Keith Morris only stands about 5'5'', but he is a titan. You all know his resume, but as with any Homeric hero, we must recite his feats. He was a founding member of the seminal hardcore punk band Black Flag and recorded the mindblowing Nervous Breakdown EP. Then, he formed Circle Jerks and recorded multiple masterpieces, including the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Group Sex. And then, when the Jerks had all but melted away, and everyone was expecting Keith to fade into the background, Keith formed punk supergroup OFF! at the age of 54 and came out swinging, releasing some of the very best, if not the best, music of his career.
And now, like any Epic champion, he has recorded his deeds in the excellent My Damage , co-written with Jim Ruland. The book focuses on Keith's adventures from being a shrimpy little kid to the founding of the mighty Black Flag to his issues with substance abuse to his return to glory with OFF! (He also talks about how fun it is to work at a pancake house.)
So, to see what makes a champion like this tick, Editor John Gentile spoke to Morris about the book, his adventures, and why his mom is a great lady.
Whatâ€™s striking is that you dedicate the book to your mom. That might be an unusual choice for most punk rockers.
Well, my realization, when you are younger itâ€™s like â€œI donâ€™t want to be like you! Donâ€™t tell me what to do! I donâ€™t need some kind of authoritarian presence standing over me telling me what direction to go in!â€ I was constantly at war with my dad.
Whereas my mom, my mom was always encouraging. My mom was not the one that would look at the report card and say â€œyou got a couple of Bâ€™s so you donâ€™t get to watch TV, or you donâ€™t get to play with your G.I. Joes, or you donâ€™t get to go fly a kite.â€ Whereas my old man would be the guy that would be cracking the whip, wanting to know what was going on, why the grades are so horrible, how come youâ€™re 15 minute late to work. Even up until when I became sober, one of the first questions my dad would ask me, â€œSo are you keeping your nose clean? Are you minding your Pâ€™s and Qâ€™s? How much money do you have in the bank?â€
Those kinds of questions, rather than, â€œSo, how you doing? How are you feeling? Howâ€™s your world? You got a girlfriend? What are you doing musically?â€ Never anything like that. He didnâ€™t lighten up until towards the end.
My realization, now that Iâ€™m 61 years old, is that Iâ€™m quite a bit like my parents. You just, no matter how hard you try, you are still your parents no matter how hard you try, because itâ€™s in your blood.
I dedicate the book to my mom who has always been like, â€œdo what you want! Go out there and have a fun time! Donâ€™t fuck with anybody!â€ She didnâ€™t say it like that. She said it like how a nice, polite mom would say it.
I also dedicate the book the my friend Brendan Mullen, R.I.P. People might not appreciate his impact, but he was pretty much responsible for the punk rock scene in Hollywood, which would later become the punk rock scene in Los Angeles, which would later becomes the punk rock scene in Sothern California, which spread out to other places! He managed the Masque and it wouldnâ€™t have happened without him. Thatâ€™s why I dedicated the book to him.
Same thing with my mom. I wouldnâ€™t have dedicated it to them if I didnâ€™t hold them in high regard.
Is your mom aware of punk rock, and thatâ€™s what you do, or is she just aware that you do music and thatâ€™s what you love doing?
My mom actually understands the impact of what Iâ€™ve been a part of and what Iâ€™m still doing. She also understands that if there are 20 rungs on the ladder, Iâ€™m only at the 15th rung. There are other people that are just as, or even more important, to this thing that Iâ€™ve been a part of. She understands that.
Sheâ€™s also a very open minded person. She not only loves the music. She loves he message. She really loves the message. If my mom was 40 years younger she would be out there picketing and protesting. Sheâ€™s very politically minded and has a very great social awareness. Thatâ€™s my mom.
You stated that you might be on the 15th of 20 rungs. Now, if you asked, say, James Brown, â€œAre you important to soul?â€ James Brown would probably say, â€œIâ€™m the greatest!â€ But, if you ask some other musicians, say a lot of college rock bands, they would down play their importance. To me, I think you are the greatest. Do you feel as though what youâ€™ve done is important and exceptional?
I donâ€™t look at what Iâ€™ve done as being exceptional. Iâ€™m aware of my place amongst all of the other parts and people. As for your statement about me being like the main punk rock vocalist, I donâ€™t look at it that way. I get really bummed out- when you say something like that, it brings up a competition with me. Weâ€™re not supposed to be competing with each pother. Weâ€™re supposed to be friends and rubbing elbows and pushing each other to be the best we can be.
To say Iâ€™m the greatest, I canâ€™t agree with that. There are so many other amazing just punk rock vocalist. Thatâ€™s not even all the other vocalists out there. Just because theyâ€™re not plying punk doesnâ€™t make them unimportant. You brought up James Brown- just visually that guy destroys everybody gets in his path. The only guy that could keep up with him is a younger Iggy Pop.
My ego does not allow me to sit here and say Iâ€™m better than Jello Bifara, or Iâ€™m better than Glenn Danzig, or Iâ€™m better than Dave Vanian, or Iâ€™m better than Colin from GBH. I canâ€™t do that because I love all of these people. I love music. For me, thatâ€™s just the way that it is. I canâ€™t say Iâ€™m the greatest. If I say that, it would just be coming from a completely sarcastic angle and just to irritate a few people and get under their skin.
What surprised me about the book, is you criticize yourself in some areas, and maybe you take a few stray shots at people, but where you could have kind of hammered people for pages, you just let actions speak for themselves.
There are a lot of people that I could bad mouth, and a lot of people expect that from me. The situation is that I say a lot of things towards people that Iâ€™ve worked with, and even some people that I have not worked with. Some statements based on being a room with someone and trying to accomplish something. There are a lot of people that think I wonâ€™t just shovel dirt, but that Iâ€™ll bulldoze dirt. Thatâ€™s just not the case. There are other things in the book besides just the bands Iâ€™ve been in and people that Iâ€™ve played with.
