Featuring Black Flag alumni Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena and Bill Stevenson, as well as Stephen Eggerton of the Descendents, FLAG are about to embark on a tour where they will play what is possibly the greatest music ever made: The music of Black Flag. Anticipation is high, but so are expectations. Not only do the band have to annihilate the stage, they have to stack up to their own history.
In order to learn about FLAG's vaunted history, their plans for the current shows and the emergence of the other Black Flag-related band, Punknews features editor John Gentile spoke with all five members of FLAG.
Read the history below.
On February 6, 2013, Keith Morris was at death's door. He had planned to get lunch but decided to take a nap first; as he slept, his sugar levels dropped perilously low and he dropped into a potentially fatal diabetic coma. His heart rate began to beat at twice its normal rate. He began to sweat profusely. His brain activity ceased to recognize any stimuli at all. The grim reaper pried at his windows. The infinite void hovered just seven inches above his nose and had begun its descent.
And then he woke up. Leave it to Keith Morris, that diminutive, dreadlocked jester, that interminably cackling imp, that volatile, original singer of Black Flag who only needs the slightest of nudges to completely combust, to cheat death once again.
When I talk to him just weeks after the ordeal, I expect to be on the phone with a wounded man. I expect a withered voice, slow reaction time, and clouded perception. Instead, I get about a dozen strands of firecrackers tied together with lit fuses.
Apparently completely recovered from his ordeal in an incredibly short time, Keith Morris doesn't speak. He Pop!-Pop!-Pop!-Pop!-Pop!-Pop!-Pop!-BANGS! When talking to Morris, you don't really need to say anything. His mind fires off so quickly that for every one thought on a subject you have, he has three. For every clever metaphor that you can draw together, he's already got a portfolio. And all those wonderfully idiosyncratic ideas come out at once, forcing Morris to cover everything from 70s glam rock to a good place for burritos to Darby Crash to how disease is transmitted—all over the course of one question.
He'll take you across town and back within a sentence and then wrap it all together at the end… or not, leaving you with a long trail that resembles the adventures of Billy in Sunday’s Family Circus. Except, where Billy leaves pulled dog tails, broken toys and missing pie slices in his wake, Morris leaves the legacy of perhaps the greatest punk band to ever exist. The slightest tidbit offered by Morris, casually mentioned for a brief second or two, such as where so-and-so went to buy fish bait, if given adequate attention and time, can be unfolded into enough material for its own book. Certainly then, a prolonged conversation with Morris leaves one with so many factoids that if investigated, would led to a new Encyclopedia Britannica. If only there was time.
Still, despite nearly 40 years of debate between adherents to the monolithic group that is Black Flag, Morris, with all his wisdom, knowledge and experience, definitively answers the question, "Who was the greatest vocalist of Black Flag?"
He says, "You know, Dez is my favorite vocalist in Black Flag because he's better than Henry Rollins and he's better than Ron Reyes. He's better than I am, but you know what? I'm as good, if not better than Dez. But, Henry is better than me and Ron is better than Henry, but… but maybe not. Maybe Henry is better than Ron, you know what? I'm better than Ron, but not as good as Dez. But, Dez is better than Henry, and Henry is better than I am... oh wait… no hold on…"
He goes on (and on and on) but his point is already clear. Black Flag was unquantifiable. You wouldn't say that Dali is better than Da Vinci or vice-versa. You would step back, acknowledge the sheer magnificence that this planet is capable of and cry out, "C'est manifique!" Or more likely, in case of Black Flag, you'd go to the gig, pogo and scream out "REVENGE!"
And now, just as Keith has awoken from his diabetic coma, FLAG have risen.
"LET'S JUST WRECK SHIT" KIND OF MUSIC
An amalgamation of previous members of Black Flag, FLAG is the dream lineup that fans have been picturing for years. Keith Morris on vocals. Chuck Dukowski on bass. Dez Cadena on rhythm guitar and backup vocals. Bill Stevenson on drums. Note that Black Flag's sole constant member and co-founder Greg Ginn is missing. Due to negative tension between Ginn and almost all other members of Black Flag, FLAG simply couldn't have existed with him as a member. Rather, in the Ginn's spot is famed Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton, who has known the members of FLAG almost as long as they have known each other.
Thus, in many ways, FLAG is the masterful intersection of the band's different eras. The vitriolic snarl of Nervous Breakdown. The frantic ferocity of Damaged. The uncompromising heaviness of My War.
Speaking to members of FLAG individually shows that the members are eager to get these songs played live. But, this urge doesn't seem to be the result of wanting to "relive the good old days" (if only, because the good old days weren't necessarily that good). Rather, the band seem to want to do these songs justice. The same combination of excitement, anger and disassociation that first formed Black Flag seems to be the fire forging FLAG.
"Before there was a Black Flag, we were the guys that would go to the party and nobody would talk to us except the other nerds," says Morris, reflecting on the genesis of Black Flag. "I really can't say why we were nerdy or outcasts. We just did whatever we wanted to do, and a lot of times it didn't fit in with everything else everyone was into."
