In a rare roundtable interview, L.A.'s punk progenitors—Henry Rollins of Black Flag (right), Keith Morris of Black Flag and Circle Jerks (center right), and John Doe (left) and Exene Cervenka (center left) of X—recall putting a boot through SoCal's rep for sun, surf, and solipsism
interview by alex pappademas and will welch; photograph by ben watts
1. Welcome, Motherfuckers
gq: What brought you all to Los Angeles?
Exene Cervenka: Well, I came to Los Angeles because I had no other choice. I had nowhere else to go, and it was a place where I had a friend, and I had to get out of Florida. Escape.
Where in Florida were you?
Keith Morris: I had no choice because I am a Los Angeleno. I'm also a Hollywoodian. I was born over at the Kaiser Permanente on Sunset Boulevard in Los Feliz. So I also had no choice. And it's odd, because I grew up in the South Bay. Henry is quite familiar with the South Bay, and to this day I'm still puzzled why I was born up in Hollywood, in Los Feliz, when I was living down in Hawthorne, which is like twenty miles away.
John Doe: They probably didn't have a hospital down there.
Morris: Oh, they had a hospital down there, because it was a big area. But I think it might have maybe had something to do with, that was the insurance that my dad had, so…
Do you feel more connected to Hollywood because of that?
Morris: I hate Hollywood. [laughter] Every opportunity that I've had to get away from here, I've taken advantage of. I've lived all over the East Coast. I've lived in Las Vegas. I've lived in Palm Springs. Lived in Richmond, Virginia. I've lived in Boston. I've lived in New York. Charlotte, North Carolina.
Doe: But Los Angeles keeps pulling you back.
Morris: Over and over. Like I said, I had no choice.
You all seem to have that in common. Henry, you've written a lot of books about life in L.A., and you seem to have nothing but terrible things to say about it.
Henry Rollins: Well, as Jeffrey Lee Pierce and some other people said, it's nobody's city. And so we all come from different places, usually. John, where are you from?
Rollins: Okay, that's right. See, I'm from the East Coast myself. I'm from Washington, D.C. I came out here in the summer of 1981 to join Black Flag, which is a South Bay band. And it was either that or just a life of minimum-wage work, so I rolled the dice and went on this audition. Got the job to be singer. So I came out here with a duffel bag, in August or so of 1981.
So I'm a transplant, and I've been out here ever since. And I, too, take every possible advantage I can to go everywhere else. And I've lived in New York and had a place in Virginia, which I never get to because I'm busy all the time. But L.A.'s an interesting place, and for many of us, it's kind of where it happens, in that if I had to go live somewhere else, I don't know if I could do what I do. If I wanted to go back to Washington, D.C., which I really miss quite often, I couldn't work at the speed and the access with which I have and do here. I just couldn't do it. It's not an industry town, really; it's a political town. So here I get a lot of work, and it's been very, very good.
On the other hand, it's a very dirty, relatively anonymous place. You can find culture, but when you go to other parts of America, when you leave the borders of California, quite often you go, “Oh! I'm part of something.” Whereas sometimes in California, or Los Angeles, you can feel quite disconnected from everywhere else.
Morris: The thing that we do have going, here in Los Angeles, is that we've got the ocean, we've got the desert, we've got mountains, and we've got Mexico.
Doe: The border.
Morris: So we've got snow, drugs, heat…
Rollins: But you know what? Part of the reason that we all gathered here is because, as kind of crummy and violent and polluted as this city can be, if you look back at it historically, it has rendered some amazing music that has really stood the test of time, from all decades—from the jazz scene on Central Avenue, all the way up to the present. And certainly, when it comes to the music that we're sort of associated with—punk or independent or alternative music—it cannot be understated how relevant and important Los Angeles, Hollywood, South Bay, and Orange County are to where that music is now. It's not that anyone out here, or anyone in this room, invented anything, but there are some really good bands that are still listened to, celebrated, and loved, being played to this day, that came from the 213, the 323, or the 310, 714 area codes. So it has been quite a fertile field.
Does the anonymity you were talking about have something to do with that?
Rollins: Absolutely. Sure. It pushes you out to express yourself. It can. But I think a lot of people come here from other places. That creative guy in Wisconsin who was dealing with the confines there, or the pretty girl who acted very well in Our Town in Waukesha—she came out here, and unfortunately she might find the stripper pole quicker than the casting couch. But people come here to realize their dreams. And sometimes it's Axl Rose, and they hit it big. Sometimes it's not so good, and it's a sad story. But it's kind of like that field of dreams. Quite often a lot of really talented people come here. Really great actors. There's a lot of competition in this town, and not everyone is just some schlub. There's some really talented people here.
Is there something about the city being dirty and crummy and isolating that you've all been able to feed on creatively?
Doe: Yeah. I think, though, that California was unique in that there is skid row and there's Hollywood Boulevard, which they hadn't quite turned into Times Square yet. They still haven't.
Morris: They're working on it.
Doe: But then there's this incredibly beautiful land. There's the mountains, and there's the beach, and there's all this incredibly beautiful stuff. There's a real city, which people outside of L.A. never thought about until, I think, bands like us started exposing it as, “Oh yeah, this is where Raymond Chandler came from”—stuff like that. But there's a conflict there. The grittiness and the physical beauty, the beautiful weather. Also, there's nothing sadder than a Christmas in L.A. when you don't know anybody. Which I know we all experienced.
Rollins: Also, there's something else that the four of us all have in common that was perhaps helpful for the music: We're all very poor. Poverty. It gives you a lot of time to dick around on the guitar. [laughter] Or to find your muse. And like, when you can smell your roommate from here [laughter], or if you barely even have a roof over your head and your mattress is hopping with fleas or whatever, or you're really hungry a lot—not starving to death, but enough that it becomes a preoccupation—that also leads to some inspiration, I think. I'm not saying that every artist has to starve, but we had some very lean times, and I think that definitely makes you go for your art real hard. Work takes on a real meaning when you're kind of thin in the wallet.
