Interview by JEFF HO. Photos by DAN LEVY and OLIVIA JAFFE.
Keith Morris was at the forefront of punk rock and helped to define the scene, and he’s stayed involved and been working this whole time. From Black Flag to the Circle Jerks to Off! and Flag, his music has a message. From his early days in Hermosa Beach, his roots in surfing and skateboarding spurred the cross pollination of punk rock and skateboarding, resulting in an aggressive style that led to change. The music that he sings is at the crux a cultural revolution that has now expanded. We talked about his new book “My Damage” and looked back on the beginning, the middle, the now and the future. Facing challenges head on is his way and I want to thank him for it. Keith’s message to the youth is more valuable now than ever. He’s lived the life and he practices what he preaches. He’s done so much and it’s incredible to see his shows. Grab his new book, “My Damage” and listen to Keith Morris.
Hey, Keith, I want to talk to you about your new book, but first I noticed something on your newspaper. There’s a gun in the cover photo. What is going on there? Is it a protest?
That was at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland where the Cleveland Police Department asked the governor to step up because they have the open carry law there. You start thinking of open carry and you start thinking of Billy The Kid and the shootout at the O.K. Corral and who is faster than who and whose finger is quicker. At this point, we’ve lived the majority of our lives, so we experienced growing up in the tumult of the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and people are saying, “Those were terrible times with that music and those terrible hippies.” It’s like, “Hey, wait a minute!”
Who was talking about terrible hippies?
It’s one of those punk rock mantras – ‘kill a hippie’. I’m punk rock, but I didn’t want to kill any hippies. I grew up with hippies, surfers and skaters. Everybody had long hair and was anti-establishment, “We don’t want to be like you. Fuck the man!” Then you had Vietnam and it’s like, “Come on!”
During the Vietnam war, were you of age to have been drafted?
I went to Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach down in the South Bay and I weighed 76 pounds and I was 17 1/2 when I graduated. They are not going to take you into the military to go fight in Vietnam at that weight, even if they fed you mess hall food six times a day, so I was just not big enough. At the time, it was the law that you had to register for the draft. We would go to parties on Friday night and somebody would get drunk and pass out on the yard in front of the house, and the cops would pull up. “It’s 10 o’clock. Party is over.” The cops started carding everybody and wanting to know everybody’s age. Consequently, I had a few friends that were arrested for not having registered for the draft. They could arrest you for not having signed up for the draft. But my dad, who was a staunch Republican, was like, “Fuck them! I worked for them at one time and they treated me like dirt.” You’d think he would be like, “I’m pro bombs, pro guns and bullets and let’s kill everybody. Let’s take over the world! What do they have over there that we need? Let’s just go take it from them.” Instead he was like, “I wouldn’t register for the draft. I wouldn’t go over there and fight. It’s up to you.” Instead of him scolding me for not registering for the draft, he left it up to me, so I never registered.
During that time, I was surfing the T’s in Santa Monica. I was registered and I was 1-A. I was surfing and working and it was an interesting time where, at any moment, your whole life could change.
Hey, Jeff, for me, it was a very formative part of my life. I was 17 years old, so I was being influenced by all of these things that were going on around me, like the war in Vietnam and my friends getting arrested and the partying and the drugs and all my friends being surfers and skaters and being at the beach.
When you were growing up in Hermosa Beach, who were the guys that you used to hang out with and play music with?
At that time, I had friends that would strum around on bass guitar or guitar, but that wasn’t their focus. In my book, My Damage, I talk about wanting to be the drummer in Black Flag and having a friend that I was going to purchase a drum kit from. It turned out that the drum kit was one that he had borrowed from a friend. That is the way things worked in our circle of friends. It was like, “That’s my bike.” “No. No. No. It’s my bike because I bought it from Bill. That’s not Ted’s bike. That’s Joe’s bike. Now I own it because I paid Joe $20 for it.”
Did you know Bill Stevenson then?
