Keith Morris and his Black Flag band carry the punk banner high
The former Circle Jerks frontman on OFF!, his old bandmates, and why he’s hitting the road with Flag
Published: June 5, 2013
There aren’t many people who can lay claim to having a front row seat at the birth of American hardcore, but Keith Morris is one of them. If there was a pantheon of early 1980s American punk, then Morris would surely be in it — along with Jello Biafra, Ian MacKaye and Glenn Danzig. Though most people remember Morris as the curly-headed lead singer of the Circle Jerks, he was also founding member and the vocalist for the first incarnation of Black Flag, singing on the original version of the seminal track “Nervous Breakdown.” That recording blew many away, including the editors of Michigan’s Touch and Go zine, who declared, “Call it punk rock, call it some kind of new music, call it anything you like, but you can’t deny the fact that this is the kind of noise that curdles the minds of the feeble and completely melts those of its most ardent fans.”
Talking with us by phone from his California home, in a charmingly discursive manner, the now-dreadlocked Morris laughs self-deprecatingly about his early vocals, asking, “Oh, that snotty-nosed, shrimp-of-a-guy, crybaby bullshitter?”
Morris can afford to crack such jokes about himself, being an original presence in the punk scene — literally childhood friends with many of SoCal punk’s heavy hitters — which coelesced during the late 1970s in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
As for being a founding member of Black Flag, he says, jokingly, “I was there in the very beginning, having to deal with three bass players that were not bass players.”
Most of his career to-date, of course, was with the Circle Jerks, which lasted well into the ’90s; he says differences with his bandmates forced him to form his new hard-touring punk supergroup OFF!, with punk veterans Dimitri Coats of Burning Brides, Steven Shane McDonald of Redd Kross, and Mario Rubalcaba of Rocket to the Crypt.
It all started several years ago, when Coats was helping Morris work on material for a new Circle Jerks album. Morris recalls, “I knew what was going to happen. I’ve been around these guys for so many years. At some point somebody is going to do something or say something to throw the wrench into the machinery.” Morris also blames the music industry and its shady dealings. “Every other person in the music industry has some kind of angle,” he says. “They’re coming out of the shadows. They want to fuck your unlubed ass — all of that fun shit.”
“The guys in the Circle Jerks presented me with a great opportunity because I’d been putting up with all this fluctuating participation in the band anyways,” Morris says. “Everybody was playing in other bands, everybody was doing other things, and it seemed apparent that the only reason that the Circle Jerks existed was to go out and pay rent.”
In the end, Morris says, “The Circle Jerks made it very clear to me that I was no longer going to be participating in anything they were going to proceed with.”
He adds, “I get people saying, ‘Well, you’re just bashing on your former bandmates.’ And it’s like, all I’m doing is telling the truth, you know. I’m not making up any stories. This is all the stuff that went down. ‘Well, they’re your bros! They’re your friends!’ And it’s like, that’s right! And I support them in whatever else they’re doing! But when the whistle blows and they’re all in a room and they’re expecting me to show up … it’s probably not going to happen.
“We’d be presented with these opportunities but we’d stop to tie our shoelaces and we’d look up and it would be gone or we’d figure out some way to make it disappear or figure out some way to not make it happen. How long can you go on like that?”
It’s also clear that the people you select for a band in your 20s might not be the same people you want to play out with in your 50s.
“When you’re young, you’re partying, you’re drinking, you’re doing drugs, you’re chasing girls, you’re trying to grab the golden ring, and you’re racing around,” Morris says. “You’ve got the energy. You can go on a binge for three weeks and take two days off to recover.”
Even so, the pressures of touring brought members’ differences to the fore.
“The tour van is like Das Boot with wheels,” Morris says. “You discover who has crabs and who’s the alcoholic. All of the personality flaws start surfacing.”
At a mature 58 years old, Morris’ OFF! bandmates make for a better match. “Being in a band with a bunch of dads means that when we have our time together, we’ve got to make the most of it,” Morris says.
A Tale of Two Flags
Detroit music fans are going to be treated to a little Black Flag whiplash this week, with Morris’ Flag (which includes Black Flag alums Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, Dez Cadena and the Descendents’ Stephen Egerton) at the Orion Music + More festival June 8, and Greg Ginn’s reunited Black Flag (featuring one-time Black Flag vocalist Ron Reyes) at the Majestic Theatre on June 10. What’s going on here?
Morris says, “A lot of people make this out to be some kind of spiteful thing going on or some kind of a competition, and the fact of the matter is we never set out to turn this into a competition. It’s Greg Ginn, he can do whatever he wants to do.”
This Flag tour isn’t the first time Morris has dabbled with fronting Black Flag again. He was invited to explore a Black Flag reunion in 2003, to play two nights at the Hollywood Palladium, along with Chuck Dukowski, Robo Valverde and Greg Ginn. The show went on, but without Morris, instead with Dez Cadena on vocals.
Morris says of the experience, “I started to realize there was reason I quit in the first place. Because of the negativity. If I hadn’t quit, I was going to be fired from the band, so I’d made right choice. … I don’t want to talk down about anybody. Certain members aren’t here to defend themselves. I’ll just say it bordered on Spinal Tap. I was shown a complete lack of respect.”
> Email Michael Jackman