Henry, what was your first living situation in town, your first setup?
Rollins: The first setup I encountered when I came out here was we went to a place called the TC House, which they based the movie Suburbia on. Black Flag had been kicked out of their office, SST [Records] in Torrance, by the cops, so we basically got back to Los Angeles with no place to live. So the people in my band had friends and made some phone calls, and we were able to crash-land at this house that already was full of roommates and such, so we crashed right on their living room floor. All got fleas. Saw a lot of people do a lot of drugs. That was my introduction to L.A. Like, “Okay, this is going to be real rough.”
Doe: “Welcome, motherfuckers.”
Cervenka: “Welcome to paradise. Beautiful sunny California.”
Rollins: Yeah. Where what you were going to eat that day was what you had the backbone to rip off from Mayfair. [laughter] Which was daunting, because I used to work for a living, so when someone would go shoplifting, I'd be like, “Are you kidding, man? Absolutely not. That's against the law.” [laughter] But then you get real hungry and you get very, very resourceful. [laughter]
Exene, what was your first living situation out here?
Cervenka: My first living situation was, I drove across country in a Pinto, with a paper bag and a suitcase and $80. And I got to my friend's house in a thunderstorm, in Santa Monica, and there were five people in one room, and there was no bedroom. There was a living room, a bathroom, and a kitchen, and my bed was in the kitchen. And there was an earthquake like the second night I was here. I remember that. That was pretty weird. But it wasn't the greatest situation, because I was the tipping point in that house because I was the fifth person [laughter], and that was just too much. So I got out of there pretty quick. I got out of there. I got a job right away, and got out of there as quick as I could, and got my own place.
What was the pull to L.A. instead of New York?
Cervenka: I was in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a bunch of people, and I ended up going to Tallahassee, and the St. Petersburg people all went to New York except for one who went to L.A., and we had a feud. So the people in New York didn't want me to come to New York. The people in L.A. were okay with that. The person in L.A. was okay with that. So there was a big feud. So half of us went to New York, and—
Rollins: So you could have almost been a New Yorker.
Cervenka: I would have been a New Yorker—
Doe: If you'd had $120 instead of $80. [laughter]
Cervenka: But I'm glad I ended up where I did. And meeting John Doe saved my life, because I was really one of those kids that came here… Well, we started hitchhiking down PCH to Watts to get drugs, and I would do anything for money, or anything for fun. But I ran into John really, really soon after I got here, which did save my life. So that was good. My landing was pretty rough, too. Not as bad as Henry's. No fleas.
2. This Street's Cool
John, do you remember when you and Exene first met?
Doe: Sure. It was at a writing workshop—a poetry-writing workshop. Venice. And Exene was the only person who was sort of interesting looking, you know? And I think that night they asked us to make a list of writers that influenced us, and Exene said, “Let me look at your list.” [laughter] Like, “I don't know enough writers”—because Exene's like a natural. And then she goes, “Let me look at your list,” and she goes, “You wrote down the same guy twice.” [laughter] That's what I went to school for—poetry. I went to school, and I quit and then went back, and I went to school as a writer. Poetry, and shit like that.
Did you come to L.A. to do that initially?
Doe: No, I came to be a songwriter. Because New York was already…sort of done. My parents lived in Brooklyn, and I could go up and visit 'em any time I wanted to. So I saw Television, and I saw the Heartbreakers, and I saw Talking Heads at Max's Kansas City and CBGB…
Cervenka: Did you see the Ramones?
Doe: No, I didn't see the Ramones.
Cervenka: Not until they came to L.A.
Doe: I went to CBGB and Max's and shit like that, and I thought, fuck, this is just locked. This is done. And I'd had it with the East Coast. I can be a little nostalgic occasionally, but I love California. I fucking love this place—I do—because it has mountains, because it has the beach, because it's like, the land itself is fucking gorgeous. And it's mythic. And I was a literary guy….
Rollins: You were coming from that Steinbeck direction.
Doe: Well, that and Nathanael West, and then later Charles Bukowski. I mean, he would always influence us out here. It's like, you're going down Western Avenue and you're thinking like, This is the shit. This is where it happens. [laughter] Charles Bukowski could be in that bar right there, you know? And then you think you're living in your own fucking movie and all that bullshit. You get over that. But it's still kind of cool.
Rollins: I live a few blocks away from where F. Scott Fitzgerald died, and he's one of my favorite writers. And I've actually been in the apartment, grabbed the mantelpiece that he grabbed, where he had his heart attack and fell over in December of 1940, I believe. He was living with his girlfriend at the time, because she had no stairs. He had a weak heart, and they said, “Don't climb stairs,” so he was living with Sheilah Graham.
Rollins: But as an older guy, knowing way more about L.A. than I did when I got here, I really like the James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler aspect of it, and the fact that F. Scott came out here, like a lot of other writers, for Hollywood. For pictures. And he kind of stuck out here while other people, like Dashiell Hammett and all kinds of other people, were making money getting work. F. Scott came out here and just kind of failed and failed and failed—and died. His last few years were all out here. But it was kind of interesting to me, because he would wander Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, going to bookstores to see if anyone recognized him and, y'know, “I'll sign that book for ya”—stuff like that. [laughter] So I always just kind of trip on the fact that this guy was a Midwest guy, but he kind of came out here and panned for gold. It's that fable of Los Angeles and California. And also, I'm a big fan of Steinbeck. He wrote about California and the working man and all of that. So there's that part of it that is very interesting to me. But I only understood that as an older guy, as an adult.
Right. At the time, you didn't have a literary fantasy about what the city was going to be like.
Rollins: No. I came here for the music. And I came out here very quickly. I was working at a $3.50-an-hour job. They said, “Do you want to be in this band?” I went, “Yeah.” [laughter] Because I saw my life: $3.50 an hour. That was going to be my life. And you can get those jobs—I mean, they're kind of disposable.
If it didn't work out, your job would be there waiting for you.