"We were frustrated with all the local music," Morris continues. "We either had surf bands or we had top 40 bands. Then there would be the occasional bar room blues band. Ba bump ba bump ba bump bump… Most of the bands were doing Doobie Brother covers, or picking the worst of Led Zeppelin or Eagles—whatever was in the charts or on the local radio. I'm not dissing all these bands, but we weren't interested in that. We had other things. We had other music. We wanted to hear louder, more aggressive, more abrasive, more grindy, more in your face, fuck-it-all-let's-just-wreck-shit kind of music."
"I was working in a record store part time. Through Greg Ginn's younger sister Erica, I developed a relationship with Greg, because she would bring him along to the record store. Greg was strumming on a guitar, trying to figure out his influences. We struck up a conversation and that was where Black Flag came from. One afternoon, we were sitting around, and the Ramones came on the radio. I jumped up and did a swan dive off a desk and landed on the couch, somersaulted, flew off the couch, and landed face down on the floor. That's when Greg said, 'You're not a drummer. You're a singer!'"
Soon, bassist Chuck Dukowski was added into the fold and Black Flag became the legendary unit that it is. Morris' high pitched, snarly vocals spat freak outs like "If I don't find a way out of here, I'm gonna go berserk!" and "Gimmie gimmie gimme! Gimmie some more! Gimmie gimmie gimmie! Don't ask what for!" Meanwhile, Greg Ginn bent his guitar strings into shrieks, slams and spastic explosions that sounded as much like riffs as dynamite sticks erupting. The guitar in Black Flag wasn't so much an instrument as a massive mousetrap, ready to snap at anyone who ever got too close. And of course, at the bottom end was Dukowski's crushing bass. While his sound was huge and rough, it was just as frantic as Ginn's guitar lines, making Black Flag sound massive, threatening and agile.
Cadena, who was around Black Flag in its earliest formation and joined the band not too long afterward, speaks of them as though he was still just a fan. "The special thing about Black Flag was, to me, these songs were timeless because you're singing about something the people might perhaps feel every day. Everybody has felt like they don't want to go to work and work for this guy. You've had a job at one point in your life where [you thought], 'I don't really want to work for this guy, but I have to pay my bills. He doesn't respect me and I don't particularly respect him.' Or on 'Revenge.' People have felt so mad that they just wanted to get revenge on somebody, anybody."
"It had different characteristics than other punk rock. It has hesitations, breaks," Cadena continued. "It has inner emotions and feelings. It's not what a lot of people were doing at the time. I felt that's what was Black Flag was about. Talking about things, even at an older age, I don't think that those lyrics are juvenile. At any age, you can look at the lyrics of a Black Flag songs and say I'm 52 and I still feel that way about things."
But as with pretty much all great bands packed with more than one genius, tensions would flare up in the group, and membership began to rapidly change. The strange part is, with each new member brought in, a new batch of incredible talent was added to the band, each time giving the new lineup a unique sound. But as everyone knows by now Black Flag, after nearly a decade of constant evolution, whimpered to an end in 1986, with only Ginn remaining from the original band. In fact, the end of the band was so subtle that it could hardly be called a breakup. After a brutally grueling tour, long-running vocalist Henry Rollins received a call form Ginn who said that he was quitting he band. That was it. No explosion. No screaming match. Just a fade away.
January 27, 1979 - The very first Black Flag show a.k.a. "The Wig Incident"
The first Black Flag show was notable for the hijinks that ensued as well as a prognostication of what was to come. Dukowski describes the show from the perspective of a musician while Cadena describes it from the perspective of a fan:
Dukowski says, "The first show we did was at the Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach. The Alley Cats headlined. We convinced Rodney Bingenheimer from KROQ to come. He played our songs on his show after that. At the gig Keith wrapped himself in an American flag and the Moose Lodge people kicked him out for it! He had to sneak back into the place in disguise to sing for our set! It was crazy and fun."
Cadena issues a similar recollection, "It was where those guys rented out the Moose Lodge to throw a gig. They were pretty much just starting to get things going. They were trying to get things [going] in Hollywood at the Masque, but that hadn't happened yet, so they rented out the Moose Lodge on the Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach. It was just a small hall, you know, a lodge. It was Black Flag, the Alley Cats and Rhino 39. The Alley Cats were kind of like a self-made band. They did a lot of the early no wave punk stuff. Rhino 39 were a punk band from Long Beach."
"Me and Ron Reyes lived like, three blocks away. It was right around the corner from us. We were like, 'Yeah, punk rock right down the street!' We were too young and we couldn’t go in the bar part of the lodge. We could just go into where the band was playing, and those were the rules. We went and two people with notoriety showed up. Rodney Bingenheimer, the DJ for KROQ in LA, and Stiv Bators. Rodney brought Stiv Bators with him.
"Black Flag opened the show," Cadena continues. "But [when] Keith wrapped himself around an American flag on the side of the stage and then kind of tossed it, it was kind of a very punk gesture. I remember whoever was the head of the lodge came out—it was the end of their set, they only had like a 25 minute set or 20 minute set—he came out and said, 'That's it, you guys are banned from here and you're not allowed to play here anymore!'"
