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Dez Cadena of Black Flag, Misfits, and More on the Fight for His Life

The punk legend talks about his come up and his current battle with throat cancer.

by Tony Rettman
Sep 3 2015, 6:55pm

Let’s just put it out there: If you do not consider Dez Cadena an American Punk Icon, you really need your diaper changed. As both front man and guitarist for Black Flag in their pioneering years as well as being the longest running guitarist for the Misfits, Dez has solidified his standing as an individual who has lived his life through music with no regard to what the squares and normos have to say.

Unfortunately though, such credentials and accolades do not pay medical bills.

Dez was recently diagnosed with throat cancer. In the past few months, he has had a polyp removed and just completed some draining radiation. As expected, the medical bills are starting to pile up. Due to this, someone has set up a page on Go Fund Me to help Cadena pay his medical costs.

To drum up more interest in Dez’s cause, I set about nailing down an interview with him. Through the help of Mike over at the Clockwork Records Store, I was able to get in touch with Dez and he was more than willing to speak. I suggested that we just go back and forth via Facebook messenger, but he insisted on speaking to me. His voice sounded raw and raspy from his condition. “Hell, it’s no worse than how I’d sound after a Black Flag set!” he joked as we spoke from his hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

Over the course of the past few days, Dez and I spoke if and when we could. On my end, it was when I could find the time between working my day job and home upkeep. For him, it was when he simply had the strength to talk. We spoke about the moving from Newark to Hermosa Beach, California and the adolescent upheaval it caused, his first musical loves, joining Black Flag and of course, his recent medical woes.

It was a privilege of the most surrealistic order to speak with Dez; a man who shaped the course of my life so profoundly and I thank him profusely for his time. The link for his Go Fund Me page is after the interview. Give generously.

Noisey: So let’s start at the beginning; they always say that’s the best place to start.
Dez Cadena:
I grew up in Newark, New Jersey in the 60’s. There was racial tension. There were the riots of ’67, but I was young and separated from that mostly in my part of town. My father was a Jazz producer and A&R man for Savoy, Prestige and Fantasy Records. He also owned record stores in Newark but in the middle of the riots, he moved the store to New Brunswick. Through him, I was exposed to Yuseef Lateef, Hank Jones, Lester Young and Billie Holiday at a young age. I also heard classical music like Beethoven’s 5th symphony. I’m not sure people who are punk rock don’t care about me talking about classical music, but these are the elements that make me who I am. I still have these records and play them. The other people in my part of Newark were like the people in Mean Streets; my favorite Scorcese film. I was too young for all that. Music was my focus and that’s what saved me. Even though my father was a be-bopper, he could appreciate all kinds of music. I remember him coming home from the store with the Beatles White Album and being very enthusiastic about it saying “Listen to this! Can you believe it?” He appreciated those records for the production work on them. If I learned anything from him, it’s to appreciate music for the feeling of it and what it was expressing.

My first rock concert was The J.Geils Band. I still think to this day they were one of the best live bands I ever saw. Of course, this was before they made videos and all that. They were once a great band. The second concert I saw was Humble Pie. Both of these were at the Asbury Park Convention Center. Both were high energy groups. Those were my first real rock experiences.

I remember my brother brought home the first Black Sabbath record. I remember sitting in this rocking chair looking at the cover and listening to the music and being truly scarred. That was the first music I ever heard that really scared me, but that’s what I loved about it. There was The Small Faces with Steve Marriott and then when he joined Humble Pie, I became a big fan of them. I was into the bands that would be considered Heavy Metal at the time. Deep Purple were considered Heavy Metal at the time even though they were bluesy. But Jon Lord’s organ made them sound really heavy. The first couple Uriah Heep records I liked. I even liked some of the early Progressive Rock bands. I liked King Crimson and things like that. From there, I got into some more obscure English bands like Hawkwind and The Groundhogs.

Frank Zappa made a big impact on me. That was the first music where I could relate to both the attitude and the music. Zappa introduced me to Stravinsky and other modern classical composers when I read interviews with him. Zappa could go into something that sounded like Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring right into something like “Directly From My Heart To You” and that was mind blowing to me. He was playing the music he loved and he didn’t give a shit what anyone thought of it. Now, that was punk rock!

