Black Flag: Anatomy of a Lawsuit
Keith Morris and I have been pals for about a million years, ever since I crashed on his floor after another drunken night hanging out in LA during the 1970s. In the 80s, when I was working at SPIN, I borrowed a copy of Hardcore California (a book about the Southern California punk scene) from him and never returned it. I’d shudder whenever I came across the book. Last year I finally sent it back to him with my most sincere apologies, and that sort of rekindled our friendship. Since I’ve always been confused about Keith’s time in Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and the whole California hardcore scene, I thought what better way to get some clarity than to interview Keith and let him explain it himself? We talked on the phone for four or five hours and Keith laid out the entire history of the hardcore scene. It probably helped that I started off by saying, “Talk to me like I’m a moron and don’t know any of this stuff.”
A month after we finished the interview, Greg Ginn, the guy who co-founded Black Flag with Morris, initiated a lawsuit against Keith, along with Dez Cadena, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, and Stephen Egerton, because they have been touring under the name Flag, giving the fans a taste of true hardcore punk rock. Henry Rollins is also named in the lawsuit. Since Greg Ginn’s Black Flag has become a bloated, monotonous carcass of everything we hate about rock 'n' roll, Flag got together to pass the torch to a new generation of headbangers and shame Greg Ginn’s band by showing the world how the noise should be played.
As this lawsuit travels through the courts, take a few minutes, as we travel back to those dark days of the 1970s when the world was one giant macraméd happy face and teenage angst was drowning in the swill of the deadly folk rock, back when a few fuckups dared to challenge the status quo….
"The guy from the Parks Department told us afterward he'd never allow this to happen ever again. That was probably one of the greatest compliments we ever got." —Keith Morris on an early performance at Polliwog Park. Image via
SEEDS OF DISCONTENT
The way that I met Greg Ginn was through his younger sister, Erica, while I was working at this record store, Rubicon, on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach in 1975. The gentleman who owned the record store, Michael, had a mad crush on Erica. So Greg Ginn would walk down to the record store with his sister—and Erica and Michael would go off to do whatever young lovers do—hold hands and watch the seagulls fly or the surfers on Hermosa Beach. You know, they’d get lunch or beer or cigarettes, and I would be left to run the record store while Greg Ginn hung around, waiting for his sister.
They were always playing Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles and the first three Springsteen records and Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in the record store, and I wasn’t real excited about listening to them. What was happening, as this music was being played, was the seeds of my musical rebellion were starting to come to fruition.
I thought, I’m not into any of this. I need to be listening to Black Sabbath, I need to be listening to Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges, I need to be listening to the New York Dolls, and I need to be listening to power trios blasting off, trying to remove my skull!
So after Michael and Erica left, I’d take off the Joni Mitchell and put on Uriah Heap and Deep Purple, ya know, just anything loud and abrasive. Greg actually didn’t have any choice because I was the guy behind the counter, but I liked Greg. I liked talking to him. You know, it was cool hanging out with him. He seemed like a good guy. He liked a majority of the stuff that I’d play, and the comments Greg would make would be right along with what I was thinking. That’s how we came together. That’s where the seeds of Black Flag were planted, in that record store in Hermosa Beach.
Michael had purchased some tickets for the Journey and Thin Lizzy concert at the Santa Monica Civic Center. The three of us—Michael, Ginn, and me—drove up to the concert in my Chevy Impala. Afterward, Greg said, “I gotta handful of songs. Why don’t we put together a band?”
See, we were a couple of nerds. We weren’t part of the local music scene. We were just a couple of guys that were going through this blindly. I didn’t know how to play an instrument, but I wanted to learn. I played a little bit of bass, but not enough to amount to anything. So we didn’t rehearse yet. We had to find players. We went through three bass players before Chuck Dukowski joined, and that’s when Black Flag became a band, because Chuck Dukowski brought a work ethic. Now we were gonna start practicing, ya know? We’re gonna learn these songs! We’re not gonna flip-flop around like a fish on the deck of a boat!
Now it was time to find a real drummer and so we put an ad in the Pennysaver, your local weekly, throwaway newspaper. One of the guys who answered the ad was Robo [Roberto Valverde], who brought his secret weapon, the cumbia, with him.
