I first heard Keith Morris’ voice come through the stereo in the ‘80s, the album Circle Jerks’ Group Sex; my big brother was going for a skate with our cousin and they had the record on to get amped for their session. After they left, I played it over and over again. It blew my mind! In a few years, when I became a teen my brother would pass the album on to me, to this day it’s still one of my most treasured records. Keith was in effect, the first punk vocalist I ever heard, what an introduction to such incredible music, art, ideas and community that has without a doubt shaped my life in ways I can’t even begin to explain here. I finally got to meet Keith on OFF!’s very first visit to Australia in 2011, and chat with him for my book, Conversations with Punx. I remember giving him my zine, he flicked through it, and then gave me a ‘high five’ ‘cause he was into it! That meant so much to me, it still does. Recently, Keith and I chatted again, at length (2 hours!) about his book, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor. It’s a total page turner and I haven’t been able to put it down. You can get your own copy HERE. A fun fact about Keith, by the way is, that he is wickedly funny! This is the first part of our chat… with part two to follow next week.
It’s so good to hear your voice Keith, I love listening to it, to your stories—you’re such a great storyteller. The way you describe things and paint such vivid pictures with your words is wonderful, as is your imagination. I remember last we chatted at length, we were sitting on the sidewalk and there were ants near us and you were like, what if they were gigantic and started attacking us?! Then you launched into an excited story of what could ensue.
KEITH MORRIS: Oh yeah! Chewing on my eyes!
I was reading a post online from Jim Ruland the person who co-wrote your book, My Damage, he said: “Huge thanks to Keith, whose dedication to doing things the right way is an affirmation of everything good about this music we love”. Do you have any idea what he might have been getting at when he said “the right way”?
KM: Well, I’ve done so many things the wrong way, that when you say ‘right’, it could be right or left; Right-wing, Left-wing… no, I’m none of those things but, my friend Jim didn’t know what to expect coming into this situation that we placed ourselves in. I pretty much adhered to his schedule, it wasn’t about my schedule. I’m the reason why the book is being written, my ego would say. Well, how come I say we have to start at ten in the morning, we don’t get to start at ten in the morning? Things happen! Flat tyres. Traffic. Having to drive 150 miles. In all that, something could go drastically wrong. He probably had the mentality that I was just a flake and that I really didn’t care, oh, let’s just do this and get this over with—that was far from where I was coming from.
This was very important to me. I dedicate my book to my mom, who is one of the most important people… I mean, your mother is the most important person in your life. I also dedicate the book to a very, very, very good friend of mine who is no longer with us, Brendan Mullen. He was responsible for a lot of the hanky-panky contributing to our delinquency, being the head of the clubhouse in downtown Hollywood where everybody would hangout. He and I ran into each other at an art exhibit and I said, this is what I’m up to, and he was like, ‘well, this is what I’m up to mate’. After about 45 minutes he said, ‘It’s time for you to write a book. I’m sure you have a lot of good stories, you just told me about all these things happening, there’s gotta be some stuff that you can write about going on right now. Give me a call’. I called him and he said he was getting ready to go celebrate with his gal pal, one of their anniversaries, then he fell out of his chair with a massive stroke!
Oh god, Keith that’s terrible!
K: Yeah. The first thing that I thought of was, well that’s really fucked, because there goes my opportunity to write a book! Which is… when you lose a friend, you don’t’ think crappy thoughts like that! That would have been my ego getting in the way of what I was really supposed to be thinking. Then it dawned on me about two hours later, you know what, I just lost one of my best friends and who gives a fuck about the book! That’s not right for me to think the way that I was thinking. He’s one of the major reasons why we wrote the book. And, Jim, also thanks him because, he had done a book reading down in Santa Monica at a place called, Track 16, two of the guys that read out of one of the books was both Brendan and I. He had his first brush with punk rock superstardom! Of course I’m just being facetious [laughs].
KM: That was Jim’s opportunity to not only meet me but also, Brendon.
After losing that first opportunity to write your book, what made you choose to write it now?
KM: What happened was, my booking agent – who also books Social Distortion, Pennywise and used to book Bad Religion, Bad Brains, Green Day, Sum 41, Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys, Ray Davies from The Kinks – talked with one of the guys he worked with at one of the other booking agencies… some of these big booking agencies aren’t just booking music talent, some handle actors and actresses, some of them handle voice over people, some of them handle authors and writers. They struck up a conversation. I was contacted by the guy in New York and he said I’m going to hook you up with a book deal, it’s your turn. We’ve seen all these other guys write books. My publisher just put out Under The Big Black Sun which is on L.A. punk rock history as told by John Doe and Exene from X, plus the guitar players from The Go-Go’s; Chris D who was in a band called, The Flesheaters and the Divine Horsemen, and he was also a staff writer for Slash Magazine—very, very, very important; Jack Grisham from T.S.O.L.; Henry Rollins, all sorts of people that were there when there was this great wave of bands. My publisher also was behind the NOFX book, The Hepatitis Bathtub, I’ve not read that yet. He’s done a Duff McKagan from Guns N Roses one, and had someone write a story about Detroit rock, which would equate to, unfortunately, Ted Nugent and Bob Seger (who’s album with ‘Ramblin Gamblin’ Man and ‘2 + 2 = ?’—that’s a great album), but also MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges—that was really important. He also did a Grateful Dead book, I have it, I’ve not read it.
