Keith Morris Talks “My Damage”

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Keith Morris and Chuck Dukowski at FLAG’s maiden show. Photo by Bob Lee.

In the months since its release, Keith Morris’ My Damage, written with Jim Ruland, has emerged as one of the most important, and most hilariously quotable, books ever written about punk rock. Morris was a founding member of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and there has already been a lot of ink spilled about him and his work, but now the frequent Topic is pointing the pen outward, and as he admits, “I painted a picture that wasn’t that pretty.”

But if not, it is a picture that’s vividly detailed and utterly engrossing. There are lots of the expected stories about the Good Old Days when police officers, audiences and even bandmates were bent on tearing him limb from limb, and it’s great stuff. Less predictable, and equally enjoyable, are the stories of Morris’ other musical journeys, with the bands Bug Lamp and Midget Handjob and his attempts to collaborate with others. The book gives a balanced and realistic portrayal of what a real life as a punk rocker looks like after the initial burst of energy has dissipated and you no longer feel the need to live out your teenage dream of eternal partying, but aren’t ready to die either. And it’s written in the same biting, sarcastic, unmistakable voice of the man who gave us “Nervous Breakdown”,”Deny Everything” and “Wasted.” It’s not like Rollins and his attempts at Hubert Selby/ Henry Miller inspired “literature,” it’s a guy talking in plain language about stuff that happened to him with a dash of acerbic commentary.

Morris credits Masque booker and author Brendan Mullen with inspiring him to tell his own story, and regrets that Mullen passed before they had a chance to collaborate on it. Co-writer Jim Ruland (ex-Razorcake and Flipside) is credited with “trimming the fat, hitting the brakes, and setting a tempo for the book” (like most of Morris’ stuff, that tempo is “fast”), as well as making it possible to meet the publisher’s deadline.  This Sunday, from 4 to 7 PM, Morris will host a reading party and book signing at La Luz De Jesus Gallery (4633 Hollywood Blvd) along with his guests Dave Alvin, Chris D, Pleasant Gehman and Iris Berry. We talked to Morris over the phone this week about the book, how some things are better than others, and the immediate future of FLAG. Our conversation is lightly edited for length and clarity.

I enjoyed the fact that you gave, maybe not equal time but proportional time to Bug Lamp and Midget Handjob, bands I got see but I don’t think a lot of people outside LA ever did. Has the reception to the book caused any surge of interest in that music being heard again?

Well we just did a little impromptu Midget Handjob thing not last weekend but weekend before. And your guy, our guy, fabulous Claw Hammer slash Jon Wahl character, works over at Cobraside Record distributors. And he talked Randy into letting him do a Midget Handjob show, and I said you know what?  I’ll participate. I’ve got a new book to promote, rather than repeat the Midget Handjob stories, I’m just gonna read stories out of my book. And for some reason it worked. Like the pacing, choosing the right story for the right piece of music. It worked out to the point where we’ll probably do it in the future.

We wanted to do it this weekend but this thing on Sunday, it’s still gonna be a blast. We got Dave Alvin, and keeping our fingers crossed, I gotta reach out to Dave and say, hey man, why don’t you bring an acoustic guitar along? It’s a cool lineup, a lot of great people, a lot of interesting people, a lot of very important people, that have been part of this music scene here in Los Angeles.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters about your experiences managing the Hangmen and the Nymphs, remembering that time right after I’d arrived in LA when they were looming large. My impression is that you got brought along on the ride til right at the point where money was about to be involved, and you were suspicious about the money. Did you ever have the urge to just say, go ahead and make the deal with the devil, take your cut and get out?

I found myself in a couple of really awkward situations. I have caught flak for telling that story. Getting screwed, dealing with the major labels. There was a lot more stuff that was attached to what went on that I couldn’t say in the book. We had at one point a pow wow with the lawyer that represents Da Capo, and she said “Here are the red flags. You can say this, you CAN’T say that.” If you’re gonna say certain things, you’re need to get permission from the people that you’re saying those things about. So I reached out to one of the people and she was not down with what I was gonna say. And just out of courtesy, just out of respect, I didn’t mention it. And I didn’t have to do that. I could have probably gone around that but I followed what the instructions were.

This is punk rock, its supposed to be anarchy. This America, you’re supposed to be able to say what you want to say. But you have to be careful. The company doesn’t wanna get sued. They don’t wanna go there.