I’ve known Bill since he was eight years old. Billy would come into my dad’s fishing tackle store and I would be there by myself. I had the ability to run the store by myself, and my dad would listen to jazz. We had one of the main West Coast jazz clubs, The Lighthouse, directly across the street on Pier Avenue. My dad would listen to jazz or classical music. That music did not speak to me in any way whatsoever at that time. Being a full grown adult, even though I’m hoping that I might grow a couple of more inches, I now appreciate all of that music and can hear it for what it is. At the time, I’d turn on KLOS or KMET or KNAC, and say, “Let’s listen to some rock music.” Billy would come in and maybe they’d be playing Cheap Trick or ZZ Top or Blue Oyster Cult or Ted Nugent or Aerosmith or Alice Cooper, and Billy would look at me and go, “Who’s that? What are you listening to, Keith? I’m going to go to the record store. What records should I buy?” Those were all of the bands that I would tell him to listen to.
Was Billy older or younger than you?
I’ve got about 10 years on Billy. In all of my musical organizations, I’m like one of the senior citizens, with the exception of Flag where Chuck Dukowski has me by about a year.
After reading your new book, My Damage, I was curious about the South Bay scene when you were younger.
At that time, the South Bay music scene really wasn’t a music scene. It was probably equivalent to what your music scene was in Venice. There were a few real musicians, trying to do whatever they were doing. For the most part, if you wanted to see a band, you’d end up going to a bar on Saturday night and see a bunch of guys playing everyone else’s music, the Top 40. Not until Black Flag started playing and rehearsing, did people start gravitating towards us. The scene didn’t really become anything until we were rehearsing and living in the Church. That’s when we had this big space and whoever wanted to could come and hang out, so a lot of people in the South Bay started to gravitate to the Church. Consequently, in that scenario, we had The Tourists, who were Red Kross before they became Red Kross. The McDonald brothers were teenagers then. Steven was 11 years old. There was a band called The Last, who we all looked up to because they were a band from Hermosa Beach that were actually playing original music, and we welcomed that. We considered them heroes. Granted they weren’t a punk rock band.
What was their sound like?
They had a bit of rockabilly and a bit of pop. They could play with The Plimsouls and the Bangles, but they could also play with Black Flag and the Alley Cats. We had the Alley Cats in Lomita, which was six miles up the road from us. Eventually, we would have the Minutemen in San Pedro and there were some bands in Torrance. For the most part, it was three or four bands that would hang out at the Church.
Let me ask you about the famous show at the Moose Lodge. Was that during the time period that you were at the Church?
Yeah. We were still at the Church and then we would play at Polliwog Park down at Manhattan Beach on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer, with all of the picnicking families and everyone having a swell time. All of a sudden, we started playing and it erupted into this free-for-all of people throwing things and yelling things.
A lot of people reference that Moose Lodge show as one of the most famous shows that Black Flag did.
Well, whenever we played, I always had a great time, no matter what the situation was, whether it was the bikers that wanted to kill us or the Redondo Beach Seahawks football team or their cheerleader girlfriends that wanted to kill us. There were a lot of people that did not like us, which was okay because we were doing what we wanted to do. Maybe we didn’t know any better or maybe it was just like, “Let’s just do this and see what happens.” You never know how it’s going to turn out unless you do it. We were doing it, but we weren’t doing it very often, which led to me leaving Black Flag. We were rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing and we kept on rehearsing some more. It was like, “What are we doing tomorrow night?” “We’re rehearsing.” I was like, “Are we ever going to play any shows or hang out with our friends in other bands and go and see them play?” Actually, at one point, I turned those guys onto AC/DC, and we ended up going to see AC/DC at the Whisky A Go Go. Chuck Dukowski thanks me for that to this day.
Did you ever go to the Starwood?
We played the Starwood and went to the Starwood. I saw The Blasters and X at the Starwood. I saw an amazing X show at the Starwood with D.O.A. opening. We saw the Alley Cats, Fear, T.S.O.L., The Adolescents… A lot of those bands became our partners in crime, our compadres. If we weren’t going to the Starwood, we were going to the Whisky or the Santa Monica Civic.
