Via Joshua Babcock!
This piece was originally published in the LA Weekly (June 22-28, 2002) under John Payne’s editorial guidance. It’s based on the set of interviews I originally conducted in 2001 for a piece on Black Flag for Mojo, published in their December 2001 issue.
A TWELVE-STEP PROGRAM IN SELF RELIANCE: HOW L.A. HARDCORE PIONEERS BLACK FLAG MADE IT THROUGH THE EARLY YEARS
by Jay Babcock
By midsummer 1981, when the then-unknown, now-notorious Henry Rollins joined Black Flag as its fourth singer, the South Bay-based punk band had already tasted some extremely hard-earned success. Despite a set of severe hurdles — from an initial difficulty in getting local club gigs and a record deal to sensational “punk violence!” coverage by the news media and constant harassment of both the band and its fans by police — Black Flag had managed to self-release three EPs, tour North America several times, and grow from playing to a couple of dozen people at a San Fernando Valley coffeehouse to headlining shows at the Santa Monica Civic and Olympic Auditorium.
Black Flag accomplished this by developing a do-it-yourself work and business ethic which, although common in jazz, rhythm & blues and folk circles for decades, was almost unique for American rock bands at the time. It was an ethic that was hugely effective, and one that would prove hugely influential over the next two decades.
But what’s ironic about the band’s current historical status as one of American punk rock’s original DIY pioneers — “They may well be the band that made the biggest difference,” says no less an authority than Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye — is that Black Flag’s original aspirations had nothing to do with building an alternate model to the existing music industry.
“The beginning and end of it was always working on the music,” says Black Flag founder, guitarist and chief songwriter Greg Ginn today. “The other stuff was very much at the periphery.”
As they tell it now, Ginn & Co. would have been quite content to let someone else handle the mundane trivialities of being recording artists and performers: the nuts and bolts of producing and releasing records, doing publicity and marketing, booking tours, handling legal matters, lugging equipment, etc. Black Flag would play while others would work. But the music industry, broadly speaking, wasn’t interested in Black Flag — so Black Flag had to figure out, almost on their own, how to get their music heard. This is how they did it, in their own words:
1. PRACTICE HARD, ALL THE TIME.
GREG GINN: “For us, it was all about practice, and always playing. A lot of times we didn’t have a place to live, but we always paid for a place to practice hours every day, through the whole Black Flag history. If we were living in vans, living in the practice place or staying with people or whatever, we always had a place to practice.”
KEITH MORRIS (first Black Flag vocalist): “We got totally fed up with our original rhythm section. It got to the point where they were so flaky that we weren’t even rehearsing. We’d started to get our work ethic going, but it didn’t hit fifth gear until we got Robo and Chuck the Duke [Dukowski] in the band. And then it was like we rehearsed every night, sometimes for six hours. Sometimes I wouldn’t be getting home until, like, 4 in the morning.”
GINN: “I thought that if you’re gonna call yourself a band and claim to play music, it’s not too much to ask that you practice a couple hours, five nights a week. But a lot of people thought, ‘Well, we’d rather party or hang out or this or that.’ And punk rock, there was a lot of that mentality — ‘Why do you need to practice so much?’ It was supposed to be ‘Everything’s zero, and life’s not worth anything, so why would you bother practicing?’ I’ m not saying that my attitude is right. Other bands were different. Like the Germs — they didn’t practice, and I loved to go see them play. I wouldn’t have tried to change them! I was just, ‘Okay, that’s them. We’re not the Germs. We’re doing something different.'”
2. HAVE EXPERIENCE RUNNING A SMALL BUSINESS.
Ginn, who graduated from UCLA with an economics degree, started his first business — SST Electronics — when he was in junior high school, and continued to run it through college and into his 20s. SST provided friends with work — Morris, Dukowski and Mike Watt (among others) all made antenna tuners or other ham-radio accessories at some point — and generated the seed money Ginn used to fund Black Flag’s early activities.
MORRIS: “Greg was basically our financier — he was our industrial capitalist.”
While he was at UC Santa Barbara, Chuck Dukowski ran a production company that put on shows and movies. He’d also “toured” the U.S. in a van twice, playing rock gigs with a high school friend in a band that eventually became Würm.
DUKOWSKI (bass): “We had a single 12-inch speaker, we’d both plug into it, and we’d go and jam everywhere. After college, we rented a bunch of different storefronts and commercial spaces that we’d live in and practice in, and try to get the ball rolling with our band. Eventually, we ended up in a deserted bathhouse and restaurant in Hermosa Beach. We bought and sold musical equipment to make money. Würm couldn’t get gigs, so we played to 20 to 30 people a night, pretty much seven days a week, at our pad. We had it all organized — how to stay underground and avoid getting into trouble. We even had a secret knock.”
After Würm fell apart, Dukowski joined Black Flag (then called Panic) and took a day job as a foreman at a local pool-table manufacturing company.
DUKOWSKI: “[In late ’79] I was just sitting around at this job, being the foreman, and I smelled the solvents floating in the air, and I went, ‘This isn’t good for me. I want to go into music, that’s what I’ve been wanting to do all along.’ And I’d seen that this guy built this pool-table place from nothing, and I had some experience in entertainment, and I had experience with touring — not as a band, but traveling and being self-sustaining on the road for months at a time. So I quit, and my primary focus became SST. Greg had invited me to be a partner at the label. I walked in, I said, ‘Okay, I got time and energy, I wanna make it work. We got a little bit of time to set it up, because soon enough my savings will run out.'”
3. DO YOUR OWN PUBLICITY.
One of Greg Ginn’s younger brothers was Raymond Pettibon, an artist who specialized in chilly one-panel comic-book-style drawings with unsettling captions. Pettibon came up with the name Black Flag, as well as the band’s logo and its marvelously simple emblem: an unfurled flag broken in three so that it appeared as four solid vertical black bars. The “four bars” was perfect for graffiti.
MORRIS: “Aw, we had graffiti everywhere — freeway overhangs, underpasses. We were probably the original L.A. taggers.”
ROBO (drums): “Greg’s girlfriend Medea used to go to Hollywood with a spray can, and every wall that she saw, she put up the four bars. The police were like, ‘Who the fuck is doing all this four bars everywhere?'”
GINN: “In the South Bay, the band was known for its graffiti. It was so uncommon that when you did it, everybody saw it. That was the one outlet that we had to publicize the group. Which I think is totally justifiable in light of the cartel in music that the big record labels had going — and still have, to a certain extent. If people don’t have a voice at all, if the government is supposed to support free enterprise but they’re supporting these really close-knit cartels, then the people need to make some kind of noise to start breaking that stuff up.”
Pettibon’s artwork was also featured on almost all of Black Flag’s fliers advertising upcoming gigs. The posters for a series of late-1980 shows around L.A. that had been nicknamed “creepy crawls” (after a term used by the Manson family for breaking into people’s houses and rearranging their furniture) are particularly intense. One features a blond girl warning an X-carved-between-the-eyebrows Charles Manson (“You better be good, Charlie. It wasn’t easy getting in here you know”). The fliers’ content — and their ubiquity on telephone poles and street walls — contributed to the band’s already edgy, menacing mystique.
MORRIS: “We would go out on our flier-pasting missions in Robo’s little white Ford Cortina. We’d have the bucket with the paste, we’d have a few hundred fliers, and after all the fliers were posted, like three or four hours, we’d go home and go to sleep.”
DUKOWSKI: “The minimum that went out was 500 for a show. I made a wheat-paste/white-glue mix so that it would stay up longer. Nobody did that. When I was producing shows in college, I realized you need to plaster this shit — you need to put 30 of them here, and they need to be put up so they’ re there for a while. The Dogs and other people had been doing it, but they could have been more aggressive — they weren’t putting them up on poles. That helped us get over, for sure… For one of those early shows, we put fliers somewhere, and Greg had to go to court for it. And they fined him or something. Our response to that was to go right from the courthouse to the Redondo Beach police station and graffiti the station wall in broad daylight.”
4. GET LOCAL GIGS.
Unable to get a show anywhere, the band decided to book a late-January ’79 afternoon at a Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach and put on a show itself. The event drew less than 100 people, but included two of the band’s future singers — and an impressed Rodney Bingenheimer, who began playing the band’s first single immediately after.
GINN: “There was an underground of rock bands in L.A. in ’74, ’75 — before punk rock. The Alleycats, the Last, the Dogs, the New Order. Those bands were playing outside of the put-on-a-stage-show, wear-costumes, showcase-for-the-label thing. They’d rent halls, do fliers. They would just keep plugging away, to very limited success. I really picked up on the kind of work ethic those bands had.”
DUKOWSKI: “Greg organized most of the bookings at first. We played a lot of local clubs, but it was more catch-as-catch-can kind of stuff. One advantage Black Flag had was there was a place where we could be reached, ’cause he had a business phone for SST Electronics.”
