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What I See
by William Nehill
Chuck Dukowski talks about re-flying the Black Flag legacy
Band reunions are a tricky thing. Some reform merely for the money, others because their current careers aren’t going so well, and a small number because the music was so good, it mustn’t remain dormant.
While with some bands it’s only a matter of time, there are others that we never thought would be resurrected. At the top of that list is Black Flag, a band that left a trail of chaos, damage, and groundbreaking music in their wake.
So it was a great surprise when it was announced earlier this year that not one but two versions of Black Flag soon would be touring. Greg Ginn, the founder and only constant in the band’s lineup over the years, would mount his own version, while a handful of Black Flag alumni, including many of its most celebrated members, would be touring under the name Flag.
“It was a long time coming but it did happen spontaneously,” says Chuck Dukowski, original Black Flag bassist and current Flag member, in a recent email interview. “About two years ago, the group No Age asked Keith Morris, original Black Flag singer, and I to join them on six tunes as a surprise treat at a free show they were doing at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. That gig gave Keith and myself the chance to hang out with each other for the first time in 30 years. It was a great show and we had a lot of fun. Six months later, the man who started Goldenvoice Productions asked me to say a few words at the 30-year anniversary concert. I noticed that the Descendents were headlining and heard they were trying to get the Circle Jerks to play, so I proposed that maybe Keith and I could do what we’d done with No Age but this time with Bill Stevenson and Stephen Egerton from Descendents—Bill being also an ex-member of Black Flag…I made a few calls and put it together. We played four songs; the music flowed out of us with epic energy. It felt wonderful to just be around all of them again. We decided after that that we would like to play again if the opportunity came.”
Black Flag’s early singles and classic first LP, Damaged, set the template for hardcore punk. The band personified teenage alienation and desperation like no other. However, by refusing to be pigeonholed by their fans or critics, Black Flag was isolated from the start, paying little attention to fashion, critics, and trends while refusing to sit comfortably amongst their peers.
Hailing from the outskirts of Los Angeles, Black Flag—initially going under the name of Panic—was formed in 1976 by guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn. Inspired by his teenage love for Black Sabbath and Black Oak Arkansas, and his then recent discoveries of the Ramones and Television, Ginn poured all his wiry frustrations and insecurities into chaotic song structures and desperate lyrics.
In a local record store clerk named Keith Morris, Ginn found a dynamic frontman whose nasal whine perfectly complemented the angst-ridden sneer of Ginn’s vision. Ginn soon met Gary McDaniel (a.k.a. Chuck Dukowksi), who joined on as bass player. Dukowksi’s bass playing was often loose and frenzied; while Ginn may have been the brains behind the band, Dukowski was its soul.
Learning there was already another band named Panic, the band rechristened themselves Black Flag, and Ginn’s brother, Raymond Pettibon, designed the menacing four-bar logo. Pettibon would go on to do artwork for almost every Black Flag release. His pen-and-ink drawings with various harrowing captions detailed a very dark side to human nature. Filled with violence, dejection, and more than an unhealthy dose of black humor, Pettibon’s work became synonymous with Black Flag’s music.
Black Flag released their debut EP, Nervous Breakdown, in 1978. Four songs in a dizzying five minutes, it was a blast of unconventional punk rock at a breakneck speed. While bands such as X and the Germs were creating a vastly popular scene in LA, Black Flag and its music was separate from everything. Rejected by many of the Hollywood punk elite, Black Flag did everything on their own, even launching their own record label, the influential SST Records. Still, it was difficult to secure shows and the ones that did occur were often shut down by either the Los Angeles Police Department or violent conflicts between club owners and fans.
Due to his extremes with drugs and alcohol, Morris quit the band in 1979 and was replaced by Ron Reyes (a.k.a. Chavo Pederast) on vocals. Morris quickly formed what went on to be another legendary punk band, Circle Jerks. Although many lumped the two bands together, their relationship was often schizophrenic.
“I was super bummed when Greg pressured Keith out,” Dukowski says. “Ginn had a crazy rivalry with the Circle Jerks that I never understood. I’ve always loved Keith’s singing and tried several times to ease the tension. I even managed to get them on a few bills with Black Flag in the early ’80s.”
More of a hardcore shouter, Reyes was limited in range but vocally more intense than Morris. With Reyes, the band recorded its second EP, Jealous Again. After a high-profile appearance in the infamous punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Reyes soon left the band, replaced by a third singer, Dez Cadena, who was aked to join mainly because he was a massive fan. Cadena was nerdy and frenetic, and provided an off-kilter approach to the band’s ominous landscapes. It was with Cadena that the band became one of the first DIY punk bands to seriously tour America.
