Can I Get in the Van?
It dawned on me: Black Flag did not have a bass player. I decided right then and there to find out where Greg Ginn was living, hitchhike across the country, and persuade him to let me try out—just as I had attempted to do when I was 16.
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.
On the road hitchhiking south from New York on I-81, under light snowfall.
In truth, if you’ve heard one cross-country hitchhiking story, you’ve heard them all. My trip to Texas was no different, except that I was carrying a bass and manically practicing Black Flag songs at truck stops and punk houses along the way.
After six days, I made it to Taylor, Texas. It was noon, and I walked up the deserted Main Street, looking for Ginn. I passed a bank, some vacant storefronts, and an old two-screen theater.
Taylor was quiet. Dead quiet. The only sound was the wind whistling across the long, flat plains. I peered in store windows and scanned passing motorists, looking for the 6'5" frame of Greg Ginn. In my vision, we’d come face-to-face, pause, and size each other up. I’d look him in the eye and simply say, “I’ve come to play bass.”
I was walking past what seemed to be an abandoned furniture store on Highway 79 when, to my surprise, I heard a band playing inside. I couldn’t see anything through the dusty windows, but the music—bluesy drums and bass rolling steadily like an endless two-lane blacktop into the Texas horizon, enveloped by a screeching guitar playing doughnut-like solos—was unmistakably the work of Ginn. I got goose bumps; I’d waited 23 years and traveled 1,700 miles to meet with fate. I stood there on the sidewalk and listened to Ginn’s solos squeal in and out of tune with the whistles of the freight trains from the nearby Union Pacific train yard. I even dutifully held my iPhone to the door and recorded a bit of the jam, feeling like Alan Lomax. After an hour, the music stopped. The door opened, and out walked Ginn.
Ginn looked at me and then noticed my bass. As we shook hands, I stared him straight in the eye—well, into his sunglasses—and delivered the line I’d rehearsed in my mind many times: “I’ve come here to play bass.” Ginn remained silent, as he is wont to do. My confidence warbled and I added, “Uh, unless you’ve already got somebody! I mean! That is!”
Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Ginn looked down the street at nothing in particular. He asked where I’d come from. I said that I’d hitchhiked from New York City. He nodded and then glanced at his watch and gazed down the street some more. Finally, he said, “Well, I’ve got some stuff I have to do right now. But I could play some with you at four. Can you meet me here then?”
Yes, of course I could. Ginn told me of a nearby sandwich shop where I could wait. Was this my Odessa diner? I thought with excitement. Before I could come to grips with how easy it had all been, a trim and wiry middle-aged man walked over to me, nodding at my bass. He was unshaven and wearing a one-piece mechanic’s jumpsuit. “You must be the hitchhiker!” he said and introduced himself as the new drummer of Black Flag. His name was also Greg, but he said that Ginn and the others simply called him Drummer. I looked down at his feet; he wasn’t wearing shoes. “I’ve been barefoot for over 20 years,” he explained. “Going barefoot was the best thing that ever happened to me. Know how you just want to really feel the earth sometimes?” He asked how I’d found out that they needed a bassist. I said I’d just read between the lines: even if Ginn were handling bass duties on the record, he’d still need a bassist for the tour. Drummer seemed shocked. “So, wait,” he said. “You didn’t even see the ad?” Now it was my turn to be shocked: the greatest hardcore band of all time had put an ad for a bass player on Craigslist!
A funny tingling feeling permeated my gut. I realized that, either serendipitously or intuitively, I had arrived in Taylor at the perfect moment. They had been trying out bass players for weeks and were hoping to choose someone in the next couple of days.
I asked Drummer how the auditions had been going. “Well, it’s going,” he said, wearily shaking his head. The main trouble they’d been having, he added, was finding someone who was willing to move to Taylor.
Black Flag’s practice space and home looks like an abandoned furniture store. Taylor, Texas.
An hour later, I was inside the old empty furniture store alongside Ginn and Drummer. I’ve been playing guitar and drums for 20 years, but I’ve never actually played bass in a band. I felt like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. We tuned. I was about to ask, “So, what song do you guys want to start out with?” when Ginn dropped into his trademark stance, legs set shoulder width apart, and started playing a funky riff in the key of A. Drummer fell right into rhythm. There were no songs, I quickly discovered; the audition would be completely improvised.
