There is probably no other bassist in punk rock as influential as Chuck Dukowski. An early and key member of Black Flag, Dukowski helped invent, and then de-construct, hardcore punk rock through songs that were at once emotional, explosive, and raw. While Dukowski himself would venture far outside the stereotypical "punk" sound, it seemed that no matter who was wearing leather rackets or had mohawks, Dukowski was the one who truly understood what "it" was all about.
His music has continued to evovled, while retaining its core, and for the past eight years or so, Dukowski has been recording with his Chuck Dukowski Sextet. Although the CD6 started out as an avant-garde jazz-freak out based group, they evolved into something unique that has some elements of punk, heavy metal, folk, and a whole lot of that unquantifiable ingredient- Dukowski. The members too have shifted so that now, 75% of the band is from Dukowski's own household (and the last 25% is a close family friend).
Because the CD6 has an album slated to be release in May, with a single preceding the LP in April, staff writer John Gentile met up with the CD6 to talk about the inter-workings of a family band.
Upon sitting down between Chuck Dukowski and Lora Norton, his wife, I feel like Dukowski doesn't want me there. And to be fair, where I in his shoes, I don't think I'd want me there either.
It's about three hours before Dukowski's current band, The Chuck Dukowski Sextet, takes the stage and most of the band is gathered around two square tables pushed together in the center of the bar where they are about to perform. At the table, in addition to Dukowski and Norton, sits Ashton Slater, the band's drummer, and two other close family friends. Norton's son, and CD6 guitarist, Milo Gonzalez is off in the bathroom. The group is a having a warm chat with a few drinks on the table and I believe chicken wings are on their way.
Although we're in a bar, pinball machines noisy ring off in the corner, and a mix of the Dead Boys "Sonic Reducer" and Whitney Houston's "I will always love you" is blasting at high volume on a turner table because the house DJ must think Houston's death is funny, it seems that I am intruding on Dukowski's "Family time." At first I am surprised that an iconoclast such as Dukowski would find such a traditional gathering to be so sanctified, but, if you think about Dukowski's lyrics over the years, it actually makes a lot of sense.
The inimitable bassist, who, along with Greg Ginn and Keith Morris was one of the three masterminds behind the incalculably influential Black Flag, doesn't look a whole lot different now then he did in 1977. His hair is still closely cropped to his scalp resembling a roman soldier's cut. His prominent, straight nose is still the first thing one notices. And, just over his nose, are those two coal black eyes that seem to smolder.
However, as he sits in the uncomfortable wooden chair, Dukowski does seem to be very much human. He has a few spiny gray hairs sticking out from his chin, crows feet have developed near the corners of his eyes, and if someone other than Dukowski was wearing his clothes, you'd probably call the fashion "Hunting Gear." Really, at first glance, the only thing that makes Dukowski stand out from the crowd of 30 people or so is the florescent orange, Jimmie Walker-style cap on his head, which has become his trademark over the last five years or so. He shifts the cap slightly and doesn't seem particularly pleased that I arrived just as the group's food is leaving the kitchen.
But, in sharp contrast to Dukowski's validated annoyance, Norton greets me with a sparky welcome and asks me to have a seat. Impossibly slender with Crystal Gayle length hair, Norton's clothes contrasts Dukowski's modest wear. She wears ribbons tied to the buns on either side of her hair, and her shirt and pants are a colorful cross of late 60's flower-child prints and late-70's informal-impression-of-formal-clothing style. She flashes a warm smile and it seems that really, the only word fit to describe her would be "Lovely."
Since she's surrounded by her family, I ask Norton about her unique lyrics, which are singular in that they often are written from the perspective of a mother, something quite rare in the rock scene.
"I am a mother, so I specifically write from that perspective," Norton states. "I was a teenage mother, so for my whole adult life, I've always had children. It is difficult for people, and I empathize. But, it was also really cool. One thing for me, and I feel really fortunate, is that I've gotten to experience my adult life with my children, so I can't help but write from that perspective. It is who I am."
