From Black Flag To Off! Dr Rock Meets Keith Morris

Dr Rock is Off! the hook with joy about meeting punk legend Keith Morris! Let’s all pray to the gods of Black Flag, all hail!!!

This week Dr Rock brings you some Anarchy from Germany with one of his all time punk heroes, Keith Morris. An icon of the early days of the US punk and hardcore movement, Keith left his mark as Black Flag’s first vocalist on classic records like the Nervous Breakdown EP and the Everything Went Black compilation. He’s further fronted the Circle Jerks on and off for the past three decades and played in the much underrated but brilliantly Beefheart-esque band Midget Handjob. Now Keith’s proud to talk about his latest project, Off!, a supergroup comprising of Morris and musicians from Redd Kross, Burning Brides and Hot Snakes, to name a few.

Super down to earth and instantly likeable, Keith kindly shared some anecdotes of Henry Rollins’ stints of sleeping in cardboard boxes, partymeister Raymond Pettibon’s penchant for jumping out of birthday cakes, the secret behind Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s hair and why sending out cruise missiles is the only way to save the world from mediocrity. Told you it wasn’t gonna get boring. All hail!!!

Please tell me about your new band, Off!

Keith Morris: Funnily enough, we weren’t really looking at starting a band. When I say we that would be Dimitri (Coats, Burning Brides) and I. The other project, the other guys that we were dealing with became really difficult.

Who’s that, the Circle Jerks?

KM: Well, first up I would like to thank them for presenting me the opportunity to be doing what I’m doing now. You and I would not be talking if there was a new Circle Jerks album out because a lot of people just don’t really care about that anymore.

Getting back to talking about Off!, Dimitri approached me and said, ‘I want to produce your band [the Circle Jerks]. You haven’t done anything in 14 years, it’s time for you to do a new record.’ Everybody got excited, he got us in a room and it started to turn into what I was afraid was going to happen because I’ve been around these guys for so long. When you’re dealing with a bunch of cranky, grumpy, grouchy burnouts and know-it-all’s and egotistical-type characters, a lot is pretty much predictable. I didn’t need to look into the crystal ball and I didn’t need to have my tealeaves read. The songwriting process amongst all of us, it wasn’t very happening. And why would you get excited about mediocrity? There’s no reason to jump up and down and wig out about that.

So anyway, during that process our ultimatum came down and we weren’t going to meet it. And Dimitri and I weren’t getting any help from any of the other guys in the band. Dimitri and I had started to write songs and eventually I looked at him and said, ‘We’ve got to have a Plan B.’ And then Plan B turned into Plan A.

Why do you feel that Off! has more to offer than the Circle Jerks?

KM: First off the musicianship is a whole different category. One of the guys has played with Beck, played with Sparks, he’s played with Courtney Love, he plays in Redd Kross. And I have history with Redd Kross. Steven (McDonald) and I go all the way back to a place called The Church in Hermosa Beach, California. All the way back to Black Flag.

And then we’ve got a guitar player who’s played with Mark Lanegan, he used to play with Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age, he’s played with Chris Cornell from Soundgarden. And I haven’t even started tearing into Mario (Rubalcaba)’s ass and talk about what he’s done – Hot Snakes and Rocket From The Crypt and The Black Heart Procession and he played in one of the greatest punk rock bands from San Diego, a band called Battalion of Saints. So it’s like, this pedigree is undeniable. The quality of musicians in this band, I’m almost speechless, I can’t think of any more adjectives to describe the quality of these guys’ playing.

Please tell me about the time when you first met Steven (McDonald). As far as I know he was only eleven years old then and had already started Redd Kross, right?

KM: Well, he wasn’t playing in Redd Kross then, he was playing in a band called The Tourists. Part of our lineage is that The Tourists had a guitar player who later became the guitar player in the Circle Jerks and who’s now the guitar player in Bad Religion. So Steven and his older brother Jeffrey came to a Black Flag rehearsal and they loved us. They looked up to us as if we were their older brothers. We had no problem with that, it was all really cool because we were all from the South Bay, which is about a 20 mile piece of land in southern California, part of L.A. County. So they came to us, they were in awe, we got to rehearsing and Chuck Dukowski and Greg Ginn took it upon themselves to hand the brothers their guitar and bass and we said, ‘Show us what you can do, play for us, let’s hear ya.’ At the end of the night we told them, ‘…And you’ve also got to change the name of your band from The Tourists, you got to come up with another name.’ So that’s when Redd Kross were born.

