LET'S FACE IT – much of what passes for music in our country is, in fact, nothing more than product, the worthless, soulless result of greed and stupidity. The sights are set low, and the history of rock and roll is awash with things that just don't matter. They don't come from the heart and they don't touch any hearts. They glitter for a minute and are gone. Black Flag is another story.
Perhaps the most vilified, hated and harassed band in recent memory, Black Flag's entire career, virtually, has been circumscribed by how the police and media portray them. Not even the Sex Pistols had such difficulty releasing records and playing live for such a length of time. Many people associate them with a particularly virulent and violent kind of music punk rock. The group's cultural impact outstripped their ability to directly reach people early on, making for some pretty awful artistic assessments and legal complications. Yep, for a while there it seemed like Black Flag had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so much so that no less a publication than BAM once ran an article titled "Black Flag Violence Must Stop."
There are those who insist that Black Flag got the reputation they earned and deserved, and attracted the kind of police attention decent folk better pray is available when the punk rock scum trod the earth in their neighborhoods. Others have defended the group, saying they have no responsibility for the behavior of their audiences, or that they accurately reflect the violence of the times, or that their brand of radical music will smash capitalism, or whatever. And through it all, Black Flag have struggled to be heard. They have not always found anyone willing to listen. So the Black Flag mythology became bigger than reality.
The four current members of Black Flag – guitarist and main songwriter Greg Ginn, bass player Chuck Dukowski, singer Henry Rollins and drummer Bill Stevenson – live and work out of the Redondo Beach headquarters of the label they co-founded, SST Records. Their office/home is a remarkably cluttered environment, full of record boxes, wall posters, phones on the floor and signs like "This is Henry's stuff – Don't Even Think Of Touching It."
I always wanted to interview this band. Their music was so powerful, so basic, and yet at times so out of control (it seemed), that I was immediately attracted. But I was always put off by their violent reputation, even when I attended a show and nothing happened. From what I had seen of Dukowski on various TV news programs and onstage, he was one of the most intimidating people around, intelligent and scary at the same time. As it turned out, I conducted the interview sitting on a couch between the remarkably soft-spoken Ginn and Dukowski, who at times I thought was boring a hole through my head with his eyes. I stuttered a lot. Across from me sat Stevenson, their newest member. He spoke with the kind of enthusiasm I associate with high school seniors contemplating a stolen bottle of bourbon. Henry Rollins also sat across from me, but spent most of the interview listening to cassettes on headphones. I was, however, fascinated by his tattoos, some of the most aesthetically interesting in the universe.
Black Flag was formed in 1977, originally called Panic; they played quick, high-energy material inspired most of all by the Ramones' debut album. The first Black Flag release, and the first SST Records release, was a 1978 EP featuring four songs, the longest of which was 2:05 and the shortest a scant 51 seconds. The band at that time consisted of Ginn, Dukowski (then known as Gary McDaniel), a drummer called Robo and vocalist Keith Morris, sometimes known as Johnny "Bob" Goldstein and destined to lead another seminal LA band, the Circle Jerks. Keith was originally to be the drummer, but Greg talked him out of it, much in the way Malcolm McLaren talked John Lydon into becoming Johnny Rotten: "The whole thing is the people's attitude, what they want to put across emotionally rather than how good their voice is," Greg told Flipside magazine years later.
Seeing Keith Morris onstage with BF was an experience all right, one I had in '78 at a Riverside club called the Squeeze. The songs were so short, just massive bursts of energy really, that it seemed like they played dozens in the first fifteen minutes. Morris ricocheted around the stage like a wounded beast, screaming into the microphone while an absolute storm of sound emanated from the three-piece behind him. The maximum amount of roar, the least complicated lyrics. Their howl of disgust was both perverse and liberating; "I can't go to work!/The boss is a jerk!/ Ain't got time for the school/The f***ers are fools!/l'm going to explode/I've had it!" The show got my juices flowing with its total lack of interest in thepoliteness inherent in being onstage. Like other garage bands before them, Black Flag simply brought their garage onstage with them and had fun.
Keith left the band, however, to be replaced by Ron Reyes, also known as Chavo Pederast. The band began to record their rehearsals, and started at-tacking the burgeoning club circuits of Orange County and LA – many new clubs had opened, and were booking "punk" groups, and others were experimenting. Black Flag played the Bla-Bla Cafe, the Whisky, Hong Kong Cafe, Club 88 and so forth while the pogo dance spread and transmogrified into "the slam." An informal blacklist was started by club owners, who shared information about which bands "attracted troublemakers." Local news stations and newspapers ran sensationalized stories about punk rockers, and the police broke up shows occasionally. Shows at various halls were arranged to avoid dealing with the clubs that got more and more jittery. Greg wrote a song called 'No Values' that said, in part, "I've got no values/Nothing to say/I've got no values/Might as well blow you away. . /I might find some satisfaction/If I destroy everything you've built." If there was any irony to be found in those lines, most failed to notice.