Through Zappa, I found out about Captain Beefheart and that blew me away. That was a very pivotal moment in music from me; discovering Captain Beefheart. I saw an interview once with Matt Groening where he said he bought the Captain Beefheart record Trout Mask Replica because he read that Frank Zappa produced it. He brought it home and thought it was dreck. He said it sounded like they weren’t even trying. But then he went and saw them live and understood it. You had one guy playing in one time signature and another guy playing in another time signature and a great drummer playing in another time signature and then you had Captain Beefheart singing like how I sound right now! He saw that this wasn’t just a bunch of guys making a racket. Captain Beefheart taught every musician in his band every song note for not. That’s a hell of a lot of dedication when compared to someone like Gene Simmons.

I had these two cousins, Steve and Rickie Shear. One day we were all visiting my grandmother and they were upstairs listening to something on the reel to reel. It was the Wild Man Fischer record Zappa put out, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer. I must have been about nine years old. I asked them if it was something they made themselves. It was just this guy singing this song all by himself. Steve and Rickie turned me onto Zappa and a lot of other stuff. They both went to Woodstock, but Rickie fell asleep during Hendrix. You see, Hendrix played at eight in the morning on the last day of the festival. Mostly everyone had left by then. But Steve wanted to stay for Hendrix, but Rickie was maybe fourteen at the time and real tired, so he slept through Hendrix’s set and Steve would always bust his balls about it.

Another pivotal thing was walking into a Thrifty Drug Store that had bins of cut-out records and seeing this record with a banana on the cover. I walked up to the bin and picked this record up and said to my friends “Will you look at this record? What’s with the banana on the cover?” Then I flipped it over and saw Lou Reed’s name and became interested. I knew of him as a solo artist only at that point. I figured out this must have been his first band, so I bought it, took it home and was just totally blown away. Have you ever heard that Brian Eno quote about how the few thousand people who bought a Velvet Underground record started a band? Well, I believe that. It certainly made me think I could do something. I got a guitar soon after hearing that record.

When I was really young and listening to all this music, I didn’t know anything. All I know was it hit me emotionally or it made me laugh. It must have been in my blood from my father.

Dez Cadena

I’m curious about how you found out about Hawkwind.
My brother Pru had two Hawkwind records, but the one I heard first was Doremi Fasol Latido. Now, you have to remember I was very young when I heard that record; probably about twelve. There was no difference between The Beatles and Hawkwind to me at this point. If it was interesting – that was it – it was mine forever. I remember reading the line-up of players on the album and it was an army of people. I couldn’t understand the words, but they sounded like space aliens to me. I asked my brother, “Who are these guys? Are they from outer space?” and he was like “Yup. You’re right!”

The beauty of Hawkwind was they weren’t peace and love; they were anarchists with a political agenda. But as opposite and they were with everything that was going on at that point, there was love in their music.

I believe there’s love in every performance. Even G.G Allin had love in his performance of cutting himself open and shitting on stage. It stemmed from hate, but there was a love there. People loved to see it, so there’s the love right there, you know?

Same thing with The Mentors. I knew El Duce and he was a very intelligent man up until he’d have his first beer of the day. If you saw him in the morning, you could have an intelligent conversation with him. But after two in the afternoon when he already had two beers, he would be screaming “Where’s the sluts?” People would encourage him to act like that and it was a shame.

So when did you move from Newark to Hermosa Beach?
When I was thirteen in 1974, my Father decided to move to Hermosa Beach, California. He fell in love with the town. He fell in love with this Jazz club they had there called The Lighthouse. He would go on to book music there.

But Hermosa Beach was completely opposite of Newark. I think my father thought it would be a better environment for me to grow up in, but on my first day of going to school at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the kids were pulling joints out of their notebooks. It was like walking into a Cheech and Chong film.

Dez Cadena

How did Punk Rock enter your consciousness?
My friend brought home three records from the record store: Rush’s 2112, The second Runaways record Queens of Noise, and this record by a band neither of us had hear of named The Ramones. I remember going into her room, seeing the records on the floor and saying “What did you do? Just go to the “R” section and pick out the first three records you saw?”