So the three- and four-hour rehearsals started to kick in. We kind of resembled a band, but none of our friends liked what we were doing. The best we could get would be playing in a garage in a backyard, but those shows would erupt into a full-scale miniriots. We would have the bikers and the football players and the cheerleaders and the drug dealers and the surf-rat ho-dads all fighting on the front lawn.
Occasionally some musician friends would show up, like Juan, the bass player in Ratt, who’d just laugh and say, “This is hilarious!”
The punk stuff was just to starting to bubble up here in LA—like the Germs and the Runaways. We didn’t have our ear close enough to the ground to know about it. We were still going to Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Anaheim Stadium, stuff like that. We would go to anything that interested us, but we ended up falling in love with the Ramones. The Ramones were a huge influence, and not only did I see them when they played at the Whiskey but they actually threw a party, like an all-night party over at the Tropicana Motel. There were so many people at the party that I’m surprised the Tropicana allowed it to happen. There was a minimum 100 to 150 people there. The Screamers were there, and the Germs were there. I’m sure some of the guys from the Dickies were there, too.
And, here we are, these guys from the South Bay, and if I met the Ramones or conversed with them, it was beyond me, because of my condition: I was completely drunk. And that’s when I cut all my hair off. I found a pair of hedge trimmers and cut off my hair, that left it all spiky, almost like a flat top, a kind off skinhead scenario. So I felt really proud of myself.
Of course, the next day I went to work hungover, with this really horrible haircut. My old man was pissed off. He wanted to know what was up. His partner’s wife accused me of being a royal sinner, that I was never gonna be allowed to get into heaven. Ya know, silly, non-sensical crap like that.
Greg Ginn, via
We didn’t know where to go to get a gig. So after a couple of years of being locked in the rehearsal space, after one of our practices, Greg Ginn and I went up to the Masque in LA, the bastion of punk rock, and cornered one of my heroes, Brendan Mullen. We were kind of grungy looking characters—I hadn’t cut my hair yet, so we looked like the guys that roadied for Peter Frampton.
We were impressed with Brendan because we were impressed with the Masque—that’s where we got to see the Germs and the Weirdoes. So we bothered Brendan to the point where he just gave in. He said, “All right, I’ll let you play, you can be the opening band on closing night.”
So we played closing night of the original Masque, but I don’t remember it because I loved to break open a six-pack or two on a regular basis and snort some Hollywood Happy Powder. I would get around Derf and Philo and Spit from Fear—they’d become friends of mine and we all became drinking buddies. And maybe Darby Crash would come hang out with us. I wasn’t thinking about getting laid, I was too drunk to even worry about what I was gonna do with my penis. I was more concerned with getting fucked up.
I mean, I was one of those guys sitting in the parking lot outside of the Hollywood Bowl drinking prescription peach-flavored cough syrup before sneaking into the Hollywood Bowl to see the Allman Brothers, yaknow?
Greg Ginn and I started drifting. Our friendship started to dissolve about halfway through my second year of being in the band. We weren’t playing a lot of shows. All we were doing was rehearsing, but what were we rehearsing for? Yaknow, it was like we were playing to just please ourselves. We made a couple of trips to San Francisco and that was pretty cool, but there started to be a shift in the plates. What I mean by that is when Gary joined the band, people started taking sides. It was no longer, “All for one and one for all and let’s go party!” You know, “Hey guys, let’s be bros! Let’s party down!”
What had happened was it had turned into three against one. I, apparently, was impeding their progress because of my drunken antics and because they wanted to learn more songs. My mentality was as follows: That’s all fine and great, but why are we learning new songs? What for?
It got to the point where I wasn’t having any fun. I mean, we would go out and play and while we were playing, while we were on stage, I was having a great time, but all the other stuff that was attached to it just started to kind of grind on me. And there was a power struggle going on and I didn’t want to get involved in that. Everytime we got into some kind of argument or there was a group discussion, I was the freckle-faced stepchild, ya know, the orphan. Eventually I just said, “Guys, I’m outta here.”
As it turned out, because I spent a lot of time with Chuck Dukowski, now I got to hear all of the post-Keith Morris Black Flag stories. Chuck told me that Greg Ginn was gonna kick me outta the band because I was keeping them from moving forward. That was one thing that I’d never picked up from Greg Ginn. I never saw him as being particularly ambitious, or the king of an empire, that he would eventually become.