I bring up an interview with the Vivian Girl's Cassie Ramone, where Ramone argued that in music, women are pushed to be either radicals or divas. Like Ramone, it seems Norton feels that in rock music, a female's depth is often overshadowed by a single attribute. "I feel like women shouldn't have to choose between those things. On our new record, we have a song called âThing.â It's about when you are a women, there's an aspect where you just become a thing. I feel that for me, one of the gifts that I've been given with my life, somehow, I feel like I'm more of a rebel than a diva."
Indeed, listening to the new CD6 music, shows a multifaceted approach. At times, Norton coos like a song bird, but, on the tip of a dime, she spins, and suddenly starts to shriek with almost grindcore intonation. She acknowledges that this dynamic is purposeful, if not necessarily calculated, "I feel like for me personally, the way that I make music, the way that I make visual art, are intertwined. I would like to intertwine them more. It's my aesthetic. I think they are from a female voice- thatâs a good thing, in music, where you can be a mother and a cool person, but also, an angry person and a beautiful person. Those things can happen at the same. I think that's missing in music, and especially in rock."
Norton continues, "But there are very few women who are viewed this way. The only one that comes to mind is Janis Joplin, who's âuglyââ¦ but you know, she's not ugly. She's just normal looking. She made herself beautiful through her performance and through her art."
Dukowski's attention has been drawn to the conversation, and Norton elaborates, "You can be Ozzy Osborne, and it's like, Ozzy Osborne! Black Sabbath is amazing, but he is not a beautiful man. He's just not, and it doesn't matter."
With Dukowski part of our discussion circle, Norton kindly does my work for me and posts a reference point to guide me to her spouse, "As a Black Flag fan, I love to see Kira on stage playing bass. I was like, âYes, a girl! Up there, being rad!â That was really inspirational, because there are not very many women in punk rockâ¦ . Exene, Alice Bag, and there weren't that many others. I feel so blessed and so happy and so lucky."
I find it interesting that Norton explicitly refers to Black Flag as "punk." While undoubtedly the band played a very large part in defining what "punk" is, as the band developed, they seemed to shy away from such a steadfast tag. I wonder of Dukowski even considers the concept of punk when writing CD6's volatile material.
"It's like you design the art, and then youâ¦ you don't even design the art, it just happens." Dukowski states firmly. "Then, if there's gonna be a box to put it in, you make that afterwards. With punk rock, or techno, or psychedelic, they are marketing labels really. They are boxes so they can talk about a group of bands. It's really all after the fact."
Suddenly, it seems as if Norton and Dukowski are having a conversation and I'm just a fly on the wall. Norton further investigates how the band creates its music, "Music, is about selling the truth. The best music tells the most truth. It's the most real that you can be on stage."
Certainly, CD6's music is very "real" and "truthful." Although the band started out as somewhat avant-garde, with woodwinds replacing the traditional role of guitar, with the addition of Milo, the band has adopted a more traditional format. However, while the structure of the group might be traditional, their compositions are anything but. At one moment, they might be smashing along with white level blues based riffs, only to drop to an ambient whisper, only to explode back to a cacophonous freak-out. Norton explains the group's frantic twisting, "There's a part of me in the music, and I feel that's true for Chuck and Ashton, and Milo, too. It's intimate and real, and the most vibrant and best if you are telling the truth."
It's interesting that Norton refers to Dukowski as "Chuck" a name he adopted around the time of early Black Flag in place of his birth name "Gary." Did Gary evolve into Chuck so the name Dukowski is not just a stage name? But before I can delve into the diminishment of "Gary," "Chuck" seems to spark to the concept of truth in music. "You can totally tell if it's the truth no matter what. If it's fake, you know it's fake. If it's shallow, you know it's shallow. If it's deep, you know it's deep. If it's sick, you know it's sick. It all comes out. We're kinda of a reality that it is truth telling and that you have to embrace that and let go of any pretensesâ¦ let go of being fake in any way."
"That's the beautiful thing of Chuck's music and Black Flag," Norton nods. "One of the things that I loved about Black Flag and still love about Black Flag is the truth. That emotional truth of it. This feeling haunts me, and thatâs why people empathize with it and hear it over and over."