We put on 2112 and took it off half way through. It was what we would expect from Rush. Not that Rush were bad, but we got the point. We put on Queens of Noise and thought “Yup, another great record by The Runaways”. Then we said “Well, let’s see what these Ramones guys are all about”. We were skeptical. They were ugly. Dee Dee looked like he just had a bowl taken off his head! The cover was black and white. This was a time of full-color, gatefold record sleeves, so we thought this was just some cheap record.

We put that record on and we sat in total silence and disbelief while it played. We kept shaking our heads over it. When the first side was over, we played it again and then played it again and played it over and over that whole afternoon. That record was played for three weeks straight on just that first side! Eventually, after three weeks, we thought “We better flip this over” and the second side was played for three weeks.

But punk was an attitude that was born before anyone thought of anything like punk rock. It comes from anyone in history who stuck to their guns. Everyone from Van Gogh to Captain Beefheart. The attitude is: I don’t care if you love it or hate it. It’s the attitude that if you don’t like what I do, great! Then go create your own stuff. But if you don’t like it and you’re not going to do anything about it, well, there’s the door.

As far as I go – again – it’s an attitude that was instilled upon me by my father. After I was a certain age, he said to me “You can read any book you want, just as long as you understand and develop your own opinion about it”. That idea really stuck in my mind when I dropped out of high school. I used to ditch school and go to the Redondo Beach Library by the water.

Dez Cadena

What happened that you dropped out of high school?
Dropping out of high school was gradual. By the time I was freshman, I had to go to the school across town because they changed the borderlines in the school system because there were people in Manhattan Beach who were snobs and didn’t want people from Redondo going to their schools. Also, my grandma was dying, so I had to go back to New Jersey and I missed a lot of school time moving back and forth. I tried to go to school when I was back home in New Jersey but that was a nightmare. When I went back to Redondo, I was so far behind and at that point, it didn’t matter to me. My high school was me with the guitar or me going to the library to read or getting in trouble or going to the record store or finding someone who had a joint or finding someone to buy us a six pack.

So what was your entry way into the world of Black Flag?
My father would have these yard sales every weekend, but he’d go down to the beach to have a cocktail and take photographs of the girls playing volleyball on the beach and leave me in charge, you know?

Sure, sounds normal enough.
So, I was sitting there in charge of this yard sale and I was playing Brian Eno or something like that out of my stereo; I had the speakers up against the window so I could hear it outside. This kids walks up in this white denim jacket with band names written all over it in marker and asks “Do you like this kind of music?” Me being the sarcastic ass I was replied something like, “No, I just play it to annoy my neighbors”. The guy was Ron Reyes and we became best friends after that and started going to Punk Rock shows together.

One day, Ron told me there was a Punk band in our town called Panic and they practiced at this abandoned church a few blocks away. We walked up there and I saw this guy drinking a beer right in front of the Hermosa Beach Police Station! Ron says, “Oh, that’s Chuck! That’s Panic’s bass player”. We walked up to him and he said they’d be practicing soon and we could go to the church and hang out until then. They soon changed their name to Black Flag and they became my favorite band.

How did you end up joining as the vocalist for Black Flag?
Ron Reyes had become their vocalist after Keith Morris left, but Ron ended up quitting the band and moving up to Vancouver. There was a time when they weren’t playing because they had no vocalist. I remember walking up to The Church one day and Chuck was out front. He had the trunk of his car open and he had this case of beer in there. That was the real punk rock thing to do back then.

Drinking warm beer out of a car trunk?
No, just drinking beer. But Chuck offered me one of these beers and we started talking and he was like “Why don’t you try out to be the singer for the band? You’re at all the shows singing along”. We went in and I sang four or five songs and then he said “We’re leaving in a week for tour” I couldn’t believe it. They were my favorite band.

How do you explain the chaos that surrounded Black Flag in L.A at that time?
Black Flag had this nonstop assault from the very beginning. The more aggressive kids from the conservative suburbs came in and instead of pogoing, getting a little drunk and picking someone up if they fell down, they invented slam dancing. It got to a point where if you didn’t have a shaved head and a bandana, you were a target.

