand that but needed to know more about the Grateful Dead.
For me, the Grateful Dead were a tough nut to crack. The way in wasn’t easy. I would listen to the Grateful Dead Channel on SiriusXM, but I only ever seemed to hear endless guitar noodling and songs about gambling. A friend of mine—the artist Bigfoot—is also a Deadhead, and he suggested I listen to American Beauty. I did, and I liked it, but it didn’t stick. I wasn’t getting the full story. Then I heard the song “Built to Last” while on tour with Bigfoot in Japan and, for some reason, Jerry’s voice and the lyrics cut through on that track. The fog lifted, and I was finally able to penetrate the music.
My journey into the Grateful Dead’s music has also been life-affirming. And to have such an experience again with a band—this time starting at 47 years old—is very meaningful to me. Jerry Garcia’s singing, guitar playing and sensibilities have struck a chord with me, Robert Hunter’s lyrics have inspired and uplifted me, and Jerry and the Dead have become the soundtrack to my life. Being able to work with the Garcia Family to produce Jerry Garcia-inspired skateboards for my company Street Plant has been truly soul-satisfying. In a time when little of substance seems to be making it through the corporate filters, the Grateful Dead mean more than ever.
As Black Flag prepares for a very active 2019, with shows in the U.S., Canada, South America, Europe and Japan, the intersection of the Grateful Dead and Black Flag in my life is at the forefront. I am more enthused than ever to get inside these timeless songs and to express them completely—to go on a journey every night with the music and the audience and see where we can get to together. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I look forward to meeting everyone at the shows. I’ll see you all up the road.
Mike Vallely is a professional skateboarder and the founder of Street Plant, an independent, family-owned skateboard company. After spending his life in the punk scene, fronting several bands and fostering a creative friendship with Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, he became the lead singer of the legendary hardcore band in January 2014.
This article originally appears in the September 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.