What was your relationship with the guys from Black Flag like once you’d started Circle Jerks?

KM: Well, one of the things that didn’t happen in West Coast punk rock was the competition. Whatever competition there was was a friendly competition.

One of the bands was gung ho about doing everything. And one of the other bands was just all about a party – ‘Let’s have a good time, let’s chase girls, let’s do drugs and get caught up in all of the rock & roll bullshit.’ The other band, they got in the van, went out and mapped out a routing for all of the bands now. One of the things you need to understand is, they got in the van, Chuck Dukowski booked their tours, and they laid out a blueprint and a map for all the rest of the bands in America. Just about every band that’s touring right now owes them a debt of gratitude. So everybody just get down on your hands and knees and start bowing and praying to the gods of Black Flag now. Just kidding.

What did you make of Henry Rollins, who eventually became Black Flag’s new frontman?

KM: I’ve got the utmost respect for the man; I don’t have a bad word to say about him. I’m one of the administrators of the Black Flag Facebook page. So if they start talking shit about Henry I’ll put them in their place, I have no problem doing that. Because Henry went out and did the work. Henry busted his ass. Henry was in the van, Henry slept in cardboard boxes, in a metal shed behind the Ginns’ house, Henry slept under a desk at the SST offices at Redondo Beach, Henry would’ve got $5 a day while they were out on the road, Henry scrounched around for whatever food he could get or whoever’s floor he could sleep on that night when they were out on tour. So anybody that has any bad words about Henry, ‘Oh, he’s an asshole, he’s a fag because he lifts weights and he hangs around a bunch of guys’, that’s all a bunch of bullshit. I’m here to shoot that down. And I won’t shoot it down with a bullet; I’ll shoot it down with a nuclear weapon. Hank’s a straight up, no-bullshit guy. As for a vocalist, he is my favourite Black Flag vocalist… after Dez (Cadena), who I like more than Ron (Reyes). Now Ron’s a better vocalist than I am. I’m a better vocalist than Dez but I’m not as good as Henry, Henry’s better than Ron and Ron is better than me and Dez is better than me. Do you get a sense of where I’m going with this?

The thing with the Black Flag vocalists is that we all brought our own little flavour to the table. And each one of us was as good as each other. My ego doesn’t allow me to say that I’m the best one because it’s all up to the listener. You go pick up the first four years, pick up Damaged, and pick up ‘Paralyzed’ or Family Man or Wasted…Again and you be the judge. I’m not here to shoot anybody down; I’m here to pat everybody on the back. Because Black Flag was one of those bands that went through a batch of drummers, went through a few bass players and certainly had their share of vocalists. All of them were great. And the band was always amazing. At one point I saw them with Henry Rollins and I walked out. Maybe it was my jealousy, I can’t remember. I saw them later, on a Sunday in a basement club down in Hollywood and they nailed me to the back wall, I was in tears. I couldn’t move, I was paralyzed. The whole time I was thinking to myself, ‘Why did I quit this band? This is one of the greatest bands I have ever seen.’ And I’ve seen my share of greatness. I’ve seen Iggy And The Stooges, I’ve seen David Bowie And The Spiders From Mars in ’72. I saw The Sex Pistols, I’ve seen Golden Earring and I’ve seen the Alice Cooper Band on several occasions, Sonic Youth and Turbonegro and the list goes on and on. The Germs and Ted Nugent and Rocket From The Crypt. I’ve been a fan of music since I was about five years old. I’ve heard it, seen it, witnessed and participated in a lot of really great things. I can certainly, without any embarrassment, without any hesitation place Black Flag amongst all of those bands.

Please tell me about your friendship with Off!’s unofficial fifth member, Raymond Pettibon.