The band built up an especially large following at a club near their home called the Fleetwood, and they were filmed there as a part of the feature film The Decline of Western Civilization. The songs 'White Minority', 'Depression' and 'Revenge' (dedicated to the police) were included in the finished film, released two years later. Ron Reyes sang, "Don't tell me about tomorrow/Don't tell me what I'll get/I can't think of progress when/Just around the comer/ There's a bed of cold pavement waiting for me," while fans jumped on and off the stage and flailed on the dance floor, or "the pit" as it came to be known. "Sure, the fights were quite pointless, but they were determined to happen," wrote BF's stage manager, Spot.
Black Flag were living in a converted church, and an interview segment filmed there is included in Decline. Dukowski is asked why he shaved his hair into a mohawk and he replies, "Because I'm searching." And what, the interviewer asks, is he searching for? "I don't know. But I'll know when I find it." Ron shows the cameras the closet he's living in, paying $16 a month rent. Greg is asked what Black Flag, the name, stands for. He says, with a typically uneasy smile, "Anarchy."
Reyes walked off stage at the Fleetwood one night ("No food, love, beer drove Chavo crazy" wrote Dukowski later), but was coaxed back long enough to contribute the vocals to Jealous Again, a 6-track 12-inch EP which was released later, after Reyes had been replaced by Dez Cadena. The police were pulling over people with BF stickers on their cars, and the situation at the church got hotter. It was searched for drugs, and the police officials kept the band members within eyesight. To make a not-too-left-field analogy, this period corresponds to the Haight-Ashbury period when the major bands, such as the Grateful Dead, were being busted for drugs. Just as major magazines flocked to San Francisco to report on the depraved hippie culture, so did their 1980s counterparts come to Los Angeles to rant and rave about the "Clockwork Orange-style" violence in clubs and on the streets. Black Flag were treated like the James Gang – if they were anywhere near a problem, they were blamed for it. Their biggest sin, it seems, was in not defending themselves by putting down the violence directly. Somehow bands were expected to "stop" the violence at their shows, return to the polite audience/band relationships of the pre-punk era of the '70s.
Los Angeles was, if you believed the papers, a combat zone. I read numerous stories about knifings, deaths, people being beaten up, all tagged as a result of punk rock. That many of the stories turned out to be untrue when examined didn't seem to cause a large number of retractions. True, if you went "slamming in the pit," you were likely to get bruised, but at all the hardcore punk shows I attended it was easy to stay away from that action if you wanted to. Just being in the room was enough! The exhilaration and power of shows by Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Adolescents, Dickies, Fear, Gears and so many others transformed the LA scene. At a Black Flag show, the rules of authority seemingly no longer applied, and anything could happen. For some it was liberating. Others were frightened. But the feeling of freedom was the opposite of the "negativity" the media said was in-herent in punk. While the "skinny-tie new wave" bands staked out their territory and started making serious money, the punk bands remained destitute even while they drew thousands – and no wonder, since the shows normally in-volved five to eight bands on the same bill, and costly extra security arrangements were mandated.
With Dez, the group released two 45s, the three-song Six Pack (which featured on its cover a Raymond Pettibone drawing of a punk grinning after painting himself, literally, into a corner) and a version of 'Louie Louie' that sounded not unlike a hurricane and was part of a large project titled 'Police Story'. By this time, BF were actually getting airplay, and their first American tour had turned them into punk standard-bearers, on the East Coast especially. Their sound also spread to England, where they were accepted as the only group that could stand up against U.K. punk. Their sound got tighter and more ferocious. Cadena was a great ranter, screaming (as a preface to a recording of 'I've Heard It Before') "Don't need it! Authority! Bulls***! I know what I'm doing! I may be wrong, but I've got to get it done!"
A fan from Washington, D.C. named Henry Rollins was added to the line-up, and Dez continued on guitar and vocals. Rollins was what they called "straight edge": he didn't take drugs, drink or smoke. Still, he was one scary-looking guy, with his almost shaven skull, sandpaper voice and remarkable facial grimace. He could cut through a crowd. When Dez left Black Flag and joined Redd Kross, Rollins forged on as lead throat.
The first full Black Flag album, Damaged, was recorded in 1981. The record was to be distributed by Daphna Edwards' Unicorn Records, then through MCA when Unicorn made a deal with them. But when MCA's Al Bergamo heard the record, full of extreme velocities and the usual BF tirades about confusion, survival and tough times, he refused to release it. "As a parent of two children," he said, "I found it an anti-parent record, past the point of good taste. It certainly wasn't like Bob Dylan or Simon & Garfunkel." Black Flag and Unicorn got plenty of publicity, but lost their chance to get the national distribution that could have made Black Flag available everywhere for the first time.