But it didn’t start getting ugly until the Circle Jerks started playing live.
MASTURBATION IN THE ROUND
After I left Black Flag, I was living in an abandoned Baptist Church in Hermosa Beach at the corner of Pier and Hermosa Avenue. After it was abandoned by its followers, some hippies moved in and began to rent out sections of the church for glass-blowing and pottery and stuff like that. The guy who was in charge was a guy named Red, who actually dealt LSD to the Grateful Dead—ha, ha, ha! And one of the things that’s happening in the church was that Redd Kross was rehearsing there.
So Redd Kross was down in the basement one Saturday afternoon, and I run into Greg Hetson and Keith “Lucky” Lehrer, who were going into the basement to audition. Redd Kross was auditioning drummers and Lucky was the drummer that they were auditioning that day. So they’re down there for about an hour. I’m just sitting in the hallway just drinking beer, and Greg and Lucky are the first two to come out and they’re shaking their heads.
I can see that Greg Hetson is really upset, so I said, “How’s it goin’? It sounded really happening!” But they’re shaking their heads with a disillusioned look on each of their faces. So I said, “Greg, what’s happening?” And Greg said, “Well, it sounded great, it sounded amazing, but the brothers didn’t like Lucky because he was too proficient. He was too good of a drummer…”
That’s when it dawned on me, I said, “Look we gotta vocalist, a guitar player, and a drummer. All we need is a bass player!” And a couple of weeks later I ran into Rodger Rodgerson in front of the Anti-Club over in Hollywood, and drafted him. That's pretty much how the Circle Jerks got together.
Raymond Pettibon is Greg Ginn’s younger brother, and he has been a part of this since the very beginning. We went to high school together. I mean, granted we weren’t all in the same classes, but there was a point in time when we were all at Maricosta High School in Manhattan Beach. We were all Mustangs—green and gold were our school colors, just like the Green Bay Packers.
And Raymond’s always been a fan of Black Flag. See, we were called Panic before we were called Black Flag, but then there was some French band named Panic released a 45. When we found this out, we looked at each other and went, “We gotta change our name because we can’t afford to deal with any lawsuits!”
I mean, what lawyer would represent us? Like, “Does anyone even know a lawyer? What’s a lawyer?”
So Raymond was the guy that came up with the name Black Flag. He also designed the band’s logo, ya know, the four bars that create the waving flag? It’s a great design. It lives forever. And the name, the Circle Jerks, was another Raymond Pettibon creation, because we had run through six or seven names, Plastic Hippy, The Runs, White Hassle... Like don’t hassle me, white man!
Anyways, we didn’t like any of the names and one day we were hanging out with Raymond in one of the bedrooms in his parent’s house in Hermosa Beach. And Greg Hetson and I were looking at each other and it was like we need to come up with a name for the band. So I pull a book off the shelf, the American Slang Dictionary, and we’re like breezing through it. I’m looking at all the different names and all of a sudden there’s Circle Jerk. And I’m thinking, Well, the Rolling Stones, that’s a pretty terrible name...
It always seems that the worst names, the most terrible names, are the most remembered.
So I thought, Circle Jerk, no, Circle Jerks, plural, because there’s four of us. Greg nodded his head and that’s where that went down. So we could almost blame it on Raymond Pettibon again.
Raymond was one of the first three bass players we had before we found Chuck Dukowski. He was one of those bassists that couldn’t play the bass guitar.
We were party buddies. One night we’re at a John Cale/Zeros show at the Whiskey and he was drunk out of his mind and he picked up some girl and they were dry humping on the floor of the Whiskey a Go Go. Raymond didn’t really get involved in any of the inner workings of Black Flag, he was just a fan, yaknow? He grew up with us. He got along with his brother Greg, but they don’t speak now, because one of them is an incredibly horrible person—and it’s not Raymond.
BUT WHO IS THE LEAD SINGER?
There were two vocalists in Black Flag sandwiched in between Henry Rollins and me. A lot of people, when they think about Black Flag they think of Henry Rollins, because Henry was on every album. Or just about every album. That’s one of the amazing things about Black Flag; there were four different lead vocalists and each one of us brought our own flavor to the party, yaknow?