Black Flag began making a name for itself in the Hollywood scene by playing a series of gigs at local clubs that summer. Then, somehow, Ginn got Black Flag on the bill for a free Sunday-afternoon concert at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach. The band’s set was accompanied by a barrage of lunch food thrown at the band — and its few fans — by the disapproving audience of picnicking families. Black Flag’s first gigs at other unconventional venues were also usually their last.
GINN: “I got real good at talking to promoters or hall owners. They’d ask, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s a rock group and a little bit of jazz in there.’ That’s a trick — the ‘jazz’ word is always useful when you’re stopped by police or authorities. ‘What kind of music do you guys play?’ If you answer ‘rock,’ they ask, ‘What kind of rock?’ But if you throw that little ‘jazz’ thing in there…”
DUKOWSKI: “Once I had the time and energy to put into booking the band’s shows, we started putting together packages to attract audiences from different parts of the city. We’d say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna have a group from here, a group from there, bring it all together and promote the hell out of it. We get these people’s audiences plus a few new people each time.’ And it worked.”
GINN: “We didn’t turn down any free gigs, because those were the best. It’d cost us money, because we’d rent PAs, but I always liked free gigs because anybody can wander in. You could get different people at random, not pre-selected groups of people, and maybe they would get something out of it. That’s how I got into music, through free stuff…”
After playing dates up and down the West Coast several times, in December 1980 the band embarked on its first national tour, booking shows with often unknown promoters at often questionable venues on hearsay information passed to them by other touring punk bands like San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys, Vancouver’s D.O.A. and Texas’ Big Boys. Black Flag toured the U.S. three times in nine months spanning ’80-’81.
DUKOWSKI: “We needed to work, to keep the ball rolling. Especially if you’re only making 50 bucks, 100 bucks, something like that, every time you do it. We needed to play every night. And the only way to play a show every night was to tour.”
GINN: “We tried to book a show every day, and then cancellations would be days off. And as we went, we could fill it in more. There’s no way we could have done the same thing [using normal music-business procedures and personnel], because who’s gonna book tours so they can take their 15-percent share for a show where we made $50? Who’s gonna go along with it and do all the work and say, ‘We play any live gig, we put parties ahead of paying things’? That’s what we did for our whole career. You have to take yourself outside of the regular business, because no manager or label is gonna have the foresight to do all of that stuff to create something bigger, because they can’t see their interest beyond the short term.”
ROBO: “We set up our own instruments, we only had one roadie, which was a teenage street kid nicknamed Mugger. I’d carry my drums in all by myself, Greg carried, and Chuck carried in his cabinets. We all did it ourselves. No bullshit. We only wanted a bright white light on us, so we could see each other and people could see us. None of this bullshit of fog and smoke and dimmed lights. If there’s a drum riser on the stage, get it off! We want a carpet and a white light. We don’t need nothing else!”
6. WATCH YOUR DIET.
DUKOWSKI: “Ron Reyes [the band’s second singer] had next to no money and was living on potatoes. Which is a pretty good choice of food to live on. But on the other hand, he was living too hard — he was drinking a lot — and tried to be a vegetarian too. Not having enough money to eat right, that’s a good way to get malnourished. He freaked out.”
ROBO: “I sweat like a pig from the way I play. I really put out. So, playing so much, I lost a lot of weight. I’d been a vegetarian for like seven or eight years. I said, ‘Man, I’m gonna either drop dead or get sick.’ So I started eating meat again.”
7. OWN A VAN.
DEZ CADENA (third Black Flag vocalist, later guitarist): “When the Ramones first came to L.A., we knew that they were a punk rock band, but because they were on a big record label, we expected them to be in a big Winnebago and traveling like rock stars. Instead they’re coming out in this old beat-up ’69 Ford van, with all their equipment cramped together in the same vehicle. To us it was just very impressive. Greg said that’s why he decided he wanted to do everything on his own.”
DUKOWSKI: “I bought this old ’64 Ford Econoline window van, had it all slicked for tours.”
GINN: “When the tires would run too low, Chuck would get replacements from the ones they throw out in the back of gas stations.”
DUKOWSKI: “It was parked at my house, with ‘Black Flag’ and a million other band names written all over it. I’d drive down the alley, and the Hermosa cops would pull me over and just harass me. They’d leave me there and take my keys with them back to the station, five or six blocks away. I’d have to walk to the station and get my keys from them, then walk back up. Eventually, I took all the graffiti off for this reason.”
8. RELEASE YOUR OWN RECORD IF NO ONE ELSE WILL.
Egged on by a local roller-skating-guitarist friend named Spot, Black Flag (then called Panic) recorded eight songs in late-December ’77 at Media Art in Hermosa Beach. Bomp, a San Fernando Valley garage-rock label that had expressed interest in releasing a Black Flag single, had been going through cash-flow problems for more than six months. Around Christmas ’78, Ginn pressed up 2,000 copies of the four-song, five-minute Nervous Breakdown EP at a cost of $1,000. The garish cover was by Pettibon, whose artwork and lettering would be featured on almost all of Black Flag’s releases, as well as those of other SST artists like the Minutemen.
GINN: “We kept waiting and waiting for Bomp. Finally I decided to release it myself, and that’s where SST Records started. From SST Electronics, obviously I knew how to set up a business. But I wasn’t looking forward to putting out records myself, because I felt that I had my hands full between working my business and trying to play. So it was kind of by default: ‘I can do this, so I’ll do it.'”
The band sold its records at shows and via mail orders to SST’s P.O. box — an address that never changed, despite the band having to move from city to city. Sometimes the mail-order money was the band members’ sole source of income. To encourage retailers to order Black Flag records from the band’s distributors, band members would pose as fans and call stores across the country, requesting the band’s forthcoming record.
DUKOWSKI: “Brendan Mullen did us a favor. He gave us a phone-card number; someone at U.S. Sprint had given it to him and said to have at it. He was in a good position at U.S. Sprint — they were just starting out, no one was policing it. So we had at it. I called everybody, all the time! I was on the phone from 9 in the morning until 11 to 12 at night.”
GINN: “Jem, which was an import distributor at the time, was the first real distribution that we got. But retailers were used to marking up imports really high. We sold our records real low to Jem, and then we’d go around to stores and they’d be in ‘import’ bins for way higher. So we felt like there wasn’t proper distribution, that we were dealing with people that were more interested in imports and it just was not going to develop.”
1981’s Damaged would be Black Flag’s highest-budget project ever, coming in at around $8,000. Spot and the band produced it themselves. While recording the album, Black Flag received an offer from a small label named Unicorn, which also owned the Hollywood studio where the album was being cut. Unicorn had a distribution deal with MCA. Hoping for better distribution than they had received so far, Ginn and Dukowski decided to accept the offer. But just after 25,000 copies of the album had been pressed, MCA distribution chief Al Bergamo announced that the company would not distribute the record because, among other things, “It just didn’t seem to have any redeeming social value.” With the MCA logo obscured by a sticker quoting Bergamo (“As a parent with two children, I found it an anti-parent record”), Damaged was eventually released by Unicorn through an independent distributor. Later, after Unicorn’s bankruptcy and almost two years of litigation (see Item No. 12), the band re-released the album through SST.
GINN: “We thought, ‘MCA pretty much distributes Unicorn, and that’s all they do. And Unicorn was dealing with them, so I didn’t have much contact with MCA. But I guess someone at MCA heard it, and you know . . . There was just that kind of cultural war: ‘This is wrong.’ The music business was just, ‘We don’t need this punk culture.'”
9. LIVE COMMUNALLY.
For Penelope Spheeris’ L.A. punk doc The Decline of Western Civilization, the band was filmed inside its rehearsal space at a Hermosa Beach crafts center called the Church. The band’s then-singer, Ron Reyes, talked onscreen about how he was living in the room’s closet for $16 a month. By late ’79, as Black Flag/SST became a full-time occupation for its members, the band began to live together in its various rehearsal/office spaces. For a period in August 1981, when the band was homeless, SST’s phones were the pay booths at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, where Ginn and Dukowski spent whole days conducting SST/Black Flag business.
DUKOWSKI: “It was a hard time for us. We were living on nothin’. We’d get some mail-order money in the morning — if we were lucky — and go spend it.”
CADENA: “We had this thing called ‘good cop/bad cop.’ Greg decided that Chuck should take care of the money, because Greg was a little bit too nice. If you said, ‘Greg, I need a little cash,’ he’d go, ‘Oh, here.’ Whereas at times we had to be tight-fisted to run this record company the way it needed to be run.”