KM: Here’s what happened with Raymond and I. He and I were party buddies at the beginning of Black Flag. He played bass at one of our rehearsals. At one point we didn’t have set line-up and it was just all sorts of characters that were coming in. It was basically Greg Ginn and myself. And whoever we could get to play drums and play bass. Before Robo and Chuck Dukowski it was just goofballs and drug addicts and b-boys and surf rats and gremmies and hoe-dads on bass and drums. It was a party. In the very beginning it was a party and when it stopped being a party that was kind of when I left. I was a cocaine addict and an alcoholic and I wanted to go to where the party was.

Getting back to Raymond Pettibon, he normally would’ve been around where the party was. He was one of the guys that would’ve shown up as a party favour. If not he would’ve been one of the partymeisters. He’s the guy that would have, as a joke, leapt out of a life size birthday cake in a pair of red, white and blue Speedos with a couple of flares in each hand. Raymond was, is and always will be one of those characters that somehow manages to defy classification.

Getting back to the adjectives and trying to think, ‘How do I describe Raymond Pettibon?’ Well, he’s very aloof but he’s very intelligent. He is like a professional boxer. He knows when to toss the fist and when to get defensive and put the fists up in front of the face.

The situation with Raymond was, he did all of the artwork for Black Flag, he did some artwork for Redd Kross, he did some artwork for the Circle Jerks, Minutemen, etc. He was, is, and always will be very generous. He wanted to help everybody out, he wanted to be part of it, so he was part of our scene. A very, very, very important part of our scene.

What happened was, when I’d started another band we would get in the van and go on tour. And if we’d go on a tour we’d be gone for three or four months. You would be playing everywhere, you would be playing every little town, you would be playing places nobody had ever heard of. You would be playing the tool shed out behind the bar in the middle of summer in Narlens. And when I say Narlens I mean New Orleans, Louisiana. It would be 110 degrees outside and in the metal shed it would be 120 degrees! So we were going through this obstacle course. We were kind of in training to become something more than what we were. And in doing so we were lose track of our friends. We would be gone for long lengths of time. We’d go off for four months and we’d come back and we might be back for two or three weeks and then we would go out and do it again for another three or four months. This was our pattern.

And you’ve got to remember, we didn’t have Blackberries and all these different little hand-held devices. We didn’t have laptops; we couldn’t just pull up to the county library and go in and use their computers or be in a hotel that had computers. There was none of that. If we were going to keep in contact we would have to make a phone call. Being out on the road, trying to survive, we didn’t have a couple of bucks to make the phone call, you couldn’t afford it. So it was really easy to lose track of your friends. And it was probably an eight-year period, nine-year period, maybe even a ten-year period where I didn’t see Raymond. And if I did it would just be a brief hello maybe in a club somewhere, maybe at an art exhibit somewhere but it wasn’t like we’d sit down and drink beers and smoke cigarettes and talk for three or four hours. All of that had got tossed out of the window.

And I came to the realization that Raymond is one of my friends and he’s one of these characters that I need to stay in touch with. So I eventually went down and hung out with him. He’s got a studio that he works out of down by Santa Monica and we hit it up and we were talking and we had a lot of things in common still. We struck up all of the music that we were listening to and talk of the people we’d been hanging out with. It was really cool; we would eat sandwiches and hang out like a couple of friends. So we reignited our friendship and in that process I’d been working on Off! So now I’ve reestablished my friendship with Raymond and he’s one of the coolest, greatest guys that I know. You know you have a few friends that you would give up your life for? Well, he’s one of the guys that I would do that for. Getting Raymond to work with the new band, Off!, wasn’t really any kind of a chore or a task or any herculean-type situation. I played him the music and introduced him to Dimitri and he immediately felt our energy and saw our vibe. He immediately wanted to be a part of it, he knew something was going on.

One of the songs from the second Off! EP is a eulogy to the late, great Jeffrey Lee Pierce from The Gun Club. Why did you decide to write about him?

KM: See, I’m really fortunate. I could’ve gone to school to become an art teacher, be an art instructor. Some days I scratch my head and I wonder, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ But I chose this path of just seeing where life takes me. And in my journeys I got to meet great characters like Raymond Pettibon. And Jeffrey Lee Pierce is another one of those characters.