I tried to be as humorous as possible, but also be as truthful as possible. I donâ€™t know how to lie. Iâ€™m not going to start splattering and smattering and battering and caramelizing and onionizing a bunch of people because it would be easy to do. I wouldnâ€™t do that.
Also, thereâ€™s another angle that comes into play. I just went though a big grueling lawsuit with one of the guys that I could say things about and some other people that I could say things about. I love Billy Stevenson and I canâ€™t say a bad thing about Billy Stevenson. I love Chuck Dukowski- I can say bad things about Chuck Dukowski, but weâ€™re friends and itâ€™s like, â€œyou know what, somebody else can say that stuff further on down the road.â€
At the very end of the lawsuit, we signed off onto a situation where weâ€™re told there are certain things we canâ€™t talk about, like how much did it cost and whoâ€™s cool and who isnâ€™t cool, and we gave this away, and they got thatâ€¦ It was going to cost a lot of money. Weâ€™re working class and weâ€™re not rock stars. We donâ€™t have hundreds of thousands throw around. We just wanted to walk away and be unscathed.
There was quite a bit of dirt that I could toss around, but I do have some restraint. The people that represent the publisher said â€œWe canâ€™t get involved in legal wrangling, mumbo jumbo.â€
One of the guys, who was my last cocaine dealer, I went to him and said, â€œI want to include the part where I hit the wall in 1988. And I decided I wanted to get clean.â€ I tell the story of him not only pulling me out of the story and not only tossing me down on the couch, thereâ€™s a part of the story that includes him. I had to go to him. He said, â€œThis doesnâ€™t shine a favorable light on me, but Iâ€™m sober and clean now, and this is part of the cleansing process.â€
While I was writing this book I was becoming more self aware. In the process of becoming sober, if youâ€™re reading the book or doing the steps or saying â€œIâ€™ve got to do this todayâ€ or â€œIâ€™ve got to say this todayâ€ or â€œIâ€™ve got to go apologize to all these people today,â€ if youâ€™re a good person, and you have self awareness, and youâ€™re going through this cleansing process, youâ€™ll be doing all these things without reading the book anyways.
In the book there are some neat pictures. One of the pictures is a setlist from your last show, that has songs called â€œNew Cool,â€ â€œLeave me alone,â€ â€œGive us a break, â€Parents and relatives,â€ and â€œRed tape.â€ â€œRed Tapeâ€ would become a Circle Jerks songs, but as for the others, are there unrecorded Black Flag songs from your time in the band?
You just went down the list. Those four other songs became Black Flag songs. When I left Black Flag, I stopped paying attention. I had things to do. I was in the Circle Jerks. In FLAG, we played some of those songs, but they became other songs in black Flag. Iâ€™m not aware of the other names. When I left Black Flag, we played 16 songs, it was maybe a 20 minute set.
If you sneezed or coughed or went outside to catch a quick cig, youâ€™d miss half the set. If you took off to take a wizz, it would be â€œBlack Flag just played! You missed them!â€ Everybody played a half hour set. No one was going to play a Bruce Springsteen set.
Jumping to the future, whatâ€™s happening with OFF!?
Well, we have a tour in November. And during the day, Iâ€™ll be going to bookstores to do a reading or something and maybe sell five or six copies. OFF! Has had a few different scenarios presented to us and weâ€™re probably going to take advantage of the two opportunities presented to us. Thatâ€™s what you do. In this day and age, if someone makes you an offer, you say â€œthatâ€™s coolâ€ or â€œcan you do this?â€ You donâ€™t sit around and over think things. You dive right in and do them. We have a couple of interesting scenarios that have been presented to us and we would be idiots to not swoop on them, to not swoop on them like buzzards pecking at a dead carcass.
As I read the book, it seems to me that, right now, youâ€™re in a pretty good place. Are you happy, more or less, these days?
Thereâ€™s a really nice breeze blowing through my window right now. The weather has been really horrible in Los Angeles. Itâ€™s very comfortable where I am sitting. I am suffering with the flu. My glucose levels have been bouncing everywhere for the last five or six days and it just hit me. But, everything that Iâ€™m a part of, everything that Iâ€™m doing, I feel just great about. Iâ€™m not depressed. I have no reason to be depressed. Iâ€™m happy, pretty much. The gal that Iâ€™m pursuing is really a tough cookie. Itâ€™s not always fun and games. But I have a bunch of things in front of me that I get to take advantage of.
Iâ€™m 61 this month. Iâ€™m at a point where Iâ€™m supposed to be figuring out how much I have in my 401k account. What am I gonna do when I retire? Thatâ€™s not gonna happen! I get to work this one out all the way to the end. I have no problem with that. Because of my sobriety, I see things with more clarity. Iâ€™ve chosen to travel a path that most people have not chosen to travel â€“ all of my fiends that work a 9 to 5, all of my friends that work for these corporations, all of my friends that are now retiring or getting to retire, I chose to see the world and not wait until I reached a certain age. I feel that I made the right choice.
You could sit around and say, â€Why didnâ€™t I do this? Why didnâ€™t I do that?!â€ I have some regrets. I have made some horrendous choices, and thatâ€™s the reason why Iâ€™m where Iâ€™m at today. But, Iâ€™m okay with thatâ€¦ Iâ€™m good with thatâ€¦ Iâ€™mâ€¦ eighty percent happy. Thatâ€™s a pretty good percentage. I love my job! I try to do the best that I can!! AND EVEN THE BEST THAT I CAN DO IS NOT AS GOOD AS JAMES BROWN!!!