Okay, you were talking about leaving Black Flag and you formed another band with the Circle Jerks, right?
After I left Black Flag, about a month later, we were rehearsing as the Circle Jerks. At one point, our biggest fans were Tony Alva and Jay Adams and some of the guys that worshipped you.
You guys led the scene and your music was incredible. It’s a time period that I have great memories of. It’s just that connection of music and surfing and skating and we’re still doing these things. Did you ever come by the Zephyr shop when you were a kid?
The closest I got to Venice was P.O.P. with my grandparents. There was also a warehouse down in Venice where they would do Sunday afternoon punk rock shows where I saw X and the Germs and the Screamers. They would do two bands starting at three in the afternoon. Everyone would show up and there could be 100 people there or there could be a couple of hundred people there.
Nice. I wanted to ask you more about the Circle Jerks and how it went from there?
Well, when we started Black Flag, we knew nothing about what we were supposed to do. We were just a bunch of guys making a bunch of noise, getting in a room. We had grown tired of a lot of the musical things that were happening around us. When I grew up, when I wasn’t working for my dad, I was working in records stores. I worked with one of my other favorite human beings, Michael Piper, at a record store called The Rubicon, which was on Pier Avenue, between the police station and the Church. He would listen to some hard rock, but he also had a soft side for prog rock, like King Crimson, Yes, Le Orme, Banco and Gentle Giant. Consequently, when I was working in the record store, that was the music I was exposed to. They are great musicians playing great music, but it just kind of bummed us out. You coupled that with some of the stuff that was being played on the radio and the fact that, for the most part, any live music being played in the South Bay was going to be Top 40, and we were pretty frustrated. The only way to hear anything new was to go into the record store and maybe there would be something on display where some guy looked like a freak and you knew you better listen to that. Or I’d read about a band in a magazine and I knew I’d better listen to that. That would be how we would find new music or we’d stumble upon something new in Hollywood. So we were very frustrated. We were like, “Is there anything else?” That was the main reason for us getting in a room and just bashing away on things. So it was Black Flag and then the Circle Jerks. Circle Jerks was just a more lighthearted version of Black Flag, like a Saturday morning cartoon version of Black Flag. There were a few other things that I did in between, and then it was OFF! I did have a hard rock band at one point. That was my brush with rock n’ roll superstardom, where I could have ended up owning the mansion in Beverly Hills that it’s rumored that I own now. We could be having this conversation in the backyard of my mansion in Beverly Hills, but that was just a vicious rumor. I did have the opportunity to sign a multimillion dollar contract and I let it go through my fingers. I didn’t want to do the Keith Morris band. OFF! is my new band, and I’m completely overjoyed and ecstatic about being able to play with Steven McDonald, who I have known since he was 11 years old. He is one of my favorite bass players. It’s like a whole new group of guys with a whole new batch of personalities.
Wait. Tell me about your hard rock band.
That would have been Bug Lamp. The last story in that chapter of the book, My Damage, was at Raji’s up on Hollywood Blvd, after we had finished playing what would be our last show, being sandwiched in between a band from Warner Bros and one from Interscope. The money was going to be amazing. My whole world was going to change into this big, bright, wonderful, swell thing, but all of the guys in the band, with the exception of the bass player, were all moving on to do other things. In all of the bands that I’ve been in, with the exception of OFF!, we’ve had constant changeover. For the book, I was going to do a family tree. I was really gung-ho about it until I actually started to do all the branches, and I was like, “I don’t have time to do this.” I’ve played with 30 bass players, and to list them all and what bands they’ve played in, that just would have covered the bass players. In my time in Black Flag, there were two drummers and four bass players, and I was only in Black Flag for three years. That doesn’t even count the drummers and guitar players and bass players in Circle Jerks and the other bands. We have no revolving door when it comes to bass players and drummers in OFF! It’s all for one and one for all.
