Founding WURM member and Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski talks to Eric Davidson about the California punk rock scene in the 70s and 80s, the recent reissue of WURM’s sole studio album, Feast (now called Exhumed) and plans for new shows in 2019
“Sometimes I think we had to pretend to reject things we secretly loved.”
The eventual metallic evolution of Black Flag’s sound has, over time, become simply part of their story. L.A. hardcore innovators tour a ton, see the constricting regimentation of the genre firsthand, argue, and move their sound into slower, heavier, experimental territory – not completely unexpected, given the members’ hard rock teen upbringings in the 1970s. But at the time, for hardcore punk fans, debates raged about the post-Slip It In Black Flag catalog, setting a template for a decade of silly “sell out” discussions in the punk world.
And don’t get them started on the post-Black Flag breakup bands, like Chuck Dukowski’s WURM. Hearing WURM’s 1985 debut, Feast, back then seemed to some like one of many nails in the coffin for original West Coast hardcore, as it had a hard rock bent – i.e. (gasp) solos!
In hindsight, it’s a muscular, psychotically slashed-up punk rock record. But the sludgier rhythms, flunky funk beats, and especially singer Simon Smallwood’s spindly screech were met with confusion, considering the band was the brainchild of Black Flag’s co-founder and bassist. As it turned out, Feast was a festering inspiration for the grunge sound that was bubbling up around the Pacific Northwest.
There wasn’t a follow-up, and Dukowski went on to other projects, one of which was a seemingly constant litigious relationship with Black Flag’s label, SST, that Dukowski prominently helped make into maybe the most famous American independent label of the 1980s.
Last week, Feast was finally officially reissued, with a full extra album of unreleased rarities and demos, all entitled Exhumed, and released on Record Store Day Black Friday by ORG Music. We caught up with Chuck Dukowski to go down into some Black Flag and WURM holes.
PKM: How/when did you change your name from Gary Arthur McDaniel? And do you remember the first time you left the house and said, “That’s it, now everyone HAS to call me Chuck Dukowski!”?
Chuck Dukowski: I just played with the new name at first, for Halloween and for fun, but then I started using it for the business side of Black Flag, as though I wasn’t in the band, but a business person for the band, a booking agent for Black Flag. Eventually it crossed over, and too many people were asking to speak to Chuck, and I didn’t want to be two people. I wanted to be Chuck. It was a name I chose.
PKM: And where did “The Duke” come from?
Chuck Dukowski: “Chuck the Duke” came from a Zippo lighter I pulled out of a couch at the Wurmhole in my morning search for loose change and other treasures left by the previous night’s party guests. I could never find the owner and adopted the moniker myself. I worked back from “Chuck the Duke” to Chuck Dukowski.
PKM: I’ve read you wanted a Polish sounding name, since Polish people were joked about a lot. I grew up in a predominantly Polish neighborhood in Cleveland, and I found a kind of ur-pride in “polack” jokes…
Chuck Dukowski: Fully.
PKM: What were the earliest musical loves you had?
Chuck Dukowski: The first band I got into records of was Cream. Others followed shortly: Led Zeppelin, James Gang, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath. I really started on AM top 40 radio. I would listen all the time. I used the clock timer to go to bed listening to music and set it to come on in the morning as an alarm.
PKM: You played football in high achool. How’d that go? And do you maybe have memories of when the other guys started seeming like obnoxious jocks, and you realized maybe that ain’t your path in life?
Chuck Dukowski: I started out with track and field where I competed in shot put and pole vault. I followed that with football and swim team. I liked the fitness and learned some self-discipline in sports. I picked up on the group dynamics in the team context of football. I hated the “bro” factor in all of it, and the mean spirit and stupid body sacrifice in football. I won a small college football scholarship and passed it up. I didn’t want to subject my body and spirit to that damage ever again.
PKM: Can you offer a description of what a night out would have been like when you first started stumbling onto punk shows in San Pedro, or wherever they were?
Chuck Dukowski: There were literally no punk shows at all in San Pedro until I made one happen. The first punk show in San Pedro was Black Flag’s second show ever at the Teen Post. Wurm had house parties at the former porn theater that we lived in. It was called The Mermaid Theater. We had it decorated with discarded Christmas trees and we played on the stage. We sold food and drinks to our friends to pay our rent. The darkness of the theater let us almost reverse night and day. We liked to see bands in L.A. back then. WURM’s guitarist Ed Danky and I would go to hall parties put on by bands in Hollywood who had an organization called Radio Free Hollywood, and to Rodney’s KROQ cabaret. We heard bands like The Motels, The Dogs, Maxx Lazar, The Quick, and Quiet Riot, to name a few. Some of those bands seem weird, but it was a transitional period and that was what was new back then.
I am a fan of a lot of New York rock/punk. I was not motivated by a rivalry, but I played the card on stage by writing “A kiss and a fix aren’t enough anymore” on my arm before we went on. We did want to blow everyone away and make an impression with our music and performance. I felt what we were doing was the most intense, vital, and interesting music of the time.
PKM: WURM actually started far earlier than Black Flag, no?
