Few bands can lay claim to visuals as striking as Black Flag’s, and that imagery is central to Black Flag’s anti-systemic working-class conservatism. Greg’s brother Raymond Ginn (nicknamed Pettibon by their father) not only came up with the name, but also produced the iconic, vicious pen and ink artwork that first adorned countless photocopied flyers for shows, Black Flag and other SST bands’ record sleeves, and soon thereafter bound volumes and gallery walls. Pettibon’s art, together with Black Flag’s producerism and Carducci’s writings on rock, coalesced to forge a new working-class counter-culture in the long shadow of the counter-cultures of the 1960s.
Reverberations of the New Left in the ‘80s Underground
The legacy of the “sixties” as a cultural and political phenomenon looms large in Pettibon, Carducci, and Black Flag’s work. Pettibon drew stark and, typically single panel illustrations modeled on political cartoons and made homemade movies that frequently featured such infamous ‘60s figures as Charles Manson and his Family, the kidnapped Patty Hearst’s SLA alter ego Tania, and the Weather Underground.
Pettibon savagely deploys these subjects to mount a scathing critique of what he saw as the era’s prevailing privileged, white counter-cultural elitism. Each of these figures underpinned Pettibon’s belief that the ‘60s did not represent a lost dream of radical change, but a moment in time best remembered by the blinding delusions and overwhelming narcissism of people who never stood a chance of changing the world in the first place.
Like his highly influential drawings, Pettibon’s forays into filmmaking in the late ‘80s explore in great detail a cynical and conservative vision of the ‘60s as decadent, ludicrous, and above all exceptional moment in American history. Shot on camcorders and peopled with various SST artists and hangers-on, these purposefully amateurish, homemade movies illustrate an era out of step with an almost Hartzian notion of consensus. Pettibon’s suggests that the broadly collectivist ethos of ‘60s antiauthoritarianism stood awkwardly apart from a stoic individualism at the core of American political culture.
To explore these themes, Pettibon seized on the sectarian implosion of the Students for a Democratic Society for his first full-length movie, 1989’s Weatherman ’69: The Whole World is Watching.
A pitch-black, Americanized parody of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise, Pettibon imagines the urban guerillas of the Weather Underground—including Bernadine Dorhn, Jeff Jones, and Mark Rudd—hunkering in a grubby, claustrophobic apartment somewhere in LA. Like Godard’s groovy, Maoist character study of radical French university students, Pettibon’s rambling vignettes follow the ideological rants, denunciations, self-criticism sessions, paranoia, and interpersonal psychodramas of a self-described revolutionary vanguard on the run from fascist pigs.
This vanguard leadership, as Pettibon eagerly reminds the viewer time and again, is made up of petulant kids, “Yale econ majors” and “social engineering” students from Columbia, the children of professors of “Marxist mathematics” at Harvard. Dedicated “To stop being honkies, and [becoming] stoned revolutionaries,” the group spends its days convinced Amerika will fall any minute as they sit cloistered away from the tyranny of the capitalist “motherland.”
Demanding to know “what you’ve done for the revolution?” the gathered tally their work serving the people. One cadre declares, “I’ve read a lot of Marx, I got paper cuts from the Little Red book.” Jeff Jones (played by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth) proudly reports to killing four janitors bombing ROTC buildings. Another rank-and-file Weatherman, played by Mike Watt of the Minutemen, upholds the cell’s one communal toothbrush. When offering the visiting Allen Ginsburg a tab of acid, the Weathermen claim LSD manufacturing is the group’s primary source of income—aside from what they still get from their fathers.
Dorhn, portrayed by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, is depicted as the group’s de facto leader. Dorhn is bent on enforcing strict sexual discipline, denouncing monogamy as bourgeois individualism and premature ejaculation “as a symptom of late capitalist, racist white man’s rule.” Otherwise, Dorhn’s most bitter struggle is with Jane Fonda over who will be the Movement’s leading celebrity.
Likewise, Pettibon frames the urban revolutionaries’ direct link to the struggle for racial equality and Black Power as nothing more than a facile outgrowth of their own consumer habits. While smoking a joint they sort through the cell’s record collection. Louis Armstrong is deemed an “uncle Tom.” The Supremes are dubbed “an embarrassment,” and, as one Weatherman claims with dubious authority, “Bobby and Stokely want us to waste it.” A snarling Jeff Jones decries James Brown as a “Nixon supporter,” while admiring Muddy Waters and Isaac Hayes as “far out.” Meanwhile another very stoned cadre looks aghast at white Detroit blues-rock group Frijid Pink and gasps, “Is this politically correct?”
In the end it’s all revealed that the Weather Underground are merely cultivating their connections with the children of media moguls to see that their self-styled revolution will in factbe televised on CBS. Dohrn celebrates by snorting lines of cocaine cut into the shape of a swastika. And fin.
Two decades on from the Days of Rage and the ’68 Democratic convention, Pettibon looked back and saw only a clutch of deluded and self-absorbed adolescents isolated in Ann Arbor and Cambridge and thoroughly disconnected from the mainstream of American society—especially working people themselves. In Weatherman ’69,the Weather Underground’s politics, and with it much of the era’s utopian ideals, are discarded in fell swoop as the inane byproduct of bored and affluent white kids.
Pettibon underscores what he sees as the spoiled childishness of the revolutionary left by literally opening the movie with a young child lecturing the camera about the meaning of communism:
“I don’t want to grow up in a world without communism. If I’m a communist, I don’t have to work or anything, I can play all the time. I can set bombs off all the time and blow up churches. …I don’t think it’s that serious, I just do what I want.”
This clichéd and conservative caricature of communism meshed with the celebrations of self-sufficiency, manly hard work, and individualism that underpinned Black Flag’s producerism and Carducci’s rockist attack on liberal elitism. Pettibon, Carducci, and Black Flag imagined themselves creating a real working-class counter-culture that by definition would be a rejection of the inherently foreign collectivism fetishized by affluent, collegiate white youth.
The Weather Underground, Pettibon asserts in his savage satire, never had a clue what working people wanted, and never could hope to connect with them politically, culturally, or aesthetically. But working people are assumed to be white men. Though Pettibon takes great delight in lampooning the Weathermen as they curse their white skin and wallow in white guilt, the civil rights movement and Black Power are themselves also presented as something just as alien as the white New Left. Thus, the big joke of Weatherman ’69 is an answer to that perennial question of “why no socialism in America?” The farcical case of the Weather Underground ultimately illustrates that a basically white, conservative, anti-collectivist ethos drives American political culture.
Weatherman ’69 does often works as a very funny black comedy puncturing the truly laughable pretensions of student revolutionaries. But Pettibon mobilizes his vast working knowledge of left politics to make Weathermen ’69 a sweeping and savage generational statement, sharply separating the working-class children of the ‘60s from the always already doomed dreams of their parents’ social betters. It’s at once a bitter condemnation of elitism and privilege, and, in Pettibon’s hands, a deeply flawed argument for the inherent conservatism of American society.