When the kids from Orange County started to get interested, we got bigger. We were booking shows ourselves and attracting one thousand people on our own. That’s when these mafia guys at places like The Whiskey A Go-Go thought they had to book us in their club. But that was a huge riot. They booked two shows and while people were filing out from the first show, they were trying to let the people for the second show in and that’s where it started. The riot squad came and I could see it all unfold in slow motion from the dressing room on the second floor. This one Hardcore Punk kid threw a beer bottle at this line of riot police and it hit one guy in the helmet and it was chaos. The next day in the paper it said something like “Riot On Sunset Strip Part Two”.

We went back to booking our own shows, but by then, the media had got it out there that Hardcore Punk was a menace and that just attracted more and more kids. It’s like they say: Any press is good press. Those news reports just attracted kids who were violent because there was nothing to do in the suburbs they were living in. But the media always pointed the finger at us; not at the police. We weren’t looking to incite a riot though. We just wanted people to come and enjoy our music.

But pretty soon these kids who were coming from the conservative suburbs started to form bands and their bands were ironically pretty conservative too. They played with this fast, oompa oompa speed. That whole Hardcore Punk scene started to spread across the whole country. After they saw us, they wanted to start bands. But we didn’t dress punk rock. We wore thrift store clothes and our music wasn’t that oompa oompa thing they were doing.

Soon after that is when the whole Hardcore Punk scene took off across the country.
It’s funny because in ’79, you had New York and England looking down on Los Angeles because they thought we were Johnny Come Latelys. But then when the Hardcore thing came out of L.A. with Fear, the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, everyone bowed down to us. All of a sudden, you had a Boston Hardcore scene, a D.C. Hardcore scene, a New York Hardcore scene and all the bands that came out of New York originally were considered old all of a sudden.

How was Black Flag treated when you left America?
We didn’t get treated well in England. To them, punk was all about style. We were supposed to be the biggest of the U.S Hardcore Punk bands and we showed up there with beards and long hair and they were confused. We looked like fucking trolls who lived under a bridge! We were supposed to be touring for The Exploited and their singer Wattie faked having a broken leg so they didn’t have to tour with us. We weren’t about to go home with our tails between our legs because of The Exploited, so we took on the whole tour ourselves as headliners.

The second time we went to England, we were treated a little better, but people were still into the whole thing of spitting on the band and everything like that. The sorriest I ever felt for a person was Chuck Dukowski when we played the 100 club in London and some skinhead kid pissed in a cup and threw it on him. Piss looks like beer, so Chuck didn’t really know what it was until it hit him. It hit Chuck square in the face and next thing I knew, he was behind his amp; probably puking his brains out.

Why did you quit Black Flag?
First, I was unhappy singing with Black Flag. I never thought ever in my life about being a singer. When I was asked, I was just looking to be in my favorite band doing whatever they wanted. I just did it because I had such passion for the band. To even call it singing is ludicrous.

When I switched to guitar I learned a lot more there, but I felt I grew musically and realized it was time to do my own thing. So I went to them and said ‘I want to do my own band’ and they understood. I wanted to do something that showed all of my musical influences. I didn’t give a shit about the hardcore thing. I didn’t give a shit about mohawks or anything like that. All I cared about was music and being me. But Black Flag was my college.

From there you formed D.C.3.
With D.C.3, we were trying to show these punkers that it wasn’t about a Mohawk. We were punk in our spirit, but we were trying to do our own thing. But they didn’t want to hear it. Even if we had a two minute song, we’d turn it into an extended jam live; kind of like what Mountain would do.

But even if the punks didn’t like it, I didn’t care. This is what I wanted to do. If I wanted to take the easy way out I would have started a band called Dez Cadena And The Hardcore Guys and played straight Hardcore.

We did some tours with Black Flag. But by 1984, I’d say the music had changed again. You had the Meat Puppets opening people’s minds. They grew on every record. If you listen to their first record and then listen to Up On The Sun, you got to say “Jesus, that’s a big jump!”