Chuck Dukowski: Yes, WURM played our first shows in 1974. We (me, Ed Danky, and a revolving cast of others) had been playing together for a couple of years under various other names before finally becoming WURM. Black Flag started in 1978 from Panic, which started in ’77 or maybe as a concept in ’76. I joined Panic in 1977.
PKM: You mentioned the Wurmhole earlier – can you tell us about that place?
Chuck Dukowski: The Wurmhole was an abandoned bathhouse from the 1920s. WURM’s Ed Danky and I discovered and rented it in spring of 1977 after getting evicted from our previous place in downtown Torrance, near the big steel and aluminum mills. We ended up occupying most of the building that was the Wurmhole before getting run out. We built doors and had special knocks to try to keep out the police and strangers. Our parties got too popular, and we had trouble with the Hermosa Beach police. It’s funny because there is big mural of Black Flag in Hermosa now, but the police and the locals hated us back then. The police would pull me over every time they saw me. I had to sneak into town on side streets. Every time I drove down Pier Avenue, I got pulled over. The Hermosa police were fucking assholes.
PKM: It’s goofy to ask someone to relate their “importance,” but do you mark the Wurmhole as a kind of “ground zero” for California hardcore?
Chuck Dukowski: I don’t know, but Black Flag would never have happened if it weren’t for the Wurmhole.
PKM: The original West Coast punk scene has always been described as primarily influenced by the British scene; and there’s a standard scene image painted of a bunch of studded mohawk dudes back then. To which I always offer up pictures of early Black Flag – kids with medium-length hair, button-up shirts, and cheap baggy jeans. So can you dispel some notions about what you and your scene pals would have been listening to at parties in the very early days; and your “fashion goals,” etc.?
Chuck Dukowski: It’s important to understand that punk was about breaking the rules and rejecting what came before. Sometimes I think we had to pretend to reject things we secretly loved. The aesthetic was minimal, with fast, short songs, but I secretly loved music that was baroque and long, with guitar solos! Old things became uncool, which is silly. The good part was that new things or weird things were more acceptable. The early scene was very open to gay people and to women. But then hardcore, which Black Flag ushered in, became much more regimented and narrow. Hardcore had a power too, but it became a straitjacket in a way.
WURM and Black Flag were never hairstyle bands. We were never fashion bands. We always tried to be as truthful and as heavy as we felt the need to express.
PKM: How’d you meet the first Black Flag singer, Keith Morris?
Chuck Dukowski: Ed Danky met Keith on the Hermosa strand near the pier and invited him to the Wurmhole, where I met him. He became a morning and evening regular, showing up with his ever-present beers.
PKM: Ditto the next two singers, Ron and Dez. What was with all those early Blag Flag singer switcheroos? I don’t know if there is one other rock’n’roll band in history with so many great lead singers…
Chuck Dukowski: I didn’t get to know Ron and Dez until a year or two later. I think Keith quit about six months into our first year of shows, in late ’79. Ron and Dez were fans and friends. When Keith quit and I couldn’t find him or even get him on the phone to talk about what the hell had happened, then we decided to ask Ron to join. We had shows coming in a week or two, a tour in the works, and an album recording ongoing. It was not a good time for Keith’s hi-jinks. Six months later, Ron quit. We’d been planning to invite Dez to join as a second guitarist and asked him if he would try out singing instead. That worked out. The periods when Ron and Dez were singing in Black Flag were the most successful and groundbreaking times for the band. We started touring and playing much bigger shows.
PKM: Your SST office title, “Head of Sales.” I assume, as time went on, you met and knew people who worked sales at major labels. Tell us the difference between “sales” at SST and at major labels back then.
Chuck Dukowski: I did every job at SST at some point or another. Head of Sales was the job I had after I was forced to sell my partnership share to [Greg] Ginn in 1989. I hung out with the other independent and major label counterparts at conventions like, NARM, NAIRD, MIDEM, and the sales conferences that distributors and major retailers like Tower Records would hold. I learned from them and some of those companies – such as Warner Bros’ ADA, the distributor selling the new Exhumed – the integrated ideas for our system when they set up their own boutique distribution systems. We were scrappy and innovative. I developed a worldwide distribution system for SST that was very effective and very possibly unrivaled at the time.
PKM: When was the first time Black Flag came through the East Coast? And once you got to New York City to play, where was it?
Chuck Dukowski: We made it to NYC on our second tour east in 1980, and played the Peppermint Lounge. Our van was broken into outside the club several times that night, and my tools and all of our t-shirts were stolen. We saw them in stores on the Lower East Side the next morning. That led to a couple of unproductive aggressive encounters. We stayed in New York with friends we had met from our stays at Target Video in San Francisco. That show was a rager! A bunch of DC kids came and got L.A.-style crazy, and it was super fun!
PKM: Did you feel any kind of rivalry between NYC punk and where you guys were coming from?
Chuck Dukowski: I am a fan of a lot of New York rock/punk. I was not motivated by a rivalry, but I played the card on stage by writing “A kiss and a fix aren’t enough anymore” on my arm before we went on. We did want to blow everyone away and make an impression with our music and performance. I felt what we were doing was the most intense, vital, and interesting music of the time.