KM: I’m in no hurry to read a book about the Grateful Dead. I’m not a big fan. I own three of their records and seen ‘em a couple times. I was fortunate enough to see them at a time they put out, what many considered to be their greatest record, American Beauty, with ‘Sugar Magnolia’. He’s got Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols lined up to write a book and Wayne Kramer the guitarist from the MC5. This is what Ben Schafer does!
It makes me so happy that there’s books like these coming out. I love people telling their story and sharing their experiences, that’s why I do what I do and love interviewing. I love documenting people’s stories. I have a library full of music biographies and all kinds of books on music.
KM: I’m glad that you’re tingly and excited and quivering with anticipation [laughs]. Thank you, Bianca!
What did you learn about yourself from putting the book together?
KM: It wasn’t so much learning about myself, because I know I’ve done a lot of crazy things, I know that I’ve done a lot of shitty things, I know that I’ve done a lot of things that aren’t cool… what was actually great about this, was getting a weight off my chest. Just saying these things and going, phew, I’m glad I said that. There were a couple of situations where the guy I was writing with, Jim, said, ‘you can’t say that, we have to cut that out of the book!’ I said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! Just because I use the word ‘nigger’ does not make me a racist…
I was actually going to ask you about that!
KM: I tell the story of how it saved my life! I won’t get into any of the details because you can read about it in the book. There’s also in my thank yous, I thank all of my ex-girlfriends, because I still love them all; I’m not going to hang out with them… go do your thing, I don’t want to be a part of it, if you’re doing great, write me and tell me, say ‘hey’. One of the gals, I tag on a story about my dad walking in on her as she’s asleep in our downstairs bedroom, when I was living at the beach. During the summer the weather, even at night you have all the windows open and you can sleep without covering yourself, she decided she was going to sleep in the nude without covering herself. My dad goes downstairs to take a shower and he has to walk through the guestroom and there she is lying asleep completely naked, Sleeping Beauty. My dad completely lost it because, leading up to that point in time, because of all of the stuff I had on my walls and music I’d listen to and the fact that I never paraded myself around with any of the girls I was going out with, my dad thought I was gay. He actually one day accused me of being a fag. When I was at work the next morning he said that she looked like she could have walked out of Penthouse magazine, which is a very upstanding fine gentlemen’s magazine…
KM: That’s all good and fine… Jim said that this makes you look like a chauvinistic, sexist pig…
I’m not sure that I’d totally agree…
KM: I was like, if we get into an argument, I’m going to win, because it is my book but, because of all of the time, effort and work we put in to creating the book, I said to myself, I can take a backseat on this one, if he wants to chop a couple of words off, so be it, I’m not going to argue with him. I’ve got to allow him to have some artistic… he needs to be the artistic pony, the artistic pony running around in the hills painting all the rocks, urinating on the trees and chasing all the squirrels, foxes and the little wolves and the babies and all sorts of fun stuff, the birds and the bees and flowers, all of that! I stopped arguing with him, I personally liked the story. It was a goofy story. I wasn’t trying to make my dad look like some kind of pig, some kind of sexist pig, that’s what he said. He was excited and happy for me! He’s mentality was, my kid’s not gay! [laughs]. Everything was good for that point on. That’s just one story from the pages of, My Damage.
A week or so ago you posted a clipping/advert for a show and you commented that you wanted to include it in the book but weren’t able to; what else did you want to include but couldn’t?
KM: That was one of my favourite pieces. That particular photo was an advertisement for a rock show at a place called the Santa Monica Civic. It would have been the first music event that I attended with Greg Ginn, who we would eventually have the light bulb flash over our heads of wanting to start a band, wanting to start Black Flag! We were called, Panic, when we first started, then Raymond Pettibon came to us with the ‘four bars’ and the name Black Flag—we can blame a large portion of our problems of what happened after that, on Raymond Pettibon. I’m pointing fingers and I’m blaming a lot of people for some of the stuff that happen, rather than raising my right-hand and going, oh no, I’m just as responsible, you could also partially blame me, I’ll take responsibility. A lot of the things that happened in the book are things I did on my own [laughs]. I have no scapegoats; I can’t blame the drug dealer, I can’t blame the guy behind the counter at the liquor store, I can’t blame my dad for giving me the keys to the truck…
Where you apprehensive about writing about certain events and situations that included other people?
