Rise Above: An Extract From Stevie Chick’s Black Flag Biography

An excerpt from Stevie Chick's brilliant new book on the history of DIY hardcore heroes Black Flag

The Air Force Big Band were supposed to play, but apparently a couple of the members came down with the flu. The City Of Manhattan Beach Parks And Recreation needed some entertainment, so we showed up, to entertain. [laughs] I mean, who better to replace the Air Force Big Band than Black Flag?” — Keith Morris

Polliwog Park was the pride of affluent, pristine Manhattan Beach, a peaceful suburb on the South Bay of California, near Black Flag’s home in Hermosa Beach. Its beautifully-landscaped eighteen acres were the mannered playground where local families enjoyed leisurely weekends, reveling in the lush splendour of their tasteful surroundings. Located a mile and a half from the sea, on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, the park’s cement walkways interconnected tennis and basketball courts and several baseball diamonds; by the roadside, a series of metal chain nets hung from chest-level poles, so kids could play Disc Golf, a Frisbee game developed in Sixties California.

At the heart of the park sat a large pond, peopled with ducks and swans, fish and frogs. It was overlooked by a fair-sized bandstand where, in the Summer, the Manhattan Beach Parks & Recreation department booked performances for weekend picnics in the park. The selection of such entertainment was, unsurprisingly, conservative: classical performances, easy listening music, polite jazz quartets. The US Air Force Orchestra had been booked to perform on Sunday 22nd July, but had to cancel; their replacement was Black Flag.

The group’s infiltration of the Polliwog family picnic that pleasant July afternoon was another unlikely triumph of will on the part of guitarist and band-leader Greg Ginn, who had spent weeks trying to persuade the organizers that Black Flag were, in fact, a Fleetwood Mac covers band, specializing in the group’s then insanely-popular Rumours-era catalogue. Ginn accomplished his ruse using all his powers of persuasion, but mostly by promising — but never actually delivering — a tape of Black Flag’s music. By the time the weekend arrived, Black Flag were booked for the park’s first ever rock’n’roll show, sharing the bill with The Tourists and two local new wave groups, Big Wow and Eddie & The Subtitles.

Beatific calm was the ambience at Polliwog that Sunday, as the families of Manhattan Beach lay out their picnic blankets and baskets on the grass before the bandstand, awaiting that afternoon’s performance. That calm was irrevocably shattered as the Hermosa Beach contingent arrived at Polliwog, a raucous, leather-jacketed convoy sweeping through the pastel picnickers. While outnumbered by locals, the South Bay punks were an impressive presence that afternoon, gathering near the stage, drinking beer and generally getting their party on. “It was a beautiful day,” remembers Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris. “People were taking their kids to the park, walking their dogs, bringing their Frisbees and beach balls and their sun tan lotion. They were eating watermelon and cantaloupe and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And all of a sudden, the freak show shows up.”

“At the time, Manhattan Beach was like Happy Valley,” remembers Ron Reyes, a friend of the group, who would later become their second singer. “Crisp, clean, a very nice neighbourhood. And along come Black Flag . . . It was really messy, and chaotic, and crazy. We just took over this park, with all the families sat there . . . And I’m a family man now, right? But that was not our scene at all, then. We just walked in and kind of took over, and made a mess of things.”

“Enter Black Flag,” laughs Joe Nolte, front-man of local group The Last, and occasional resident of The Church, Black Flag’s illicitly-squatted home and rehearsal space. “And it was beautiful, too, because in those days nobody knew who they were, so they could get away with sneaking into something like that. I got there in time to see the Flag setting up; there were thirty of us, friends and supporters who were there in front of the stage. And then there were all the nice families.”

By the time Black Flag were due to take the stage, Keith had gotten his own particular party on with impressive efficiency, and was passed out underneath a car. “They pulled me out and handed me a beer, and we went on,” he laughs. Choosing not to moderate his typical belligerence for this audience, Morris ambled onstage, took the microphone and yelled, “We’re loud, and if you don’t like that, you can go watch Walt Disney!” As they launched into their first number, however, the Polliwog picnickers decided to register their disdain in a more confrontational manner.

“Maybe sixty seconds into the first song, it began to rain food,” says Keith. “Sandwiches, half-eaten drumsticks, watermelon and cantaloupe rinds, banana peels… We tried to dodge it; I remembered seeing [bassist Chuck Dukowski] pick a sandwich up off the stage and eat it. Poor Robo, stuck behind his drumkit, couldn’t really move or duck, so he really got pelted.”

“There were certainly hoots of derision from the audience,” says Joe Nolte, “but the families actually took the thing largely in the spirit of fun. Parents would give empty beer cans to their kids and say, ‘Go throw it at the band, they’re expecting that!’ And the kids would do it, like it was a game. At one point Keith said, ‘I feel sick, I’m gonna throw up, right on this little kid!’, and made motions like he was gonna vomit on a child… I mean, Black Flag are nice guys! It was actually, in some bizarre way, a friendly little thing. But, as the set wore on, there were definitely people who were annoyed, not pleased about having to put up with it. There were a lot of shouts of ‘Get ‘em off!’, and a lot more things thrown, and now there were High School kids throwing things, and they could aim better and throw harder.”

Halfway through the set, the concert’s master of ceremonies waded onstage and stopped the performance; he’d periodically appeared in the preceding minutes, to harangue Keith for using four letter words, and to sweep some of the picnic detritus from the stage, but this time he brought Black Flag’s glorious noise to a halt. A rather-miraculous bootleg recording of the performance, taped from within the conclave of Flag fans gathered by the stage, captures the interaction between the MC, the Flag, and the punk rock devotees in the audience: “Okay, do you want the concert to continue today?” asks the MC, to jeers from the Flag contingent. “Okay, well, we’re going to hear more of Black Flag if everyone stops throwing things around . . . We’ve been putting on concerts all through this whole summer, every single Sunday, and then the first rock’n’roll show… and then look at this… I’ve got to clean this mess up!”

