For myself and a lot of other die-hard fans, the release that defines the mighty Black Flag is the Jealous Again E.P. With its bright yellow cover featuring the now iconic Raymond Pettibon drawing of a schoolteacher holding up a chair against an enraged youth, this was the record that almost single handedly ignited Southern California hardcore punk rock. While their genre defining first E.P. Nervous Breakdown with Keith Morris introduced a more desperate form of punk music than the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were creating at the time, and Damaged with D.C. interloper Henry Rollins has become the trademark Flag album, Jealous Again was even more unhinged than both, and would inspire countless other bands, kicking off an underground hardcore scene that continues to this day.
Arena filling bands like Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine pointed to Black Flag as the group that inspired the explosiveness of their sound and it’s not hard to see why. It doesn’t matter what kind of stereo you play it through, Jealous Again blows your speakers apart with sound and fury, the aural equivalent of an angry drunk with a broken bottle to his throat. It sounded like chaos and mayhem and desperation, and if you at all felt that way, like thousands of other disenfranchised adolescents did in the late 70s and early 80s, there was nothing like it.
Ron Reyes was the lead singer for Black Flag on this legendary release, but soon after a few legendary shows and his appearance in Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of the Western Civilization documentary, he became second in line in the revolving door of Black Flag frontmen after a particularly violent show that left him feeling out of step with the band. He has a family now and has fronted several great bands since his time in Hermosa, and several years back I caught up with him to get his perspective on the renewed popularity of South Bay bands.
(This updated interview originally appeared in The Easy Reader.)
With the Descendents, FLAG and OFF! playing to massive festival crowds the last few years, there’s been a real renewed appreciation of the Big Three bands from Hermosa; Black Flag, The Circle Jerks and The Descendents. What do you make of it all?
To me, out of all us, they (The Descendents) deserve it more than anyone, just because of the music and the songs. I love the Jerks, I love Black Flag, but the Descendents have the songs. I’m a sucker for good pop music and the Descendents and The Last have the songs that get stuck in my head so they deserve it absolutely. I’m not surprised at all that people are getting into that again.
The Last were one of the bands that really kicked it off in the South Bay, and while their music might not as been as hardcore as some of the bands to follow, to me they were as much a middle finger to the mainstream because everyone else was listening to Led Zeppelin and Queen at the time. What was your experience hearing music that was so different from what was popular back then?
I’m not a historian like Keith Morris is. I’ve forgotten more than I know. There were a few early L.A. punk rock shows at The Masque and at The Whiskey, and of course Black Flag’s first show in Redondo Beach that were totally mind blowing. Before that I was going to KISS concerts and Ted Nugent and Queen, so I was enjoying a lot of mainstream music, but then a friend of mine who went to Mira Costa High School said “Have you heard of these guys?’ and he introduced me to the Sex Pistols and bands like that and it all just blew my mind. There was no turning back after that. Seeing Black Flag the first time kind of changed everything, because everything that I’d heard up until then was connected to what I had known before, and Black Flag just completely blew that connection apart. They obliterated it. It was like nothing that I had ever seen or heard before. The Last was fantastic as well. I mean you talk about them having a not so crazy, intense hardcore sound, and that’s true, but if you’ve ever seen Joe sing and the look in his face and the intensity of how he plays when he used to play songs like “I Don’t Wanna Be in Love,” it was so intense. They were not laying back by any stretch of the imagination.
Looking back at your time in Hermosa Beach and what the vibe was like back then, it was supposed to be this mellow surfer/hippy place, but with Black Flag and later with the Circle Jerks, there was so much anger and resentment. Where do you think that came from? It was even angrier than the Sex Pistols.
You know what, I think a lot of the punk rock stuff was about external demons and Black Flag was about internal demons, and those kind of demons follow you no matter where you live, even if you lived in Palos Verdes, or Hermosa Beach or on Hollywood Boulevard, so I’m not sure living in Hermosa Beach made that much of an impact on the songwriting. You’d have to talk to the songwriters but I’m not sure it did. I lived and hung out in Hermosa Beach and I loved some of the places there and surfing, but I wasn’t really involved in the culture. There was a little bit of the subculture like Greeko’s and I used to spend a lot of time in Either/Or Bookstore just sitting and reading and walking up and down the strand, but I wasn’t your average beach kid and I don’t think any of us were. And sure there was part of us that looked around and couldn’t relate to the long hair and the beautiful people and the lifestyle and all that, but to me that wasn’t any kind of inspiration to be angry, and it wasn’t that I was revolting against that, it was just the internal demons that all of us had, just not feeling good about ourselves and growing up in dysfunctional families and that happens no matter where you’re from.