Chuck Dukowski: A few days before, we’d gotten arrested for playing at a nearby club named Blackies. They put us in jail overnight, and they confiscated our equipment. Ron talks about it during the filmed performance. We were worried we wouldn’t get our equipment back in time. Even after we were released we had to fuck around to get our gear. Our Decline performance took place on a Hollywood sound stage. We got to hear the Germs play after we were done.
PKM: Can you give a definitive tale or three about when you knew, “Fuck, I’ve gotta leave Black Flag?”
Chuck Dukowski: I don’t want to talk about that shit. I wrote a song called “My War” that explains my feelings.
PKM: Gotcha. So did you have a kind of “getting away from it all” period before WURM and the Feast album? Did you need some distance, or did you kind of start seeking a new band soon after?
Chuck Dukowski: I sought relief playing music with WURM during the time when Black Flag was involved in litigation with Unicorn Records.
PKM: How did you meet WURM singer Simon Smallwood?
Chuck Dukowski: I met Simon in 1977 when he answered an ad WURM had placed for a vocalist – “Singer Wanted. Into Iggy, Ozzy, and Alice.”
We had a wild-ass jam session, and we were all into it. Simon decided at the time that he wanted to work on his own band, and until meeting again in the ’80s, we lost track of him. I don’t remember how we reconnected, but this time he was into it, and we made some great music. I enjoyed hanging out with Simon and spent a lot of time chillin’ at his pad when I got back from Germany.
PKM: WURM, and much of the later-80s SST catalog, had that movement towards sludgier, heavier, metal jam sounds. But can I assume WURM was making similar noises pre-Black Flag?
Chuck Dukowski: That’s right. WURM had that sound from the start. We just got better at it over time.
PKM: What’s your memory of recording Feast?
Chuck Dukowski: The music was recorded at Radio Tokyo in Venice, on Abbot Kinney Blvd. I live in Venice now, but the area was totally different back then. Abbott Kinney is all posh shops and restaurants now, but it was a rough neighborhood back then. Our producer, Ethan James, told us to not cross the street or go too far north if we were walking around outside. Ethan contributed some cool keyboard touches to Feast (synth on “Nailed to the Wall,” and bells on “Where Will We Run”). It all went down and mixed quick and easy. I suppose that’s one of the good things about 8-track tape recording.
PKM: Tell us about the extras on Exhumed — when did you start working on finding these extra tracks? Are they from the same period as Feast? What did you think while you were exhuming and mixing these dug up tracks?
Chuck Dukowski: I’ve been lining up the bits that became Exumed for years. I got the rights to the stuff SST had released in 2007, and I located and sorted all of the other bits since. Finding the pictures was the harder job. I knew SPOT had done a photo session for us in 1977, and that Glen Friedman and Naomi Peterson had photographed us during the mid-80s.
In the early 2000s, I found some stuff of Henry’s (Rollins, last Black Flag singer) in my garage while moving. I contacted Henry, and when I returned his stuff he gave me back some WURM tapes Ed had loaned him. One of those tapes became the source for side D of Exhumed. Maybe I should do a digital release of the best of the rest of that material someday.
PKM: Between WURM, October Faction, and SWA, it seems like October Faction – considering the band member lineage – has been kind of subsumed in the general history of you and that scene. Are there any plans for some October Faction reissue action?
Chuck Dukowski: I have no plans for any of that.
PKM: How did the Flag reunion happen, circa 2013? And will we see Flag continue? Or are there still legal messes with Black Flag, etc., etc.?
Chuck Dukowski: Flag happened as a byproduct of me successfully suing SST/ Greg Ginn several times for unpaid royalties. I was the first person in Black Flag to defeat Ginn in court. My wife and I literally had to learn to be lawyers because Ginn’s whole strategy was to kill you with legal fees until you had to settle.
Without the immediate threat of being sued for doing anything Black Flag-related, I was able to play some Black Flag songs with the band No Age at a free show they organized. I rehearsed No Age on some songs, and they invited Keith to sing. A year or so later, Gary Tovar, the founder of Goldenvoice Productions, asked me to say a few words at a 30-year anniversary event they were promoting. I suggested I pull some strings and play a few Black Flag songs with Keith on vocals and the Descendents’ drummer and guitarist. I had bigger ideas but I couldn’t make them stick. I wanted to have all the Black Flag band members do their era songs, and Henry initially said yes. But then he changed his mind and I scaled back the plans.
We had a good time at the Goldenvoice show, and decided to do a Flag tour. Ginn sued us anyway, which sucked, but we were able to defeat him in the end. Flag is going to play Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas in 2019.
PKM: So is the Chuck Dukowski Sextet (a band featuring Dukowski’s wife, Lora Norton) still a thing? And/or what have you been doing lately, musical or otherwise?
Chuck Dukowski: The Chuck Dukowski Sextet (CD6) has been on a hiatus since 2014. We are planning to release an EP in spring of 2019. We are considering doing a few shows around the time of the release.
PKM: With this WURM reissue, are there any plans to tour out some WURM material?
Chuck Dukowski: No plans to tour, but Lou and I have considered putting a New WURM together and jamming some shows around spring of 2019.