"But they didn't move their equipment out. I think they just moved their drums to the side. I think they left their amps up. Then, the other bands played. While these other bands played, rumor was that Black Flag was going to go get hippie wigs, because they still had like another hour, after the bands were done. Maybe they fibbed and said their name was Panic, the original name of Black Flag. So Keith came back with a wig, like a hippy wig and said, 'We're a different band.' The people there couldn't tell for some reason, and Black Flag ended up playing again. They played the exact same set that they played earlier in the evening. So they actually played their first gig twice."
I AM MY PAST AND MY PRESENT
As is the nature of this singularly explosive band, they do just what you expect them not to do. In fact, no one ever expected to see Black Flag again, or more accurately, no one ever expected FLAG to exist at all. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, a proto version of the band without Dez Cadena appeared at the Golden Voice 30th anniversary show in Santa Monica in 2011.
"Chuck was initially asked to get up on stage at the Golden Voice show and make a speech before the bands that were playing that night came out," Morris says. "Chuck's mentality towards that was, 'I'm a bass player, I don't make speeches.' So he went back and said, 'Let me get some time and I'll get some guys together and we'll get up there and play some music' and it turned into what we were doing."
As numerous YouTube clips show, although FLAG played only played the Nervous Breakdown 7-inch in a set that lasted no longer than eight minutes, the crowd went insane. Morris continues, "We had a good time, and the response so overwhelming that it would be ridiculous for us to not pursue it any further."
In describing the resurrection of FLAG, Morris belies the unheralded, rarely mentioned secret ingredient and energizer of the band: Dukowski.
Part of that may be because Dukowski isn't one to call out his own accomplishments. Some men, after building an entire genre, may rest on their laurels and play the same 12 songs for the rest of their life. But by the time Black Flag began to gain recognition, Dukowski was already onto the next thing—or more accurately, the thing after the thing that was the next thing. Black Flag started with Morris and Ginn, but it was Dukowski who pushed the band from being two guys making a racket to a force that changed music itself.
When speaking to Dukowski, I am reminded of a story in Caesar's Conquest of Gaul, where the Romans are attacked by the Helvetii. The Romans managed to rout the Helvetii, who then fled across the Saone river. Because the Helvetii forces were of lighter carriage, they were able to cross the water while the heavier Roman army would have sunk upon forging through the river. The only option apparent to the Romans was to waste precious pursuit time marching around the river, by which time the Helvetii would likely regroup. In a combination of Roman ingenuity, daring, and pompousness, Caesar immediately called for his engineers and had his men build a bridge across the river, enabling the Romans to deliver the killing blow to the offending savages.
Surely, if Dukowski had been born 2,000 years earlier, he would have been the one that had said to Julius, "The march is unnecessary. We shall simply build a bridge. Why should the designs of god act as a barrier to men such as us?"
Dukowski's wife Lora Norton (who is a well-respected modern artist in her own right) is the vocalist in The Chuck Dukowski Sextet and is quick to provide a more modern example. While the CD6 push musical boundaries out in all directions, Norton attributes the bridge from idea to implementation for the raucous group to Dukowski's sheer willpower. Norton says, "I credit Chuck [to the band actually existing], because Chuck has this amazing ability to get up and say, 'Let's do this!' He got it rolling."
Like Norton, Morris describes Dukowski as Black Flag's unsung hero who really set the gears into motion. “Chuck not only ran SST the record label, but he was also responsible for Global, which was their booking agency," he explains. "He booked all those early tours. When we pulled into a town, the first thing he would do was go to a payphone to book a show in the next town. I have the utmost respect for Chuck Dukowski. When he came into Black Flag, he was a real bass player. We had three bass players before him that called themselves bass players, but they weren't really bass players. They were just fumbling along and tumbling along. When Chuck came into the band, that’s when the work ethic kicked in. That’s when we started to have three, four, five, six hour-long rehearsals. That’s when the noses went against the grindstone."
Bill Stevenson supports descriptions of Dukowski as an architect. He says, "Chuck is one of the wisest men I have known in my life. I'm at a loss for words there. I think he taught me—the two things that come to mind: He taught me to not just accept a scenario at face value. He taught me to try to look beyond what you see and to look for motives behind what you are seeing, which might be the truth of the situation—not to be a cynic or a skeptic, but to be on your toes."
Talking to Dukowski can be a daunting experience. While Morris lights up at practically any question, investigating every avenue of every word that he says, Dukowski never shakes from his reserved demeanor. He knows what he wants to talk about and what he doesn't want to talk about. For one thing, he doesn't want to just be viewed as Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag, but rather, as Chuck Dukowski who has been involved in many, many different music projects. Surprisingly, he speaks somewhat softly, though his words carry the weight of a man who knows what the hell he's talking about. Everything Dukowski says has purpose and cold, steely determination seems to emanate from inside of him.