DUKOWSKI: “We’d sleep on the floor, wake up with the sun. Mr. Ginn [Greg’s father] would bring down a few sandwiches and feed us, pretty much every day. And he’d bring us a load of clothes that he’d found at thrift stores.”
GINN: “He would take these preppy shirts and put the four bars on them with a marker. For tour, we’d have a bag of these clothes, and as the tour went on, you’d just go, ‘Oh, I could use a new shirt’ and pull one out of the bag . . . My parents went through the Depression, they went through some really tough times, so they’d always be thinking, ‘Well, you gotta make sure you can survive the worst thing.'”
DUKOWSKI: “We’d be wearing old slacks and stuff from another era. It was like that for roughly a year — grilled cheese sandwiches and piles of clothes. And pizzas. It was all about cheese.”
ROBO: “It was a hard life, but we all could do it because none of us were married. As long as there was floor space to sleep on and a sandwich here and there, it was okay with me. I had shitloads of fun playing, so I didn’t care.”
CADENA: “We would all have been miserable doing a 9-to-5 thing. We figured the only way for us to do music would be to do it on our own. That also meant that we kind of had to be like the Manson family and just all live together. But there was no other way for these particular people to do it.”
In summer ’81, Black Flag and Spot produced a series of radio commercials for broadcast on KROQ, some of which made light of the punk rock scene’s treatment by the LAPD (“Attention all units! Chief Gates is in an uproar! Let’s get those punk rockers!”) while publicizing their upcoming L.A.-area shows and their new records.
DUKOWSKI: “I think it was Greg’s idea: ‘Let’s do radio!’ We’d just put our whole crew together, people who were hanging around, mock up a script, and do it. That was really the heyday of that stuff, when we were real fresh.”
Ginn and Dukowski contend that Black Flag did not encourage or exploit the violence that attended its shows, even as that violence — and the not-infrequent clashes with police — inevitably drew media attention and gained the band free publicity.
DUKOWSKI: “We worked to try to create an environment where the right things could happen, hopefully, and there was security and all of that in the venues. The violence isn’t a good thing — but on the other hand, what are you gonna do? One could say if you go into a Raiders game and cheer for the Cowboys you’re gonna get fucked up. If you go to a Black Flag show and you’re wearing your Genesis T-shirt and you’re screaming, ‘Punk rock is bunk squawk!’ then you’re gonna get yourself beat up. Yes, the violence probably hurt us, but it’s a two-sided coin. We can say we could have been bigger without it, that without that stigma we would have been allowed into the mainstream. On the other side of the coin, people were talking, weren’t they?”
GINN: “The news reports tied Black Flag and violence together, when that wasn’t at all appropriate. I thought, ‘Well, you have more problems at some heavy-metal show with a bunch of drunk people.’ People thought it was great publicity, but anytime you’re misrepresented — unless you’re trying to pull some kind of image scam — it’s gonna hurt you. We wanted to play music. We practiced five or six nights a week to play, not to have our gigs stopped by the cops.”
11. NEED A NEW SINGER? LOOK TO YOUR FANS.
When original Black Flag singer Keith Morris quit the band in ’79, he was quickly replaced by Ron Reyes, a Hermosa Beach teenager who had been following the band since it was called Panic and knew all of the songs. Five months after Reyes quit the band midshow, in ’80, he was replaced by his 19-year-old friend (and longtime Flag fan), guitarist Dez Cadena. Then, in late summer of ’81, Cadena — whose voice was faltering, and who was more interested in playing guitar, anyway — was replaced on lead vocals by 20-year-old Washington, D.C., Flag fanatic Henry Rollins.
GINN: “Punk rock wasn’t some kind of established thing. We all came from the audience. Everybody in the band was always more of a rock fan than a rock star.”
12. DO AS MUCH OF YOUR OWN LEGAL WORK AS POSSIBLE.
Black Flag’s deal with Unicorn went sour, and the band soon found itself in court, fighting to be released from a contract it claimed had been breached. A local lawyer agreed to help the band in a supervisory role with their case.
GINN: “Our lawyer was like, ‘You can’t afford for our firm to do this, so you guys do the work.’ I’d taken legal contract classes in college, so I was familiar with the basics of law. Every day we’d take the bus from Redondo out to Hollywood and Vine, where he was, and work on it. We did a lot of the legal filing, wrote a lot of the motions, did a lot of research. We didn’t end up paying him completely until years after the band broke up. He was so good to us.”
At one point, the band was enjoined from using the name Black Flag for any release, even on recordings that had been made prior to entering a deal with Unicorn. After releasing a double album, Everything Went Black, of early Black Flag recordings without using the name Black Flag anywhere on the album, Ginn and Dukowski were found in contempt of court. The judge sentenced them to five days each in L.A. County Jail. Bill Stevenson, the band’s new drummer, had been working with Ginn and Dukowski on their case.
BILL STEVENSON: “I didn’t visit them in jail. I was just at the law office, trying to prepare this writ of habeas corpus to get ’em out of there. My take on it was just to be proactive.”
DUKOWSKI: “The appeal came through, after we’d served four and a half days… Eventually Unicorn went bankrupt, and it just went away. They just got ground out economically from all the paper we threw at ’em. It was an attrition thing — trench warfare.
“You know, we barely stayed alive. All of these people in this teeny space… It didn’t take long before it started tearing at the seams of things. Too many people, too little food, too little sleep — it fucked everybody up. We couldn’t make money on our records, and when we went on tour, we were touring on a several-year-old record! It was annoying. Later on, I met one of the opponent law firm’s legal secretaries, and he said, ‘You guys ran us ragged.’ I was stoked to hear that.”
A version of this article ran in MOJO’s December 2001 issue. The one with Michael Jackson on the cover. That version was 6,000 words long. What follows is my original 9200-word draft. Also, you might want to check out “Black Flag: A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance,” a companion piece that I assembled for a special issue of the LAWeekly — I’ll post it here later. There is a bit of overlap between the two, but not too much. If ever there was a band that deserved multiple histories from different angles, it was this one, I think. Enjoy.
or, Black Flag, 1977-1981.
or, Black Flag: The First Five Years
or, The Making of Hardcore: the problem child of punk rock
by Jay Babcock
“When I first joined Black Flag, I thought I was ready,” Henry Rollins told Mojo recently. “Greg Ginn taught me otherwise.”
During the four years preceding the then-20-year-old Rollins’ entrance as Black
Flag’s fourth singer in midsummer 1981, the proto-hardcore punk rock band had
already become a formidable musical and subcultural force. They’d looped across
North America on epic-length low-budget tours, released a string of full-frontal, open-throttle, dark-humored EPs on their own label, and had become an underground sensation despite ongoing poverty, record industry disinterest, lead singer churn, news media hysteria regarding the violence surrounding the band’s performances and, most ominously, an ever-escalating amount of real-life conflict with local police departments. In those years, Black Flag had perfected a practice-tour-record-24/7/365-Do-It-Yourself work/life ethic that few people — even a young Henry Rollins — were prepared to adopt as their own.
Almost all of the songs on Black Flag’s Damaged — the band’s landmark debut
album released 20 years ago this month — were written by Flag founder-guitarist
Greg Ginn and/or bassist Chuck Dukowski before Rollins joined the band. It’s a
remarkable, uncompromising album. But some would argue that Everything Went Black and The First Four Years — compilations of the band’s earlier recordings featuring vocalists Keith Morris, Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena — may
have been even better.
“In my opinion, the finest Black Flag record is The First Four Years,” Rollins
himself wrote in Get In the Van, his 1994 Black Flag memoir. He still stands by that assessment today: “Greg had great work all through the rest of the Flag
stuff but there’s something special about that early stuff. There wasn’t
anything like it anywhere else. [Singing those songs] was a challenge because
they were all great singers and I didn’t think that I measured up, really. I did
the best I could.”
This is the story behind Black Flag’s first four years: how a group of
self-described “geeky, nerdy beach rats” from Hermosa Beach, California took the
punk rock emanating from New York and the UK and reshaped it into something more
intense and single-minded. Aggressive, furious, desperate and darkly satirical
music. Music completely divorced from fashion moves and art-school pretenses.
Music that almost no one was ready for.
Greg Ginn’s interest in music began relatively late.
Born in 1954, Ginn spent his teenage years in Hermosa Beach, California;
developing a one-kid home business re-tuning radio sets and self-published a
zine for HAM radio enthusiasts.
“I was a pretty serious teenager, I guess,” he laughs. “But I just didn’t like
the whole [local] surfer vibe. It was too much about style and status —’I had my
surfboard shaped by such-and-such a name’, ‘I got these new Hang-10 trunks’ — I
It wasn’t until Ginn got to UCLA, where he was studying economics and business
management, that he got interested in music. He won a copy of David Ackles’
American Gothic – the first record he owned — during a fund drive for a local
folk radio show.
