Punk rocker, first time author visits Rhino Wednesday
It’s kind of a glorious time to be a punk rocker in Los Angeles.
Who could have imagined “X Day” at Dodger Stadium? But there it was, this past August, with LA’s professional baseball club honoring the city’s most decorated punks, and then the Grammy Museum following suit in October with an exhibit dedicated to the acclaimed band.
Books about the once tiny underground scene are also springing up. Last year saw the release of Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk from X’s John Doe and Tom DeSavia. Just last week, Gun Club/Bags drummer Terry Graham released Punk Like Me. And last summer, LA’s hardcore troubadour, Keith Morris, released his own memoir, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor.
“I quite enjoy the Rhino Records in Claremont,” Mr. Morris said. The first-time author has done several readings around Los Angeles. “I do enjoy it, because basically, I’m reading: It’s not that big of a deal. You’re reading stories that have a personality, and you’re trying to pull those personalities off the page and place them in those peoples’ ears.”
My Damage was co-written with National Endowment for the Arts fellow and award-winning writer Jim Ruland, who brought with him his own punk bona fides from his work with fanzine Razorcake, and as a staff writer for its predecessor, the now defunct LA punk zine Flipside.
“He and I sat in my living room, and we would talk, and I would tell stories for three or four hours at a time,” Mr. Morris explained. “And he would record them, and then go home and transcribe the stories. He would trim the fat and change some of the stuff to make it move at a certain pace. I highly recommend you read the book, because it’s one of the greatest books ever written. I’m up there with H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut,” he quipped.
Mr. Morris is clearly grateful for his co-author’s guidance.
“It moves at the pace it does because Jim Ruland wrote it that way. He pieced everything together. It most certainly was collaboration. I’m not gonna take credit.”
Credit is certainly due to Mr. Morris for sticking to his guns. The punk rocker (“I’m not a singer, I’m a vocalist”) has never deviated from his artistic path, even when the rewards were scarcely existent.
He was born and raised in Hermosa Beach, graduating from Manhattan Beach’s Mira Costa High School. In 1976, he was the first—and by many accounts most beloved—front man for West Coast hardcore legends Black Flag. His contribution to the band’s catalog is arguably the blueprint for what was to come for LA punk: the January 1979 “Nervous Breakdown” EP, a raging four-song opus that has become a classic of the genre.
To illustrate just how far out of the mainstream punk rock was at the time, one of Black Flag’s early appearances at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach concluded with the group being pelted with oranges, tomatoes, watermelons, cans, rocks and bottles.
After leaving Black Flag, Mr. Morris formed the Circle Jerks—a band that also became LA punk standard bearers, releasing the wildly popular (in punk circles) “Group Sex” LP in 1980. He was at the top of the heap of Los Angeles punk, and that success was gratifying, but the practical, monetary rewards were modest at best. Musically, there were lean years in the 1990s and early 2000s. He also dealt with drug problems—but has been sober since 1989—and other health setbacks, having been diagnosed with adult onset diabetes in 1999.
It’s easy to see why his memoir is subtitled: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor.
But things have changed. The once fringe lifestyle of punk rock musician has moved squarely into the mainstream. And since 2010, Mr. Morris has fronted Off!, one of the most exciting, relevant and successful hardcore bands in the world. (Off! Also features Claremont resident Dmitri Coats on guitar.) He tours the world with Off!, and occasionally as a member of the Black Flag offshoot, Flag.
The book deals, overseas tours and continued success are just rewards for a man who has paid his dues tenfold. He’s clearly enjoying it, and is busier now than he’s ever been in his 40-plus year career.
Publishing My Damage has added author to his résumé, and he’s been asked to write a chapter for Mr. Doe’s upcoming follow up to Under the Big Black Sun. There’s even time to begin thinking about his second book while he works on lyrics for a new Off! record, currently being recorded at Mr. Coats’ home studio in Claremont. The album is a soundtrack to a 45-minute film starring the band and some its celebrity fans—with actor Jack Black and Off! super fan and Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis making possible appearances.
Mr. Morris also co-hosts a popular podcast, “Blowmind,” with Thelonious Monster drummer Pete Weiss (Mr. Morris, in typical comedic form, had a warning about Thelonious Monster singer Bob Forrest, who also lives in Claremont: “Personally, I would run him out of town, but I don’t live in Claremont, so it’s no skin off my ass.”)
And finally, he’s got two movie scripts brewing, one of which is an animated story about shapeshifters, which may or may not be true.
“These particular shapeshifters drink this concoction that’s almost like a hurricane you’d drink down on Bourbon Street in N’awlins,” Mr. Morris said, “but their ingredients are stuff you really wouldn’t want to drink. And they take on qualities of indigenous, other-life forms in the area where they’re at.”
It’s a long way from being pelted with fruit and sleeping on the floor of a tour van for months at a time.
“I’m extremely lucky in that I chose to do something, and it’s actually turned into a great job,” he said. “Of course, there are certain things we have to do but, for the most part, we make our own hours, and we get to travel quite a bit.”
Looking back on his early days in music, Mr. Morris admits there was no way to predict the present day’s bounty.
“I never expected it to be anything more than what it was when we first started. There was no bar to be set or reached. At some point, you were going to have the opportunity to get buckled in and go on the ride...to get to go on The Matterhorn or on Space Mountain, but there were no rules. There was no was no book of ‘How to be successful and make it in the music business.’ Like I said, it was the blind leading the blind. We played it the way it was laid out in front of us.”
Keith Morris will read from and sign copies of My Damage at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 15, at Rhino Records, 235 Yale Ave., Claremont. The event is free and open to the public.