Jeffrey loved Black Flag. Jeffrey loved me. And maybe I was some kind of an inspiration to him becoming who he was. He was my roommate. We exchanged records and drank a lot of booze and did a bunch of drugs, did a lot of partying. At one point we had a crew that was John Doe from X and Chris Desjardins from Slash Magazine / Slash Records / Ruby Records. He’s the guy who signed The Gun Club. He was in a band called The Flesh Eaters who were one of my favourite bands from a certain period of time in history in L.A. So we were like an army of guys that just want to go out and smoke and do drugs and drink till we’re seeing double.

Jeffrey was my bro. I consider Jeffrey like a younger brother. When he came up with Fire of Love everybody had to take a couple of steps back. Everybody was just like, ‘Are you fucking kidding?’ It’s one of the greatest records to have come out of Los Angeles. And there’s a lot of great records that have come out of Los Angeles. It’s a record that you could play alongside a couple of Byrds albums and albums by Arthur Lee and Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Seeds, The Standells. That’s just the tip of the iceberg because we also have The Beach Boys, we also have X, we have The Germs. And we have Fire Of Love by The Gun Club. Jeffrey at one point was dying and and I had some free time to hang with my brother and I was watching him die. He had a built-in self-destruct mechanism. Some of us do, some of us have that in us and some of us know when to switch and turn it off and some of us don’t and run their course. That’s the reason why we have a lot of these early deaths. Jeffrey and I, at one point we were going to start a band. Jeffrey wouldn’t do that with just anybody. As many great people as Jeffrey was surrounded by he could have started a band with, he chose me. I’m not saying I’m the greatest because that’s not the case, but Jeffrey and I had a bond and Jeffrey said we’re going to start a band. ‘I’m going to write the music, you’re going to write the lyrics.’ I said, ‘Dude, you’re a fucking brilliant lyricist, why would you want me to write all of the lyrics?’ That would be my bowing down to the greatness of Jeffrey Lee Pierce.

So he started playing a bunch of songs and I recorded them on a micro cassette player, and part of the music from the eulogy, which is the song ‘Jeffrey Lee Pierce’, was one of the last riffs he played for me. As he was playing it he would say, ‘Keith, you’re going to write lyrics about Deborah Harry and Blondie.’ See, because Jeffrey was the president of the Deborah Harry fan club. That’s the reason why he bleached his hair. He looked like he’s wearing a white wig. He bleached his hair because if you’re going be the president of the Blondie fan club you might as well try to look like Deborah Harry. I think he was channelling a little bit of her. And that’s pretty amazing, actually. There’s something really interesting and really fucking cool about that.

So he plays the song, I record it and I hang out with him up in Salt Lake City at his dad’s house. I was up there for about a week and I left and a couple of weeks later he fell over in the bathroom and he was dead. And we miss him, there’s a bunch of us that miss him. And there’s a whole generation of young kids that didn’t get to see him. So they’re just going to have to watch the YouTube footage or purchase the DVD. They’re going to have to buy the album and hold it in their hands and feel the greatness.

Do you think that playing in a hardcore / punk band such as Off! is as relevant today as it was when you played with punk bands back in the late day?

KM: A lot of people seem to think so. And I don’t mind playing to those people. You mentioned a couple of what I would call labels, punk rock and hardcore, and I find a lot of that just really stale and difficult. We have a mindset that we’re not going to be that band that just gets shuffled into that ditch, we’re not going there.

I mean, who wants to walk into a room filled with people dressed in black and all their hair’s dyed black and their ears are pierced and they’ve got a hundred tattoos and they’re the flavour of the month and they shop here and they’ve read that book and here’s the list of what you have to do to be this. You know, fuck all that. Fuck that crap. Pass that out the window. Or in other words, why do we need to be part of the punk rock / hardcore marathon? There’s enough of those going on.

We’re just four guys screaming our brains out and playing till our fingers bleed. We’ve decided to come out with all our weapons going off, we can’t just come out with a couple of firecrackers. If we’re going to do this we’re going to send out the cruise missiles, send out the fucking armed helicopters and the jets, we’ve got to be firing all the rockets. Basically we will just go out and have a great time. And make the best of it.

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