A couple minutes in, we locked into a tight groove. Ginn played with his eyes closed, his head swiveling around in a trancelike headbang. Anytime I’d try to play a fill on the bass, one of Ginn’s eyes would snap open and glare at me. At first, I thought he was signaling me to stop. Then I realized he was just paying attention to see where I might be trying to take the song. When he suddenly blasted off on a series of guitar solos, I finally realized, Holy shit! I’m playing with GREG GINN, and his solos are melting my mind! The wordless communication of forming the songs on the spot together was fascinating, and for the first time, I understood the appeal of improvised music. I had been playing with Ginn for less than an hour, and I had already learned something important.
After two 15-minute jams, Ginn stopped and spoke for both him and Drummer. “We like playing with you. Do you want to stay over and play some more tomorrow?”
G inn and Drummer took me to the SST warehouse in Taylor. When Black Flag recorded Damaged at Unicorn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood in 1981, the band was living on the floor of a windowless studio—specifically under the desks at SST, Ginn’s record label, where they practiced and recorded. Here I was, over 30 years later, standing in what was basically the same place. Guitars and microphones were scattered around, including what appeared to be Ginn’s trademark clear Plexiglas Dan Armstrong guitar, which lay on the ground and sported two rusty strings. A CD with black flag rough mix no vocals scribbled on it in marker sat atop of a pile of CDs, and old newspapers were stacked atop a mixing board. While Ginn lived a couple blocks away, the rest of the band resided here, just like in the old days.
Drummer had a little sleeping spot in one corner—a piece of foam on the ground, walled off for privacy. Ginn’s recording engineer, Mike Shear, slept on a makeshift mattress across the room. Drummer motioned to a mat in the center of the room. This was to be my new home. Things were happening fast. Maybe too fast.
Ginn loaded weed into his vaporizer, and Drummer popped open a Lone Star. They peppered me with questions: Could I relocate to Texas? If so, how soon? Did I have friends over in Austin I could live with in the short-term? Did I usually hitchhike everywhere? Did I smoke weed?
As Ginn hustled out the door to pick up his kids from school and take them to a show in Austin, he leaned over me and said, quietly and shyly, “I really liked playing with you.” I remembered my teenage phone call to SST. His compliment had traveled nearly a lifetime to get to me. I just sat there grinning.
Drummer laid out the situation for me. They were looking for a bass player for not one, but two bands. Ginn, Drummer, and the bassist-to-be would back singer Ron Reyes in the new Black Flag, while also playing in a new band, Good for You, fronted by pro skater Mike Vallely. SST had released the debut Good for You LP, Life Is Too Short to Not Hold a Grudge, earlier that week, and the tour would commence in a little over a month. After that tour, the band would return to Taylor, and then both Black Flag and Good for You would tour together for months. It was classic Ginn. He’d play two sets a night, just like he had on the last Black Flag tour in 1986.
While I tried to take it all in, Mike Shear said, “You live in Brooklyn. You ever hear of the Northside Festival?” Uh, had I? It was one of the biggest NYC rock events of the summer. “We’re headlining this year,” he said. “Just confirmed last week.”
“So how long is the tour?” I asked. “Would we do about four months?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Drummer said. “It’s not just a reunion tour. Greg wants to restart Black Flag. We want someone who can move here indefinitely and keep on playing past these tours.” I went out for a walk around the streets of Taylor to get some air and mull things over.
Like Henry Rollins did so many years ago, the new bass player would have to leave his old life entirely behind. And like him, I could suddenly and literally see my life changing before my eyes, or at least, the potential of what would happen if I continued down this path: the nearly 2,000-mile hitchhike, the jam with Ginn, and then the triumphant return to New York, standing in front of thousands of people on that stage in Williamsburg, playing in Black Flag. It felt like my 16-year-old dream was tantalizingly close to coming true. But I was 39 now, and I wasn’t expecting to have to face a commitment like this when I first decided to come down to Taylor. What would I do? I didn’t have long to make a decision.
Walking aimlessly in one direction, I arrived outside a Walmart at the edge of town. I went in and bought a jug of orange juice and a jar of peanut butter and sat outside the doorway, eating the Peter Pan with a plastic spoon. Some customers stared at me as they exited. Were they satisfied in Taylor? Or did they always regret some opportunity they had missed, or something they had not followed through on that could’ve changed their lives? I walked the entire length of town, back to where Main Street hit the railroad tracks, and sat for a long time on the bridge overlooking the train yard. I wondered where Black Flag would be playing later this year on my 40th birthday. If I joined, I would no longer have to worry about next month’s rent or how my band was going to record our next album. I would no longer have to agonize line by line over my next book or worry about selling stories.
And, given his track record, no one could doubt that Ginn was dead serious in his convictions and discipline. We would wake up every day and play his music. Ginn, Drummer, and Mike seemed to me to be utterly free people—fearless, dedicated, highly competent, and on a mission. I envied them for it, but did their mission align with mine?
