Everyone who has been within 10 feet of Jack Grisham has a story. But none is more horrifying or scathing than the true tales the T.S.O.L. frontman tells about himself. Seemingly filter-free spewings — on Facebook live chats and in his page-turner of a memoir, 2011’s An American Demon, deal with arson, statutory rape, robbery, beatings from his parents, his own homelessness … and attempted murder (he threw a hog-tied “friend” into a swimming pool).
Yet, circa 2018, Grisham presents as a charming, multitalented motherfucker, self-aware to the nth degree. He’s the auteur — along with T.S.O.L. O.G. members Ron Emory (guitar) and Mike Roche (bass), plus pianist Greg Kuehn and drummer Antonio Val Hernandez — of the fabulous 2017 T.S.O.L. record, The Trigger Complex.
Grisham accurately describes the album as having “wonderful melodies; it’s tight, cohesive, it sounds like late-’70s Gen X, Stranglers, without sounding dated or forced.” He has penned another acclaimed tome, A Principle of Recovery: An Unconventional Journey Through the 12 Steps, and has become an insightful photographer.
Sober since 1989 and now 56, Grisham’s a far cry from his early-’80s self when, as a dress-wearing surfer, a makeup-wearing goth-punk and a teen criminal, he was a legend in his own mind and everyone else’s — from cops to punks in both his native Long Beach and further north.
Of his youthful more-than-foibles, he says, “Let’s call that unenlightened behavior. A tiger is a tiger. You invite me into the house. You invite a tiger, then you’re angry because I shit on the furniture and ripped up the carpet? You’ve got to know what I am: I’m a tiger who masquerades as civilized. I have enough awareness to know exactly what I am, which is an egotistical, animalistic, fucking aggressive angry white male,” he says emphatically. “People think that enlightenment means you’re somehow going to be holy; no, you realize you’re a fucking asshole.”
Grisham is standing in a Fresno doorway in a green track suit that a waitress had just referred to as his “onesie.” It’s his daily daytime-on-the-road outfit, and he’s a couple days in to T.S.O.L.’s West Coast tour, where they’re playing their first self-titled EP (five songs; 7½ minutes) in its entirety, among other early and late favorites. Diving headfirst into a nearly stream-of-consciousness conversation, the frontman recounts a recent story where his mom, despite much evidence to the contrary, assures her son that she sees him as an “innocent victim.”
He emits a raucous laugh. “It’s a wonder I’m not Anthony Perkins–ing out,” he says, referencing Psycho. “Serial killer in the making with no actual kills. White. Intelligent. Domineering mother. The Ted Bundy charm. I have it all!”
He seemingly does. Cult leader rather than serial killer?
“I can’t, because I’m an anarchist,” he says. “I would be a fucking excellent anarchist or storefront preacher. However, I don’t think any man should be in charge of any other man. The trouble is, you can’t really step away from ingrained values.”
In fact, that “being in charge” thing caused him to walk away from T.S.O.L. as their star was rising on the strength of a couple of EPs and records put out between 1981 and 1983 — and incendiary live shows. So hot, in fact, that when T.S.O.L played a 1983 gig at SIR Studios on Sunset Boulevard, the night culminated in a riot.
“It really screwed with me,” Grisham says. As it became clear police wanted to break up the gig, Grisham told the crowd, “If we all sit down, they can’t take us out.’ Then 2,600 people just sat down on the floor. It was just like saying, ‘Hey, do you want a cup of water?’ And they just said, ‘Yes.’ There was something in that to me that was terrifying. Really uncomfortable. I didn’t like the feeling of power. I think it’s irresponsible. It takes a degree of responsibility that I knew I did not have.”
What happened next was unforeseen: T.S.O.L. got a new singer, made a couple records that launched the band onto the Billboard charts (1987’s Hit and Run) and radio, and the new version of the band became associated with the “hair-metal” onslaught. They enjoyed success that the original version of the band did not. The singer? Grisham’s brother-in-law, Joe Wood. Those must have been some uncomfortable holiday dinners.
