Can I Get in the Van? – I Hitchhiked to Texas and Almost Joined Black Flag
Illustration by Todd Ryan White
In the summer of 1981, a young and unknown 20-year-old punk from Washington, DC, named Henry Garfield jumped up onstage to sing an encore with Black Flag at a show in New York City. It so happened that the band was looking for a new singer. A couple days later, they tracked down Henry and asked him to come back to New York for a proper audition. They met him at the Odessa diner on Avenue A by Tompkins Square Park and took him to a nearby rehearsal space, where they ran through a set together. Afterward, the band went outside to talk it over. As Henry later recounted in his tour diary, Get in the Van, guitarist Greg Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski returned a few minutes later and Dukowski asked, “Well? Are you going to join or not?”
Henry, of course, was in. He immediately quit his job as the manager of a Häagen-Dazs, left behind an abusive family situation, and went on the road with his favorite band. Shortly thereafter, he changed his last name to Rollins and moved to Los Angeles. Within six months, the band recorded Damaged, a record that is widely credited with inventing American hardcore.
Back when I was a Black Flag-obsessed teenager longing to escape my own dead-end hometown in south Florida, the story about Henry’s complete reversal of fortune captured my imagination. In 1989, after Black Flag had already split up, I read an interview with Greg Ginn in which he lamented how hard it was to find dedicated, hardworking musicians. Being an idealistic 16-year-old, I called SST Records and left a message on their answering machine, offering to drop what I was doing and hitchhike to Los Angeles to play bass in his band. Ginn, unfortunately, never called back. Still, Black Flag’s uncompromising DIY ethic continued to inspire me, and eventually, I left home, worked hard, and carved out a fulfilling life for myself as a writer and musician.
I still sometimes think about how exciting it must have been to just walk away from a life you didn’t like, as Henry did, and start over completely. One gloomy, late night last winter I found myself sitting at the Odessa diner, ruminating over a lukewarm cup of coffee. I was sick, rent was due, my new book was going nowhere, and a snowstorm was raging outside. I thought of Henry, sitting so long ago at the same counter.
Later that week, to everyone’s surprise, members of Black Flag announced that they were reforming. In fact, there were two reunions: one led by founder and principal songwriter Greg Ginn—claiming the official moniker of Black Flag—and the other by former bass player Dukowski and Keith Morris, the band’s first singer, which would simply be going by Flag.
While fans debated feverishly which of these lineups was the true Black Flag, I was captivated by one tiny detail from the flood of news stories announcing the dual reunions: Ginn said that he would be playing both guitar and bass on the new, as-yet-untitled album.
It dawned on me: Black Flag did not have a bass player. I could be that bass player! I decided right then and there to find out where Ginn was living, hitchhike across the country, and persuade him to let me try out—just as I had attempted to do at 16. I knew all the old songs, and I figured that thumbing it instead of flying or taking a bus would prove to Ginn that I had dedication.