"With FLAG, we really want to honor the fans and their dedication," says Dukowski. "We want to honor the music that we helped make. We want to play the music of Black Flag for people and that will be fun. We are going to play the music with the energy and respect it deserves."
If you see Dukowski on stage, a certain black energy seems to radiate from his core, almost as if there is a black hole sewn in the middle of his abdomen. His frame suggests that he weighs about 150 pounds, but the way he stands on stage, holding his bass, snapping upwards and back down, the ground quivering around him, his body in a constant state of motion but his feet stay planted, suggests that were he to stand on a scale, his mass would rival that of celestial bodies. It's telling that despite all the action that occurs on a FLAG stage, or on the stage of The Chuck Dukowski Sextet, everyone, no matter how riled up he or she is, always leaves an ample circumference around Dukowski. It would seem that Dukowski's space is a dangerous place to be in.
But because Dukowski is an artist in the truest sense, constantly making new material (in fact, he's working on the fourth CD6 album when I speak to him), it seems that perhaps he is frustrated for being so intrinsically linked to Black Flag. It's not that he's not proud of the work, as he doubtlessly is, but rather, that he wishes his entire catalog would be appreciated, rather than just the work from his teens to early twenties. "It's complicated," he says. "Black Flag is a big part of my life. I poured all of my ideas, energy and commitment into it for so long. It is a part of me and I am a part of it. I feel that when you have been a part of something that is important to people, and Black Flag is important to many people, you have to carry that weight with you. You have to respect what you have created. You can continue to make new stuff—I need to keep making new music, but it would be wrong to not acknowledge and respect my past. I am my past and my present."
A TORRID HISTORY
One of the several twists in FLAG's existence is Dez Cadena. In fact, when Cadena joined Black Flag, he was the replacement for second vocalist Ron Reyes, who was the replacement for Morris. But now, Morris and Cadena are side by side in FLAG, with Cadena on guitar and backup vocals. The placement does make sense, as after the Six Pack EP Cadena moved from vocals to guitar and Henry Rollins took the spot at the mic.
Cadena speaks about his time in Black Flag. "After a year of being the singer, I wasn't totally happy. It was a hard thing. I was on the fence. Here I was in my favorite band, loved the music, the guys and everything, but I wasn't happy. I don't know if you have to be a certain personality to be a singer. It had to do with me wanting to play the instrument of my passion. We tried a bunch of things before we got Henry. We even switched. One rehearsal, I even played bass and Chuck was on vocals. He put so much energy into it, and he was so nervous, that he ended up breaking the microphone and the mic stand."
He continues, "After about a year, it wasn't like they wanted to kick me out of the band or I wanted to quit the band. They said, 'if we find a singer, and we gave you a guitar, how would you feel about that?' 'Pretty cool!' So I did."
As is the pattern, like Morris and Dukowski, Cadena's personality radiates. But unlike Morris' frantic energy and Dukowski's measured, tactical response, Cadena is laid back. His deep voice is tinged with sides of smokiness, which gives his words a friendly dress, sort of like the voiceovers used in commercials for necessities. Like Morris, he does wander across a conversation without a clear trajectory, but unlike Morris, the frantic energy is replaced by an appreciation for the verbal walk itself. But, the fire in his belly, which explodes across the Louie, Louie single, does come out when he references Black Flag.
When Cadena refers to Black Flag, he treats it more like a course than a group of guys touring the country. "Black Flag was my learning experience. I was always into music and I always knew I wanted to play music. Black Flag happened for me right when the period of time when most people are trying to start a career or going to college," he says. "I had played in bands before Black Flag, but Black Flag taught me a lot of things. In its own way, it was a lot different than the way other bands were trying to run themselves. Black Flag was a do-it-yourself situation, and it was almost like a commune. Everybody quit their jobs just to do this thing. It taught me about being in a serious band that wanted to travel, wanted to put its own records out, wanted to do everything itself. We didn't care if we slept on the floor or in the tour bus, or on people's floors, or some punk rock house, and it was definitely my learning experience for the beginning of my musical life, as an adult."
Cadena holds a unique spot in FLAG for at least two reasons. For one thing, he is the only member of Black Flag to occupy two separate positions in the band. The contrast between being the band's focal point as vocalist, and the man propping up the frantic guitar lines of Greg Ginn as second guitarist, seems to have given Cadena an objective perspective on the band. "When they asked me to sing, it was because I was me. They liked me," he says. "They asked me if I wanted to try out to be singer or even at the same time, 'Can you play guitar and sing?' At that time I couldn't. Things might have been different if I could."
But also, Cadena is the only person in the entire world that has played in FLAG, Black Flag during the band's original run and Black Flag during the disastrous 2003 "reunion" which featured only him, Ginn, Robo and C'el Revuelta from the original band, as well as several stand-ins.
Morris commented on almost joining the 2003 reunion last year, "The reunion was stupid and depressing. It was so bad that I couldn't be a part of it. When my heart was telling me, 'Keith, you have got to do this,' I was like, 'Keith, don't be an idiot!'"
