Can I Get in the Van?
I Hitchhiked to Texas This Winter and Almost Joined Black Flag
Dec 27 2013
Illustration by Todd Ryan White
In the summer of 1981, a young and unknown 20-year-old punk from Washington, DC, named Henry Garfield jumped up onstage to sing an encore with Black Flag at a show in New York City. It so happened that the band was looking for a new singer. A couple days later, they tracked down Henry and asked him to come back to New York for a proper audition. They met him at the Odessa diner on Avenue A by Tompkins Square Park and took him to a nearby rehearsal space, where they ran through a set together. Afterward, the band went outside to talk it over. As Henry later recounted in his tour diary, Get in the Van, guitarist Greg Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski returned a few minutes later and Dukowski asked, “Well? Are you going to join or not?”
Henry, of course, was in. He immediately quit his job as the manager of a Häagen-Dazs, left behind an abusive family situation, and went on the road with his favorite band. Shortly thereafter, he changed his last name to Rollins and moved to Los Angeles. Within six months, the band recorded Damaged, a record that is widely credited with inventing American hardcore.
Back when I was a Black Flag-obsessed teenager longing to escape my own dead-end hometown in south Florida, the story about Henry’s complete reversal of fortune captured my imagination. In 1989, after Black Flag had already split up, I read an interview with Greg Ginn in which he lamented how hard it was to find dedicated, hardworking musicians. Being an idealistic 16-year-old, I called SST Records and left a message on their answering machine, offering to drop what I was doing and hitchhike to Los Angeles to play bass in his band. Ginn, unfortunately, never called back. Still, Black Flag’s uncompromising DIY ethic continued to inspire me, and eventually, I left home, worked hard, and carved out a fulfilling life for myself as a writer and musician.
I still sometimes think about how exciting it must have been to just walk away from a life you didn’t like, as Henry did, and start over completely. One gloomy, late night last winter I found myself sitting at the Odessa diner, ruminating over a lukewarm cup of coffee. I was sick, rent was due, my new book was going nowhere, and a snowstorm was raging outside. I thought of Henry, sitting so long ago at the same counter.
Later that week, to everyone’s surprise, members of Black Flag announced that they were reforming. In fact, there were two reunions: one led by founder and principal songwriter Greg Ginn—claiming the official moniker of Black Flag—and the other by former bass player Dukowski and Keith Morris, the band’s first singer, which would simply be going by Flag.
While fans debated feverishly which of these lineups was the true Black Flag, I was captivated by one tiny detail from the flood of news stories announcing the dual reunions: Ginn said that he would be playing both guitar and bass on the new, as-yet-untitled album.
It dawned on me: Black Flag did not have a bass player. I could be that bass player! I decided right then and there to find out where Ginn was living, hitchhike across the country, and persuade him to let me try out—just as I had attempted to do at 16. I knew all the old songs, and I figured that thumbing it instead of flying or taking a bus would prove to Ginn that I had dedication.
Ginn, I knew, had for the past few years been based in a small town called Taylor, just outside Austin, Texas. That morning’s New York Post told me that the weather in Austin was presently a rejuvenating and springlike 70 degrees. There was no reason not to go.
A few days later I found myself standing on the side of Interstate 81 with my thumb out. A light snow fell around me, melting the Sharpie on the cardboard sign on which I had scrawled texas.
Ginn’s trademark clear Plexiglas Dan Armstrong guitar lay on the ground, sporting two rusty strings.
What it means to be Black Flag is precisely the question that the two newly formed incarnations pose: Is Black Flag a much-loved set of classic hardcore songs, or is Black Flag the contrarian experimentation and ceaseless work ethic that originally produced said songs?
Dukowski’s Flag, a powerhouse lineup that features some of the finest musicians in punk history, will be playing the hits. “We just want to make sure the music is played correctly and with conviction,” guitarist Dez Cadena told me. Dukowski echoed Dez’s sentiment: “I want to have a great time with my friends, and I want the audience to come out of our shows sweating and thinking, That was righteous!”
While members of Flag say that “having fun” is the primary objective of their reformation, I’m not sure fun is the first word that comes to mind when considering a band whose hits include the songs “Depression” and “Life of Pain.” Indeed, many of Ginn’s best-known songs, like “Six Pack” and “TV Party,” pointedly mock people who are having a good time. Ginn was the notorious slave driver of the band, demanding eight-hour rehearsals and epic six-month tours. For Ginn, Black Flag was a concept. When the members no longer meshed with his concept, he replaced them. After Damaged, Ginn jettisoned many of the band’s early classics and confounded punk purists with an ongoing series of lineup changes, instrumental and spoken-word tracks, and postpunk records that were each heavier, darker, and artier than the last. Since the mid-90s, he has virtually abandoned traditional rock music completely, while touring and recording extensively in various experimental electronic and improvisational bands.
Perhaps Flag can best be seen as a sort of long-deserved victory lap in which the inventors of hardcore get to bask in the limelight while enjoying some of the most enduring songs in the canon. Yet, just as Flag and fans settled in to eagerly await their highly anticipated shows, Ginn shocked fans and music journalists by announcing that he was ten steps ahead and in the midst of putting the finishing touches on a new Black Flag record, the first since 1985’s In My Head.
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