“I wasn’t into popular music growing up,” he says. “I considered it something
insubstantial, an insult to listen to. At UCLA, I’d go to the library and listen
to Gil Scott-Heron, country, blues, classical and jazz, people doing stuff that
you don’t feel insulted listening to. I also saw a lot of good touring jazz and
blues groups. I was never the ‘rock n roll kid.’
Ginn’s younger brother Adrian had an acoustic guitar and a chord book but had
lost interest in it. Ginn, age 19, picked it up and just “started banging on it.
When I first started playing guitar, there wasn’t any punk rock [going on], but
my guitar playing was already very aggressive. I liked to play music that was
more of a physical release, as opposed to a mental exercise. It was a kind of
antidote to studying and that kind of stuff. I was just playing for my own
By the time Ginn finished at UCLA in 1974 (right around the time Iggy Pop was
checking into that school’s Neuropsychiatric Institute for treatment), he was
attending Rodney Bingenheimer’s famous English Disco glam spot and had also
become interested in some of the critically-dismissed hard rock bands
(especially the Stooges) of the era. He was introduced by the proprietor of a
local record store to one of that store’s more out-there employees–and a fellow
Hermosa Beach resident–Keith Morris.
“What was happening in the record store was all the Southern Californian
laidback ‘sip wine, sniff coke, feathered hair’ stuff – the Eagles, Jackson
Browne, the Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac – which I was not into,” remembers Morris. “Greg and I shared the same musical interests — we never discussed jazz or blues, it was always just hard rock. Give me some Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Black Oak Arkansas…We drove in my ’64 red Impala up to the Santa Monica Civic to see Thin Lizzy and Journey.”
Morris had little interest in Hermosa’s beach culture.
“All my friends would get up at 5 in the morning to go out and freeze their
asses off surfing, whereas I would just as soon stay in bed snuggled up and
warm. No interest. I worked at the record store maybe 10 hours a week. I was
also working for my dad at his fish-and-tackle shop. And I was not into that.
I’d developed some really bad habits — drinking, doing drugs, partying.”
Morris eventually went to work for Ginn at his electronics business, now called
SST, and located at a local crafts center called The Church.
“You would get there early in the morning, drink your coffee, take some speed
and sauter wires,” says Morris. “Greg and I had recently started talking about
starting a band. This is in the sperm-meets-egg part of the scenario. I had
expressed interest in playing drums, but I didn’t have a drumkit and I’d never
played drums. I didn’t know that Greg was musically inclined, that he was
sitting at home playing guitar. So one afternoon, we were all just sitting
around, drinking beer, and The Ramones came on the radio. And I did this swan
dive off this desk and landed on the couch, somersaulted, flew off the couch,
landed face-down on the hardwood floor, and jumped back up. Greg just shook his
head and said, ‘You’re not playing drums in this band. You’re singing!'”
While Morris had been following the British punk scene (“I remember buying the
Damned and the Sex Pistols’ first singles and going, ‘Wow, this is some truly
amazing stuff'”), Ginn’s interests lay elsewhere.
“I was a little suspicious of England. I picked up on punk rock from New York
clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, that would let all these different
bands play. The music scene here was so run by the industry that original bands
didn’t play — they showcased. That’s all there was. But soon some of the New
York bands started coming out — the Ramones came out in December ’76 playing
with the Flaming Groovies at The Roxy. That concert may have been the turning
Morris: “For me it was the Ramones, the first three Sex Pistols singles and
early L.A. punk bands like The Germs and X at the Masque [Brendan Mullen’s
infamous punk club, which had opened in June ’77 on Hollywood Blvd.]. These
bands were amazing, each with their own personality. I’d never seen or heard
anything like it before. I thought, I want to be a part of this.”
With a set of fast, brutal, short assault-songs that Ginn had already penned —
including all the tunes that would later be released on the Black Flag’s debut
Nervous Breakdown single — he and Morris spent most of 1977 trying to find a
working rhythm section for their band, then called Panic.
“It was Greg’s baby,” says Morris. “Greg was frustrated. You couldn’t tell it
until he picked up the guitar. This guy’s taking no prisoners. Shoot from the
hip, let all the smoke clear, and THEN ask everybody what their name is. I loved
it. I thought, let’s just throw ourselves into it, deal with the consequences
later. My first instinct whenever we played was to lunge at the mic, attack
it! It was like, ‘This is our chance, let’s go level the forest.'”
Short a bass player, Panic borrowed the services of Gary McDaniel a/k/a Chuck
Dukowski, then bass player for local acid metallers Wurm.
“I’d met Greg when I’d sold him this Marshall cabinet that had reportedly been
played by Ritchie Blackmore or whatever the fuck,” remembers Dukowski. “That’s
how Wurm made money — we bought and sold musical equipment. Eventually in the
summer of ’77 Greg and Keith rented a space down the hall from us. Keith used to
come down to the Wurm practice space on lunch with a six-pack and a quart. And
sometimes he would leave some of it behind, come back after work, and start back
up. I’d never met anyone like this. They didn’t have a bass player so I would
just roll my amp over there and play with them. The songs were cool and Keith
was just great. He was on 24-7, very emotive, little teeny guy. As far out as
Iggy, and not self-conscious.”
Dukowski shared Panic’s passion for aggressive music — and a disdain for what
mainstream hard rock had become.
“By ’77, there was some major suckitude! The Nuge was sucking, Kiss were
sucking, Aerosmith were sucking, Montrose were progressive. AC/DC weren’t big
yet. There was nothing. That’s why punk rock could walk in. It was wide open.”
Egged on by a local rollerskating-guitarist friend named Spot, Panic recorded
eight songs in late-December ’77 at Media Art, a Hermosa Beach studio. The
engineer, Dave Tarling, was overwhelmed.
Morris: “We came in, stacked everything to the ceiling, everything was on 10.
We didn’t know any better. We didn’t know that you could go in the studio and
record at a 2 or 3 and get an amazing sound. Dave was just like, What is this? I
don’t know if he was saying, this is amazing! or what is this shit! And while we
were recording the cover band downstairs was playing at full volume so we had
this competing, our sound versus their sound and the tape rolling. There’s like
a musical ghost on the tape.”
Meanwhile, Wurm had begun to attract attention from the police.
“We’d had some trouble,” says Dukowski, “and we’d lost our cash. We were out of
money and everybody got the flu. There was no food, we were getting mad at each
other. So we decided to break up. The next day, Greg said You wanna make the
Panic thing permanent? I said, Well, sure.”
With interest from local punk/garage label Bomp!, Panic tried to move forward.
But first, Brian Migdoll, the band’s drummer, had to go.
Morris: “Brian would spend his day under Hermosa Pier just out of his mind,
picking up chicks, pulling some kind of scam, or selling drugs to his friends,
which included us. He was so flaky that we weren’t even rehearsing.”
Ginn placed ads in the local papers and around town. Roberto Julio Valverde, a
Colombian national living in El Segundo, saw one.
Valverde: “I was practicing everyday in my apartment after work, thinking, Hey
it’d be nice if I could get in a rock n roll band. Then I saw an ad. “Band from
the South Bay…Panic looking for a drummer. Into Ramones, Sex Pistols”. And I
say, Hey I like that.”
Morris: “We auditioned him and it was like, We don’t need to go any further. He
set up his drumkit, all the drums were level, all the cymbals were level, and he
had this real almost robotic drum style. It wasn’t a wrist thing, a loose thing.
It was all arms. Everything was so stiff. You put robot and Roberto together and
you get…Robo! Plus he had amazing cocaine. We were fortunate.” (Robo also had
a clear drumkit that matched Ginn’s clear Dan Armstrong guitar. A nice
Dez: “There was a lot of mystery about Robo. He was supposedly a general in the
Colombian army. Robo would never tell us his age, exactly. He would never tell
us exactly how he got into this country. Our theory was that he SWAM here.”
Robo, who today claims he was in the U.S. for several years on a student visa
and working at a plastics factory, was overjoyed.
“It was right up my alley. It was fast rock, hard, and I loved it! I didn’t
care too much about the lyrics, cuz I never cared too much about lyrics to any
kind of music. I like music.”
The band also realized a name change was necessary: ‘Panic’ certainly fitted the band’s musical approach, but it was also a name that other bands were using. Ginn’s younger brother Raymond a/k/a “Raymond Pettibon,” suggested several names
to the band. One stood out immediately: Black Flag.
Dukowski: “I said, I really like that name. It’s got the political kind of
anarchist fuck-all-y’all thing, it’s got the Black Flag bug spray thing. [a
popular product whose adverts featured a narrator solemnly intoning ‘Black Flag
kills ants DEAD.’], and it just sounds tough — like Black Sabbath.”