Morris continues, "One day, while the whole reunion was getting put together, Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses walks up to me and asks me if I'm going to be a part of the Black Flag reunion because he was asked to play bass. I say, 'Pfft… yeah I'm going to be a part of the Black Flag reunion!' But, I knew at that time something was strange."
By contrast, Cadena seems more genteel about the whole matter. He says, "Well, the Black Flag 2003 reunion and FLAG are a little bit different. Anything I approach, having to do with Black Flag, I try to put what I believe in the spirit of the music into it, on my end. I believe everybody I know, whatever project it is, would approach whatever they're doing in the same fashion."
Indeed, as an example of Cadena's good nature, he seems rather proud that for the most part, he gets along well with everyone in the band. "I left Black Flag on good terms also," he says. "That was one of the other things that I am pretty proud of, actually. Black Flag have a little bit of a torrid history as far as that is concerned. As far as my behalf, I was able to hold my own there."
July 22, 1979 - The Polliwog Park show a.k.a. "The Sandwich Assault"
A notable Black Flag show was the Polliwog Park gig in July 1979, where the band played a set to families and park-goers under the guise of being a jazz group. Keith Morris recollects the show and resulting fallout, "It was a picnic on a Sunday afternoon in a beautiful park in Manhattan Beach, and the Director of Parks and Recreation had the Air Force big band/jazz band cancel a couple of weeks before the show. Apparently, there was an outbreak of the flu—when you have a big group, all of sudden those people pass it on to five people and those five who pass it onto five people who pass it on to 20 people."
"Greg Ginn had managed to lie to the director of Parks and Recreation and told them we were a Fleetwood Mac cover band that also played jazz. The director of Parks and Recreations was excited by that and he allowed us to put together a bill that included Eddie and the Subtitles, who were actually the headlining act, who didn't play because Black Flag created the riotous atmosphere."
"Maybe 60 seconds into the first song, it began to rain food. Sandwiches, half-eaten drumsticks, watermelon, cantaloupe rinds, banana peels. We tried to dodge it. I remember seeing Chuck Dukowski pick a sandwich up off the stage and eat it."
IT WAS THE TIME OF MY LIFE
Although the members of FLAG come across as generally nice guys, you can tell that they are tough dudes. And not just "tough," but tough as galvanized nails. I'm talking tough, baby. These are guys that went without food so the tour van could run. These are guys that had to resort to eating hot dogs rolled up in Wonder Bread due to lack of cash. These are guys that literally fought with the LAPD at a time when cracking someone over the head with a nightstick for no real reason was good for a laugh back at the station and not a nationally televised and scrutinized incident. This was a time when the police would throw you up against the wall and call you a "faggot" for simply having an unusual haircut. This was a time when the police would actually spy on and monitor bands, hoping to catch them doing subversive acts as if they were the KGB.
"We wouldn’t back down. We called them out for their bullshit," says Dukowski. "When they purposefully invaded our shows, when they set up encampments before our shows had even started, we talked about it. We told the media about it. We refused to stop playing when they told us to stop. We played "Police Story" instead of stopping. We made fun of them in our radio ads. We mocked them for their corruption and stupidity. We hated them and they hated us."
Dukowski's mere existence in 2013 shows that if a force opposes him, he strikes back twice as hard, no matter how bad the beating may be, until finally, the aggressor gives up out of exhaustion. Meanwhile, you better believe that if Morris is challenged, he'll swipe back twice as hard and twice as fast.
That's why drummer Bill Stevenson is such an enigma. The mythos surrounding Black Flag is one of non-stop hardship and battles with authority figures, which in turn, made the people in the band grow that much meaner. But, when speaking to Stevenson, he doesn't come off as forged-in-fire agitator, but rather, as the nice boy who lives next door.
It might be somewhat reductive (or even insulting) to compare a grown man in his late 40s that has a mortgage and kids to Richie Cunningham. But, between his bright voice, youthful energy and enthusiasm for pretty much everything, it's hard to not feel as though Stevenson is still, in some ways, that nice little guy who looked up to Keith Morris at the fishing store.
"I was a fishing fanatic ever since I was six," says Stevenson. "Down at the Hermosa pier, right at the foot of the pier, there's a fishing tackle store called Hermosa Tackle Box. Keith's dad, Jerry, owned Hermosa Tackle Box. Keith worked there right out of junior high. I would go in there to buy fishing tackle and that’s how I met Keith. It was actually Keith, who was a little bit older than me - he turned me on to things that were like pre-punk or pre-new wave. Punk rock was beginning to blossom. So I took a lot of musical cues from him. I remember him telling me that he had this band 'Panic.' [Panic was Black Flag's earliest incarnation.] I remember that Panic played our high school Spanish club party. That didn't end so well. I just think there were a lot of confused people with the profanity and all. Keith called me Billy and he still does. He's one of the only people that still calls me Billy, like, my sister calls me Billy."