So Henry came in after Dez, and Dez came in after Ron Reyes, and Ron came in after me. Ron was only in the band for six months. He just wasn’t into it. I don’t know what his excuse was or his reasons were for leaving, but I was told that the EP Black Flag put out with Ron, the Jealous Again EP, were the best songs that Black Flag ever did.
Henry Rollins used Black Flag as a springboard for all the other stuff that he’s done, and I wholeheartedly applaud him. Greg Ginn doesn’t like the fact that Henry is more successful than him. I’m surprised that Henry made it as far as he did with Greg Ginn, because Greg was always saying “I can’t have him upstaging me! Oh, he’s doing all of the interviews!” But Henry would upstage him just by walking onstage. I mean, Henry was a punk-rock sex symbol. So I think Greg was happy to have him, but also resented him.
You have to understand that Greg became very egotistical. He was like, “Well, I’ve got this great record label with all of these bands. There’s all of this stuff going on, and I’m in control!” And so Greg Ginn quit the band. I don’t know when. All I know is that Greg quit and left Henry with Black Flag and that’s when Henry decided to do his own thing with the Henry Rollins Band. But I don’t really know anything about that time.
I just know that Greg Ginn was never a vocalist, and Greg will never be a vocalist. But as a guitar player, I’d put Greg up there with Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Jimmy Hendrix. He was one great guitar players of all time.
I was the first lead vocalist, but I’m not a singer either. I was the lead screamer. I’m not going to be the guy that goes to the wedding and they’re gonna ask me to sing a song.
I woulda been on the first record that Black Flag released, the Nervous Breakdown EP, but I’d left the band. I am on Everything Went Black. I’m on one side of three sides and I’m on another compilation, I think it’s called Wasted Again. There’s enough recorded material and that would equate me being owed quite a large chunk of royalties. But I’ve never gotten any royalties from Black Flag.
Ginn doesn’t pay royalties. He once invited me to get up onstage and sing four or five songs with him. I looked Greg in the eye and said, “Sure, cut me a check for $75,000 for back royalties.” That would’ve been just the tip of the iceberg, but he just laughed in my face.
The Circle Jerks were out on tour in 2003 and we played a big festival over here by the LA Coliseum. A couple of the guys from Golden Voice, the promoters that we’ve dealt with for the majority of our lives, said to me, “Keith we need your help, we’re doing two nights of Black Flag at the Hollywood Palladium…”
I said, “Don’t even fill me in on the details, just let me know when you’re doing it. Of course, I’ll be there; I’ll be a part of it. What do I need to do?”
When I was asked to participate in the Hollywood Palladium show, it was being advertised as “Black Flag: The First Four Years.” It’s one of these situations where you’re looking at maybe $100,000 over the course of two nights and it was supposed to be a benefit for cats. So I was thinking, “Wow, they’re gonna have Ron and Dez and Chuck and Robo down here, too! So I will get to hang out with some of my friends!”
So I went to my first rehearsal and it was pretty brutal. These other guys—not Dez or Ron or Chuck or Robo—were playing the songs, and they didn’t even know what the songs were. They were looking at each other, waiting around for the riff to go around like five or six times. It was pretty ridiculous. I shook my head. I’d had enough. I was wasting my time. Still, I wanted to know when Chuck Dukowski was gonna show up because I know that Chuck shows up, shit was gonna happen. I actually called Greg and said, “So when is Chuck going to be showing up for rehearsal?”
Greg said, “I haven’t talked with Chuck yet...”
Then I actually talked with Chuck at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, during the West Memphis Three benefit, and I asked him, “So do you know about the Black Flag reunion at the Hollywood Palladium?”
Chuck says, “No, nobody’s talked to me about it...”
I said, “Well, I guess you’re learning about it now….”
So I left the rehearsal that night thinking I’m not going back until I know when Robo and Chuck Dukowski are gonna be there. I called Dez to see if anybody reached out to him, to see when he was coming in. But he didn’t call back, so I just left a message on his machine. I woulda called Robo too, if I knew how to get a hold of Robo.
