Last year, Gary Tovar, the man behind the independent SoCal concert promoter Goldenvoice, asked original Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski to make a speech at a 30th anniversary concert he was throwing. Dukowski had no interest in making any kind of speech, but since he knew The Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson and guitarist Stephen Egerton would be at the event, he thought he could put a version of his old punk rock band back together and perform rather than give an oration. He recruited original Black Flag singer Keith Morris to complete the line-up.
"We couldn't rehearse," Morris recalls. "Our rehearsal was getting to blast through a handful of songs at sound check. The Descendents had to do a sound check, too. We ran through the first Black Flag EP a couple of times and we had to leave it at that. That was all we could put together. We did that show and people went completely ape shit. I'm surprised it didn't turn into a massive brawl. All the old school people were totally stoked. It was pretty wild."
The guys got through playing and realized that they had a great time and should maybe do something together down the road. After the footage from the gig showed up on YouTube and Facebook, interest in a reunion tour started to grow and the band recruited former Black Flag singer Dez Cadena to join the group, which it christened Flag.
"We were blown away by the response," Morris says. "It's almost as if someone were telling us, 'Guys, you need to keep doing this. There are people out there who need this.' There are old grouchy people who think we shouldn't do this or that. But when guitarist Greg Ginn and I put Black Flag together, we had no list of stuff that we were going to do. We had nobody telling us where to play. We didn't know which clubs had the best PA systems. We didn't have that kind of wherewithal. We just wanted to play and we would play wherever we could play to whomever we could play to. Why should that mentality get tossed out the window?"
Shortly after Morris began playing with Black Flag in the late '70s, California quickly started teeming with punk and hardcore bands that often couldn't even get legitimate gigs because their fans were reputed to be so rowdy. Eventually, Black Flag would become more serious and focused, but at about that time, Morris quit the group. The band would go on to incredible fame, but Morris contributed only to the very first recordings, most notably the acerbic debut EP, Nervous Breakdown. Four songs of utter vitriol, it's generally considered to be the one of the first hardcore albums. Even though Morris has kept active with the punk outfit Off!, revisiting Nervous Breakdown and other early Black Flag tunes has provided a physical challenge.
"I'm 58 years old," he says "I've suffered three comas. I'm a diabetic. It's very physical and this music is very athletic. You have to be in a certain space to pull it off. I love the songs and I had to learn some that I didn't listen to after I left the band. When I left the band, everyone went on their own merry way. Our paths would cross as my band The Circle Jerks played a couple of times with Black Flag, but I wasn't in hurry to run out and buy the new Black Flag cassette. We were in a van and were doing the same thing that Black Flag was doing."
Ironically, Ginn reconvened his own version Black Flag last year, so now there are two versions of the group. Not that Morris sees anything wrong with that.
"I have been on good terms with just about everyone associated with the whole picture," he says. "There's a few I could start dissing on and start trying to rip them a whole new asshole. I'm not going to be that guy. We've caught flack and that's okay. It's a very encompassing experience in that there's haters and lovers and in-betweeners and people filled with negativity. The lyrical content is very negative."
But Morris doesn't want to dwell on the negativity. And judging from the footage of a high-energy secret show the band played earlier this year at the Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach, the site of the very first Black Flag concert, the music is much more festive this time around.
"We want the show to be a party because we have all reached an age where we're able to go out and not have to worry about a lot of things," says Morris. "We can get there and do a sound check and play the gig and enjoy ourselves. Granted, we have asked the promoters to remove the barrier from in front of the stage and sadly that is a request that sometimes falls on deaf ears. But there's certainly no barrier in front of the stage at the Grog Shop. That will be a wild night. I totally dig that place."
So is Flag ultimately a better band than the original Black Flag ever was?
"I can't say yes or no," Morris says. "I'm just going with it. We're older guys so it takes more to be able to pull this off. But I think we do a great job. Here I am patting myself on the back. You have to understand, Billy Stevenson has had a grapefruit-size tumor removed from his brain. Before they found the tumor, he passed a Polish sausage-sized blood clot through his heart into one of his lungs. He's doing what he's doing with one lung. It's amazing he can even play."