Life is good then. Are you feeling good about touring with OFF! and Flag?
It’s great to have something to look forward to and I’m having a great time. I’m enjoying myself.
It’s crazy because whatever band you’re in, you have a voice that is instantly recognizable. How did you find your voice?
It’s years and years of experience and practice, scales and warming up. [Laughs] Of course, I’m just pulling your leg. I’ve had one voice instructor who played the piano and played the scales and you sing along, but I’m not going to stay at home and do that. If I’m going to stay at home listening to music, I’m going to do the Pete Townshend windmill and jam out like Jimi Hendrix or grind it out like Johnny Ramone. No vocal practice for me. I went to an instructor and that’s when I found out that I could put the piano accompaniment on a cassette and then I lost the cassette. At one point, I was working at a bar up on Melrose, when I was a member of the Circle Jerks, but the Circle Jerks weren’t doing anything because we always had conflicting schedules with Bad Religion. Please do not think that I’m dissing Greg Hetson, Jay Bentley or Brett Gurewitz, because I love all of them. They’re like younger brothers. I was going to school and my first class three days a week at eight in the morning was a vocal class where we were all going to be future opera stars with the future Mariah Carey standing in the back. One morning I hit a B and the teacher completely wigged out. Nobody in the room was supposed to hit that low note, and I was one that hit it. He was thinking it was the young soul brother that hit the B and got down there, because I wasn’t talking that way. In going through this class, I was realizing that I couldn’t work at a bar up on Melrose until three in the morning and drive back to Redondo Beach and get home at four in the morning, sleep for three hours, and then get up and take a shower and drive to school. Consequently, that class didn’t last very long. Getting back to how I found my voice, the whole process for me has been to find it as you go along. I’ve watched Jello Biafra drink hot tea with cayenne pepper backstage and go through the warming up of the vocal chords, but I’ve never done that. There are a few things that I’ve learned from the woman that gave Exene voice lessons. You just have to get loose and don’t be uptight. You have to brush it and rub it out of your body and do the skeleton dance. I’m not the guy that’s going to lock myself in the dressing room to sing scales. It’s not going to happen. It never has and it never will.
I got you on that. Okay, after reading your book, there was a mention that your grandfather worked for Al Capone. How did that play into your family history?
My grandfather was a runner and a collector for Al Capone. His name was Saul Goldstein, but Goldstein got changed to Morris, because of the KKK lynching. There were only a couple of Jews that worked for Al Capone, because that was Italian mafia. My grandfather could have been a hit man. My grandfather could have had some people decapitated or buried or a few legs or arms broken. I think that might have been part of my dad’s upbringing in that my dad was a Golden Gloves boxer. My dad was a really tough guy. He was a badass. He wouldn’t take shit off anybody.
Well, I also thought it was interesting to read in your book that, at your dad’s bait shop, he not only had jazz musicians hanging out, but also the motorcycle guys and a lot of surfers, like Dewey Weber.
One of my favorite stories is going to work early in the morning and walking in on my dad having a conversation, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with Dewey Weber, Greg Noll and Hap Jacobs. For the South Bay, they were the triumvirate. If they were carving faces into whatever mountain is in the South Bay, those are three of the faces being carved into that mountain. Later on, we would have guys like Donald Takayama and Eddie Talbot of E.T. Surfboards.
Cool. Okay, let’s talk about skateboarding. Your rendition of “Wild In The Streets” became an anthem for skateboarding and your tie-in to skating was inescapable.
Well, growing up in the South Bay, and the culture of the people that I was around, surfing and skating, it was the same thing up in Venice. Some of the guys in the South Bay were creating this music and then we got our introduction to the Z-Boys. Jay Adams and Tony Alva and his younger brother were huge fans of what we were doing, so it was this cross-fertilization of, “I’m a bee and you’re a flower.” It all fell into place and it all went hand in hand and that’s the beauty of all of this.