(Dukowski had already given himself a ‘tough’ name, inspired by a Zippo
cigarette lighter — with the inscription “Chuck the Duke” — that he’d found while
scrounging for quarters. He added the name “Dukowski” because, he says, “I
wanted to be on the one hand this regular kinda macho working guy — “Chuck the
Duke” — but the same time be from a people — Polish — that got picked on. It was
kind of the punk thing of being self-effacing, making fun of myself. It helped
me. It made it easy for me to be bigger.”)
Bomp, a San Fernando Valley garage-rock label that had expressed interest in
releasing a Black Flag single, had been going through cash-flow problems for
more than six months. Around Christmas ’78, Ginn pressed up 2,000 copies of the
four-song, five-minute Nervous Breakdown EP at a cost of $1,000. The garish
cover was by Pettibon, whose artwork and lettering would be featured on almost
all of Black Flag’s releases, as well as those of other SST artists like the
Ginn: “I wasn’t looking forward to putting out records myself, because I felt
that I had my hands full between working my business and trying to play. So it
was kind of by default: ‘I can do this…so, I’ll do it.’”
Unable to get a gig anywhere — Morris: “Hollywood was basically a big
fashion-conscious clique and we weren’t part of it” — the band decided to book a
late-January ’79 afternoon at a Moose Lodge (a small recreational hall for
military veterans) in Redondo Beach and put on a show themselves.
Ginn: “There was an underground of rock bands in L.A. in ’74, ’75 — before
punk rock. The Alleycats, the Last, the Dogs, the New Order. Those bands were
playing outside of the put-on-a-stage-show, wear-costumes, showcase-for-the-label thing. They’d rent halls, do flyers. They would just keep plugging away, to very limited success. I really picked up on the kind of work ethic those bands had.”
Although the Moose Lodge show attracted at most 100 people, it was a success
for the band – and a harbinger of troubles to come.
Morris: “I was completely out of my mind. Two or three nights prior we’d
partied with the Ramones, the Dickies and [legendary Germs singer] Darby Crash
at the Tropicana. Before the show, I’d given myself a skinhead haircut.
Somewhere towards the end of our first set, I started swinging like Tarzan from
these big flags on the sides of the stage — the American flag and their own big
satin flag that one of their wives had sewn for them. These geriatric veterans
from World War I and World War II didn’t take too kindly to that, so there were
like forty senior citizens chasing me around the Moose Lodge. Finally I evaded
them by slipping out into the parking lot. I put this black wig on, walked back
in and did a second set. They didn’t even know who I was. And right in the
middle of this whole pack of kids and fans stood Rodney Bingenheimer and [Dead
Boys singer] Stiv Bators.”
Rodney Bingenheimer: “It was pretty wild. I thought they were the American Sex
Pistols — they had that same energy, kind of the same sound.”
Morris gave Bingenheimer the band’s new record and he immediately began playing
it on his influential Sunday night radio show on KROQ.
However, it wasn’t until six months later that Black Flag started receiving
serious press. A June performance at a San Fernando Valley folkie speakeasy
resulted in immediate chaos (flying chairs, etc.), cancellation of the band’s
future gigs at the club and a glowing, prescient review in local punk rock
monthly Slash: “For the fifteen song twenty minute set nothing stood in Black
Flag’s way…. A truly impressive debut: volatile, angry…. See them before
they get banned.”
Black Flag had begun to infiltrate Hollywood.
Brendan Mullen, owner-operator of legendary Hollywood punk club The Masque:
“Keith was a fantastic frontman with great pipes, always with the Budweiser can
in one hand. He brought this rockin’ spirit to it. The sound was massive,
gigantic! I was upstairs in a dressing room once when they were playing and all
our beer glasses and bottles were rattling on the table — it was like an LA earth
tremor. I went downstairs and witnessed the heaviest metal experience of my
Black Flag played a string of shows in Los Angeles that summer, including the
Masque’s final show before it was shut down. But it was a Sunday afternoon
concert in Manhattan Beach’s Polliwog Park in July ’79 that sealed the band’s
Morris: “The US Air Force Orchestra was originally scheduled to play, and they
couldn’t make it. They needed a band to fill in. Hey, who better than us? Greg
had persuaded the guy from Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation that we had some
Fleetwood Mac songs in our set.”
Ginn: “I’d been talking to that guy for months. ‘Well, it’s got a little bit of
jazz, but it’s rock.” And I kept promising to give him a tape of our music, but
I knew I couldn’t do that because he would never have let us play. So he thought
it was just some ordinary rock with a little edge.”
Morris: “There’s like 20 dozen picnicking families there — all these pastel
colors, an Easter basket spread out across the park, and all of a sudden there’s
this line of leather-clad, torn Levis, black t-shirts, spiky dyed hair guys
coming in: surf rats, skaters, skiers, a sprinkling of druggie friends… I’m
totally out of my mind one more time. I eventually pass out under a car.
Somebody reaches under the car, drags me up, slaps me a couple of times, says
‘Here’s a beer, get up and sing.’ The first thing I remember saying is, ‘We’re
loud, and if you don’t like that, you can go watch Walt Disney.’ Then we
launched into our set, and for ten minutes it rained orange peels, cantaloupes,
half-eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken drumsticks. Robo actually got hit in the side
of the head by a half-eaten watermelon. Our man from the Parks and Recreation
Dept said ‘No no no no. You guys have to stop!'”
Dukowski: “It was fun. Sandwiches were just flying by — I remember reaching
down, picking one up one that landed at my feet and eating it. You know, ‘Thank
Ginn: “We weren’t trying to provoke or attack anyone — that’s what machine guns
are for. I felt like the music was valuable for people to experience, whether
they liked it or not. They would GAIN something just by being exposed to
it — they would understand that this kind of emotion of exists. But that was our
first real education that just our music would make people angry — not angry
because we’d be wasting their time or because it’s too loud, but because they
Black Flag finished their set. Later that week, the Manhattan Beach Recreation
Department’s Special Events Supervisor apologised for the band’s performance in
a press release: “We plan to screen and audition every act from now on…so
nothing like this will ever happen again.”
By late-summer ’79, Black Flag was finally breaking through. Slash profiled the
band in its August issue and made the Nervous Breakdown EP #1 on the “staff favorites” chart. Inspired by unsigned DIY local bands like the Alleycats, the Dogs and the Last, Black Flag had gone to work on the publicity tip. Pettibon, an artist who specialized in bizarre one-panel comic book-style drawings with unsettling captions, had already designed the “Black Flag” logo and a marvelously simple band symbol: an unfurled flag broken vertically in three places so it appeared as four solid black bars: a symbol perfect for tattoos and graffiti.
Morris: “Aw, we had graffiti everywhere–freeway overhangs, underpasses. We were probably the original L.A. taggers.”
Robo: “Greg’s girlfriend Medea used to go to Hollywood with a spray can, and every wall that she saw, she put up the four bars. The police were like, ‘Who the fuck is doing all this four bars everywhere?’”
Pettibon’s artwork was also featured on almost all of Black Flag’s flyers advertising upcoming gigs. The flyers’ menacing content — and their ubiquity on
telephone poles and street walls, thanks to late-night flyering runs by band
members — contributed to the Flag’s growing mystique. Dukowski quit his job as
foreman at a local pool table-manufacturing company and went to work as Ginn‘s
partner in the SST record label.
Dukowski: “I’d seen that this guy built this pool-table place from nothing, and
I had some experience in producing entertainment shows in college, and I had
experience with touring — not as a band, but traveling and being self-sustaining
on the road for months at a time. I said, ‘Okay, I got time and energy, I wanna
make it work, because soon my savings will run out.’ We put these packages
together to attract audiences from different parts of the city — a group from
here, a group from here — and promoted the hell out of it. And it worked.”
Black Flag were getting regular gigs in L.A., playing shows in San Francisco at the invitation of the Dead Kennedys, and started to attract youths from Orange County — which, 20 miles down the coast, was developing a hyper-violent scene around hardcore punk bands like TSOL and Agent Orange — to the free gigs they would hold at parties inside The Church. But simultaneously, Black Flag began to receive the kind of attention they didn’t want at all.
Dukowski: “I had bought this old ’64 Ford Econoline window van, had it rebuilt,
all slicked out so we could use it for tours. It was parked at my house. It had
Black Flag and a million other band names written all over it. I’d drive down
the alley, and the Hermosa cops would just pull me over and harass me — they‘d
take my car keys back to the station. I’d be five or six blocks away, I’d have
to walk back to the station and get my keys from them, then walk back up. A
policeman in Harbor City once told me, ‘There’s a stack of law books from here
to the beach’ — we were 10 miles from the beach. ‘I can do anything I want.’
That’s what the cop told me. They basically made my life difficult for me. I
wanted out of Hermosa, really, cuz it was too difficult to exist.”
