A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance
How L.A.’s hardcore pioneers BLACK FLAG made it through their early years
by Jay Babcock
Originally published in the June 28, 2001 LAWeekly
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 mid-show, 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.”