Rollins: Yeah. My boss said, “If this screws up, you can always come back here.” And I keep in touch with that guy to this day, my boss from back in 1981. So I came out here like, Well, what do I have to lose? I love this band I get to be in—it's my favorite band—and I get to be the singer. If it lasts six weeks, six months, I have no idea.
You were lucky enough to join a band that already existed.
Rollins: Yes. I had no part in creating it or its music. That's Keith. Keith is the man.
You were the last singer of Black Flag, and Keith was the first one.
Morris: We're the bookends.
Rollins: Yeah, exactly. And I prefer all the other singers to myself, and Keith of all four of us. [laughter] No, it's very true! And I think everyone else will agree. But these three show you just how good that music was at that time. Black Flag, the early days of X…boy! The Weirdos, the Germs, the Screamers—that scene. It was so fertile. Dangerhouse [Records], Slash [Records], Claude Bessy, all these brilliant minds… Gun Club.
Morris: One of the great things, though, is that each and every band had its own separate personality.
Morris: One of the things that happened was that the L.A. scene was never fully recognized or given the attention that it needed, because all of the attention was being placed on New York and on what was happening in England. It was like we were a poor man's version of what was happening over there—which actually was far from the case. There was just too much brilliant music coming out of L.A.
Rollins: Truly. Like the Screamers. That band should have taken over the world, when you hear some of that stuff. And these guys I'm talking about, they are friends and peers. Me, I'm just a fan. I was buying the records mail-order from 2,000 miles away. But when I came out here, I met all these people. I remember I met John and Exene at a Black Flag show, I think it was in San Francisco. And Greg Ginn of Black Flag introduced me to John, and I'm like, “Whoa!” These people were like royalty to me, because I just had the records, and I'd been living in this scene very vicariously for a couple of years, and I knew Keith from the Nervous Breakdown EP. And I saw the Circle Jerks before their album came out, summer of '80, at the Mabuhay Gardens with Flipper and the Dead Kennedys—one of the great nights of my life. So this scene was like I said: They're still talking about it. Black Randy, the Alley Cats… I mean, you can just go on and on.
Cervenka: Oh, the Plugz. We should mention the Plugz.
Morris: What about the Germs? Let's not leave out the Germs.
Rollins: And there's a lot of recorded stuff left behind. These records are just—they'll melt your house. They're really good. Innovative, too.
Doe: But the thing I think people forget, or they choose to ignore, is that in '74 or '75 it was like the line was drawn. Like, that was that. And then whatever you weren't, you became punk rock. And that's what gave birth to all this eclectic-sounding stuff—the Deadbeats or the Plugz or all these people that had their own identity, like Keith's saying—is because it's not what you were, it's what you weren't. You weren't trying to sound like Black Flag. You were just trying to figure out some shit you made that was real. For you. You know? And I'm sure it was the same thing with all the stuff that was coming out of the Southeast with N.W.A and all the guys who were coming out with that. It was like, they weren't trying to sound like each other. They were just trying to do something that made sense to them. They were—
Just trying not to sound like disco.
Doe: Right. As long as you do that, or as long as you didn't sound like Fleetwood Mac.
Rollins: And it was cool that, you know, L.A. had a real identity that was separate from England. And John's right. It was like what was happening in New York and England, which was certainly two great scenes, but for a while you'd meet some guy in some band, and all of a sudden he's singing with an English accent. [laughter] I'm like, “What? What are you doing, man?” [laughter] Like, be from where you're from—no problem. You don't have to be Mick Jagger or Paul Weller. You can be from down the street. This street's cool.
And in Washington, D.C., we had a band called the Bad Brains, which, when we discovered that band, me and all my friends in the summer of '79 or thereabouts, and we were like, “Oh, okay—well, that just kind of makes me have to throw out most of my record collection.” [laughter] That band turned me on my head—like, “Okay, everything else is irrelevant now.” I saw that.
They set the odometer back to zero.
Rollins: Yeah. By that time, I'd seen the Ramones, and I had seen the Clash, and I'd seen some really good bands. Bad Brains were opening for the Damned, and y'know, the Damned were great. But the Bad Brains—for us, in that little town? Here are these black guys coming from one of the most dangerous, howling ghettos in D.C. East Capitol Street or wherever they lived? Whoo! Just…scary. And here they come, with this amazing music where you don't even know what you saw. Like, we walked out of there going, “What was it? Okay, guitar, bass, drums, vocal—but what was it?” It was that good and that bewildering. It's hard to describe the set to your friends. Like, “I don't know, it's like the most amazing thing I've ever seen live.” And all of a sudden you realize that you didn't have to sound like anybody else. You wanted to sound like your own thing. You wanted to be like, “We're not from England. We're not from New York. Nothing against it, but we're from here.” And L.A. had that. We keep mentioning all these bands. Any of these bands, a lot of the stuff's in print. You can find it. You'll hear some startlingly good music. Like, X was great from the get-go. Their first single, “We're Desperate” and “Adult Books”—it's a great single. And then the album that resulted from it—it was all good. And so a lot of these bands hit the ground running, being great. And these singles are all kind of worshipped now. All these seven-inches. There are eBay dogfights to get them.
3. People Who Die
Cervenka: Back then, too, there was a prejudice against L.A. We were militantly proud of being from either the South Bay or Hollywood or wherever we were from in L.A. Because at the beginning, when X went out to England or went to New York, we got really negative reviews. People said, “If you live in California, you probably have a swimming pool and a house and the palm trees and the sun. You can't be desperate if you're from L.A.” And I think everybody had to work really hard to prove that wrong. Where in New York, you just walk into a room. You're automatically dressed in black. You're a junkie. You're valid. [laughter] But here it was like we had to prove ourselves, and we still have to prove ourselves—that being from L.A. is not an easy piece-of-pie kind of life, and it never has been for any of these bands. And the bands from L.A. didn't get the recognition that the New York and the English bands got, and there's no reason for that, except that people would refuse to take us seriously because we're from a place that had sunshine.
So you were always fighting the image of Los Angeles.