It seemed at some point the SST camp were making a conscious effort to really irritate the punkers.
We grew beards and grew our hair out again. They really didn’t like that. You want to know the funny thing, Tony? I hate beards now! Hate ‘em! They’re everywhere now. I’ve been clean shaven for a while now. I had long hair for years and cut it off a few months ago; even before I went through the radiation therapy.

D.C 3 lasted until ’89 and then I had a band called Vida in the 90’s. I played with this band Carnage Asada, which was 3 bass players, a cello player, a drummer and me on guitar with a cholo ranting about his dead friend in a coffin. Around that time, I became friends with Duff McKagen and was in a band with him called Loaded.

How did you end up playing in the Misfits?
Playing in The Misfits was sheer luck. Jerry called my father’s house sometime in 2001. I came home and my dad said “Some guy called Jerry Nobody or something like that called you”. I said “Do you mean Jerry Only?” and he said “Yeah, that’s it!”

Jerry told me he was doing a Misfits tour and wanted me to be a part of it as a special guest doing Black Flag songs. I was only supposed to do the east coast tour, but Jerry asked if I was having fun on tour. I told him I was and I did the whole tour and I never left after that. This year, I stopped playing with them due to my health, but I am still part of the Misfits’ family.

Playing in the Misfits has been both a blessing and a curse. Jerry gave me an opportunity making a decent living playing music and I am grateful for that. But I had to sacrifice some things musically to be a part of it. Sometimes in life you’re not happy with everything you do. Sometimes everything isn’t always going to work out. I think it’s funny it took until I was forty years old to be in a band where I have to wear fucking make-up. Don’t misunderstand me, I love The Misfits but image is not important to me in my life; just the music.

My father told me when I was young when you’re making music strictly to make money, that’s when you’re done. You might as well go and do something else. The sincerity, conviction and dedication to the music and message is what affects people and lasts; not the money.

How did you find out you had throat cancer?
All of 2014, I was losing my voice. As usual, I thought it was just singing too much, smoking too many cigarettes and being on tour. I kept resting my voice and drinking tea and it wasn’t going away. By the time of the fall tour, nothing was coming out. That was when Jerry said maybe I should see a doctor. After a show in L.A, I went to a clinic and they found a polyp. They told me I can’t sing and should get the thing looked at. I came home around Christmas and saw a doctor and that’s when I officially found out.

They took out the polyp in March and I was sounding good. I could actually sing. But I just went through radiation therapy and I’m going through side effects. It gives you sunburn on your vocal chords; that’s why I sound this way. Actually, this is the longest I’ve talked in a while. I think I sound better every day. It’s a slow recovery. I am still recovering from the radiation. I’m lucky I didn’t have to do chemotherapy. That’s even more intense.

The only reason I’m going through all this is because I’ve smoked since I was a kid. I don’t like to tell people what to do. I’ve never been the kind of guy to preach, but, you’ll save yourself a lot of drama and money if you just don’t smoke. Right now, it’s costing me a lot both physically and financially.

What have you been up to while in recovery?
I’ve been having people come down and jam in my basement. You don’t have to bring a guitar, I got everything. Music is an entity. It comes from a place other than the person playing it. It comes from the cosmos and it’s fed through the people who are willing to have it be channeled through them.

I look at the whole universe as one big resounding note. Every planet, every galaxy, every animal, every person is an overtone or undertone of that one resounding note. In other words, these words I’m speaking right now are a part of that big resounding note. If you just cut a fart, that’s a part of it. Every breath you breathe, that’s a part of it. That’s how much I believe in music.

You know that Funkadelic song “Biological Speculation”? It goes: “We’re just a biological speculation/Sitting here, vibrating and we don’t know what we’re vibrating about/The animal instinct in me makes me want to defend me/It makes me want to live when it’s time to die”.

What that song tells me is my vibration – whether my physical body is alive on this earth or not—is still going to be around. I look at everything as music. It’s like the way people think everything is god. Look at it any way you want, but I look at it at as all music.

Please give to Dez’s Go Fund Me page.

Dez will be doing a meet and greet on Saturday September 19th at Clockwork Records at 6 Spring Street in Hastings-On-Hudson as a thank you to all those who’ve showed support for his cause. Come out and shake the hand of Dez-O!