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.”
But when he joined the act, he had to quickly give up his apartment and sell his car. “It was a big change to adapt to the lifestyle of the band. Black Flag was wild, and the learning curve was very steep. I thought I was a hard worker but had no idea what hard work meant.”
Rollins took the stage for his first Southern California gig with Black Flag on Aug. 21, 1981, at the Cuckoo's Nest in Costa Mesa. Dave Markey was there, filming the gig with his father's Super 8 camera. “At first, he was almost naïve,” Markey says. “He didn't have his Rollins character down yet.” Footage of a young, fresh-faced Rollins singing “Six Pack” with the band that night concludes Markey's 1986 debut film, The Slog Movie. The soon-to-become-heavily-tattooed frontman is shirtless, sporting a fresh Black Flag bars tattoo that he had gotten that very day.
By October the band and its new singer were ready to begin work on Damaged. They worked quickly, recording all of the music — including the now legendary flurry of guitar solos — live in two or three takes, with vocals to be added later.
The record featured the band's fastest tempos to date, introducing the patented “loud fast rules” hardcore sound, and their lurching off-kilter rhythms and guitar solos blazing in and out of tune presented an inimitable sound like nothing heard before in punk. Black Flag's signature swing derived from the internal tension between the rhythms created by Ginn's heavily percussive downstrokes on the guitar and the almost militaristic beats played by drummer Robo, an illegal alien from Colombia.
While Ginn's largely improvised solos gave the record its signature sound, Rollins provided a memorable ad lib session of his own. On the record's closing track, “Damaged I,” his nearly four-minute vocal improv over Ginn's discordant two-chord funeral dirge seems to deconstruct the record's entire first half-hour, distilling its themes into this primal howl of toxic feedback and pain. Over Robo's slow and minimal 1-2-1 high-hat/snare beat — panting and out of breath — Rollins declares, “My name is Henry … and you're here with ME now!”
His hallucinatory stream of consciousness seems at times addressed to an abusive father figure (Yes sir! Yes sir!), and at times seems a warning to anyone who would try to help. (Hold out your hand to me/Give me your hand … and I'll bite it off!) The Rollins era of the band seems to truly begin at the record's end, and the performance you hear is the first take.
The achievement of Damaged was so great that it seemed to invent hardcore and exhaust all of the subgenre's musical possibilities all at once. The group was already heading in a new musical direction by the album's last track, and it would never look back. Subsequently the members grew their hair and Ginn confounded fans with a series of lineup changes, instrumental records and full-length rock LPs, each darker, heavier and artier than the last. Yet as challenging and ambitious as these records were, none rivals the freshness or sense of musical discovery of Damaged, which features a very good band going beyond itself into the unknown.
Black Flag video and artwork are featured in “Under the Big Black Sun,” a MOCA exhibit (through Feb. 13) that surveys California art in the era between Nixon's resignation and Reagan's Inauguration. Replicas of the fliers for which Black Flag were hassled by cops for wheat-pasting on lamp posts now are for sale in the gift shop. Rollins himself performed as DJ for the exhibition's opening-night event.
Many punks likely would be outraged at the thought of Black Flag in a museum, seeing the band's works as sacred artifacts of a proud and oppositional subculture not to be taken out of their original context and kept under glass. Indeed, with its inclusion in the museum, the band joins other L.A. artists like Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman and Chris Burden, also featured prominently in Pacific Standard Time retrospectives for work that once caused them to be arrested by LAPD or censored by local authorities.
But Black Flag have much in common with these artists, and for that reason deserves to be considered alongside them. The work of each made society deeply uncomfortable, and caused them to be lightning rods for police oppression. Black Flag absorbed that oppression into their own performance, with the intent of turning the resulting chaos into persuasive theater.
In the classic tradition of L.A. noir, the band held a mirror up to a collapsed SoCal dream in the post-Manson era, intuiting the hostility beneath the sunny suburban surface and the fragility of civil society, just a decade before the city exploded in the Rodney King riots. Damaged remains perhaps the era-defining artwork of Police Chief Daryl Gates' L.A.