Yes. I also enjoyed your story in the book about one of the times you went surfing and you happened to be on angel dust.
That was on Christmas morning, which is probably one of the worst days of the year to go surfing, because all the kids have brand new surfboards or a brand new wetsuit and everyone is out in the water. That’s what the scenario was and I had a Dewey Weber surfboard. Dewey and my dad were such good friends, so Dewey gave my dad a board to give to me. I got a wetsuit, and I didn’t like having to squeeze into a wetsuit, but I did like the fact that it was only eight in the morning and we were already smoking angel dust. We were out of our heads and the waves were just 10-foot walls with no shape. It was like the motion you would see at a dry cleaners. Everybody was being dry cleaned in this wet surf by these 10-foot walls. As someone that’s never surfed, you don’t go out in those conditions, or you’re looking for trouble. I got my clothes washed that morning, and tumble dried and spit out onto the sand at the foot of the walls. It only happened once and I was like, “I’m not doing this again.” All of my surfer friends would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and go out in whatever conditions. If it looked like there were waves, they would be racing down there to get into it.
That’s quite a story. Okay, you’ve always done what you do, but do you ever feel a responsibility to pass on something to the next generation, whether it be political or anti-political or musical? What message do you want to put out there?
Well, I know that you have an amazingly brilliant thing going on where all of the kids in the Venice area look to you. What I really appreciate is that you incorporated skating when all of those guys came to you and said, “Let’s start a skate team.”
Well, most of those guys that were on the Zephyr skate team were surfers and then it transformed into the skateboarding team because of the urethane wheel. That’s how that came about. Wait. You’re supposed to be talking, not me.
Jeff, here’s the thing, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if it wasn’t for what you were doing because what you were doing was really cool. It certainly was cool dealing with Dewey Weber and Greg Noll too. Greg Noll was a freak. The dude lived in a trailer and he was like a Mormon, without being a Mormon, like the big families where the head guy had 30 wives. We looked up to them, just like the guys where you were looked up to you. We had to have somebody to go to and you’re like the go-to guy. At the same time, while we’re playing this music, it’s also influencing all of the guys that came to you. We grew up with music and listening to music. There was certain music that created a spark, like, “Let’s do this. Let’s do something.” Maybe it wasn’t in the lyrics, but a lot of this music was something that was like, “Come on. Let’s go!”
It was phenomenal what you did and the connection you made with the guys on the Zephyr skate team. It created this surf/skate/music culture and you guys were at the forefront of punk rock. You were responsible for influencing a culture and it’s cool to talk to you about it.
I believe it’s a mutual thing. We are influenced by the people that we are influencing, which is actually a pretty interesting thing in itself. We’re all, for the most part, Southern Californians and we have grown up with all of this stuff. It could be the speed of the skateboard or the speed limit on the freeway. Everybody thinks Southern California is laid back. They think we’re listening to Fleetwood Mac and calling the coke dealer and sipping Mimosas and our hair is perfectly cut and nice and shiny and we have perfect tans and we get the car detailed. There are a lot of people out there that think our lives are like the Kardashians and it’s up to us to go out and prove them wrong.
Yes! I was talking to Chuck Dukowski about that Flag show at the Moose Lodge, in 2013. I went to that show and that was incredible. What was it like to play that show years later at the Moose Lodge?
Well, one of the great parts of this is the time machine. See I don’t do drugs anymore and I don’t drink. I’m a recovering cocaine addict and a recovering alcoholic. I got to experience the Moose Lodge one more time in my sobriety and I got to pick up on all of the energy and feed on all of that. That’s the fuel. That’s the fire. Plus, I grew up down there, and I drank at that bar. Getting to come back was so amazing. Everybody was in our faces. When we played there the first time, there was maybe 100 people there and nobody knew who we were. We played with the Alley Cats and Rhino 39. The Alley Cats were one of our favorite bands. They were our South Bay brothers and sisters. Going back to the Moose Lodge was just amazing.
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