THEIR WAR: Black Flag, the First Five Years

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. 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. —Jay Babcock

THEIR WAR
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 memoirs. 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 wasn’t interested.”

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 pleasure.”

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 point.”

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 coincidence.)

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 Minutemen.

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 40 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 life.”

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 notoriety.

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 Department 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 you!'”

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 thought ‘This…isn’t…_right_.’”

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 to explode.

Immediately after the two-day sessions, Morris was gone.

Ginn: “Keith wanted out of the band because it was impinging on his party scene.”

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 Coast.

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) are blistering.

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 Cross.

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 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 know.’

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 nuts.”

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 stuff.”

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
ourselves.”

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’sbetween our eyebrows.’”

As the band grew a following beyond the West Coast, the police harassment grew worse.

Dukowsi: “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 compilations.)

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 performance–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–“it’s like…BAM!”)

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
sucks…”

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 giving out.

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,” he 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, David Gershwin.

One thought on “THEIR WAR: Black Flag, the First Five Years

  1. 1st show finishes and the line for the 2nd show is taking up the whole sidewalk. so the crowd overflows into the street blocking one of the lanes on Sunset. A lone police cruiser pulls up and tells everyone to get up on the curb. a glass bottle then goes up into the sky and lands perfectly on the patrol cars hood. Police cruiser pulls out but not for long. he is soon back with a few reinforcements…..
    Black Flag riot, Whisky 1980

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