Then, if Black Flag's music is so truthful, what does that say about Dukowski? While in the fierce band, Dukowski wrote some of the band's mostâ¦ anguishedâ¦ lyrics, including"No More," "I've heard it before," and of course, what Henry Rollins referrers to as the "greatest song ever written," the devastating "My War."
I ask Dukowski if he still feels the way he did in his songs, and before he can answer, Norton chirps in with a toothy smile, "Yeah, do you, honey?"
In a bit of self awareness, Dukowski also grins, but replies earnestly, "Sure. I don't always feel like that, but yes. It's dark and heavy. It's just real. Why when I hear Ashton sing about the storm coming, why it makes me feel good, because I feel that darkness. If you feel strongly about, what is wrong, what is right, what is truth, what is false, then you have to express thatâ¦ and when things are bent, I am angry."
Dukowski continues pointing out that such a pureness is still in his writing for the CD6 and the group's dynamic has developed to a point where one person can express the thoughts of two. "There's a range of emotions there and they all get compressed," Dukowski states. "Lora writes most of the lyrics now. We talk a lot, so I feel like she expresses me, even though she's just expressing herself."
I wonder if the rest of the family feels a similar connection. By now, Milo (who has basically won the step-dad jack pot,) has found his way to the table. Like his mother, he's slender, and has the same sort of laid back, "good dude" demeanor. Because itâs rare that we see defiant figures as parents, I ask Milo, "Do you see Chuck as an authority figure?"
Milo pauses briefly, and before I can get his gut reaction, Dukowski comically holds either a knife or the remains of a chicken wing, and pantomimes striking Milo repeatedly as he has an exaggerated look of rage on his face.
After a quiet laugh, Milo shrugs and merely replies, "No, no I don't".
I guess Milo is about 18 or so, and I recognize that he's on a rock and roll tour with his mother. So, I ask, "Is it awkward touring with your MOM?!"
Still relaxed, Milo dismisses the concept with a mere, "No, it's not awkward at all." Between his easy going attitude and fairly rapid reply (and because his mom is Lora Norton) I believe him.
Of course, the odd man out is Ashton, who drums for the band, and is the only member not related by blood or marriage. I ask him how the collaboration came about, and frankly, he seemed as surprised as I would have been. His eyes grow wide, "I was just jamming with Chuck and they asked me to be in the band. Can you believe that, jamming with Chuck Dukowski?! And then he asks you to be n his band?!!"
A little while later, CD6 take the stage and the dynamic becomes apparent. Throughout the performance, Norton lashes herself about, at times drifting, at other times thrashing like a wounded animal. Milo, who is slender like his mother, seems to stand still, eyes closed, in his own space. At times, he bands completely backwards so that the tip of his dreadlocks touch floor. Despite his athletic frame, his hands seem to be grafted from robert Johnson, and massive digits crawl around the strings like webs. At one point, it looks like his pinkies are at right angles from his palms. I tried to flex my own fingers in such a fashion and couldn't get past a measly 30 degrees. Ashton is hidden behind a fairly large kit, seeming the bet that keeps the chaos int he same area.
Meanwhile, while Dukowski was fairly relaxed at his dinner, on stage, the epileptic beast from the live portions of The Decline of Western Civilization Part One returns to us. Although Dukowski doesn't travel far from his post, his body seems to shoot out in all directions. As the music gets louder and heavier, it seems to jolt up Dukowski's back, reverberated through his collarbone, and send his arm thrashing up and down, snapping at the strings, all while his waist snaps forward and back, almost as if the monitors are drawing him backwards, only to have the head of his bass rip him towards the ground. All the while, I half expect metal objects to fly across the room and adhere to Dukowski and his bass, as they both create a storm out of nothing but air.
After the powerful performance is over, I can help but think of Norton's description of how the band was assembled, and how such powerful personalities function in tandem despite such a chaotic tapestry. "We have an interesting family. We have a blended family. We have four children between both of us. We ended up having a band together. I credit Chuck, because Chuck has this amazing ability to get up and say, âLet's do this!â He got it rolling. He's a genius- he is a genius that's real."