BLACK FLAG: A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance

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:

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CHUCK DUKOWSKI on ALL-AGES SHOWS from the pages of ARTHUR MAGAZINE.

Originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 25 (Dec 02006)

Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part II
By Jay Babcock

For whatever reason, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized the best music events in Los Angeles were missing something really crucial: people under 21. That is, under-21s—let’s call them ‘kids’—are routinely excluded from seeing of-the-moment bands and old masters, in relatively accessible and human-sized settings, at an affordable price. These kinds of shows almost always happen in over-21 bars; or in tiny clubs, in sketchy environs, late on schoolnights. Occasionally they happen in Clear Channel/Live Nation-managed venues—amphitheatres, sports arenas, football fields—but even there it takes heavy change ($65 to see The Mars Volta open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 18,000-capacity Forum?!?), and most of the time all you get is an accountant’s idea of spectacle. Put simply, kids today are deprived of the formative live music experiences that previous generations of human beings—of almost all cultures, from here back to the cave days—experienced as a matter of routine. Music: intimate, intense, performed as something deeper than mere commerce, and received by the community of listeners in the same way.

If music succeeds in connecting to kids today, it is in spite of the music industry, not because of it. How do we know this? Because that’s what some of us have experienced for ourselves, and, more importantly, because that’s what those who came before us tell us—see the comments by blues-jazz scholar/poet/MC5 manager John Sinclair in Part I of this series, published last issue, and see the following conversation with a punk rock legend…

A SESSION WITH CHUCK DUKOWSKI

Chuck Dukowski played bass and wrote several key songs for seminal American punk rock band Black Flag in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Besides being (to quote the writer James Parker) the “attitude engine” of Black Flag, Dukowski played an integral role in the day-to-day operations of California-based SST, the independent record label that was arguably the most artistically and culturally significant label of the ’80s; besides Black Flag, its roster included the minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Opal, Saccharine Trust, Screaming Trees and Soundgarden. Today, Chuck rocks the nation as bassist in the Chuck Dukowski Sextet, an acid rock/freakout four-piece featuring his wife Lora, his son Milo, and legendary L.A. reedsman Lynn Johnston.

Arthur: What were the first shows that you attended?

Chuck Dukowski: The very first ones were giant arena concerts. Long Beach Arena in particular. And then shortly subsequent to that, movie theaters being used as the venues that could hold in the hundreds. You’d see bands like Little Richard, Captain Beefheart, Spirit … bands that weren’t filling the arenas. They were all-ages, no booze involved.

Arthur: Was there a rule about where Black Flag would play?

CD: We tried to play all-ages venues as much as possible. Because ultimately, we could play to 3-4,000 people in all-ages here in Los Angeles as early as 1980. We’d play to that many people, and turn around and play a place with an age limit, and we’d be cutting the audience to 250-300—a huge difference.

Arthur: What about outside of Los Angeles?

CD: In the beginning of my touring in Black Flag in the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, there were quite a few states where the drinking age was 18. And so you’re playing Ohio, where the drinking age is 18, and there’s piles and piles of piles of people there. Once you get to 18, it’s harder to differentiate [laughs], and so things open up. It’s harder to tell the difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old, so they kind of let everybody in who wasn’t obviously young, really young, say, 13. But yeah, if you were 16, you were probably getting in.

Arthur: So they were essentially over-16 shows. Now, when the national drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984, bands had to make a choice about which audience to play to: the over-21 bar scene, or the all-ages situation. And nightclubs could outbid all-ages venues to hire bands, so bands would end up playing there to the degree that they needed—or wanted—the guaranteed money.

CD: I can remember booking artists at SST. The bars would have a small room, 200 people, and be able to offer bands thousands of dollars to be there because they could figure on selling so much alcohol. Booze is the vice, the crack, of the live entertainment world. Look what’s happened to jazz. It’s moved into supper houses. They’re technically all-ages, but those places can be expensive situations to get into, which limits that music’s audience to the people who are affluent enough to become part of that. I think it’s rough for young people to get involved in that. At least the punk rock scene and all the offshoots has some more open-ness and more alternative venues, and anybody can play anything. Places like the Smell and Il Corral in Los Angeles today, where anybody can go and hear all kinds of music too. Ultimately, the more vital music is happening in the more open-ended situations. When I play an all-ages show these days, there’s more people there than if it weren’t all-ages, and they’re more involved and open to what we’re doing. They’re people who are interested in learning new things, not just getting what they had yesterday.