"I've known Billy since he was, probably when I met him, 11 or 12, he could have been a little bit younger," says Morris. "Billy worked for my dad. Billy would come into my dad's store and I'd have the radio on and somebody would be blaring and blasting and he'd ask me 'Keith, I don't really listen to a lot of music. Who should I listen to?' Of course, I'd say Ted Nugent and Aerosmith and Cheap Trick. There was a local band called The Last. I suggested The Last and The Dogs—The Detroit Dogs who were a big influence on Greg Ginn and I. So, I've known Billy before he even thought of playing in a band." In fact, Black Flag led directly to creation of Stevenson's band Descendents, who many would even place on the same tier as Black Flag.
Like Cadena, Stevenson became a member of Black Flag simply because he was hanging around at the right place at the right time. "My tenure with Black Flag is a complicated one," says Stevenson. "I began filling in for Robo, for this or that or the other reason—the main reason is that he would get deported back to Colombia. So I filled in. I played on a lot of the Damaged tour. They got Emil, and I filled in. They got Chuck Biscuits, I filled in. At a certain point, I was like, 'Well maybe I should just put everybody out of their misery and join full-time.' I actually joined the band full-time, in really late '82 or early '83."
Over the years, journalists and academics have painted Black Flag as this volatile band in which everyone hated each other. Evidence for such a perception is found throughout the Black Flag discography. On the compilation Everything Went Black, Morris is credited under a fake name. Ron Reyes is credited under a bastardized Latin for "child molester." On Family Man, it seemed that the band hated each other so much that side A was just Henry Rollins without any music except for the last track. Meanwhile, side B is entirely instrumental without input from Rollins.
But, directly in line with his warm personality, Stevenson paints an entirely different picture of Black Flag, directly in opposition to the mural of constant conflict found in so many books. "I have to say, I don't really recall the hostile environment," he says. "It was the time of my life. We all lived together there in office spaces that we rented and we would sleep next to our instruments or under our desks that we used for mail order. We were like peas and carrots. We were a happy family. Mugger [SST Records employee] and Spot [SST producer] were with us. Maybe other people had a different experience, [maybe] it was hostile for them."
Further proving that history isn't always accurate, Stephen Egerton shadows Stevenson's account. Egerton says, "Well you know, when I saw Black Flag, there would have been nothing to lead one to believe there was disharmony in the band at all, at any time. The first time I saw them was with Dez singing. Oddly enough, that was the very last show with Dez singing. They were all friends, that I could tell as a kid from the audience. Then, when we were opening for them in '84, then again in '85, at no time did I sense any disharmony with the band. We were always really good friends. That was true through the end, as far as I know."
Stevenson states that Black Flag operated as a surrogate family for him, teaching him what a young man needs to know. He explains, "It was so nurturing. I looked up to Chuck and Greg as father figures. I don't mean that to say they are terribly old. I was born when my father was 50. So put me at 18 years of age, my father was 68, so I really had a grandpa at my house. But, Chuck and Greg, they were closer to what would be a father's age, or advanced big brother age. So they taught me things that I needed to know, things that my father didn't teach me because of the generation gap. Those were the people that helped me find myself."
When considering what Stevenson has been through, his positive attitude and general warmness either makes perfect sense or is completely perplexing. In 2008, Stevenson developed a tumor in his brain that grew to the size of a grapefruit, and at one point, was literally pushing his eyes out of his head. The tumor caused Stevenson severe medical complications (aside from the life-threatening tumor itself) including a blood-clot that almost caused a heart attack and a complete loss of energy. In fact, Stevenson only found out about the tumor when he went to an eye doctor. Shocked at the advanced stage of the growth, the eye doctor immediately sent Stevenson to the emergency ward, where he would soon find out that, quite simply, he could have died at any minute.
Yet after the tumor was removed, Stevenson recuperated at a rate that astounded his doctors. He says, "I'm fully, fully recovered. I'm out playing Descendents shows all the time. I've recorded a new Only Crime record and was working on a new Descendents record. I'm beyond recovered. I haven’t been this able and agile and limber and quick and strong on my drums or in life since 2003."
The confrontation with death has caused Stevenson to see things from a new perspective. "Just getting the brain tumor out of my head, it sent me back to old Bill. Bill who drinks too much coffee and goes for All. That guy is back. I had sort of turned into a bit of a zombie. It was like magic. Once they took it out of there it was like, game on. If I had to describe myself, I'm the Bill Stevenson from 1988."
THE DOUBLE WHAMMY SMACK ATTACK
But, despite the sheer talent and pedigree behind Morris, Dukowski, Cadena and Stevenson, in many ways all eyes are on Egerton. Depending on how you look at it, he's either got the best job in world (playing guitar next to Morris, Dukowski, Cadena and Stevenson) or the worst job in the world (standing in the spot once occupied by Greg Ginn).
Black Flag certainly wasn't the result of any one individual. Every one of the unique, eccentric, and genius personalities in the band played a large part in shaping Black Flag into what it was. But still, Greg Ginn, who co-founded the band along with Morris, was the band's only member to be in every incarnation of the band. On top of that, Greg Ginn is a genius. Since the demise of Black Flag, stories about Ginn being hard to deal with, being a terrible bookkeeper for the bands on SST, and generally being out to lunch have abounded. But even if all that is true, you can't deny the fact that he changed what the guitar meant to rock music.