Obviously The Church era of Black Flag is the most talked about especially with Penelope Spheeris’ film, The Decline of Western Civilization. What are some things about that time that people may not have gotten from the movie?
Well unfortunately none of us had digital cameras so much of it went undocumented, but it was crazy, particularly when the Orange County crowd started to come in, before that we were left pretty much to ourselves. We tried to keep things on the down low because we were making a lot of noise and we didn’t want to be kicked out of this really cool place we had. There were a few small gatherings here and there, but when the Orange County crowd got wind of us, that’s when the doors kind of got blown open and things got really crazy and eventually it kind of imploded on itself. Before that it was pretty low key, just sitting around watching Greg putting together his little SST electronic things, and Ray (Pettibon) coming over and doing art, and just hanging out and watching Greg play guitar for what seemed to be endless amounts of time. He would play for hours and hours everyday, very quietly in his front room and people would come and go and then in the evening we would make some noise, and after that we would go to Alta Dena dairy and grab a bite and come back and do it again. It was pretty quiet really. There wasn’t a huge neon sign outside saying ‘Punk Rock in Hermosa Beach, Come and Get It.’
Was there ever a moment after a certain song you practiced that you knew it was going to connect with a lot of people?
Even before I joined Black Flag it was so off the charts compared to anything else that was going on at the time. When I think about some of the original L.A. bands, they were grounded in the glam or art rock type of thing more than they were in the Stooges and stuff like that, and Black Flag were more grounded in American angst. Even before I joined the band I knew it was just different. I never for a moment thought, “This is really gonna hit,” or “This is gonna connect with millions of people.” In fact, I was pretty sure everyone was gonna hate it. But I didn’t care. I don’t think any of us cared. I don’t think it entered into any of our minds to change the direction because of that.
Obviously there was the Santa Monica Civic show with the Misfits and The Vandals in ’81 that was big for the band. Are there any other shows from your time that stand out?
I’m not sure. I really enjoyed playing out of town. When I was in Black Flag, that period in time was when we first started to do some touring up and down the coast and that to me was a lot of fun. Up to that point, we didn’t really have that great of a following. Everyone will tell you that Black Flag really took off when Dez and Henry came in. Keith and I were still in that stage where there were more people that didn’t like us than really liked us, but when we got out of town, it was like everybody loved you. We had some good times for sure, but for me playing out of town for me was where it was at.
What are some of your recollections from making the Jealous Again E.P.?
It’s funny you should say that because I’ve been in the studio recently recording some projects and it just brings it all back into perspective of how much I hate being in the studio. I live for the thirty or forty minutes on stage, and everything else for me just completely sucks. I have so much admiration for guys like Keith Morris who can go in the studio for eight hours and record sixteen awesome songs or something crazy like that. I could never do that, and even back then Greg had this vision of excellence and he wouldn’t let things go that weren’t right and we would do things over and over again. It took a long time to get things done. They weren’t done quickly like the new OFF! record. I didn’t like sitting around. I didn’t like listening to myself. It was brutal. I hated it and I think everybody knew that. One thing I did enjoy though was listening to the background music. I mean what kid wouldn’t give his left nut to be in my place, to be in the studio listening to the Jealous Again, and a lot of the stuff that would become the Damaged album? I was there listening to that stuff at its creation, I mean, how awesome is that? But when I came in it was a nerve racking, horrible experience.
Similar to you I left my band for a time in ’91 due to what I saw as pointless violence in the L.A. scene that to me was just over the top, and you got to experience that first hand. Was that the key factor in you making the decision to leave?
Oh, absolutely. It had nothing to with the band or the guys in the band. I mean, I loved being in that band. Who wouldn’t? It was incredible, and the opportunities presented to me at the time for a young kid were amazing, to be in the best band in town, touring and making records, playing live, who’s not going to love that? But I came up in the Hollywood crowd which was more grounded in the art scene and it was, less furious, let me put it that way, but when the Orange Country crowd came in they brought a fury. It was wonderful in some ways in that there was something organic and liberating about it, but it was also like, ‘hold on a second people are getting hurt here, and that’s not what I’m singing about, and that’s not what I care about.’ I don’t really care about smashing each other. Smashing the state is one thing, but smashing each other is another and that did not resonate with me at all, and then seeing that for what it was. A lot of people can justify it because of the inner demons and what I was talking about before and how you have to have an outlet for that, and I get that, but to me it seemed a little but contrived, like (they were saying) ‘I have the right to do this now.’ You can try to sugar coat it and try to justify it and many people have, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I loved the music though and by that time I had been introduced to Vancouver B.C. scene where I live now and it wasn’t anything like that. The music was still raw and real but the violence and the drug use hadn’t taken hold yet, and I was like, “You know what? I don’t need this.”