Cervenka: We had to fight the image of the Fleetwood Mac, the limousines, the coke, the girls, the Record Plant, where everybody records at…
The Beach Boys.
Cervenka: And the Beach Boys. All that. And the Beach Boys were fucking…they're as out there as anybody!
Rollins: Yeah. I mean, talk about drugs and family problems and violence…
Cervenka: But we had to fight that misconception about Los Angeles.
Doe: It's a good thing. It's like the second stimulus, after poverty, in all this was feeling righteous in your brotherhood.
Having something to prove.
It must have been a mind-fuck to sort of have that image attached to you and then be living in the squats.
Cervenka: Yeah, it was.
Doe: Well, but you know what? In all fairness, living in Los Angeles and living in Hollywood—even though the apartments were shitty, it was cheaper, and it was a hell of a lot easier than living in fucking New York and humping your gear on a subway. Fuck that shit, man! [laughter] You're living in a Hollywood apartment. I had an apartment at the beach, in Venice, within two blocks of the fucking beach, and it was a one-room apartment. It was 125 bucks a month.
Rollins: Yeah, try to be a starving artist in New York. It's hard. Here you can have a life. We all kind of moved around different apartments and houses all over this town for years—Silver Lake, wherever. I used to live up the street from Millie's, where Keith used to work.
Morris: Oh yeah, I worked there, and I lived in that big apartment building up the street. When I came down with diabetes, I had to get out of there, because this one kid that lived there was into beating up transvestites at four in the morning….
Rollins: What a thing to be into. “Three fifty-five—gotta go.”
Morris: He would turn on the Cher hit at the time and blast it full-blast at four in the morning so you couldn't hear him beating up the transvestites. But the manager of the building was like, “Hey, if you have $300, you can move in.” And so this place was just full of drug dealers and bikers, and one guy would be tearing his car apart in the driveway. And one morning I went to work at Millie's, and it's like the cook's not there and the dishwasher's not there. And they'd been hanging out together. That was the morning I had to get the manager of that building to unlock the door, so I could go in and discover both of them dead from overdosing on heroin. And that's just part of the character, you know? That comes with the territory.
Cervenka: Wow. Right.
Rollins: Yeah, L.A. can be a very scary place. When I got out here, I saw it very quickly. We were in the TC House for about a week, and then we eventually got an office space to live in. It's now a Trader Joe's. Different building, same location—the Trader Joe's on Santa Monica, a little west of La Cienega, near the Elektra Studios and all of that. But when I first walked around that neighborhood, I was like, “Whoa, this place is intense.” I met some really heavy people the first couple of years I lived out here. A lot of 'em are dead now. I learned that about L.A.—you can meet a lot of people who die. Like, all of a sudden, you had death. Because where I grew up, no one died. But here, you'd go on tour and come back, and the cool girl who was nice to you, who wrote the great poetry? OD'd. And that other guy disappeared, and they found him later, you know, cut up. A lot of ODs, a lot of suicides. Some good heroin would come through town, real cheap, and everyone would try it out. Yeah, it was a scary place, L.A. It was a very dark place at times. It kind of kicks that whole glittery myth in the face—like, “Oh yeah, you guys are lightweight, because you have sun.” Yeah, you see the bodies easier. [laughter] There's a lot of rawness to this city. It's impersonal. If you drop dead, a lot of people are like, “Oh, what a bummer.” And they just walk around you and keep going.
4. Sherry the Penguin
Did you have a sense, at the time, of being part of a “scene,” or do you feel like that's an idea that's been put on you in a retrospective, revisionist kind of way?
Cervenka: It was a very connected community. It was more than a scene; it was a bunch of people fighting for each other. A lot of benefits were happening for people. Everyone took care of each other. A lot of food…
Morris: Our competitive spirit was us versus them. It wasn't us versus us.
Rollins: Well, the bands were all hated universally by the cops. And everyone was pretty broke, so guys were always lending each other gear. Sometimes the only guy with a drum set would lend his drums to all five bands on the stage that night.
Doe: There wasn't any patting each other on the back or looking around self-consciously, because everyone was busy just doing what we were doing. But I think people had a sense of “This is pretty great. We know people that have made-up names.” There was a woman that hung around, Sherry the Penguin. [laughter] It was like, “Wow, this is out of Damon Runyon.” Or like Tony the Hustler, who would work on Santa Monica Boulevard. They were like boyfriend-girlfriend. How could they be?—they were both gay. You had that sense that there were these characters. But at the same time, you were in the middle of doing it, so you didn't look around and go, “This is cool. We're really cool.”
Rollins: All this stuff is created in a revisionist way by some guy or gal who was not there at the time, and they almost mythologize it. If you're really busy, as musicians tend to get, you're not really aware of what it is, because you're too busy being the thing that is.
Morris: Everything was unexpected. We had no map. We didn't know where we were going. The beauty of what was happening was that a lot of people were caught up in this creative swirl and everybody was doing their thing, and a lot of us didn't know what we were doin'.
Cervenka: No master plan. No goals.
Rollins: It's like being a leopard. A leopard doesn't know it's beautiful and doesn't know it's spotted. It's how I describe Iggy Pop. He's a leopard. He doesn't know. He's just too busy doing it. He is it. You'll be like, “You were great,” and he'll say, “I don't know, I'm just Iggy Pop.” You know what I mean? He just lets it go. And that's when scenes are at their purest—when it's just happening. Then later everyone gets to sit back and be the Monday-morning quarterback or the backseat driver or the pundit.
5. Oh, My God, I've Been Hit in the Face
How did the rise of hardcore punk affect the community that we've been talking about? Was there a shift in the way it felt?
Rollins: It was like the jocks beating up the intellectuals. [laughter]
Cervenka: Well, there was a bit of ethnic cleansing going on, with the longhairs in the audience being beat up and things like that. There was a little bit of intolerance that started. I had a bit of a hard time with the hardcore girls. Henry mentioned that John and I met him in San Francisco. That's because San Francisco was a safe place to see Black Flag. I wouldn't get beat up if I saw Black Flag in San Francisco. If I went to the South Bay, I don't know, that was different. Those kids were different, and the Hollywood scene and the other scene were different. And there was a lot of audience clashing. But the bands all loved each other. So it's weird.