Then I got my ass handed to me by Greg Ginn on the phone, who told me, “I will call you when it’s time to rehearse, stop talking shit behind everyone’s back, stop trying to mess everything up….”
I said, “Well have you talked with Robo? When is Robo getting in?”
Greg said, “That’s really none of your business. I’ll call you when it’s your turn…”
That’s when I realized that Greg never intended to have the original band onstage.
THE BIG SHOW
The promoter called me and wanted to know, “Well, who’s gonna be onstage? We’re sold out the first night and we need to fill up the second night. We wanna run some ads, so who’s playing in the band? We wanna advertise everyone that’s playing.”
I told him, “I can’t tell ya, I don’t know, I’ve been left in the dark...”
He says, “Well you’re supposed to know this stuff!” And it just started getting uglier and uglier. I realized why I quit the band in the first place. Initially I was just beyond jazzed, I was beyond stoked, but then getting around all these people and hearing the conversations and getting my ass chewed out for stuff that I wasn’t doing. I was like, “Are you fucking kidding? These are all the reasons I left the band in the first place!”
So the promoter calls me a couple weeks before the show and says “Greg has told me that on a couple of occasions, you’ve been spreading vicious rumors and you’ve been talking shit behind everybody’s back, so you’re services are not going to be necessary.” At first I wanted to be bummed out, but then I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked him.
Two days before the show the promoter calls me back and says, “Keith, we’ve reserved a couple of tables in the balcony, so you can invite all your friends, you can hang out in the balcony, and if you choose to go down on stage and sing a few songs, feel free.”
And I said, “Well thank you for the offer, but I won’t be there.”
A few days later I get a call from him and he apologized to me for the way that he talked to me on the phone. Which didn’t really bother me too much because it’s par for the course with stuff like this, but at the end of our conversation he says, “Well I hope that we’re still friends??”
I said, “Rick, we’re always gonna be friends. No matter what, any of this stuff that goes down, we’re always going to be friends.”
The sad thing is that Rick mixed some medication and died shortly after that.
So no, I didn’t go to the show but I heard all of the rumors, I heard all of the critiques. They were actually throwing trash cans at the stage. There were people that had purchased tickets for both nights trying to sell their tickets for the second night. I heard nothing but horror stories.
Gary Tovar, the head guy at Golden Voice asked Chuck Dukowski to come to his anniversary party and give a speech to 4,000 people. So Chuck thinks about it and says, “Well, no, I’m a musician, let me try something else.”
So he calls me and Billy Stevenson. So we agreed to play the Nervous Breakdown EP at the Golden Voice 30th-anniversary party before the Descendents, who were headlining that Sunday night. So we play the anniversary party and everyone goes crazy. So we’re backstage, me, Chuck, Billy, Stephen, and Dez Cadena, and we’re looking at each other. We’ve had a great time, and among the four of us, we decided that maybe we should play out as a band.
We came up with the name Flag and start playing out, and all of our shows have been great. We really enjoy playing with each other. We enjoy each other’s company. I mean granted, we’re all a bunch of older guys, and occasionally somebody gets grumpy and grouchy, but that’s what old people do.
Raymond Pettibon and I were sitting down to eat a couple of sandwiches, a short while back, and he looks at me and tells me that he knows how his brother has treated everybody that he ever dealt with like shit. Ya know, Raymond tells me he knows Greg’s not been cool to everybody. I’m like, “So what else is new?” But then Raymond tells me that if I ever get in a financial bind or health situation that I can feel free to walk into his studio and take whatever I want to and sell it.
This is one of the greatest artists of our time and he’s extending that kind of an invitation to me? Not only was I flattered, but I also realized that he and I were real close at one time, ya know? In the circle we were running with in that church—and in Black Flag, and the whole South Bay underground scene—me and Raymond had a lot of things in common. We were both fans of the Dodgers and the Angels, we were both fans of Superman and Batman. We were really close.
But I never took him up on his offer. I had no need to. I was always in a financial situation where I was able to pay my bills. I get by on the skin of my teeth, but I don’t need a lot of money after discovering the greatness of the farmers' market.
Previously - Among The War Pigs
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk Magazine, which is part of the reason you know even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, pleasekillme.com.
You should also follow him on Twitter - @Legs__McNeil
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