Published Aug 31, 2016The story of American punk rock owes much to Keith Morris, but we already knew that.
In the 40 years that have passed since the Hermosa Beach, CA-bred local first hooked up with Panic (later re-christened Black Flag), countless acts have shaped themselves in the mould of their legendarily twitchy and enraged 1979 EP Nervous Breakdown. We've also been treated to several examinations of those formative days, from oral histories to full-length documentaries.
Oftentimes, the now dread-headed and bespectacled screamer has been a part of those pieces. So, what does Morris have to add in his own autobiography, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor? His time in Black Flag and follow-up project the Circle Jerks will be familiar to punk rock history lovers, but it's the pre-and-post portions of the book that really turn the pages.
Morris's childhood is fascinating. His dad was a reformed, ex-con motorcycle thug, but despite the odd drug bust, he mostly walked the straight and narrow after starting up a bait and tackle shop in Hermosa Beach, one his son admits he embezzled upwards of $60,000 from to feed his own dependencies. My Damage is lent pathos by the loving but complicated relationship between the two.
The Black Flag portion of the book is galvanizing, even if it paints the rest of the band as a bunch of ball-busters. Bassist Chuck Dukowski's all-day, everyday practice aesthetic is mind-bogglingly extreme, while guitarist Greg Ginn is referred to as a "dictator" of the band's direction. Lighter moments find them getting pelted with beer cans at their first performance, or Morris getting a "brutal case of carpet crabs" from the rolls of used carpet they blanketed their practice space with.
Morris also recalls the many ups and downs of follow-up project the Circle Jerks, including the band being accused of lifting riffs from Red Kross, Black Flag and the Angry Samoans for their first batch of songs. The period also includes a near-fatal van accident, the band's appearances in cult flicks Repo Man and The Decline of Western Civilization and, as the cover to 1985's Wonderful confirms, that time they all had really ugly mullets. Highs include shows where Flea filled in on bass, and the moment when Morris describes the group's totally phoned-in 1995 comeback album Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities as something for which each member "should be ripped a new asshole."
While autobiographies typically gives subjects a chance to self-reflect, Morris mostly paints himself as a nice guy here, but he certainly doesn't hold back from calling out others. On the business side of things, he blames one major label for screwing him over on a managing deal with L.A. act the Nymphs, and also recalls how his own Bug Lamp project was bizarrely used as a pawn to get Fugazi to sign with Chrysalis. Needless to say, it didn't work. Elsewhere, he chews out Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson for always prioritizing his time with Bad Religion, even if it eventually steered Morris towards founding his quite successful, still-running OFF! project.
Morris admits his memories from the '70s and '80s have been distorted by copious amounts of white powder and "adult beverages," meaning details from this period might be unreliable. To say the least, the self-described "drunken cokehead Tasmanian Devil" partied a lot, from riding waves on angel dust as a beach town teen to crowdsurfing up to the stage at a Replacements gig to guzzle down Paul Westerberg's bottle of Jack. There are uglier moments too, with a domestic abuse situation at a party leading him to enter rehab and reform. He's been sober since 1988.
Morris is a punk rock survivor, and one that's still relevant today. Despite all he's been through, including a later-in-life battle with diabetes that almost killed him in Norway, he notes that he's "psyched to be here and be able to carry on," a sentiment that echoes throughout My Damage. (Da Capo Press)