Black Flag's sound was based in Ginn's frantic guitar lines. A series of smashing riffs that would explode at the end like dynamite, Ginn's guitar introduced a more berserk, frantic and complex rhythm into punk rock. While other bands were still copying Johnny Ramone, Ginn was introducing free association jazz techniques into his string slamming. Black Flag's guitar lines were constantly shifting so that just after they exploded, they would suddenly strike back from a completely unknown spot—a tiger in the form of chords, if you will. Black Flag's guitar lines are invigorating, but also dangerous.
And that's the job that Egerton has signed up for. But, really, if there is a man for the job, it's him. For one thing, he has a long history with Black Flag. "I knew Bill Stevenson from Karl Alvarez, bass player in Descendents," says Egerton. "Karl and I had a band growing up in Salt Lake City called The Massacre Guys that were around for a long time, and we opened for Black Flag several times over the years, in varying lineups. That's where I first met Bill, when he first started touring with Black Flag. Karl and I had been huge Descendents fans, so we thought that was the coolest. That's where we actually met. [Then a] funny turn of events happened and Karl and I were in the Descendents."
Like Stevenson, Egerton grew close to the Black Flag family by playing in the Descendents. He says, "I'm a little bit distanced from it, having sort of been friends with everybody. I knew Chuck through the label. I knew Dez when Karl and I joined the Descendents. The first record we did was Descendents' All. We asked Dez to sing some backing vocals. Keith was a friend to Bill when Bill was first picking up the drums. From Bill's and my perspective, these were guys that we really looked up to. They were a little bit older than us. They were a huge part of our musical upbringing. They were extremely important to us."
Talking to Egerton presents an interesting view into his music. Like Stevenson, Egerton seems to be a generally good-natured guy. Perhaps having children has tempered him, but he speaks earnestly, without giving up any dirt. He's honest, but maintains a respect for other people's feelings. And although his contribution to punk is usually ranked pretty high, he maintains a genuine modesty about his music. When I ask why bands bring him into their folds to juice them back up, he replies, "It really isn't that so much. In the case of this, Bill and I have developed a very strong communication musically over [the past] 25 years, because we've spent so many hours working on Descendents music and even Black Flag songs in the practice room for fun. We've developed a very longstanding musical language. We understand how each other is going to play. I think from the perspective from the rest of the guys, they were just like, 'Stephen knows all this stuff. He plays with Bill all the time.' It's a known quantity with Bill and I. I think it just kind of made sense."
But, really, Egerton isn't handling guitar duties in FLAG because he knows the band or "is a cool guy," Egerton is manning the guitar because he is a goddamn guitar maniac. Indeed, in the mid 80s, Egerton was brought into the Descendents to fire up the band after previous guitarist Ray Cooper left. Egerton's guitar work is fast, loose and wild. But where many punk rockers allow that combination to descend into a bland mishmash of generic anger, Egerton is able to maintain speed and ferocity while retaining a feeling in string striking. His music isn't just rage (though that's in there, too); it also contains that rare essence of feeling that suggests something deeper than teenage angst. In his strings are emotions and textures that can't be summed up by a single adjective.
While Egerton might be a little reluctant to trumpet his skills, Morris is quick to jump in and back up his guitar playing. Morris says, "Let me clarify something about Stephen. He's certainly no slouch when it comes to playing guitar. If you want to witness and hear what Stephen is about, you can watch the Golden Voice show on YouTube. You'll see what I'm talking about. I don't even need to say it. On top of that, you've got to take into consideration that we also have another guy in our band, a guy named Dez, who played guitar in Black Flag, so now, we've got the double whammy smack attack!"
July 4, 1981- Dez Cadena's Last Show as Vocalist a.k.a. a young Henry Rollins in Training
The July 4, 1981 Black Flag show was particularly notable because not only was it Dez Cadena's last show as vocalist, but it was also one of the first shows featuring a young Henry Rollins. Egerton, who was there, recalls the show. "That show was at the Salt Lake Indian Center. Henry was actually in town with them, moving gear around. I actually have a great picture of them sound checking. The band is kind of a little blurry and Henry is sitting on the side of the stage, watching Dez. It's a great picture."
"For us in Salt Lake, this was a monumental," he continues. "It was the first all-ages punk rock show in Salt Lake where someone rented a hall and found a PA and put the whole thing together. That was the kind of show it was. It was the first of that kind. We were painting Black Flag bars all over the city in anticipation of the show. There were about 500 people there, which was a lot for a town of this size. The band played absolutely fantastic. It was just an exploding show. That's the only way I could describe it. Chuck with manic energy. Robo was just completely crazy with his unusual way of playing the drums. Greg was at the stacks. Dez was just sounding amazing. My biggest memory of the show is really the next day of me and my friends just being a big pile of bruises. We laid around the whole next day and just went 'uggghhh.'"