One of the other guys reached out to me and said, “How could you say that? I didn’t know that that was the way that you felt.” And when I walked away, when I was shown the door, I walked away for a handful of years. I wasn’t reading around about how these bands were doing. It was no longer my concern. We all started off on a business deal that became friendships and then all of a sudden here I am hanging over the trap door. And when the trap door opens, what’s below? Piranhas, alligators, sharks? Poisonous snakes?

And I still like all of these people and some of them I still continue to communicate with. It’s not like I’m some snobby guy who got ripped off and I hate everybody and I’m going to go around and say bad things. I painted a picture that wasn’t that pretty. And I told one of them, “I’m not sugarcoating anything. I’m telling it the way that it went down, and I’m not making any of this stuff up. I’m not going out of my way to badmouth you.” If I wanted to, I could have. And I didn’t. As tough as cool as they are, I guess, when you’re living in this town and dealing with all of this stuff, your skin becomes thick, to the point  that you’re able to ward off certain things. Certain things just bounce right off you. People saying stuff behind your back and then it comes to your face. Dealing with these record companies and booking agents and club promoters and people in bands. You meet a lot of great people, and for every great person you meet, you probably meet at least a dozen people traveling on the Shit Barge, traveling in fucking first class.

So I caught a little bit of flak. One of those people actually said that it’s not going to get carried at the book store over in Highland Park because I’m a sexist punk rock loser. And I just, I love that. Those are kind of words to live by.

I was hoping there would be a little more about the FLAG reunion and the circumstances surrounding it but you may have already answered that with the earlier question; the lawyers having to get into it.

That’s the reason I didn’t go into great depth or detail over playing with Billy Stevenson and Stephen Egerton and Dezo Cadena and Chuck Dukowski. Because when we ended the lawsuit, and also you have to take this into consideration, we were sued. We did not sue Greg Ginn. I believe we, in arguing our thing might have had to sue him back, I don’t know. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it because I thought the whole thing was just a fucking bogus situation. So consequently, because it started to get extremely expensive, and the situation with SST and Ginn is when they sue you, or countersue you, they’re using your money that they haven’t paid you in royalties. What Stevenson says is “he’s pulled off the perfect crime.”

At one point going back and forth in the legalities and attorneying and lawyering and California courts and all of that fun stuff, the opposing lawyer said “I’m gonna make this cost you guys five hundred thousand dollars at the midway point.” And there were a lot of compromises. We gave up a lot of stuff and ultimately, we won. I don’t know what we won. But at the very end of all of this legal BS, when we signed off, we were also signing off to not be able to say certain things in public. So that’s why we didn’t go into deep thought about that situation.

Now there is the chapter about the Black Flag reunion at the Hollywood Palladium.

I was at that show, and it was not anywhere you needed to be.

I rehearsed twice. And both times, they were so mind bogglingly lame, and not even close, not even… these guys did not even know what they were playing. And when I say “these guys” I mean Greg Ginn and the drummer. That’s what he called himself “Drummer”. And I had seen them play with a bass player at the Dragonfly and it was so ridiculously lame and just, I’m just questioning why am I here. Why am I listening to this? They had asked me earlier if I would jump on stage and sing a couple of songs with them. And I said, well, bust out your checkbook and write me a check for $75,000 worth of royalties and maybe I’ll consider it. And he started laughing, looked at me like I was some kind of a freak, like, how fucking dare you?? You’re not supposed to talk to me that way. They were so bad that even the diehard fans that were there to see him play…that room emptied. Like you snap your fingers, it’s like a magic trick, boom! Everybody’s gone.

It’s so sad. It must be a blessing and a curse, for Ginn, you have this guy who’s completely devoted to you and willing to play all day and sleep at your feet and everything, but he’s just not that good.

Not even “not that good.” That’s giving him a lot of props. Nice guy! Nice guy, you know. But just not happening. I mean, you could buy your wife the cheapest drum kit you can find and in two weeks she will be a better drummer than Drummer.

I don’t want to diss anybody…

You know also, I have a lot of people pointing their fingers at me like, you’re the guy that throws everybody under the bus. No, I don’t. I just tell it how I see it. I might put my spin on it but for the most part, the proof is in the pudding.

You know I can be a dick and an asshole, and I understand that. After everything that I’ve been through I should be allowed to say whatever I want to say. And I don’t really go around bad mouthing people. Unless they order it! You know, I’ll serve it up, I’ll dish it out. I have no problem doing that. Don’t need to sugarcoat anything.

