Back in the mid-'70s, before singer Keith Morris founded the iconic punk band Black Flag with guitarist Greg Ginn, he was an avowed derelict who'd regularly escape to the beach near his home to do a lot of drugs with his derelict friends, some of whom would go on to become his derelict band mates. In Stevie Chick's 2009 book about Black Flag, Morris confessed to smoking angel dust and snorting elephant tranquilizers. He wasn't messing around.
Now at age 57, he still takes drugs, but they're of a different kind. Since being diagnosed with diabetes in 1999, he's had to be extra careful with his health and drop many of his bad habits. Morris, who fronted the Circle Jerks for two decades and now sings with the punk group Off!, caught the flu during the band's recent outing last month, and doctors put him on heavy medication to prevent it from turning into pneumonia. He's still trying to recover.
"I took this one pill that stays in your system for ten days, and I'm still reeling from it because it blows everything out of your system," he says via phone from his Los Angeles home. "I was supposed to do like five interviews, and I missed them all. I never do that."
While Morris reveals a great sense of responsibility when it comes to both his health and the promotion of Off!, that doesn't mean he's shed the punk rock attitude that he embodied so perfectly in the past. Rather, Morris is still the ultimate punk spokesperson, something that's reflected in Off!'s catalogue of incredibly short and abrasive tunes. And it's reflected in how he carries himself when he's in public.
"When we played in Alabama recently, I started fighting with rednecks who were beating up the kids in front of the stage," he says. "I got my face punched in after I chased a couple of guys and told them, 'Don't fuck with these kids.' Of course, one of the guys took a swing at me. A roadie was standing right in front of me. Rather than try to fend off the blow, he ducked and I got punched in the face."
That's wouldn't have been the first time Morris would have taken a punch. When he started playing with Black Flag in the late '70s, California was teeming with punk and hardcore bands that often couldn't even get legitimate gigs because their fans were reputed to be so rowdy. To hear Morris describe it, the scene was actually an extension of the surf/skate culture that permeated his Hermosa Beach hometown.
"There were some aggro characters in our town," he says. "Those were the guys who were surfing and the guys who were riding their skateboards. During the wintertime, when it was too cold to surf, they would put on all their wool and go in the mountains and ski. There was an athleticism but not your typical jock mentality. It's not like, 'I'm doing this because this is where the hot chicks are.' It was a very gung ho, barfly, Kamikaze attitude. You just did it. If you wiped out or scraped your knees or sprained your wrist, so be it. That was part of our mentality, even though we weren't those guys. We did some of that stuff. We loved bodysurfing, and I body-boarded for a while. I surfed long enough to realize that I wasn't into getting up at four in the morning when it's black out to put on a wetsuit and go out in 30-degree water. I'd rather get another couple of hours of sleep and then go to school."
But once Black Flag started to become more serious and focused, Morris quit the group. The band would go on to incredible fame, but Morris contributed only to the very first recordings.
"It had stopped being fun, and we had stopped playing shows, and we were spending more time in the rehearsal space than anywhere else," he says. "We knew those songs. We were playing 16 songs and were working on another four. The other band members were burned out on me because I liked to party. I had developed a couple of habits that weren't good. They were ruining my life. I learned later on that one of the guys was trying to force me out of the band anyway. I have no regrets. I left when I left and was fortunate to start up with a whole new band."
That new band, the Circle Jerks, would pick up right where Black Flag left off and instantly had a following due to Morris's musical pedigree.
"It was a very smooth transition, and we started playing to fairly large crowds, plus all of the people who had gathered into our cult were familiar with [guitarist] Greg [Hetson], who was in Redd Kross," Morris says. "Part of it was easy. We were also moving into a situation where we're getting banned from the clubs as fast as we can play them because of all the extracurricular activities. Now, we had these more athletic kids coming from the beach, the Valley and the Inland Empire, and a lot of the Hollywood people were pretty bummed out. We couldn't worry about that. There was a certain form of survival going on."
The Circle Jerks went through a series of make-ups and breakups that Morris says he can't actually keep straight in his head. The latest breakup took place in 2010 as the group was about to record a new album.
"I quit and I had my epiphany, and I realized, why would I quit a band that I started and walk away from it?" he says. "I thought that I would just start another band. It's been very successful. We've been extremely busy. I've never been this busy."
Off!, which also includes Redd Kross bassist Stephen McDonald. Burning Brides guitarist Dimitri Coats, and Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes drummer Mario Rubalcaba, initially released a series of EPs before delivering the self-titled album that came out earlier this year. Off! features 16 songs that are each about a minute long. Morris sneers more than he sings on tracks such as "King Kong Brigade" and "Harbor Freeway Blues," effectively channeling anger and frustration into a messy mix of music that has a clear sense of urgency to it. So what exactly fuels Morris's anger and frustration?
"Maybe because I'm stupid and I don't know any better," he says. "Maybe because it's all I know. I cite this as one of my main reasons: going back to the Warped Tour. We see and hear all of these bands, and the majority of them shouldn't exist. They're an excuse for us to be at war in the Middle East. Where's the ROTC and the draft? I'm opposed to all of that, so I say that in jest. Nobody deserves to go over there unless they choose to go over there; then they deserve to go over there and whatever happens to them happens to them. I don't want any of our troops to get hurt except for those who have the mentality that they've been given a gun and they get to kill someone. But the world is cluttered with all of this mediocrity. A lot of the stuff is beyond mediocre or shouldn't exist in the first place."