Flying a Black Flag in L.A.’s Stucco-Coated Killing Fields

The Hollywood punk scene in 1981 was teeming with danger but devoid of any purpose or content

By Henry Rollins


What I noticed immediately upon arrival [to L.A.] was the influence of “Hollywood” and the culture of Southern California in the Los Angeles punk scene. There was an aspect of glamour and understated confidence that was James Dean–esque. Many of the males worked on their rugged, heroic looks with almost aspiring-model earnestness, and the ubiquitous beauty of the females was more than just the observational hunger of my youth — these were really good-looking young people. Many of them seemed as ready for their close-up as they were to go to the next show. I am in no way trying to imply that these were lightweight scenesters, but the fact that so many of them were so cosmetically evolved gave the overall scene an attraction that could not be denied.

I think this was one of the things that made the LAPD hate punks and assault them with regularity. It is also why this time period is so well documented by local photographers; it was an irresistibly photogenic happening that was going to be over almost as quickly as it started.

As far as I knew, this was a very insular scene. X had come to the East Coast to critical acclaim, and The Dickies had made it there as well but canceled their Washington, DC, show. Beyond that, all these bands existed in fanzines and cassettes of Rodney Bingenheimer’s radio show, dull sounding and off pitch due to multiple duplications.

From the outside it seemed like a scene that wasn’t driven by ambition or financial gain but capturing the moment whenever possible. Just listening to live tapes from the legendary Masque Club, you can hear the reverie and minute-to-minute discovery, especially in the recordings of The Screamers.

When I arrived in the summer of 1981 I couldn’t figure out if something new had taken the place of what had so recently transpired and deconstructed, or if this was the moment before the next thing was about to happen.

One thing was undeniable: the level of drug abuse in the scene was toxic. The scene was teeming with danger and die-young vigor but seemed devoid of any motivation, purpose, or intellectual/artistic content. What I saw made me conclude that it was a scene full of beautiful young people trying to off themselves. I never thought myself any better, but my inability to understand things in a larger context alienated me almost completely.

The cultish isolation of Black Flag soon separated me geographically from the L.A. scene as we soon relocated to Redondo Beach, where the band had its roots. It was only several miles down the 405, but it felt like we were a world away. Occasionally we would go into Hollywood to see a show and felt the “you’re not from around here, are you, son?” sneer. I remember seeing members of these Masque-era bands at shows. For me it was being in the same room as the legends from my record collection. I met a few of them, but it didn’t go very well, so I left them alone.

Black Flag founders Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski had a label called SST Records. They were ambitious and driven as any two people I have ever met. The label released not only Black Flag’s recorded output, soon-to-be quite prolific, but also the work of other bands like The Minutemen and Saccharine Trust. They had no interest in remaining local; they were looking to get as far into the world as possible.

I can only speak for myself, but I thought our method was not to write some kind of hit but, through a rapid release schedule and relentless touring, to conquer by sheer ubiquity. This approach takes all you can give to it and is rife with confusing, ironic twists. For me it made the concept of success, beyond a severely defined idea of artistic truth and unrestrained fury against any and all who sought to neutralize us, to be repellent. So if the goal is to do the work as you see fit, any slings and arrows that may come are as much a part of it as anything else.

Whether real or imagined, we considered ourselves in opposition to almost everything and everyone. The artwork on the album covers and flyers was specifically meant to upset and provoke. At times I thought we were so extreme, we didn’t want to have an audience at all.

As a result of our actions, we existed in a world of high contrast. We were rarely considered less than in the extreme.

We studiously sought to obliterate the middle ground. Within a few months of joining Black Flag and moving to Los Angeles, I spent most of the year on the road on tours that lasted months. We would return to Southern California primarily to record so we could leave again. Although the stays were longer, California became a state that was one of many I frequented. In a strange way I became the quintessential American, meeting people from all over the country, month after month, year after year.

Between tours I would visit Los Angeles in a series of brief jump cuts. I would find out what happened to some of the people I had met when I first arrived. There were deaths from overdoses and suicides, stints of incarceration, and other bad news. I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of heroin going around. I found out that it was plentiful as it was potent and cheap. At that time, I had never heard of Hoover’s COINTELPRO efforts, but it seemed obvious to me that these people had been targeted in a campaign to clean things up, perhaps for the upcoming Olympic Games. I identify with Los Angeles through the filter of music. It’s the city that was as immortalized and defined by The Doors’ keyboard-driven, poetic nihilism and X’s first album as any industry, innovation, or event.

I have often referred to Los Angeles as “the stucco-coated killing field,” and in a way, that’s true, but you have to live here to die here. That is to say, there are no babes in these woods.


Excerpted from John Doe and Tom DeSavia’s Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, available now from Da Capo Press via Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other fine retailers.

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