KM: I’m normally the guy that just calls it the way that I see it. I don’t know how to lie. I’ve never learned how to, because of that, I sometimes step on my tongue, I sometimes get accused of being a shit talker. I’ve been accused of being the guy that throws his ex-bandmates to the sharks and the piranhas, and the electric eels, and the hungry hyenas, and the wolf pack. I have no problem stepping up and telling it the way that it’s supposed to be told. People accuse me of being agitated, oh! You’re Mr. Orthodox Punk. Then all of a sudden the punk rock ethics committee show up with, you’re not supposed to do this or do that, be like this; why do you do that? That’s not cool! Oh and by the way, here’s the rule book. Didn’t you ever read the rule book? I never read the rule book on how to be punk or be cool like the rest of the ‘punker dunkers’, the cooler-than-thou, the-me-before-yous, what I say is important and what they have to say isn’t—I never really worried about any of that. I’ve always been the guy that goes to the swimming pool to the high dive and just jumps off. I’m hoping that there’s 12ft of water down there, I don’t want to be jumping off and there’s 12 inches down there. I’ve done that on several occasions. It’s something that has already been going on, where…
Facebook is a perfect example. Everybody is a historian, everyone knows the facts, and everybody’s opinion matters [laughs], and their opinion is the correct opinion. I’m sorry to have to put you in your place but, no, you’re incorrect! Raymond Pettibon did not turn on his brother. It was the other way around. This was something I answered on Facebook the other day. Somebody chimed in, it was some kind of thread about… Brian Walsby created this drawing of Greg Ginn receiving an award for being like a slub, like an uncool human being, then everybody started jumping in on the thread. Of course there’s people that acknowledge Greg Ginn for being a great guitar player and being very creative in the beginning and being in a band that many will place on a mountain top, at the tip of the iceberg, in the front of the jet, but sometimes the jet crashes into a mountain, and who are the first people to get killed when the jet crashes? The people that are sitting in the front of the jet, the people that pay more money, they’re too important to sit in economy. On the thread, someone accused Raymond of doing something that he did not do.
I know Raymond very well, he is my friend. Raymond being the guy that he is, he and I, in our friendship, we had a Grand Canyon sized gap at a certain point… Circle Jerks would get in a van and go and do the same thing that Black Flag was doing, sometimes play two shows a night and do it for four months in a row, then be back in Los Angeles for two or four weeks and go back out and do it all again. There was a point in time, where we’d pull up to the club and there’d be six people in the club. It would be like, ok, we’ll be back here in three months, maybe that six people will turn into a hundred people, which is the way that it works… anyways, we go out on these tours and we’d lose track and lose sight of our friends; I hadn’t talked to Raymond or hung out with Raymond in four or five years.
I eventually reached out to him and said, man, look, we need to hang out. I need to buy you a burrito. Let’s go get some pastrami sandwiches on the boardwalk in Venice! In the process, I’m at his studio where he works and creates his art, there are pieces, like $500 pieces, $5,000 pieces, $50,000 pieces, just lying on the floor; he just walks across them like they’re meaningless. I’m like, oh my god, we have to figure out a way to sort all of this out and put these pieces in piles, stack them – I’m a Vigro, so everything has to be stacked in nice neat piles [laughs]. I’m standing there looking at all the art work, looking at Raymond thinking, oh my god man, do you know what you have here? Don’t you care? I was about to ask him and before I could, he looked at me and said, ‘Keith, I know how my brother has treated everybody and anybody that has been associated with him, any of the people that have been close to him, any of the circles, the bands, all of the bands on SST—he’s been really unfair to a lot of people. If you ever find yourself in any kind of a situation where you need any kind of financial help, all you have to do is come here, and you can take whatever you want to take and sell it, however you sell it’. I took six steps back, I started shaking, and I was almost in tears, that Raymond would say that, knowing that he just sold a piece of his art for $1.5 million! He had also sold a couple of other pieces for $500,000. He’s in a position, where he can make a statement like that, I was totally blown away! Like I said, I took about six steps back and I started to cry. I had to turn away, because I didn’t want him to see me in the state I was in—I was completely blown away! Like I had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me.
Awww Keith, you’re making me teary just telling me that story. Raymond’s understanding of the situation, kindness, and generosity is incredible… that’s an amazing human being.