Doe: It's kind of like the difference between Tony Alva stage-diving and some guy a year later who's a big fucking lunkhead getting up there. I think it was Tony and his crew who first started jumping up, and they'd spin across the stage and they'd dive off, but they were athletes. Then there'd be some dumb-ass who's a big drunk—
Morris: The big guy that got kicked off the football team.
Doe: Right, right. And he would get onstage and he would knock into everything, and it was like, ugh, you know?
Rollins: And some of these guys were racists. Some of them were homophobic. In a lot of these early scenes, like in D.C.'s early scene, you'd go into some punk-rock squat—or the hippie squat where a lot of gigs were, or a place called Madam's Organ—and there's the Rasta guy, there's the Commie agitprop-flyer dude, there's your four gay friends who go to punk-rock shows because they won't get beaten up. Because it was like, “Hey, if you knew how to get in here, you must be cool. I'm Henry.” You made friends. And then when the hardcore thing started, people were suddenly like, “Look at those fucking fags.” Like, “Wow. Well, that dream's over. That utopia just got trashed.” And all of a sudden there's the Mexican kid getting hit in the back of the head. Like, “Oh, okay. So we're racists, too.” I'm not trying to paint with a broad brush, but you started to see that with some of these hardcore knucklehead guys, and loving the violence—that kind of Clockwork Orange stuff. There were some guys who were following the Circle Jerks around. I saw violence on a scale I'd never witnessed in my young life, at their two shows in Northern California in the summer of 1980. X-Head, Tony Alva… Some of those guys were fucking terrifying. Like, “Wow, that bouncer's face is cut open. They're kicking that guy's rib cage in.”
Doe: That X-Head guy was a sociopath. He'd get out in the middle of the dance floor and unroll a chain, or a dog chain, that was ten feet long and start swinging it around his head, and whoever it hit… Awesome.
Cervenka: He's in The Decline of Western Civilization. But let's not give him any press.
Doe: As a scene gets bigger and more fractionalized and it attracts more people, just by the odds, if you have like 5,000 people, you're going to have ten sociopaths.
Morris: Also, another thing that you have to take in consideration is that Los Angeles is really spread out. It's like you have to own a car to pretty much survive in L.A., unless you know the bus lines really well, or the underground train or what have you. But you have to understand that—because it's so widespread, and it touches into the Valley, and it touches into the desert, and it touches into San Diego, etcetera, etcetera—you have people coming from all over. And it's like, here's this really cool place, and a lot of them see it as just a playground. And they use the music as a background for “Well, today I got kicked out of school,” or “Today I got fired from my job,” or “Last night I didn't get a blow job from my girlfriend,” or…
Rollins: You're exactly right. People come to blow off steam. The early L.A. scene was like people actually read books, had intellectual discussions between bands, wore blazers with the sleeves rolled up. And then in come these kind of tan, very fit guys who are going to blow off some steam on the weekend.
I remember when I first met you, Exene, John was really nice to me and you were like, “Oh, you're the Black Flag guy.” I'm like, “Wow, you're great!” And you were like, “Okay, bye!” [laughter] We made friends later. And I asked Greg [Ginn] and Chuck [Dukowski, both of Black Flag], and they said, “Sometimes some of the Hollywood bands, they see some of the South Bay bands who have that kind of crazy knucklehead crew”—and boy, we had them—“and they go, ‘Oh, here they come, with all those people who always seem to come with them, the guys who're ready to do the thing.' ” And so I remember that in San Francisco, here come these Huntington Beach folks sweeping through that Mabuhay Gardens crowd, y'know? A bunch of people discussing Kafka and deconstructing Dostoevsky. And all of a sudden they're like, “Oh, my God, I've been hit in the face!”
It was a real clash of cultures, between this thing that was an intellectual reaction to all the lumbering, luded-out metal or arena rock bands and this other thing that was kind of a no-brain culture. These guys came in like, “Hot-looking chicks, and I can move around real fast, and I'm an angry young man.” Punk rock and hardcore, to me, are two very divergent strains of youth music. I really think they're very different.
It must have been a fine line, though.
Rollins: But less fine as the time went on. And in New York, the CBGB days in the '80s, that thing really defined itself, with all the Murphy's Law–type bands and all those afternoon hardcore matinees, where all of a sudden there's American-flag tattoos on people. Like, Archie Bunker now has a band. [laughter] You'd meet these guys, and you're like, “Well, I'm in Black Flag,” and I'm wearing a tie-dyed Meat Puppets shirt. And they're like, “What's up, hippie?” I'm like, “I have on a tie-dyed T-shirt that cost me three bucks. You want to fight me over my shirt?” Yeah, they wanted to fight me over my shirt. Like, “What's up, you fuckin' faggot?” Like, wow. What? Why? What happened? And I noticed it. And that really peaked at '85, '86. That was just a real problem—skinheads at your shows. Like, “Wow, we're going to have to stop the gate. These people, they're going to kill each other.” And I saw it when I came out here, and Black Flag had that audience. We'd go down to Huntington Beach, and those were some of the craziest people I've ever seen in my life. My first gig was down there. Those guys come up in front like, “You'd better be good, you fuckin' faggot.” I'm like, [timidly] “Okay, I rehearsed all day.” And it was really something else. Thankfully, I rated with these people, and they didn't tear me up.
Doe: But it also goes to show how short-lived things are. Because let's say that the L.A. scene started in '77, maybe '76-ish. And then by 1981, as there were other elements coming in… I think Fear was one of the bands that really got people going in that direction, and obviously Black Flag. But then it started, like, splitting off. Here's the rockabilly crowd, and then here's the more arty crowd. But really, the original sort of thing lasted three years or something. Same in New York. It was about two or three years, maybe four years, before the Ramones and Blondie and Talking Heads all had record contracts. And I think it goes like that with big-band music or, like I was talking about, the early rap stuff that was coming out of L.A. or out of New York. It's like this fucking long. Then more people come in and it evolves into something else.
