Back in the late '70s at a club in Los Angeles' Chinatown, a small, unassuming guy in an Army jacket named Keith Morris walked onstage. He leaned forward and spoke into the mic with a distinctively SoCal drawl. "Heeey, man, we're Black Flag ... " The band started and the crowd erupted. "I'm about to have a nervous breakdown, my head really hurts ... "
The singer and his cohorts in Black Flag would go on to profoundly alter the musical landscape. With a series of exhilarating live performances and a now-legendary four-song EP, they would light the fuse for an explosion of bands and a new musical underground throughout America. In Los Angeles, they would eventually not be able to appear without a full-scale riot occurring.
Accompanying the whole thing was the striking artwork of Raymond Pettibon, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's brother. Each show was heralded by his signature images of grinning, maniacal figures engaged in acts of sex and violence, with cryptic taglines like "Life is a joke ... this is the punch line."
Morris would soon leave to form seminal hardcore outfit the Circle Jerks. Pettibon continued creating fliers for Black Flag and other bands, and would emerge as an acclaimed and highly influential artist. His cover art for Sonic Youth's major-label debut, Goo, has become one of the more iconic images in alternative music, while his large, arresting pictures of surfers, baseball players and cultural outsiders have been embraced by both the art world and pop culture. Pettibon's art has been exhibited in prestigious museums throughout the world and there are currently several books in print about the artist and his work.
But that was then. Decades later, Morris and Pettibon are again conspiring. Morris has a new band called Off!, which is preparing to make its Los Angeles debut. Pettibon will be displaying art at the venue and designing an original flier for the show.
Morris is currently on hiatus from the Circle Jerks and concentrating on this new band, which includes drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt), guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) and bassist McDonald of legendary L. A. band (and early Black Flag co-conspirators) Red Kross. The band will play its first Los Angeles show at a downtown warehouse.
Judging by Morris and Pettibon's humorous rapport and enthusiasm recently, over lunch at the Carousel restaurant in Little Armenia, little seems to have changed over the years. "This originally started as me writing songs for a new Circle Jerks record," Morris explains. "I haven't quit the Circle Jerks. But these songs sound more energetic and urgent than anything I've done in a long time. I don't know, maybe because I'm 55 and need to get it out of my system before I fall over from a heart attack."
A waiter arrives with a platter of rice and broiled tomatoes. "Keith likes tomatoes, coming from the punk vaudeville tradition," Pettibon offers, deadpan. "He's used to having them thrown at him."
"I usually only get old shoes thrown at me, Raymond," Morris responds with a grin.
The conversation turns to their early days with Black Flag. They say that the band had to book many of its own venues, like the warehouse for the upcoming show. "They had to create it themselves," Pettibon explains. "It was the beginning of the do-it-yourself thing. There were some others, sure, but Black Flag had a lot to do with starting all of that. They had to, because there wasn't a receptive audience or a formula for how to do this. It was all new. And this whole thing of renting places just continued because when they started playing, the cops would come and so club owners wouldn't touch them. You wouldn't be asked back."
"Our first shows were really just parties in the South Bay," Morris adds. "It would be the oddest mix of people. There would be Hell's Angels, all the kids who sold drugs at the Hermosa Pier, cheerleaders with their jock boyfriends. There were a couple of occasions where we could have gotten killed. But we didn't know any better. We never planned anything, like we'll sound like this and look like this. Everything we did in Black Flag, we just kind of stumbled upon it."
Pettibon clarifies: "That argument that we, or they, were just wandering in the wilderness without any knowledge that what they were doing was meaningful or would last? That wasn't the case, because, I mean, why else would you fucking do it? It's not like you have this adoring audience. But once I heard them I knew it was worth something, and that they had it."
I ask about the upcoming show, which, along with band and artwork, will feature old friend and skateboard legend Tony Alva playing records. "Raymond is going to do an actual painting on a wall of the warehouse," Morris explains. "That will be the actual installation. Then some of his other pieces will be blown up and wheat-pasted on the other walls."
"And besides the music, which is amazing," Pettibon offers, "there's just this positive energy going on with this. I've been in the game a long time. But this is really cool. I'm excited to be doing it. And I'm doing it because of Keith, so he has a lot to answer for."
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Later on the phone, Off! bassist McDonald recounts how he was initially approached by Morris at a local club. He says it wasn't until he actually heard the songs that he began to get seriously excited. "Keith gave me this CD of just Dimitri wailing on the guitar," McDonald says. "And I sat in my car listening to it and just thought, Fuck, yeah! It was definitely in the spirit of the early Black Flag. And that kind of makes perfect sense because my band started as sort of underlings of Black Flag."
When asked how the project seems to have somehow avoided the sense of nostalgia that can plague such endeavors, McDonald says, "Keith is still as pissed off as he was back then. And there's a vitality about that. He's also really good at expressing that outsider feeling. He hasn't lost that at all."
Earlier in the day, Morris and I are standing in the restaurant parking lot after lunch, watching as Pettibon drives off. Morris is bouncing up and down with excitement, still the kinetic, young singer who stepped up to the mic in that Army jacket all those years ago.
"Did you see how happy Raymond is, how excited he is?" Morris asks. "Man, we've been calling back and forth and talking all the time. I think he's so excited because this takes him back to something that really means something."