Keith Morris’ new book is just as raw, fast and fucked up as one of his songs.
As the founding vocalist of Black Flag, co-founder of the Circle Jerks and now singer of SoCal quartet OFF!, Morris is one of the great screamers of hardcore punk. Some of his best songs are barely over a minute long, but they’re packed with vein-popping intensity.
Now, in My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, 60-year-old Morris rips through his own personal history of L.A. hardcore oblivion. The book, out next week on Da Capo Press, is as punk as a tell-all memoir gets. Morris fires shots at former bandmates like Greg Ginn of Black Flag and Greg Hetson of Circle Jerks. He name-checks punk legends and coke dealers alike. And he documents his journey from a hard-partying Hermosa Beach fuck-up to a clean and sober music industry warhorse in unflinching, occasionally hilarious detail.
“I’m extremely lucky that I’ve been through all the things that I’ve been through and [can] still be here,” Morris says, speaking by phone from his apartment in Los Feliz. “I’ve had some wacky experiences. I’ve had some completely brilliant experiences. I’ve had some really terrible experiences. Fortunately, I wasn’t in complete blackout mode.”
Morris — who will celebrate the release of My Damage at Skylight Books tonight — has never been one for musical decorum. The first of Black Flag's four singers, he launched the trailblazing hardcore band with Greg Ginn in 1976 and continued on until he quit and started Circle Jerks in 1979. On “Wasted,” the 51-second closing track off of Black Flag’s debut EP, Nervous Breakdown, the young Morris snaps like a rattlesnake as he paints a stark picture of his early years in Hermosa Beach: “I was a hippie/I was a burnout/I was a dropout/I was out of my head!”
Nearly 40 years later, it seems Morris hasn’t mellowed with age. His new memoir was co-written with Jim Ruland — a San Diego–based author and novelist — and it documents his life in a plain-spoken style. The droll wisecracks and unexpected detours almost make it feel as though Morris is sitting next to you on the couch, telling his story to you himself.
The book includes the requisite scenes of Morris palling around with legends like Flea and smoking crack with David Lee Roth. But the most powerful sections document his more personal moments. “With my face streaked in soot and ash, I looked like a commando crawling behind enemy lines,” he writes in one chapter, describing how he literally crawled on his hands and knees to a local liquor store after drinking himself into a stupor and knocking the smoldering contents of a barbecue all over himself.
Another highlight comes 50 pages later, when Morris conjures up a darkly comical account of a near-fatal van crash during a Circle Jerks tour: “I had pieces of the windshield embedded in my scalp, but nothing major,” he writes.
“Keith is a storyteller. If you’ve ever seen Keith perform, he tells stories in between songs, and sometimes the stories are longer than the songs,” says Ruland, who started working with Morris on the book two years ago. (Disclosure: I’ve worked with Ruland in the past and recently read a story at his literary reading series, Vermin on the Mount.)
“He’s naturally opinionated. He’s in your face,” Ruland adds. “He has things to say, and all that comes through in a very natural way.”
Morris, who these days also plays in the Black Flag reunion group Flag, says he’d kicked around the idea of writing a book for years. At one point he’d worked out plans to write one with the help of Brendan Mullen, a close friend who founded legendary, short-lived L.A. punk club the Masque in the late ’70s. Unfortunately, just as the project was kicking into gear, Mullen died of a stroke.
“When the dust settled, the first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Well, there goes my book,’” Morris recalls. “That was a very egotistical, selfish, self-centered place to be. A couple of hours later, I had my epiphany, and it dawned on me. … ‘Fuck the book! Who fucking cares about the book? You just lost one of your best friends!’”
Eventually a book proposal did come together after he was approached by Da Capo Press. The publishing company paired him up with Ruland, who'd previously co-written Giving the Finger: Risking It All to Fish the World's Deadliest Sea, a 2014 memoir by Capt. Scott Campbell Jr. of Deadliest Catch fame.
Morris, confident rocker that he is, was hesitant at first to work with a co-writer.
“I’m scratching my head and I’m going, ‘Do you think that I’m not capable of stringing words together to create a sentence? Do you think I can’t string a bunch of sentences together to create a paragraph? Do you not think that I could put 12 paragraphs together for a chapter in a book?’” he says.
But ultimately he was swayed, in no small part thanks to Ruland’s bona fides as a longtime contributor to punk zines Flipside and Razorcake. Morris sat down for dozens of hours of interviews with Ruland. They visited old haunts and L.A. punk landmarks. Ruland also did some sleuthing to clarify details and corroborate facts, and helped Morris carve his stories into a linear narrative.
In the book, Morris is frank about his frustrations with bandmates in his various bands and side projects, shedding light on how ego, money and competing interests fed into Circle Jerks' multiple breakups and reunions over the years. He also spits plenty of venom at the major-label music industry — in one nicely worded scene, he refers to every “schmoe and schmoette” in the biz lining up eagerly to talk to buzzing Danish rockers The Raveonettes after a show in the 2000s. At the time he was working as an “A&R boy” for Richard Branson's V2 Records, but he decided to duck out rather than partake in an A&R bidding war.
Still, Morris reserves his most punishing judgments for himself. He’s been sober for 28 years, and he says the self-awareness he's developed because of it meant that he was able and willing to revisit the lowest moments of his life.
Indeed, it's this clarity that makes My Damage such an illuminating read.
“The fact of the matter is that because I have so many years of sobriety under my belt, it’s actually easy to talk about these things,” he says. “You would think, ‘Well, how embarrassing! Aren’t you put off by that? Don’t you feel bad about that?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, I do.’ But at the same time, it’s like having a weight lifted off your chest. It’s kind of like going to a meeting and having to get up in front of a couple of dozen people and say, ‘Hey, I’m a fuck-up. I’m a royal fuck-up. Everybody here’s a fuck-up. We’re still alive, so we’ve gotta celebrate the fact that we’re still alive.’”