Rollins: All these scenes have eighteen to thirty-six months, and then the suburbs come in. Then radio gets ahold of it, and then all of a sudden… Like, my pal Ian MacKaye had a band called Minor Threat. Their first show was done in a guy's living room. I was there. By the next summer, my friend Ian MacKaye was a punk-rock star, and they couldn't find a place big enough to hold all those fans. Then all of a sudden you're in “the D.C. scene,” but you don't know anybody in the venue. Like, who are all these people? Some guy who just invented his hair on the way to the gig. And we'd ask 'em, like, “Where are you from, man?” “I'm from Columbia, Maryland.” “I'm from Richmond.” Like, Richmond? “Yeah, there's nothing like this where we live.” And here, people would come to L.A. from Oxnard, from S.D., from Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, Orange County, with different motivations. And then, all of a sudden, it started cliquing up and splitting off.
In the beginning, though, would you look out at the audience and know everybody?
Rollins: Yeah, the gigs were extensions of your living room.
Doe: And what you sang and played, they were part of creating as well. You were influenced by the bands that opened for you. It wasn't even like they “opened,” really. They just played before you.
And was that how it ended? When it got too big to feel that way?
Cervenka: I don't think it's ended.
What do you mean?
Cervenka: Well, here we are. I guess it wound down. But X still plays. The survivors, we all still respect each other and still keep in touch. And that music went on to spawn 10 billion bands. So I don't know that it ended.
Morris: Another thing that happened was that some of us started realizing popularity, which meant we weren't spending as much time in Los Angeles as we normally would. We're out in a van somewhere in middle America. We're down in Florida or playing on the East Coast.
Doe: You didn't have the poverty that was making you sit in your apartment for hours and hours because you really can't afford to go anyplace else.
Rollins: And you see that everywhere, that thing about how the money or the popularity sometimes corrupts or erodes the art. Hemingway had a thing about it, I think, in his Nobel Prize speech. He said it's the fortune that often is detrimental to the writer, because it's such a lonely job, he does it alone, and when the fame comes in, there goes the art. And it's interesting, because we all know people who are now really rich. We know people like the Chili Peppers. They went from playing on other people's gear to like, arguably, the second biggest band in the world when they tour. So it's interesting to see some of these people: how money changes them, or what success does to their psyche or their ego or whatever. But even on a small level, how we operate—it's like all of a sudden you have people, all those people, hanging on to you. All of a sudden you have a lawyer. I needed a lawyer? Who'd have thought we'd have needed lawyers?—everything's done with a handshake. And all of a sudden you have a manager. And “Wow, I've got people? I've got salaries to pay.” And all of a sudden you have to protect your art from these people you've hired. You have to protect your art from record companies. And it's a long way removed from your crappy apartment in Silver Lake that's full of cat urine, where you got all that inspiration from.
And I bet you sometimes wish you could get back to it.
Rollins: Yeah, but you can't. I miss the simplicity of that, like, “Today I'm going to get up and write all day, because I have nothing else going on.” But I don't miss the crappy place I lived in. But also, we were young when we started, and we're “all growed up” now, with marriages and kids and mortgages and all that real-deal stuff. That world, when it encroaches upon your world, it takes its toll.
Doe: Yes, definitely.
Rollins: Definitely. [indicating John] He's got kids. He's a full-time dad. That's a responsibility. That's a world in and of itself. Maybe it adds to your art, and maybe it's a thing where you have to wall it off, to go be Art Guy for an hour in the afternoon, but it's between soccer games. When you're younger, you're like, “I'm hoping to meet a chick, get a meal, and I'm really pissed off, and I've got a day to write.” And it was great. You almost felt like you were in the Left Bank or something. You're some young starving artist, and it was cool. And then things change. It doesn't mean you can't be cool anymore. It's just the game changes a little bit. And it's the poor starving days are often kind of romantically remembered by those who were not there. The people who were there, like Exene, they're like, “Fuck that. I never want to go back to that again.”
You don't want to go back to that bed in the kitchen.
Cervenka: No! I know where that apartment is, though. I could take you there. It was in a beautiful part of Santa Monica. Santa Monica was like the skid row of the beach. It was the cheapest place. Venice and Santa Monica were the worst places you could live.
Rollins: I think it's very healthy to look back on it and go, “Been there, done that, I don't need to go back,” instead of being all romantic for it and trying to live in the past.
Cervenka: Yes, exactly. Well, I moved away from L.A. and moved to Missouri a couple years ago, so I don't even live here anymore.
Morris: Don't you miss the apartment over there on Santa Monica, a few blocks from the Starwood?
Doe: Circus of Books? Yeah.
Cervenka: Behind Circus of Books? Oh yeah. It's still there.
Is Circus of Books an adult bookstore? Was that the inspiration for “Adult Books”?
Cervenka: Well, there were a lot of adult books there. That was how they advertised it: “Adult books.” Not videos, not porn.
Books for discerning readers.
Cervenka: “Adult books.” As opposed to juvenile fiction.
Rollins: Yeah, I don't miss those environments. I do kind of miss those days where you'd wake up in the morning and go, “Okay, I've got nothing else on today but inspiration, so I'm going to go walk for three hours, looking at crazy people, and come back and see where it takes me.”
Cervenka: Or ride the bus. John and I used to do that. We were always taking the bus everywhere, because we either had a car that was broken or had one to share or whatever, and so we rode the bus. And that was in the days when you could ride the bus down Santa Monica Boulevard from the beach through Beverly Hills, and then you'd ride the bus downtown. You'd see, like, every type of person.
Morris: Those were also the days when we were invincible and we were bulletproof.
Rollins: Right. When you were broke, you would walk up to any hot-looking girl in the club, with none of that normal fear like, “Oh, she's beautiful.” You walk up like, “I'm broke. What do I have to lose? I'm taking a bus back from this gig. I'll walk right up to that girl like, ‘My name's Henry. Hello.' ” Because you had no fear, because you were broke and kind of starving, and it made you feel like, “What? I've been laughed at all day. Come on.”