Around the same time, Ginn was arrested by the Redondo Beach cops during one of
the band’s flyering missions. Following a court appearance he was convicted and
fined. Ginn and Dukowski left the courthouse and walked directly over to the
Redondo Beach police station, and, in broad daylight, spraypainted the band’s
name and the four bars on the station’s wall.
Morris: “Hermosa Beach was a very conservative little community. They had tried
to run people out of town for years: hippies, radicals, drug dealers. They
considered us anarchists and terrorists – like we were building a nuclear device
in our rehearsal space.”
Which, in a sense, they were. The songs recorded at Media Art in October ’79
included Revenge, Depression, Clocked In and Police Story, which sported the
lyrics “Understand/This is war/They hate us/we hate them/we can’t win.” The
songs were brutal, aggressive: fast-motion demolition. The sound of a band ready
Immediately after the two-day sessions, Morris was gone.
Ginn: “Keith wanted out of the band because it was impinging on his party
Morris: “In the beginning I was like, Well I love your lyrics, I can relate,
I’m totally into this. But now, when I tried to introduce some of my lyrics the
songs just weren’t happening. And I’d become pretty much like a monkey let to
run loose. I was doing a lot of obnoxious things. Things that I thought were
very clever at the time, soaked in alcohol, freaking out on cocaine and speed.
One time while Greg was talking to some record company guy, I went around behind
them, unzipped my pants and urinated on the backs of this guy’s legs. I’d run my
course. Even Robo wouldn’t side with me anymore. In an inebriated state of mind
I said, Fuck this, I’m outta here.”
Barely missing a beat, Black Flag found a new singer: Ron Reyes, a teenage
Kiss-loving streetkid of Puerto Rican heritage who had been following the band
since before its show at the Moose Lodge. He knew all the songs, and could leave
immediately on a tour up to Vancouver — the band’s first all the way up the West
On returning to the South Bay, the Flag did some more studio recordings, played
a number of gigs and appeared in Penelope Spheeris’ L.A. punk doc The Decline
of Western Civilization. They were filmed inside their rehearsal space at the
Church — Reyes was now living in the room’s closet. On screen, he talks about his
$16-a-month rent while a drunk Dukowski gives deadpan, sarcastic answers to the
interviewer’s questions. The band’s live performances of Depression, the
satirical White Minority, and a ferocious Revenge (dedicated to the LAPD, who
had jailed the band just nights before during a noise dispute at a small club)
Things were going relatively well until March 1980, when Reyes quit the band
mid-show at the Fleetwood in Redondo Beach.
Robo: “This was at the beginning of the Orange County punk explosion. The
surfers cut off their hair and turned into punks. And they were fucking maniacs!
Crazier than hell. The Hollywood punk was a totally different animal, into drugs
and getting drunk, liking the Sex Pistols. But the surf punks — these guys were
insane. At the show, they’d start going in circles, punching each other — one
big dancefloor brawl. That was invented by the surf punks. Every fucking high
school had hundreds of them. And that crowd liked us, and would come to our
shows at the Fleetwood. Well, Ron had met a girl on the road and brought her
back to L.A., and at this show she got into the middle of that shit! She got
pushed around, and Ron didn’t like it! He took off with that girl, went back to
Vancouver and left us in the middle of everything.”
Dukowski: “Ron was living too hard — he was drinking a lot — and trying to be a
vegetarian too. He freaked out.”
Ginn: “Ron wanted to get out of LA. It was like pulling teeth to get him to go
in the studio. I think he wanted to go out in dramatic style, leave us up there
on stage, like, ‘I’ve quit and look, they’re still trying to figure out what’s
going on!’ But we just started playing Louie Louie and inviting people from the
audience up to sing. It turned into something that was a lot of fun.”
It took Black Flag another five months before they picked out a permanent
replacement for Reyes: 19-year-old Dez Cadena, an old friend of Reyes who had
followed the band since its inception and was currently playing guitar with Red
Robo: “Dez fit right in — he was a skinny guy, but he really kicked it out. So
we start lining up shows. Hollywood, Orange County, South Bay, East LA. Punk
rock was spreading like wildfire.”
The other reason the band was booking shows outside of Hollywood was that Slash
magazine’s prophecy was coming true: Black Flag were getting banned. Hardcore
was turning out to be punk rock’s problem child: clubs were intimidated by any
band that had a young, rowdy audience. Making matters worse was a large feature
article in the Los Angeles Times on June 29, 1980. Entitled “Violence Sneaks
Into Punk Scene” the piece argued that bands like Black Flag were to blame for
their audience’s unruly behavior.
Ginn: “It tied Black Flag and violence together which I thought was not at all
appropriate. I thought, you have more problems at some heavy metal show with a
bunch of drunks.”
Dukowski: “We were pouring our aggression into the music — we were NOT acting
it out, we were channeling it. We worked to try to create an environment where
the right things could happen and there was security. But what can you do when
violence breaks out? Stop the show every second? If you go to a Black Flag show
and you’re wearing your Genesis t-shirt and you’re screaming ‘Punk rock is bunk
squawk!’ then you’re gonna get yourself beat up! The people who were part of the
old rock culture were trying to beat up the young kids. And then eventually the
more aggressive elements of the punk rock crowd fought back as a gang and took
those people down.”
Ginn: “People thought that it was great publicity, but anytime you’re
misrepresented it’s gonna hurt you. Before the media attention, it was more
intellectuals and other thinking people involved. There was pogoing, but not
slamming — not this mindless kind of a thing. After that, every interview
[afterwards] was ‘What about the violence?’”
Dukowski: “It probably hurt us. We can say now that we could have been bigger
without it — that without that stigma, we would have been allowed into the
mainstream. On the other side of the coin, people were talking, weren’t they?”
Punk rock violence hit home when the band journeyed up the West Coast again,
this time with new singer Cadena in tow. Arriving in Vancouver they were greeted
by an irate Ron Reyes. He was not happy.
Dez Cadena: “People had warned me to stay away from Ron because they said he
was a little bit angry.’ We thought he was happy in Vancouver, he was playing in
bands up there, so…? I was passing out flyers at a gig and Ron came running up
out of nowhere and hit me in the head with a brick. The brick just crumbled. I
don’t know what it was made out of. I didn’t want to fight him, but he was
throwing punches, and he was really, really drunk. Someone finally pulled him
away. I was like, What the heck happened? Eventually I figured it out. Well,
he’s probably mad at me for not going to see him while he was in Black Flag.
When he joined Black Flag, I didn’t like it. I was excited for him, but I just
preferred Keith. So I didn’t go to a lot of the shows. And he probably thought
that us being close friends, I should’ve helped support him more…”
The tour had already begun eventfully (and predictably) — with a final
concert/party at the Church that ended with the band hightailing it out of town
in Dukowski’s Econoline as, right on schedule, police from three South Bay
suburbs descended on the party.
Cadena: “By this time the police were following Chuck everywhere, and he said,
Okay we’ll get those cops. And for their little egos, we’ll make it even seem
like they kicked us out. [laughs] And that’s what they wrote in the papers:
‘Cops Kick Black Flag Out.’ WRONG! We had everything already moved out of the
Church to a place in Torrance. We had the van packed for the tour. This was our
idea: Throw one last party — but invite Orange County. Because we knew that the
kids in Orange County were very militaristic and they’d probably end up fucking
shit up. All we had to do was load our amplifiers and get out. But on the way
out, one of the cops got a hold of Dukowski and says, If I ever see you here
again, you’re either going to jail or the hospital–or both.”
The band returned to Southern California in late summer, and booked a series of
shows nicknamed ‘creepy crawls’ after the term used by the Manson Family for
their midnight raids on the Los Angeles rich. The Raymond Pettibon-designed
flyers for these gigs were particularly intense — one for an October ’80 show at
the Whiskey featured a blonde girl warning an X-carved-between-the-eyebrows
Charles Manson, ‘You better be good, Charlie. It wasn’t easy getting in here you
Dukowski: “That was compelling, very potent kind of iconography Raymond pulled
out, and really, pretty revolutionary at the time. It’s like, Okay you wanna get
confrontational with that generation? Step up with something like that and
people freak out. And even though the guy’s got long hair, the punk audience
accepted the images and their power.”
That Whiskey show — one the band had worked hard to get, having never played a
club on the famous Sunset Strip — was a fiasco. Just two weeks before Black
Flag’s performance at the Hewitt Street Hideaway had ended with hundreds of LAPD
cops chasing the overflow crowd out of the venue and through downtown streets.
At the Whiskey, an actual mini-riot on the Sunset Strip occurred when L.A.
County sheriffs ordered ticket-holding Black Flag fans to leave before the
band’s second show of the night started. Bottles, of course, were thrown.
Glen Friedman, photographer: “All of a sudden the Sunset Strip was closed off.