Arthur: But those all-ages venues can only be so big, or be so accessible, before they run into trouble.

CD: It’s a tough game. In my experience, the people who tried to have these all-ages places eventually had troubles. Look at the Vex, who had to move several times. Every time things would start to take off for them, they would start to have troubles with the police, and eventually lose their permits or something like that would happen. They’d get pushed out, or the owner of the building would get pressure from the police or the city, and be told ‘Do something about this, or we’ll do something about it.’

Arthur: Urban clubowners have told me that they are reluctant to make many of their shows all-ages, because you’re setting up underage drinking situations, potential rape situations. I can sorta accept that. But on the other hand, Of course, beer is served at baseball games and there’s ten-year-olds there, too.

CD: Sure. Every restaurant in the city with a liquor license will serve beer to a table where there are underaged people present. We have a 13-year-old daughter and I don’t want to see anything happen to her, but I think she’s got pretty good wits, too. I think you’ve got to give people under 21 a little bit of credit and give them a chance to learn about things. The world’s not Disneyland. Ultimately it’s both better and potentially more real, potentially more dangerous, but the dangers are different. Sure, there’s some weirdos out there. So a kid’s gotta learn how to watch out for the creepy people. At some point you need to trust your kids that they can take care of themselves. And if you’re really worried, you can be there, too! You can party with them!

But yeah, it’s a tough game because you’ve got the people in power who don’t want to have places where young people can get together easily in any numbers, to associate and trade ideas and have some community besides the schools where they’re super-segregated and super-repressed. I remember when Chief Davis, our former police chief, said in an interview, ‘What you need to do is bear down on them when they’re young. You break them like a horse and then you can ride them the rest of their lives.’

Arthur: Whoa.

CD: I think it was Davis, maybe it was his predecessor, but I remember reading that in the damn paper! Motherfuck! It was something that I, on the outside of things, had been thinking was going on, and now I realized that that was what was going on. We’d go do our concert, come outside and see the cops beating up all the people who came to hear us. And they would focus in on the young girls to sort of … well, it was a way to attack the masculinity of the boy she was with, and also attack her sense of safety. It was like that picture of the guy from the Middle Class with that girl and they were all bruised up from that thing over at the MacArthur Park Elks Lodge. They’d bust them all up, breaking legs and arms. Just beating the crap out of people. It was all about keeping people down and showing them who’s boss before they get a chance to feel like they can do something with their lives.

Arthur: What do you think happens to a culture when under-21-year-olds can’t go to a show?

CD: I think it becomes more heartless and more, I don’t know … I think everyone loses. I can remember sitting outside a concert and thinking that it was a mistake for those artists to be missing out on my energy and everybody else’s energy.

You know, about a year and a half ago, I went to a friend’s party where he had these Jarocho musicians playing. The music is from the Veracruz part of Mexico, it’s a kind of music that’s African and indigenous. These groups are made up of extended families. So the whole group of this extended family is performing in different combinations and different groups, from the oldest people to the youngest: everybody’s getting their little cameos, everybody’s playing support to everybody else or taking a moment where they’re the ‘star,’ so to speak. What was interesting to me was the breakdown of the ageism. Everybody was participating in it. I started thinking that this is probably closer to where people are coming from, naturally.

The division by age is probably on purpose. There’s always a desire to divide and pit various groups in the culture against one another, and thereby weaken any chance of people getting together and coming up with alternatives to the governmental infrastructure for holding things together, and the giant corporations and things that hire them. It’s like at school, where they line everybody up by age, and then have them line up by height, or make them learn to march in lines: all of this kind of programming and dividing people up, and ultimately pitting them against one another, is so that they’re easier to control. It’s so much easier to take advantage of somebody who is denied the insights of their forebears. It’s so much easier to take advantage of somebody if they are robbed of the energy of their offspring. I think you need to keep everybody engaged with each other, and then the culture is rich, and has the life and vitality of the whole human family that’s there.