6. I'm Like a Narc
So did you ever think that you'd be sitting and talking about this stuff twenty-five or thirty years down the road?
Doe: Oh, I think everyone imagines that it's going to last for six weeks, or for—
Rollins: Yeah, that's what I thought.
Doe: —for sixty years?
Cervenka: You don't think the adventure's necessarily ever going to end. You don't really know where it's going to take you, but you know you're on an adventure.
Rollins: I never thought any of this would really mean much. Like being in Black Flag—I knew we were a good band. Or I'd go see Keith or X—live, they're one of the finest bands I've ever seen in my life. I mean, forget it. It's one of the best nights of your life. And so I knew all these bands were onto something. I'd listen to us and go, “Yeah, that doesn't suck.” You'd see all these great bands. You're like, “Fuck, this a great scene.” But when you don't get recognized, and when you hear what passes for music on radio, you're like, “Oh, well, I guess we don't matter. I'll just matter to me and my thirty-five-person audience.” I always thought like, “Well, I'll be in this band for, I don't know, like another eleven months, and I guess I'll be flipping burgers somewhere around here.”
Doe: Right. Which is a great way to be in the moment. To believe that it might go on to something greater, and then you might have another opportunity. Y'know, back in the day—fuck, did I actually use that phrase? Fuck! In the old days—in the olden days—you could tell that you were onto something and, y'know, maybe it might catch on.
Rollins: During the '80s, I learned some lessons. I saw people who were actually really talented who were starving. Like, you'd see a band like the Minutemen, who were just about as good as it gets, and they all had day jobs. No one was making out like a bandit. No one's getting rich. So I realized, by around '84, I'd better get some other irons in the fire, because I'm one of those guys who likes to eat every day. And so I have a very heavy division between art and employment. I do a lot of voice-over work, and for me it's just a job. I try to be artistic when I do it, but I'm punching a time clock. I go bark for the History Channel, and I'm happy to get the work. But when I write my own stuff or when I act, it's that guy's script, but I'm going to be the best pseudo-actor that guy ever saw, and try and make the director so happy he put me in his movie. But for me, it's just employment, and it's just the stuff you get. And in this town, you kind of have to have a few things.
You'll see so many musicians, their music took them into films. Like John's in movies, and X is in soundtracks. Keith's done all kinds of stuff, where you see some of the punk rockers have found themselves in, like, some very interesting places, because hey, man, it's work, I'll take it. And I've been working hard to try and keep a few irons in the fire, because music, if you play it on our level, it's not always going to be there to feed you.
So when, like, the cool deal comes in, it's nice. But I never had any pot of gold. I'm a survivalist in America. America's like a complex video game, and all the freedom you have is just rope to hang yourself with, and it's so easy to blow it. Because the banks will give you money you'll never be able to give back. They know it. They make money on you when you can't pay back. That's when Visa loves you. If you pay on time, they call you a deadbeat. And so I kind of saw that.
I saw Reagan America, traveling through every poor part of America. That's another thing: Touring musicians, you get to see every armpit of every city, because that's where they put the gig. And you get to see every stew bum, railroad-hopping guy, AWOL vets, or AWOL guys from the navy or whatever, and people who are kind of living by the seat of their pants, and you see what a cruel and unusual country this can be. And so it makes you kind of omnivorous, and you always go, “Yeah, I'll do that.” “Ever been in a film?” “Sure.” “Can you act?” “Can you pay? [laughter] If you're payin', I'm acting.” It makes you kind of fearless. I've stepped up for jobs. That's why I call it stepping up, as opposed to selling out. Like, “You sold out.” “Come to the interview with me, motherfucker. Let's see you go do it. Let's see you go beat out real actors and scam a part in this. Like, we'll see how much selling out you think you're doing.” [laughter] And then that's why you get that part. It's not like “I got that part,” it's like “I took it from you, man.” From a room full of guys who wanted it. I came up out of the basement with the key. And when you can do it in this town, man, I just I think it's nothing but great.
I just caught you in Heat the other night, getting your ass kicked by Al Pacino.
Rollins: It's the movies.
Morris: One of my favorite John Doe scenes is in Road House, where he's up on the balcony, and Patrick Swayze shoots him with a shotgun or something….
Doe: He throws a knife.
Cervenka: [to John] Did you fall off the balcony?
Doe: I didn't fall off the balcony.
Rollins: They never let you do the fun stuff. But Road House—I remember when that happened, and John was in it, and I was like, “Man, fucking right on.”[laughter] Like, “Get some, man.” [to Exene] Remember we did that gig together, a hundred years ago, and you had just come back from the set of Twilight Zone? And you walked up with your makeup on? I was like, “Yeah!” Like, “We got over. Exene's on The Twilight Zone.” I'm like, “Fuck. Go, go, go!” Like, “Get fed.” Like, “Go and succeed.” I really enjoy when other people I know get in there, because I know how improbable we are as candidates for any of this stuff. That's why I like when the Buzzcocks are in a VW ad. Like, “Oh, the Buzzcocks are in a VW ad.” Yeah, they're finally getting paid. Or the Stooges, the ad for Nike? It's like, “Pay 'em double, motherfucker, because they were genius before you were born.” So finally they're getting some. I applaud all this stuff, when these people I know get in there. I love it. It's a weird form of validation. But when you come from this scene that apparently no one wanted, except Rodney Bingenheimer, and no one wanted you and your damn music, except like these dysfunctional people who thankfully came to your gigs and kept you somewhat fed, and the rest of the world seemed to have wanted some turgid stuff that turned up to the Forum three nights a year—when you get these breaks, it's a hell of a thing.