Cops were beating the fuck out of kids. They put their faces into the ground,
handcuffed them to newspaper vending machines on the sidewalk. That shit was
The band’s second (sold-out) show of the night was cancelled. Rodney
Bingenheimer put Black Flag fans on the air, complaining about the police. The
venue’s manager — who told the Los Angeles Times that “it wasn’t really a riot
until the police showed up” — was fired, and the Whisky cancelled its other
upcoming punk rock shows. The band began to run cop-baiting Flag radio
commercials (“Attention all units! Chief Gates is in an uproar!”), while in the
LAWeekly, music gossip columnist Pleasant Gehman cautioned, “[F]ans of bands
with ‘reputations’ like Fear, China White, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, etc: if
you want to continue seeing these bands, then you as an audience have to shape
up. The violence is going too far when every gig turns into a riot.”
Black Flag were becoming frustrated. They had a big Friday night show coming up
at Baces Hall in East Hollywood, just 16 days after the Whisky fiasco.
Dukowski: “We were figuring that our one protection from the police was to
bring the media out. The media will expose everything. We’d just been through
two shows that had been disasters. So this was the third one up, and we were
concerned. So we were working the publicity on that.”
Ginn: “We wanted to play music. We practiced five or six nights a week to
play, not to have our gigs stopped by the cops.”
Dukowski: “Sure enough when we showed up for soundcheck, the cops already had
their command post set up in the market parking lot across the street. They had
helicopters already circling the whole time we were loading in and setting it
up. They were just looking for any excuse to jump on that shit. Nothing rough
was going on inside in terms of malicious violence, but BOOM there they are, the
police. They came in and they copied their strategies from the Romans and busted
with the phalanx. I didn’t stop playing. Why? You know they’re gonna turn the
damn shit off anyway. I said, Fuck this. We didn’t stop. And I don’t think we
should have stopped.”
Ginn: “That show is when the cops started to really get aggressive. Now they
were even beating women.”
Camera crews from the late-night NBC talk show Tomorrow captured footage of
the band’s performance — as well as LAPD cops in riot gear entering the venue and
later charging across Sunset Boulevard at Flag fans who were sarcastically Sieg
Heiling the officers. A mohawked Chuck Dukowski appeared on the show, patiently
explaining to a truly puzzled Rona Barrett that that Black Flag was not part of
the white supremacist movement and it was the LAPD who were the Nazis. It would
be the first of many appearances that Ginn and the ever-quotable Dukowski — “I’m
not a part of the everyday American society. In fact, I do my damnedest to tear
it down,” he told one interviewer — would make in the regional and national media
during the next few months as conflicts with the police continued at Black Flag
and other punk rock shows in Southern California.
After a January ‘81 Black Flag show in Crenshaw ended in $4,000 in damages to
the venue, a melee between bottle-throwing fans and baton-wielding cops, and one
LAPD motorcycle officer being slightly injured after being struck by a car,
Dukowski complained to the Los Angeles Times, “The cops call up every club we
play and try to discourage them from booking us. They even told a TV documentary
team that if they showed up at one of gigs, they’d all be killed.” The LAWeekly
speculated in that the LAPD had some sort of punk rock blacklist going on.
Even at home, the band couldn’t escape the police.
Ginn, chuckling: “We moved to Redondo from Hermosa to escape the cops — and it
turned out our new landlord was a Hermosa cop! We didn’t know that at first. He
was really nuts. He came in one day, he didn’t like some little thing — he pulled
out his gun and waved it around. When we moved to Torrance, we saw we were under
surveillance — there were the undercovers down the street in a really obvious
unmarked car. They had tracked us from city to city. One time they followed our
van to our distributor and wanted to inspect the boxes of records that we
delivered. Unbelievable. They must have wasted thousands of dollars on this
Dukowski: “The most threatening it ever got, when we were actually looking down
the barrel, is when we showed up at La Mirada High School and they wouldn‘t let
us play. I had just gotten of the phone with the school’s guy an hour earlier
and he’d confirmed the gig. We get there and the guy’s saying, ‘We couldn’t
reach you, we called your agent’ and blablabla. I said ‘That agent was me, dude.
You confirmed, and you’re a lying sack of shit.’ Greg threw a cup of coffee at
him and they called the cops. Greg got it for assault.”
Black Flag toured the U.S. three times in nine months spanning ’80-’81.
Dukowski: “If you’re only making 50-100 bucks every time you play, you need to
play every night. And the only way to play a show every night was to tour.”
Touring was not easy. The shows the band had booked were often with unknown
promoters at questionable venues on hearsay information passed to them by other
touring punk bands like San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys and Vancouver’s D.O.A.;
and the band was making very little money. Members got by on five-dollar per
diems — if there was any money at all.
Brendan Mullen: “They would get in the van, head towards some venue in the
middle of nowhere, many times without even a contract or any minimum guarantee,
with no accommodations planned. No advancing, no tour manager arranging things
ahead of time. And don’t forget, this is a continent 3,000 miles wide.”
Glen Friedman: “Black Flag went into every crevice, played everywhere they
possibly could. They broke open territories where they were no bands before.
People got to see them play and it fired them up to start bands. They saw that
these guys came all the way from California, that you don’t have to play big
fancy venues, you can play in a little bullshit club and make it something cool
for one night a month.”
Robo: “We were not into rock star shit. We only wanted a bright white light on
us so we could see each other and people could see us. None of this nonsense
bullshit of fog and smoke and lights and dimmed lights. No costumes, no
gimmicks…just straight-out music — and passion. If there’s a drum riser on the
stage, get it off! We want a carpet and a white light — we don’t need nothing
else! We set up our own instruments, we only had one roadie. We all did it
Krist Novoselic (Nirvana bassist): “It was pre-Internet, right? How do you as a
band reach these remote places? Do you get there in major glossy monthly
magazines? Obviously not. You had to go out there and do it. Black Flag coming
to your town was like an affront to popular culture–‘We’re gonna come and get
your children in a Raymond Pettibon kind of way! In your own backyard, with X’s
between our eyebrows.’”
As the band grew a following beyond the West Coast, the police harassment grew
Dukowski: “It got more calculated. It went national. It went to the point where
if you booked either a school or a city-owned venue, chances were good that it
would be called off. The PD here called up the PD there and they checked up
their bulletins and they would pull the plug on us. It made the Hermosa Beach
police harassment look like kids’ stuff.”
The band sold its records at shows and via mail orders to SST’s post office box
— an address that never changed, despite the band having to move from city to
city. Sometimes the mail-order money was the band members’ sole source of
income. To encourage retailers to order Black Flag records from the band’s
distributors, band members would pose as fans and call stores across the
country, requesting the band’s forthcoming record.
Dukowski: “Brendan Mullen gave us a phone-card number; someone at U.S. Sprint
had given it to him and said to have at it. So I was on the phone from 9 in the
morning until 11 at night. We’d sleep on the floor, wake up with the sun. We’d
get the mail order money in the morning and go spend it on food. Mr. Ginn
[Greg’s father] would bring down a few sandwiches and feed us, pretty much every
day. And he’d bring us a load of clothes that he’d found at thrift stores.”
Ginn: “He would take these preppy shirts and put the four bars on them with a
marker. For tour, we’d have a bag of these clothes, and as the tour went on,
you’d just pull a new shirt out of the bag.
“We would all have been miserable doing a 9-to-5 thing,” says Dez Cadena, the
band’s third singer and second guitarist. “We figured the only way for us to do
music would be to do it on our own. That also meant that we had to be like the
Manson family and just all live together.”
Robo: “It was a hard life, but we all could do it because none of us were
married. As long as there was floor space to sleep on and a sandwich here and
there, it was okay with me.”
In 1981, Black Flag released the Reyes-fronted Jealous Again EP, and, with
Cadena as singer, the Six Pack EP, the “Louie Louie”/”Machine” single. (Two
other Cadena-fronted songs — “Machine” and “Clocked In” — appeared on
The Jealous Again EP featured still another Flag vocalist: Chuck Dukowski,
ranting his way through “You Bet We’ve Got Something Personal Against You!,” an
invective directed against the band’s former singers that used the same music as
“I Don‘t Care,” which Keith Morris had written the lyrics for. Morris had
remained a sore spot to Black Flag: Not only had Morris been badmouthing the
band in the press and taken the Ginn-written music to “I Don’t Care” to his new
band, but the Flag suspected he was the person who had been going around town
spraypainting over the Black Flag graffiti with the name of his new band, The
Circle Jerks. (Morris claims today that the graffiti culprit wasn’t him — it
was probably Jerks bassist/”nonstop knucklehead” Roger Rogerson.) Ron Reyes, who
in addition to assaulting Cadena had also smashed the Flag van’s windshield and
alerted the Canadian border authorities to the band’s lack of work permits (thus
preventing them from playing their final Canadian show of the tour), was not
only verbally targeted in the song but had his name changed to “Chavo
Pederast” — a Pettibon-supplied appellation — on Jealous Again’s sleeve.