KM: Yes! He is a really great human being and, he has an incredible dark sense of humour [laughs]. You can see it in his pieces. That’s what we appreciate about him. He’s coming from a place that we’re just like, whoa! [laughs], what’s this? He has a lot of art exhibits at a lot of incredibly prestigious art galleries around the world. He shows up to a big art showing in somewhere like Austria or Germany, and at the end of the night, after everyone has gone through the gallery, there’s a lecture. They’re like, we have Raymond Pettibon for an hour and a half, people if you have questions, show up. What happened is, it turned out to be an art gathering of all the art critics from all over the world, all of the uppity-up, snooty, cooler-than-thou… [puts on a pompous voice] oh, did you read my review about Paul Gauguin’s orange moustache drawing from Tahiti during his wine drinking period! [laughs]. So consequently, there’s a room of 300 important uppity-ups from the art world and it’s question and answer time. He’s getting all of these important questions and each time he gets a question, rather than answer them with the correct answer, that pertains to the question, he quotes baseball statistics! [laughs].
[Laughter] That’s great, that’s art in itself!
KM: Yes, that’s brilliant, it’s genius. He is a walking piece of art.
Is the title of your book referencing the Black Flag album title, ‘Damaged’?
KM: No. ‘Damaged’ is a song that Dez and Henry sang, I was long gone. Damaged refers to the first time we used it, the four of us used damage; we went through a period where we would flyer – mix up the big 5 gallon bucket of wheat paste with a big paint brush and go out and slap the paste on a telephone poll, a big metal lighting fixture, or side of building, then slap the flyer on the paste and slap more paste over that… we call that, we’d say, we’re going to go out and do some flyer damage. I tell that story in a book called, Fucked Up & Photocopied.
I have that book! It’s one of my favourite punk books.
KM: I tell the story of Robo and I, I think Chuck Dukowski came along too, we were driving around in Robo’s Ford Cortina, and to this day, I keep having to tell Billy Stevenson – who’s the drummer of the Descendents and Flag, who also played on about seven Black Flag albums – about Robo and his Ford Cortina! It was a low didge car that was manufactured in the UK, it somehow manage to find itself over to the west coast of the United States… Robo removed the passenger seat out of the front of the car, so he had a place to place his kick drum, he’d drive around with is drums in the back of the car. We would pile into his car, with the wheat paste and drive up and down Pacific Coast Highway or Torrance Boulevard or Redondo Beach Boulevard, plastering these flyers everywhere we could. One guy would serve as the lookout, you don’t’ wanna get busted by the police; we would eventually get busted by the police. We’d go out for three or four hours at a time doing this to let people know we were playing a show, of course, most of the people couldn’t care less. The people that were curious, once they saw us, if there were 100 curious people, 80 of them would walk away scratching their head going, ‘why did I just waste my time? What the hell was that? That was some really fucked up serious shit!’ Anyway, that’s flyer ‘damage’ and that’s part of my damage.
In my book, what I consider to be ‘my damage’ was all of the years of wear and tear, all of the different events, all of the damaging events, anything that was physically harmful, different drugs, the jumping off buildings and rolling vehicles, almost getting killed, comas, diabetic comas, all that fun stuff—that’s what ‘my damage’ is!
The subtitle is: the story of a punk rock survivor; what are some essential things that have helped you survive?
KM: My sobriety! I finally hit a wall. I finally dove into the pool and there was nothing in the pool, except for maybe some murky black water, the mosquitos multiplying on top of the murky black water. Becoming sober. Realising I’d done enough drugs, I’ve had enough drink; how low can I get? How high can I get? What else is going to happen? I came to the realisation that I’d go out on a four day binge or five day binge and it would take me two weeks to recover, that’s not even fireman’s hours! That’s not a fireman’s schedule, normally a fireman goes three days on, four days off… oh, that’s the Red Hot Chilli Peppers schedule! [laughs]. They’re older guys now and they can afford when they fly around the world and do a two year tour, they’ll play three days of shows and then take four days off… that’s what happens when you reach that stature. I’ve never ever been at that point, but I am at a point I let everyone know before we schedule a tour, I can do three night’s on, maybe four, but I gotta have that fourth or fifth day off to rest and catch up. I need to let me wiped out voice try to recover. I’ve earned it, I deserve it, I’m the greatest guy in the world! [laughs]. Everyone knows it, just bow down to me because I am the fucking king! Of course I’m being facetious!
Yes, I know! I love your humour, Keith.
KM: One of the things I’ve learnt from the book and hitting the bottom and being sober for 28 years is that—its’ one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me! You get a new clarity, you can get up in the morning and face the day. Most rock people and people that play music are out all night doing drugs and partying, trying to get blow jobs and get laid, trying to find where the party is and be surrounded by all of the cool people, these rock n roll vampires, these Hollywood vampires that don’t’ get to sleep until 8 o’clock in the morning… I like the morning! I like getting up, brushing my teeth, throwing on some clothes and going and grabbing an iced Americano, getting breakfast and reading the newspaper, and trying to have the wherewithal to grasp the situation and understand that there’s stuff going on in this world. Because of my sobriety, I’ve also realised that there are things going on that I’ll never ever even come close to being able to keep in control.
Part II of the conversation coming soon!!! Sit tight!
Have a great day and ‘rise above’!