Would I be joining Black Flag or “Black Flag”? The band who had once battled the LAPD in riots at The Whiskey and Baces Hall was now prepping to headline enormous music festivals. Its members had fought and won a brutal battle with the larger culture. I admired Ginn for not wanting to repeat the past or look back but was unsure whether his ceaseless experimentation would bring future victories—or even spark any more meaningful battles. There was no way to know except time, and it was now completely up to me how close I wanted to be to whatever happened.
A canopy of stars twinkled across the massive, dark Texas sky. I saw a shooting star trail brightly over town, from east to west, and realized I had absolutely no idea what I wanted anymore. I went back to my mat at SST and passed out.
Sunrise over a Pilot Travel Center, just outside Little Rock, Arkansas.
T he following morning’s jam went even better and lasted longer. For many stretches, I felt total satisfaction as Drummer and I locked into a groove that anchored Ginn’s explosive solos. After nearly two hours of playing, we all headed back to the SST office.
Drummer—grinning, barefoot, and skipping down the street—walked on one side of me. “Man, we sounded good today, buddy!” he said. “That was really fun!” Ginn was to my other side—deadpan, inscrutable, and squinting behind his sunglasses. He probed me with questions like “Is it that you’re worried about your situation in Brooklyn or something?” and “Do you need to go back and deal with your stuff?”
Shortly after our walk, Ginn asked if I wanted to stay the night again and play some more the next day. When I interviewed Dez, he had said that Black Flag had been his favorite band as a kid. Then Ginn and Dukowski approached him and said they’d seen him singing along at their shows. They told him they wanted him to be the band’s new singer. “I felt like I was being drafted,” Dez said. “It was like they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” I think I knew how he’d felt. There was something about Ginn that made me feel like I would rather do anything than let him down. The couple of people I had told about the tryout had been texting me all morning, telling me I had to drop everything and join Black Flag. If I didn’t, they said, I would regret it for the rest of my life. The pressure was sudden and unimaginable, which seems almost absurd when the matter at hand is whether or not to join a band. But this wasn’t just a band; this was Black Flag.
Then it happened. Doubt had seeped in, and a decision was on the horizon. My response to Ginn came out in such a heated rush that it surprised even me.
“I really don’t know if I can stay,” I told him. “I have my own bands. I write books. My bands are not as famous as Black Flag, but they’re mine. I need to put effort into building my thing up. It would be amazing to play with you and get to travel around with the band, but I need to be figuring out how to do that on my own and not as part of someone else’s trip.”
Ginn nodded thoughtfully and rubbed his chin but said nothing. We returned to SST, and I told him I needed to go out for a walk and think about it before making my final decision.
Later that day, Ginn approached me to talk it over. “I’m concerned that if you did move here to do this, you just wouldn’t be happy,” he said. “You seem like a free spirit, just hitchhiking down here, and we need someone like that in the band. But if you’ve got other projects that you are going to wish later on that you could be doing, this isn’t for you.”
Almost unbelievably, I had no choice but to agree with him. Joining Black Flag turned out to be a job for my 16-year-old self, not the person I am now. Ginn told me there was an Amtrak that went back to Austin in a couple hours. I repeated that if they needed someone just for a tour I was interested. “We’ll call you,” he said. Ginn thanked me for coming and shook my hand with a warm smile. Drummer gave me a big hug, and I left SST for the last time.
Just then my phone rang. It was Keith Morris, Black Flag’s first singer and singer for the rival reunion band, Flag. I was also supposed to be reporting on the dueling Black Flag reunions. In a split second, I’d gone from being a prospective member of Black Flag back to my old life—just another reporter writing about the band.
As Keith and I wrapped up the interview, I asked him what he thought about what I referred to as a “hypothetical” trip to Texas that I was pondering. “I’m thinking the angle for the piece is that I’m going to hitchhike to Texas with only a bass and see if Ginn will let me try out for the new Black Flag,” I told him as I looked across the street at SST, where I’d slept on a mat the night before. “Got any advice?” I asked.
“That sounds like a great rock ’n’ roll adventure!” Keith replied. “I could tell you Greg Ginn is the coolest guy on Earth, or I could tell you he’s the biggest prick on Earth. But you’ll never know until you go down there and find out for yourself.” Our discussion of the reunions continued for a few minutes, and I could tell that the famous dreadlocked frontman was warming up to the idea even more. “You should do it! Follow the horizon! Live your dreams! That’s what this is all about. You could make a book out of this. They might make a movie about you. Who knows? You might even end up being the next bass player for Black Flag.”
All words and Photos by Erick Lyle.
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