At this, Keith leers to the audience, “We’re not the Air Force band, so you can throw whatever you want . . . They told me I can’t use the foul language anymore, so I’ll have to make up some other words. Like, instead of ‘sex’, we’ll say ‘intercourse’.” The MC then impotently tries to regain command of the situation, telling the Church residents by the stage, serving as the Flag’s road crew for the day, to back away, initiating a spirited discourse between the parties.

“We’re the road crew!” shouts an unidentified Flag associate. “Roadies must be allowed to continue their job! It’s called participation . . . You don’t know what’s going on!”

“Everybody has to go sit where they were, and stop throwing things… See, a big problem that I’m having here is, a lot of people coming up to me and saying that they have a lot of kids here in the park . . .”

“Send ‘em home!”

“. . . and they’re not going to take them home either. So I have a decision to make, and I’m going to pull Black Flag off the stage . . . Please, help me out here, please help me out . . . I don’t wanna have a riot on my hands here, that’s the problem. Now, a lot of the parents with their families up back there, don’t like what is going on down here onstage. I have a lot of people coming up to me and saying they want Black Flag off the stage, and get the next group on.”

The MC is then drowned out by boos, and yells of “Fuck you! Fuck you!”, and “Play something!” Keith, meanwhile, takes the microphone and yells, “I’m wasted! Just like your parents!” as Greg starts revving up the opening notes to ‘Wasted’. The rest of the band kick in and raise an unholy racket for the next sixty seconds, Robo racing like a fevered jackhammer, Chuck’s bass pounding like a series of punches to the chest, Greg’s guitar a contrary, righteous roar, and Keith babbling like he’s screaming in tongues. They race through four more songs before closing on a brutish and chaotic stomp through ‘Louie Louie’, a vile and foul-mouthed version flung at the Polliwog audience with ecstatic venom.

“It was clear Black Flag had come to Polliwog to piss off Manhattan Beach,” says Joe Nolte, “and they’d succeeded admirably.”

“It was a mess of spit and beer and blood and sweat and tears,” remembers Ron. “And it was over, as soon as it began. So much fun…”

The fun continued afterwards, as the Hermosa Bay punks returned to the Church for a late night party, and another set from the victorious Black Flag. “We had to go to our cars in groups,” remembers Joe Nolte, “because there were angry surfers out there, ready to beat the shit out of any of our number. There was definitely menace; by the end of the Black Flag set, we felt very much like freedom riders in Georgia [laughs]. ‘Let’s get out of Dodge!’ So we all went back to the Church, and Black Flag set up on the main stage and we had a nice little party, in what was my new home. As we were slamming, Dez Cadena managed to shove me down on to the very hard wood floor, and I blacked out for a second… Everything went black.”

The end of Black Flag’s set at the Church was just as abrupt. “Robo was playing and somehow his cymbal stand got knocked over,” says Keith. “The cymbal came down and cut my mic-cord in half. So that was the end of the party, the musical part anyway.”

A local newspaper reported on the show the following week. “The caustic new wave/punk sounds of The Tourists and Big Wow had caused many of the families in attendance to leave even before the featured act,” wrote Kerry Welsh. “As it turned out, the first two acts were like the Vienna Boys’ Choir in comparison to the Hermosa-based Black Flag… Lead singer Keith spewed obscenities while challenging many of the crowd to a fight. Parents quickly collected their children and fled the park.”

“The recreation department was as angered and embarrassed as the audience,” Ric Morton, the Manhattan Beach special events supervisor who’d arranged the concert, told Welsh. “We plan to screen and audition every act from now on that wants to perform at Polliwog Park, so nothing like this will ever happen again.” The piece ran accompanied by a photograph Spot had taken at the show, Keith leaning into his microphone and screaming, while before him Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena wrestle good-naturedly at the feet of the audience.

For Greg Ginn, his guerrilla assault upon the sensibilities of Manhattan Beach had been a resounding success. He wasn’t a provocateur for the sake of it, he’d just wanted to share his music with a wider audience, to try and show them Black Flag’s worldview, and give them a taste of what was going down at the Church, this DIY rebellion against the soft-rock complacency of the mainstream and all those Top 40 covers bands clogging up Los Angeles’ club scene. The violence of the audience’s response, however, was an early sign of how his music could provoke, and how it would aggravate more conservative listeners, not just because it was loud or abrasive, but because they regarded Black Flag as something anti-social, or antithetical to the beliefs of the ‘moral’ majority.

Keith Morris’s father read the newspaper reports on Black Flag’s performance, and he wasn’t impressed. “He was pissed,” remembers Keith. “He said, ‘So this is the path that you choose? This is what you’re doing when you should be going to college?’ It took him a little while to get what we were doing, and to understand why. My dad surrounded himself with an interesting group of characters; one of his best friends was an eye surgeon, another was the criminal psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University, and they were both in love with Black Flag, and he warmed to us in the end, because of them. To this day, I’m still wondering why they were so into our group. I believe that what they were seeing was something they hadn’t been allowed to get away with when they were younger.”

You can order Stevie Chick’s Spray Paint The Walls: The Black Flag Story from Amazon here. The launch party for the book will be held at The Quietus’ second office, The Mucky Pup, on Saturday November 14 from 8pm.

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