But the moment that I walked off the stage at the Fleetwood, I hadn’t thought all that through. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m out of the scene. I’m quitting the band. I’m leaving town.’ I didn’t have an escape plan. It was just at that moment I had to get out of there. Then I remember looking back at the band, standing at the back of the hall, and the band just kept on going, and rightly so, but at that point it was like, ‘Well, they’re carrying on quite nicely without me, so then it was like, “If they don’t care, then maybe I shouldn’t care either, and that’s when I started thinking maybe it was time to move on.
And after that you went back and forth to Vancouver and eventually ended up staying?
Yeah I moved up here and was in a lot of bands that would just play a few shows and it was real and live and I really liked that and I loved the opportunity to just get in and get out. It wasn’t until the mid 80s until I moved back to L.A. for a while and put together Crash, Bang, Crunch, Pop, and that was my first attempt to put a real band together and they were a lot more like The Last and the Descendents where more of my glam roots crept in and it was not hardcore by any stretch of the imagination.
After that a family came, and your priorities change, and like I said in the movie, it was never a conscious decision not to do music, but as the family came I realized I needed to spend some time with my family and do as good a job as I could and I saw what was going on with people who were trying to straddle the fence and be a family man and be in a band touring and all that kind of stuff and the challenges that come with that and I didn’t think I could do that, nor did I have a great desire to do that. Even though I love music it’s never been my religion. I don’t live and breathe music every moment of my life. It’s always been filled with other things as well. So for a lot of years I didn’t really even think about it and it wasn’t until recently a couple years ago when I came up on fifty that I thought, I’d love to play some music, and so a bunch of us got together and dusted off a bunch of old songs that I had either really loved or been inspired by or wrote and we had a great time, and it was like, ‘This really feels good. I remember this! I remember this feeling of being in a sweaty room with four or five guys making music really loudly, and badly at times and loving every minute of it, and I thought, wait a minute, I gotta do this again.’ So since then I’ve put together a new project called Piggy and I’m playing guitar and not singing which is new for me and I’m really having a good time.
I think what inspires a lot of people from the Other F Word film is seeing these guys from the punk scene who end up sobering up or having a family and getting some responsibility in their lives which is actually the happy ending to the punk rock story instead of the idea that you go out like Sid Vicious and succumb to all the negativity and the drugs and everything, and that they can then come back and appreciate what they loved about the music. It’s great to see that you were able to do that as well.
And let’s face it, we tried to romanticize things and make things more profound than they are, and a lot of the punk rock stuff really wasn’t that profound it was just a bunch of angst and ‘I have to get this out one way or another’ and you can try to make it larger than it really is, but to a lot of us it was just an outlet, and some people get that from mountain biking or surfing, for us it was loud aggressive music, but it was also a bit of an escape mechanism. There was all this feeling of ‘I don’t care,’ and we sang songs about not caring and for me it was an escape mechanism because it’s really real easy not to care about things. It’s really easy to have an apathetic view on life and politics and everything because it doesn’t require any kind of effort to not care. But then you hold a child in your arms that belongs to you and it’s like, ‘Holy shit! Not only do I care, I mean, I really care!” So it’s hard to say out of one side of your mouth that you don’t care, when you’re holding something in your arms that you would stop a bullet for, that you would give your life for, and with that comes responsibility and the feeling that, ‘I really got to do things in life. Now voting becomes more important, paying your taxes becomes more important. You still want to fight the system but you start caring about things more. Not that there aren’t people without kids who care, but when you start having a family it just becomes, ‘Wow this is huge.’
Are you aware of the influence of Black Flag and how it has resonated worldwide?
You know not really. I mean, let’s keep things in perspective, I was in the for a very short period of time, but it was probably a pivotal part of the history in that it could have all just went down the tubes if there wasn’t that transition between Keith and Dez and Henry, but the part that I played was a very small part of it, and most of the guys who have the four bars on their arm probably resonated more with the Dez and the Henry era.
Not if you’re from the South Bay.
The wonderful thing about that band was that every singer was unique, and that’s hard to say about bands who have gone through a similar situation, but we all brought something different to the table, and so you are going to get people who are passionate about one or the other.
So Black Flag fans lets continue to keep our fingers crossed on seeing all the members of Black Flag on stage together again someday. Sometimes these reunions work and some times they don’t. The great thing is that every new generation of Black Flag fans will always be able to hear Ron Reyes scream at the top of his lungs, ‘I don’t care what you think!’ with a conviction so palpable it will raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and for those that need to hear it, there will be no turning back after that.