NEVER DO THAT, IT MIGHT GET YOU IN TROUBLE
Of course, there is an elephant in the room. Obviously, the name FLAG was carefully chosen. For some reason or another, modern music listeners have decided that reunions harm a band's cultural relevance. It might be a jaded view, but it's what seems to stick. By choosing the name FLAG and not just using the Black Flag name, the members seem to say in essence that they're not claiming to be a reunion, but rather, just a bunch of legendary guys that were in a legendary band playing some legendary music. No matter what happens, they can't harm Black Flag's legacy, because they're not Black Flag, if you will.
Meanwhile, just as FLAG have risen, Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes have reunited and are touring as Black Flag. What that means is that in 2013, two bands with a Black Flag pedigree are on the circuit. The timing does seem coincidental, causing a lot of listeners to pit the two bands against each other: Which will be better live? Which has a more proper name? Which is the real deal and which is the cash grab?
But, it seems that no members of band are interested in the conflict and even see said conflict as detrimental. Perhaps the simultaneous reunions really were coincidental. Certainly it's possible.
In a March 2013 interview with Punknews, Reyes commented on the situation directly. He said, "In some ways, it's unfortunate because a few so-called 'fans' like to stir up a lot of heat. I don't want to get involved in that. I love all [the guys in Flag]. I wish them all the best." As to whether he has any ill will towards any members in Flag, Reyes adamantly replied, "Oh, no! Hell no! God, no. No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not. Not at all."
Members of FLAG seem to find this accord satisfactory. Egerton seems to see both bands through eyes of a fan, suggesting that we would even go see the Greg Ginn iteration of Black Flag. He says, "I don't know the full details of what Greg and Ron are doing. I think what was happening there was that they were already kind of talking about doing music together and were going to call it Black Flag. I don't know if that was in response to what we were going to do. The way I look at the situation arising is just that as a fan, now there's twice as much opportunity to see something related to this great music. So if I get a chance to see Ginn's Black Flag, I’ll definitely do it, for sure."
Morris echoes the sentiment… mostly. "I believe that it's a coincidence and that's all good. It's a party. Everybody gets to bring their flavor to the party. You know with Black Flag, all of the vocalists, all of the guys, and all of the drummers, it's not just about one guy. You might get all of these naysayers and all of these people with their mega-do-goody-thing, 'Greg Ginn is not part of this, so it's not Black Flag,' or 'Henry Rollins isn't the vocalist so it's not Black Flag.' You know what, that's all good. That's fine, and we appreciate all of those people. They're allowed to say whatever they want to say and it’s a beautiful thing. My opinion is, the more the merrier. I want to say a lot of bad, negative things towards one of the members of the other musical organizations, but I don't have to. it's not healthy. I think what I'll do instead is go and throw a brick through the plate glass window of the LA police station… I'm just kidding. Never do that, it might get you in trouble."
So, the pieces are now set. FLAG has pretty much as dynamic a line-up as one could hope: Morris. Dukowski. Cadena. Stevenson. Egerton. Perhaps the most powerful five piece lineup possible and without question, the most explosive one—as if the combination of Morris and Dukowski could be anything less than musical nitroglycerine.
But of course, it's all just a preamble. FLAG can't go out there and just do a "pretty good job." FLAG will not be able to float by on goodwill or nice memories. FLAG is going to have to destroy. FLAG is going to have to level the house. FLAG is going to have to do these songs—the songs that are Holy Scripture to so many—absolute justice.
"We gotta go out and play!" Morris chomps at the bit. "We've only done the one show and we only played the first EP. See, when I left Black Flag, there was a lot of negativity happening. There was a lot of finger pointing. There were a few things that happened that I will raise my hand and say I am wholeheartedly responsible for. There were also some things that I learned that if I didn't quit, I would have been kicked out of the band. But, it's all good. We're gonna have fun. We're gonna go out there and let everybody know that we should be playing these songs. See, we do get all these naysayers. Well, the fact is we were all part of Black Flag and we deserve and have earned the right to call our band whatever we want and to fly whatever flag that we want to fly. We're gonna have fun!"
Stevenson seems primed for what will be an event that goes down in punk rock history. "I think the material can largely dictate what it will be. It's certainly a goal of mine to be very faithful to the original material. There is a really heavy leaning on the first four years and Damaged because that’s the stuff we all have the most commonality in. So, we're just going to play that stuff the way it’s supposed to be played."
Even Egerton, who to some degree has all eyes focused on him, seems eager to prove himself. "I'm absolutely rearing to go with it. I have so many, many hours playing along to that music through my life. Still for me to get up there and play that stuff is awesome with those guys."
Dukowski, of course, puts it best. He doesn't blow his own trumpet, nor does he create a false veil of modestly. He doesn't offer a suggestion, but instead, states a cold, hard fact, "I feel honored and glad that people still care about music I made in the past and the music I make now with my family in Chuck Dukowski Sextet. Come check out the FLAG shows. They will be righteous."