In late summer 1981, Black Flag returned to L.A. from a grueling nationwide tour, only to find their most recent crash pad had been raided by police. Within months the group would record and release their first full-length LP, Damaged, the record that is now credited with inventing the American hardcore punk sound. First, though, they would have to find another place to live, as their abode — a former dental clinic on Cabrillo Boulevard in Torrance that doubled as a rehearsal space — had been ransacked.
The band had already been run out of their native Hermosa Beach and warned never to return, and their live shows throughout L.A. were frequently shut down in increasingly violent clashes with riot police.
Yet Black Flag persevered, playing halls and high schools in smaller Southern California towns. That summer, they'd even sold out the 3,500-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Thanks to their efforts, punk rock was breaking big across Los Angeles, fueled in part by news footage of riot cops attacking the children of suburbia — themselves now turned spiky-haired, threatening punks. When Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski appeared on Rona Barrett's show wearing a Mohawk to debate the question of "punk violence," the kids of L.A. knew which side they were on.
Black Flag shows churned up something dark and seething under the surface at the dawn of the Reagan era, and in the process revealed a sick society to itself. The band liked to spread chaos, and saw Charles Manson as a symbol of the same thing. So they adopted him as a mascot. Like the Manson Family, Black Flag lived like a cult on the run from police; they identified with fear, using it in their performance.
Dez Cadena had started that 1981 string of dates as the group's singer but had become unhappy with the frontman role and kept losing his voice. And so, midtour, the band made plans for him to move to second guitar. His frontman replacement was an untested, 20-year-old kid from Washington, D.C., named Henry Garfield, who renamed himself Henry Rollins. They'd more or less picked him out of the crowd, after he'd jumped onstage and sang a song with them in New York City that June.
They brought him back to L.A., where they attempted to record their first full-length LP for the fourth time — with their fourth different lead singer.
Joe Carducci moved down from Berkeley to help Dukowski and guitarist/lyricist/group leader Greg Ginn oversee the day-to-day workings of the band's label, SST Records. In late 1981, Black Flag moved their headquarters to an unused office at Unicorn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. "We had a whole top-floor office," Cadena says. "It had a shower, so that was cool. We slept under the desks." (The site where they would make a record that presented a definitive punk vision of dread, paranoia and existential angst now houses a Trader Joe's.)
The band launched into their now-legendary daily rehearsal regimen, sometimes practicing up to eight hours a day.
"Those of us who woke up early slept on the floor of the outer offices," says Carducci. "The guys who slept in the practice room got no sun and so might sleep till noon. At that point we all slept on the floors in our clothes; the rooms had carpeting, but not shag enough to help make that comfortable, exactly."
"We looked like trolls who lived under the bridge!" Cadena adds. "Greg's dad would get a big bag of random clothes for us from the thrift store and we'd dig through it. Like, 'Oh, I love these polyester pants that don't fit!' "
Rollins chimes in: "We ate wherever we could. I ate off people's plates after they had gotten up. I did a lot of that."
Meanwhile, punk rock teenagers from all over Greater Los Angeles were streaming into Hollywood to hang out nightly on the streets. Carducci remembers that L.A. seemed full of broken families, the streets crammed with young, mobile kids.
"L.A. was a sketchy place then," remembers filmmaker Dave Markey, only 17 at the time. "On Santa Monica Boulevard, there were hustlers, prostitutes and pimps. You wouldn't walk down certain streets. But it was also like a playground for us."
After the police shut their gatherings down, the kids would head to a deserted site in the Hollywood Hills they believed to be former movie star Errol Flynn's erstwhile estate. "There were the remnants of a pool and the basement, and a cliff you went out onto that overlooked the entire city at night," Cadena says.
Today the area is known as Runyon Canyon Park. "The tennis court is still there," Markey says. "Only it doesn't have 'Welcome to Hell' spray-painted on it anymore."
When he was chosen for the band, Rollins was a kid working at a Häagen-Dazs store in Georgetown. "Back in D.C., I was a somewhat normal person," he recalls. "I had a bank account. I did laundry."