Unicorn pulled the record from MCA and began independent distribution. Edwards told every writer in town that she'd sold 100,000 copies in the first three weeks, and some papers even printed the figure, although it was clearly inflated. At this writing, litigation is still flying fast and furious between Black Flag and Unicorn, each accusing the other of various misdeeds and misrepresentations. Black Flag is under a restraining order, and cannot release anything under their name. SST Records did issue a compilation of out-takes from the Morris, Reyes and Cadena periods, but nowhere on the jacket does the name Black Flag appear, and even the four parallel bars that serve as BF's symbol are whited out. In fact, Black Flag's contract with Unicorn, which the band claims is invalid in any case, was recently in danger of being auctioned off to the highest bidder as a result of a judgement a pressing plant had gotten against Unicorn.
So Black Flag play live, rehearse a lot and wait for their attorney Walter Hurst to extricate them from their legal problems. Bill Stevenson has replaced Robo in the drum chair, but the sound drives on. Henry and Chuck have let their hair grow (a trend begun by Cadena, who had both long hair and beard), an alteration of image that leaves many of their skinhead followers confused and hostile.
And with that introduction out of the way, it's time to let Black Flag speak for themselves. Greg Ginn starts things off. "We don't push a philosophy, a party line. We do not 'stand' for anarchy. Four individuals do not have a single political viewpoint. We may change members, but we have continuity. There is a basic Black Flag 'thing'. I feel it, but I can't define it. Chuck and I, who've been in the band the longest, could possibly leave and there could still be a real Black Flag. The possibility's remote, but the chemistry could stay. 'Black Flag' does not depend on particular individuals, I don't think. Maybe it's genetic."
"Everyone in the band is different in upbringing, in education, but we have lot of common ground," adds Chuck who once studied psychobiology in college and had his share of success in the "straight" world of school and work.
"We try to practice about five hours day, to improve our music, because we're never satisfied with what we're doing," says Greg. When we rehearse we're learning how to… destroybetter, I guess."
"Since I've been playing with Black Flag," says Bill, "It's always been, 'Well that was okay for now, but it's got to be better.' We have to concentrate on not breaking our instruments! In my head I have this thing – we all have it – we want to make mountains fall down when we play. Totally serious. We want to be hired to demolish buildings. You try to get better, but also you're so frustrated you want to put your fist through the wall, and kill everyone."
"The intensity of performance is directly related to the precision of performance," says Chuck. "It's like a knife, the sharper it is the better it cuts."
"It's something less tangible than just singing or playing better, it's power," Greg continues. "I wish we had more records out so we could point to what we've done, but we're years behind in recording and showing the public what we want to do with the basic . . . groove of the music. We aim at an ideal. We set up one thing, which people get into, but instead of doing the 'reasonable thing' and playing that to death, we do something new and risk negative, reactions. We play seven- and eight-minute songs now, which forces audiences who think of us as exclusively two-minute songs to realize BF has changed. And they can get violent about that."
"If they attached a lot of importance to the length of a song, then this so-called new form upsets them. We constantly alienate people," says Chuck.
But doesn't Black Flag draw the same audience they always did, already pre-sold on their type of music? "Bulls***!" shouts Henry. "All right, that's it, lock the door, we're gonna kill this guy. We get negativity because we do something. Other bands I shouldn't name – they all suck. How can you even get mad enough to hate them? We do something that makes people love or hate us real hard."
"Some people feel we've sold out –we're going heavy metal, we're growing our hair, we cut our hair, we're playing this or that … the cultural impact of having long hair or beards at this point is real strong," Greg reflects. "Henry can show you the scars he got for having long hair."
"Long hair doesn't matter, short hair doesn't matter, but there's a need in some people to run down anything they haven't done," says Chuck. "If they have short hair, then they wantthat and nothing else to be cool. The same story over and over."
"People don't think enough for themselves," says Greg. "When people get into us on a superficial level of style, what we look like, we just say, wrong. We don't practice like this on our music so you can so easily label us."
"The minute they tell me I'm good because I fit into one of their little molds, I want to break their mold and go my other way," agrees Bill. "I'm not good because I'm fast, or punk, or heavy metal, or anything."
"We have been real extreme at times," Greg admits, "and brought out intolerance and exposed it."
"If there's no dialogue about values," says Chuck, "and there are people pushing to have ascendence, to say there's only one correct way to be … if the dialogue went away then one group would have won. It's healthy to have arguments. I have real qualms even with those people who say they'll learn from the past and therefore their thing will be the ultimate way of thinking. How we're going to solve the problems of the world is not the relevant thing, because eventually the solution becomes the problem and it all starts up again. You need things constantly pitted against each other."