But the proof is in the pudding. All reports from people that went to that thing at the Hollywood Palladium, I had Rick Van Santen call me two days before the show. See, cause he fired me. He and Paul Tollett HIRED me. Because they needed somebody on their team, to make sure to crack the whip, make sure there was some kind of quality control. Otherwise they were gonna get what they got. Just a big hodgepodge, mishmash, whatever you want to call it. I didn’t go. But Rick Van Santen and Paul Tollett asked me to be a part of it. They said Keith, we can’t do this without you. You’re the original vocalist. You make the “First Four Years”because you were there for three quarters. So I went to, I say, rehearse or practice, it wasn’t even that. It was just fucking brutal. I will say this, any musician worth their weight in salt, anybody that plays music, needs to experience what I experienced. It was pretty brutal.

So anyways, it turns to shit for me, like why am I doing this? I can’t talk to anybody, I was told not to talk to anybody. I was told, don’t call Ron. Don’t call Dez. Don’t call Chuck. OK so when’s Robo coming up from Colombia? Oh he’ll be here. Later on, because I play in a band with Chuck, I play in FLAG with Chuck, we had this conversation. He was never asked by Greg Ginn to be part of the First Four Years that they were doing the Palladium.

That was the first thing I thought, when I saw that, “It’s gonna be Greg, Keith, Dez, Chuck and Robo.”

And it was not even close. Dezo showed up. Dezo’s one of these guys that shows up and does what he does and doesn’t question it. But he said, if he would have known it was gonna be the way that it was that he [probably wouldn’t have been a part of it].

I totally understand why he would want to be optimistic about something like that but, boy… bass on tape. It was painful.

Yeah. Maybe that was Greg Ginn trying to nail the final stake into the heart of the monster known as Black Flag.

He should have got a drum machine and a real bass player! Every bass player I know could play half of those songs.

Well, I have Rick Van Santen call me a couple of days before, “Keith we’ve got a couple of tables up in the balcony if you want to invite a bunch of your friends, and if you want to come down and sing a couple of songs, feel free.” I said, thank you for the offer Rick but I won’t be anywhere near there. I’m not a part of this, I was excused a month and a half before. And Rick was kind of bummed, he was angry at me, but at one point there was nothing for me to say. I would have these one sided conversations with Greg Ginn, and it was brutal. It was like all this negativity, this is the reason why I left the band in the first place! And now I’m being dragged back into all of this garbage. What for? If you’re not having fun, why would you want to do it?

For the cats, man!

So the thing with FLAG, we’re all the guys that won’t play with Greg Ginn. We did the reunion at the Goldenvoice 30 at the Santa Monica Civic. And those people… there were about 3000 people just went fucking apeshit, just fucking lost it. It was so thrilling and so invigorating and so… the energy and the vibe was just so amazing. At the end of the night we all looked at each other and said we would be stupid not to continue doing this.

And my booking agent happened to be there because he had heard the rumor that Black Flag was playing. So he was there, plus hes a fan of the Descendents. So he happens to be standing there and I turned to him and said, “Andy, what can you do with this?” And he said, “Guys, I’m going to make some calls on Monday and let’s just take it from there. I’ll keep you guys filled in.” As it turned out, the first offer we got was from the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas, and then all of us started getting offers, equivalent offers to play Riot Fest, we played a couple of Riot Fests. In Chicago there were probably 30 to 40 thousand people in front of us.

So that’s kind of like maybe, we never got paid royalties, maybe this might be our opportunity to collect a little bit of change, pay some bills.

We’re still waiting for a proper headlining show in LA!

The thing is, there’s gonna be a lot of waiting because Stephen just started teaching music as a substitute teacher, plus he’s home dad, and the Descendents got their new album out, they’re out playing. They have this thing where they normally just play on the weekends. Because Milo isn’t a real rugged vocalist, he’s only good for maybe two in a row. And that happens, and that’s OK, good for them. As long as they’re out there doing that…

FLAG was actually asked to play the GV 35. The lineup was going to be a couple opening bands, Thelonious Monster, FLAG and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And that was gonna be at the Shrine, which holds a million people, it’s fucking cavernous. And that wasn’t going to happen because the Chili Peppers are in the middle of this big tour. So…. Maybe GV 36 for FLAG? Unless somebody steps up and says, I wanna make you guys an offer to play here. We don’t go out of our way to find out what’s available out there. I guess our booking agent just waits for the call. There’s no problem, we’re not going anywhere. Two of the guys are doing the Descendents, so we’re kind of on hold, no big deal. 

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