“We didn’t want to give him credit cause he wanted to tear us down,” says
Dukowski. “You know? Fuck that schmuck.”
That summer, despite being a long way from the guff (REO Speedwagon, Styx,
Loverboy) clogging the airwaves and the record charts, Black Flag played to the
largest crowds of its career, including a headlining date at the 3,500-capacity
Santa Monica Civic.
Black Flag’s music — both on record and in live performanc — had grown more
powerful: even as the not-quite-getting-it Village Voice critic Robert Christgau
awarded the Jealous Again record a B grade, calling it “as arty as No Wave” and without melody or hook, he admitted the band’s sound was “extreme and unique,
all forced rhythm and guitar blur with no ingratiating distractions.” Black
Flag’s sound was unique: Ginn’s guitar playing had a standard sense of rhythm
but was filled with strange accents — he played so ferociously that he had to
duct-tape his headphones to his head in the studio so they wouldn‘t fly off
while he was recording his parts. Robo’s drumming tried to match Ginn by using
somewhat Latin-derivative hi-hat drum patterns built in groups of threes, as
well as cymbal accents on all the chord changes. Dukowski’s bass playing,
meanwhile, managed to be simultaneously steady and stun-punching. (He says
today, “One note that communicates is worth more than a million notes that
don’t. It’s not like diddlediddledidle” — making an air guitar toward the sky —
The mainstream, with the notable exception of the Los Angeles Times and a
certain cast member of Saturday Night Live (John Belushi), was generally
repulsed. Rolling Stone was especially hostile, with unlikely-named feature
writer Woody Hochswender dismissing Black Flag and other L.A. punk bands as
little more than “fast hard-driving bands with whining textures [who] cry out
that the air is bad, America is materialistic, Rodeo Drive stinks, love
Meanwhile, the band’s constant touring was taking a physical toll. Robo was
losing so much weight that he returned to eating meat after being a vegetarian
for eight years, and Cadena’s distinctively cigarette-hoarse voice was regularly
Ginn: “Dez’s voice got ragged from having to sing with a bad monitor system,
laryngitis, stuff like that, to the point that it wasn’t clear. I felt like we
were doing shows and we weren’t getting across. A lot of the set was new
material and the audience didn‘t already know the words. It was important to try
to get across what we’re doing. Otherwise, why are we doing this?”
When Ginn and Dukowski suggested to Cadena that he step aside for another
singer, he was pleased.
“I was happy to be in that band, but being the singer wasn’t my persona,” says
Cadena. “I’d been wanting to play guitar. Greg and Chuck knew that my heart
wasn’t totally in it.”
Cadena stepped over to second guitar and the band got a new vocalist: a
20-year-old former skateboarder who was working in a Washington, DC Haagen Daz
ice cream store and singer for minor DC hardcore band SOA. His name was Henry
Rollins (nee Garfield), and he was a giant Black Flag fan.
“Black Flag were my favorite non-DC band around 1980,” he says today. “I had
never heard anyone play guitar like Greg Ginn before, his sound and approach is
totally unique. I saw them play at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City in
spring of 1980 and then in DC and they were great. I had never seen anyone get a
crowd going like that. At the NYC show, Chuck came out before the rest of the
band and started walking around the stage making all kinds of fucked sounds on
his bass and yelling stuff and it made me want to kill people. They opened with
‘I’ve Heard It Before’ and I went nuts.
Rollins had become pals with Dukowski via mail and telephone. When it came time
to look for a new singer, Ginn and Dukowski once again looked to their fans —
says Ginn: “We all came from the audience, everybody in the band was always more
of a rock fan than a rock star” — and Rollins’ name naturally came up. Rollins
accepted, quit his job, and appearing onstage only during the encores, traveled
with the band for the rest of their tour back home.
Except there was no “home” now. The morning after Black Flag had left Torrance
in a three-day gallop to New Jersey for the tour’s start, the police had
descended on SST headquarters, which doubled for their living space.
Mike Watt, Minuteman bassist and an employee of SST Electronics at the time
was there with Spot when the cops, who had kept the band under 24-hour
surveillance, came knocking.
“I guess they thought ‘the tour’ was code for a big drug shipment,” Watt says.
“They tore the place apart and of course found nothing cuz there was nothing to
find. Tons of cops, even the boss: he said I was the ‘brains’ of the operation.
This was crazy. I was summoned to court and had to appear four times, even got
assigned a public defender. Finally, Greg and his pop came in and the judge
settled it in his office. There was a zoning violation cuz Spot slept in the
attic. Fifty dollars in court charges.”
Dukowski: “They told us never to come back blah blah blah. So when we came back
from the tour we moved our stuff into some storage place, and went to live with
some people we knew in a house in Koreatown. We conducted our business on a bank
of pay phones at the corner of Wilshire and Western. I’d tell people to call me
at that number, cuz I was there every day.”
Rollins was learning firsthand just what it meant to be in Black Flag: “I had
worked hard all my life or so I thought but nothing like this. I didn’t understand what it took to be in a really good band. I didn’t know that it took an insane amount of effort and dedication. I learned this from Greg and Chuck and it was an intense wake-up call. There was a very heavy mindset that went past the music. Greg and Chuck told me things. I was younger than they were and immature, so some of it I got and some of it I didn’t. The police experience in DC was getting told to get your skateboard off the street. The experience in California was to be intimidated, threatened and made to feel terrified and powerless. Whenever there was a sheriff at the door, whenever there was a hassle, it was usually Greg who had to deal with it. The guy had balls of steel.”
Though Black Flag was now homeless, it was, as always, not without a practice
space — “A lot of times we didn’t have a place to live, but we always had a place
to practice. Working on the music was always the beginning and end of it for
us,” says Ginn — and the practicing remained a six-day-a-week affair.
“You do that many hours of practice, you get good,” says Rollins. “Sometimes it felt excessive, but…after about a month of solid practice we played the first full set with me singing. I was nervous, mostly because all these skinhead guys had found out who I was and told me that if I wasn’t good they were going to kill me. We started playing the first set and I could see how all the practice had paid off and that Greg was right.”
The band moved in next door to a new practice space in West Hollywood, next door to a recording studio. With a huge backlog of songs, the Flag decided to make a complete album with Rollins on vocals and scrap the recordings of the same songs made with previous singers. (Those recordings would later surface on the Everything Went Black compilation.) Working quickly with a $8,500 budget, the band knocked out Damaged in less than three weeks.
Rollins fit in well.
“Henry was easy,” says Dukowski. “Henry was a quick study. When you told him to
reach down deeper and give you more, he did it. He was really good.”
Damaged can’t help but be a summary of an era, a mindset, and a specific set
of experiences. The songs’ blunt lyrics document a continuing conflict with
police (Police Story), disdain for a sensationalistic media (Rise Above),
dissatisfaction with a mainstream society perceived as drugged and mindless
(Spray Paint, No More, Six Pack and the pop-punk novelty hit TV Party, which
featured radio-friendly handclaps and some call-and-response vocals), and a
growing amount of paranoia, anxiety and depression (the rest of the album) that
doesn‘t seem far removed from the band‘s four-year history. But it’s hearing the
sound of Black Flag on Damaged — very fast, very heavy, very raw, and yet
somehow very disciplined — that gets at the band’s sheer fury and frustration quicker than any cursory reading of the lyric sheet. There’s no delivery on Damaged — just impact.
Dukowski: “You‘re feeling these intense emotions, you’re trying to sing from
your heart and sing for yourself and for anyone who feels similarly. I’m going
‘Yeah, it feels good to fuck this shit up. I don’t fit in. I better fuck this
shit up. I better open up just a little crack, so maybe there’s a little more
room for people. Push the line back a little. Maybe only some. But try to
push it back. And I think we did connect.”
Ginn: “We had songs about the police, but they were always about specific
incidents. I didn’t see Black Flag as a ‘political band.’ Not that I was trying
to stay away from it, I just didn’t see that as our strength. I saw our strength
more as a kind of emotional type of band.”
What was it like for the new guy?
Rollins: “Dukowski was coming from a very Nietzsche-esque angle and Greg was
writing the memorable chorus stuff. The mix was amazing.
“It was getting to sing the best songs you’d ever heard.”
Special thanks to Richard Pleuger, Ian MacKaye, Falling James, Dave Markey, Jon
Quittner, Punk Planet, Brendan Mullen, Mike Watt, Krist Novoselic, Patrick
Goldstein, Kristine McKenna, Chris D, Joe Carducci, Mugger, Billy Stevenson,