"See, a lot of our politics is in our sound, but not just on the surface," says Greg. "If we were satisfied with our musical status quo, politics would be expressed in that lack of change. Our actions – our music, that is – remains our expression. There is no one solution, musically, politically or ideologically. People who hear our music over a period of time may become less convinced of the necessity to be prejudiced against certain groups of people, even though we may not deal directly with that in our lyrics. This is part of our impact. A preachy political song can have less impact than your actions, and sometimes it's on a real spiritual, subsconscious level. The basic philosophy is inside how you do it. And we do analyze our impact from time to time. We don't have a frivolous attitude. It's important to us that we be a positive influence."
"Super on-the-edge people, criminals, on drugs, come up and say, 'Yeah, you guys are great, you know how f***ed up everything is, and I'm gonna kill someone now," Bill relates. "And we've had straight-line guys from school saying, 'That was very enlightening'. People just keep doing what they're doing, but after they hear us they do it harder."
"I don't think it's random, but if you try to control every action, then all you can do is water it down to nothing," states Greg. "We're not just looking for a random reaction, of any kind. We're not trying to shock."
Chuck adds, "You know, you can whip up a lot of energy, and give people an escape by saying, 'Okay, everyone with black tennis shoes is the enemy and must be destroyed'. You'd get a great response. On a cultural level, if there were 1,000 people and the 20 with black tennis shoes were murdered, and word got out that anyone caught in black tennis shoes would die, then the companies making the shoes would get bombed, and it would make quite a splash, have quite an impact. Yet we're not aiming at that kind of thing. We've been hurt by what's been written about us, because we want anybody to see us play. You were saying at a Black Flag show 'anything goes,' not just this one thing, but anything. There's a constant pressure to change anything to this."
"At any of our performances for a long time, we've drawn all sorts of people," Greg says. "I know there are some still afraid to come see us, but really there's no basis for it. If there ever was, there certainly isn't now. The crowds are used to the fact that at a Black Flag show there are going to be short hairs, long hairs, heavy metal people, everybody. Nothing's happened for years, literally, but the media haven't caught up.
"One of the bands we have signed to SST, St. Vitus, were afraid to come to one of our shows because they had long hair. In fact, they wrote to me about it and told me about their band, but weren't sure we weren't religiously against anyone with long hair. So I went to see them, and really liked them. Now they're playing gigs with us without incident."
Right now in LA, the heavy metal crowds and the punk crowds are getting closer, with "mixed" bills at such places as the Troubadour. Again, any trouble is traced to what is supposed to be a "natural antagonism" between the factions, but Greg Ginn is convinced it isn't there. The SST label is likewise signing both "punk" and "metal" groups without distinction. When I suggested to them that there must be some trade-off, some compromise on their independent status, in running the label and trying to reach millions of people, Chuck vigorously disagrees. "There are more alternatives than you think. It doesn't just come down to whether you're a big or small label. We want to remain independent and get bigger."
"You've got everyone with opinions about how to do it," says Greg. "Some think you have to stick to a particular kind of record, others that you should think about getting airplay first … we try to do what we think is best, regardless. Some people consider themselves artists and want to be isolated from the world, but what's so valuable about art is the perspective it gives you on the 'real world.' Black Flag is involved, not isolated. We never made a decision to remain 'outsiders'. We resist becoming the band everyone says we are."
"There will always be people who make junk jewelry and those who make original, creative stuff," says Chuck. "But most will use the same symbolic material over and over again."
"A lot of people in rock get into it for bulls*** reasons," says Greg. "Is David Lee Roth a singer because he needs to express himself? What's his reason?"
"The one thing I've learned from all the garbage we've been involved in," continues Chuck, "is the baser the motives the higher the motives cited. I don't mind it so much when someone owns up and says, 'I'm in it for the money and the women'. In religious symbology it's a bigger evil to commit evil in the uniform of good than just do something evil. It's like you stack one more sin on top of the other."
"The way we do things is foreign to most of the public," Greg explains. "Ninety-nine percent can't understand why we wouldn't want to play music like Journey and be more successful. They don't understand it, and therefore sometimes want to destroy it."
"Or maybe they have a vested interest in the other point of view, that anybody who doesn't play like Journey should be eliminated," Chuck suggests. "But guess what? We're going to keep on doing what we have been."
And, he might have added, nothing seems likely to stop them. Black Flag – the myth, the reality, the music – has mattered. Even if they never played another note, they've challenged the musical status quo, in Southern California, in the United States, and around the world. No one can take that away from them.
© Mark Leviton, 1983