Going by bare-bones necessity, Black Flag played almost every city and town across the country, inspiring thousands of people start bands, record labels, and zines. On one of these intense tours, the band came into Washington, DC, where they met a young Black Flag fan by the name of Henry Garfield. After asking Garfield to sing a couple of songs at a New York City show, the band mentioned to him that Cadena wanted to switch to guitar and asked whether Garfield would take Cadena’s place as vocalist. Changing his surname to Rollins, Henry sold all his possessions and hopped in the van back to California, where the band recorded the fiery Damaged.
Barking like a caged animal, Rollins fronted a band so unhinged it might disintegrate at any moment. However, between the blasts of depression, police brutality, and mental illness, Damaged contained its fair share of humor as well. Songs such as “TV Party” and “Six Pack” celebrate a couch potato lifestyle and have become classics even for those unfamiliar with most of Black Flag’s material. Damaged became pinnacle, a record that defines American hardcore and its culture.
Following that triumph, the band was saddled with a lawsuit by MCA Records, which has intended to distribute Damaged but pulled out at the last minute. Due to the lawsuit, Black Flag was unable to record or release new material for close to three years. In the interim, the band turned away from the breakneck speed of its early material and slowed down to, in their words, a “creepy crawl.” With both Dukowski and Cadena leaving the band in 1983 and Ginn beginning to rule the band with an iron fist, Black Flag went through various lineup changes, including the addition of Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson.
By the time the band released its second full-length, My War, Black Flag was an almost completely different band. Aside from the torn and frayed blast of the title track, most of My War oozed out at a slow surge. Rollins had tempered his voice from a hardcore howl to an almost Jim Morrison bellow. The Black Sabbath and free jazz influences were abundant, albeit filtered through their traditional themes of pain and desperation. Audiences were confounded and critics felt slighted. Still, Black Flag was doing what they wanted to do, and My War went on to become a pivotal record in the late-1980s Seattle scene, where it became cool to meld one’s punk ideals and classic rock roots. And it showed punks that, like Black Flag, they could grow their hair long.
During the MCA lawsuit, the band had written so much material that they ended up releasing a staggering eight records in the span of two years. With much of the material suffering from poor production and wooden performances, it is perhaps the live records—Live ’84 and Who’s Got the 10 1⁄2—that best capture the spirit of the band in its later years. Influences as far-flung as Grateful Dead-inspired noodling, classic hard rock, and progressive music seep into the sound, while Rollins takes on a persona that alternates between the maniacal and the mystical.
By 1986, after years of painful touring, personal differences, and covering so much ground both physically and stylistically, Ginn broke up the band. He continued to run SST Records, which released classic records by such legendary bands as Husker Du, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth. Rollins became a major musical force with his Rollins Band and spoken-word performances, as well as an actor, television host, and something of an alternative culture totem. Cadena formed DC3, worked with the latteriday Misfits, and still plays with Dez Cadena and the Broken Down Bitches.
Dukowski managed SST Records for years while playing with such SST luminaries as SWA, Wurm, and October Faction. He currently performs with the Chuck Dukowski Sextet, which features his wife, Lora Norton, on vocals.
And now Greg Ginn was hoisting the Black Flag again, with himself, Ron Reyes, and two new members. Simultaneously, and perhaps with greater provenance than Ginn’s band, there is Flag, comprised of such integral Black Flag members as Dukowski, Morris, Cadena, and Stevenson, along with Stephen Egerton of Descendents on guitar.
There was no attempt to involve to Ginn for the reunion.
“There was no outreach to him. That door is closed,” says Dukowski.
It doesn’t appear that Flag needs Ginn’s help. Flag recently returned to the Redondo Beach Moose Lodge, where Black Flag played its first show in 1978. YouTube footage of the performance demonstrates that this is no mere nostalgia trip.
“The Flag Moose Lodge was wilder and crazier than the Black Flag show it paid homage to,” Dukowski says. “Really, only some of the audience was older. In addition to the old school homies, I invited a whole bunch of my kids’ friends and our local skateboarding friends through Juice magazine, Dogtown Sk8s, and other young bands I’m friendly with. I’m all about the counterculture vibe through the generations. I play with one of my kids in my other band. To me, it’s the best if young and old share in the joy and intensity of music.”
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