It's interesting when culture kind of catches up. Like when Kurt Cobain and Nirvana kind of broke things open in a way, and all of a sudden you can buy flannel shirts without the sleeves at Macy's—when that is seen as something desirable for suburban kids. Like, “Honey, I'll cut the sleeves off for you.” “No, no, Mom, you can buy them like that. They're already torn, the jeans. Look, I'm ready.” [laughter]
And you go, “Wow.” In a way, you can say we've arrived. And in a way, it's not all that valid, but in a way, like, yeah, we're having some impact here. The fact that almost any middle-American housewife will understand what you mean if you put “palooza” on the end of a sentence—like, “Oh, I'm here at Thanksgiving-palooza again”—that's Perry Farrell putting his thumbprint on the American cultural psyche. The impact has been made.
Doe: And there's also an underground punk-rock scene that goes on now that we're not even aware of. I don't know who the bands are, but there will be a bill—in the middle of America, in Pittsburgh or in any place you can name—there'll be six bands on the bill, and there'll be 400 or 500 people there. And they'll go back to high school and go, “Dude, I got this black eye at the fucking concert. I got this black eye. See this? I got it at the punk-rock show.” And it's like, that's exactly what everybody wanted. That's exactly what we wanted when we got into it, was to have people get together and have an experience. It's freedom. You can go into this place and weird shit's going to happen.
Cervenka: We tried to tell people it was a really good idea at the time, but no one would listen to us. [laughter]
Doe: Now that got validated, because at the time, in Hollywood, we were playing for bohemians who were maybe 20 to 35. And then some runaway kids would come in. And then, by 1980, it was really youth-oriented, but it was still like total misfits. And then it spread out into this thing, so it's like kind of a rite of passage, and—
Morris: Now it's the Warped Tour.
Doe: Yeah, there's the Warped Tour. But those bands, when they play on their own, they're not part of the Warped Tour.
Morris: There's still an underground.
Rollins: There's still bands that just play in living rooms and basements, except now it's a MySpace thing. I love when I'll go see some young band and somebody's like, “Dude, I can't believe you're here,” and they bring you over to meet the band, and the band completely blows you off. [laughter] And it's like, “Oh, Pete Townsend's here.” Like you're some ancient thing to them. They're going, “Oh, hey, man,” and then [snickers], “It's Henry Rollins! Pathetic.” I love it. I'm, like, cool. I'm old and in the way. I say rumble, young man. Rumble. Blow me off. I love it. And I get that every once in a while, like, “Oh yeah—you made records back in the day.”
Morris: As long as there are living rooms out there, and there are backyards, there are basements, there are attics, there are warehouses, there are garages, there's always going to be that kid who wants to say “Fuck you” to his parents. And to the police, and to the mayor, and the city council, and his school teacher, and the principal…
Rollins: As Exene said, it's not over. The scene didn't end. Because if you want to hear some amazing music, you're spoiled for choice these days. People go, “Oh, music sucks now.” Are you kidding? Music is, like, frighteningly good right now. If you listen to my radio show once a week, I'll play you some shit you never heard that will kick your ass. There's youth bands that are happening that are like…whew! And this town has a lot of them, but there's a scene that is urgent and really happening. That band the Mae Shi, they're from around here.
Morris: There's also the kids that… The Mexican guys from South Central, Hit Me Back. There's Fucked Up, from Canada. There's this band from Sacramento called Trash Talk.
Rollins: It's happening all over America. It's off the beaten path. Some of the CDs are hard to get. Some of the CDs, they're just CDRs with a folded eight-and-a-half-by-eleven fact sheet. I buy them. There's a label called American Tapes. It's in Michigan. They've handled Wolf Eyes, and it's all like they make fourteen of each record. It comes in a cereal box with two cassettes and a poster, all handmade. I'm a huge fan of that label. And they make this synthesizer saxophone din that either you're into it or you run. [laughter] I call it the new bebop. And so there's scenes all over. I have a great engineer at my little radio show on Indie 103, and he's turned me on to so much good music in the last five years. Shit, I'm nearly 50. I'd walk right by and never know. I'm like a narc. But he goes, “Here, take this home this weekend. Here's your homework.” Bink! And I end up buying almost all of those records.
There's scenes happening all over. In spite of Reagan, in spite of Bush One and Two, art still is alive in America. As much as they have tried to kill it and marginalize it and call it weak and gay and lame and you-read-therefore-you-suck-and-you-hate-the-truth. Whatever Fox is trying to say, it's still okay to have an intellect and to let your heart show.
Morris: A perfect example of this would be a place called the Smell. It's like a block away from skid row. You pay $5 to get in. There'll be between four and six bands. All ages, no booze—you drink out in the alleyway. It resembles the Masque. Totally indestructible. Of course, like when I go, I feel like a senior citizen [laughter], but that's okay. It's where I want to go. It's what's happening, and that's the underground. That's where you would see the Mae Shi. That's where you see the Locust, or Chinese Stars, or the Muslims, the Jews, the Catholics… [laughter]
Rollins: Yeah, the Smell is really reminiscent of those gigs where it's like, “We found a box, and no one's kicking us out. Let's rock.” San Francisco had great places like that. D.C. had a few. They get shut down eventually, but the Smell has had an unusually long ride. Maybe because it's in a part of the city that no one wants. It'll be a wine bar in five years.
Morris: That's part of the rock 'n' roll adventure.
Rollins: Absolutely. Punk rock often put you in some crazy places. Black Flag, when I was in it, we played tons of parties. We would come to your house and play on a phone call. Some kid would call up like, “Dude!” And we would show up with our little PA like, “Hi, Black Flag. You asked for us?” We were like Domino's. And we would show up and play your backyard, and we'd try and meet girls and stuff, and then here come the cops, and y'know, we had our fun. High school kids would literally call us up and we'd be like, “Yeah, it's Friday night. We'll fucking go.” And we'd be there like ninety minutes later, like, “You called?” And they'd be like, “No way. You guys actually showed up!” And we're like, “Yeah.” And they'd go, “My parents are gone till ten. Let's go!” Those were some of the best nights of my life.
Related: GQ's editors sound off on the history of L.A. punk and play exclusive audio from the interview with Rollins, Morris, Doe, and Exene. Listen here:
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