“Nah, I didn’t give a fuck. I didn’t care,” Grisham claims. “The only time I gave a shit is later, when we got back together (with 2001’s Disappear). Because they destroyed that name. They ran the name T.S.O.L. into the fucking ground. The thing that bummed me out was I got blamed for it a lot of times. I’d be out playing with my band The Joykiller, and people would say, ‘Oh, these guys used to be a fucking rock metal band, and now they’re this.’ People still say that about T.S.O.L. But it wasn’t the same band whatsoever. Look at the last T.S.O.L. record that Todd [Barnes, drummer who died in 1999] and Greg [Kuehn] and I were part of, Beneath the Shadows. It was really inventive, and changing and trying shit. It went from that to rehashed old songs, and songs that we would have never, ever have allowed on a T.S.O.L. record in our time.”
Or, as the L.A. Times put it in 1988: “T.S.O.L.’s 1987 album, Hit and Run, served final notice that the band no longer was playing punk rock. It was a polished, accessible record that consisted mostly of the sort of mainstream, melodic heavy rock that has brought big-time success to bands such as Guns N’ Roses and the resurgent Aerosmith.”
Grisham continues: “Of course — my opinion — it went from challenging to catering. Which I have always had a problem with. Same name, but the ideals behind the band had completely shifted. They were into that Hollywood rock-star thing, which, in my opinion, was sickening. It went from being socially conscious to being fucking conscious of the conch belt on your pants! Not that I’m against a fucked outfit; because I’m a big fan of fucked outfits,” he guffaws, his statement backed by numerous photos, including a Burberry “working man’s” head scarf debuted during an online chat.
It can be difficult to reconcile the lovable lunatic who is “Uncle Jack” with the evil delinquent he was, encouraging a “gang bang” on a woman who was clearly very much under the influence. Or his 14-year-old-girlfriend (when he was 25), whom he married in Mexico when she was 16. Have #MeToo and #TimesUp caught up to him?
“I did it,” he says. “Look. I deserve whatever flack I get, I deserve it. I take responsibility for it. The problem is, I have found, that I’m the only one from that whole genre of people who is even willing to stand up and say, ‘LOOK, these are not the moves of a hero, these are the moves of a fucking vicious, misogynist fucking prick. Who used and hurt people.’ And I admit it.”
Within the sober community, amends are an important step.
“I made amends as much as I could,” he says. (His then-teenage wife, following their divorce, died some years later due to drugs.) “Some of the best amends I made were the amends where I was told ‘no thank you,’” he says. “The reason I found that to be the best is that lets me live with the realization that some cuts are deep. And you have to also accept that. It’s great when I want to get right with the universe, and ‘I don’t want to upset people,’ but how about having that feeling and they say, ‘I don’t care. This hurt me.’ Even in making amends,” he acknowledges, “you’re doing it for some self-gratification.”
Plus, he adds, he was not only the predator, he was prey.
“Early Los Angeles [club scene], we’re talking drug abuse. Predators. The chicken hawks. The guys who I will not name who preyed on young punk boys. And don’t think I wasn’t part of that fucking line. Getting preyed on by old Hollywood art punks. Here comes some cute, naive young surfer boy. My friends were getting preyed on. This is the behavior that was prevalent.”
Thirty-five years after his heyday of self- and other destructiveness, Grisham, a “Christian-based atheist,” says, “I’m really solid on keeping myself in check. When somebody’s in trouble, I reach out and help them, like we’re supposed to. It’s my duty as a human, to be of service and to be helpful.”
It’s not lip service. He’s a charismatic, in-demand speaker, active in the recovery community and on a one-on-one basis. Energy once channeled into devastation now is focused on the needs of others.
“I’m an entertainer — not necessarily outstanding in any skill other than sharing my adventures. If there is no receptacle, what good is there to pour?” he says about his role as storyteller, on- and offstage. Does he connect with his crowd at T.S.O.L. gigs?
“I don’t know. They say I am. Intellectually I know my children love me, but I can’t feel it,” he confesses. “I judge all behavior by actions.”
Of his own past actions, Grisham knows that his innate anger and aggression is “fear-based,” and while decades of work find the American Demon somewhat tamer, he says, “At times, when fear comes over me, I slip back into that behavior. But not nearly as much as used to be. Maybe throw me under the label of a ‘hooker with a heart of gold.’ It doesn’t mean I’m not putting out,” he says with an uproarious laugh.
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After numerous entertaining, eloquent asides — on topics including Gore Vidal, social anxiety, the Koran, Sammy Hagar, his 2003 run for California governor, The Sweet and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius — Grisham stops. “I’m going to tighten it up, because this sounds like I’m a maniac, and I’m not completely a maniac.”
What percentage maniac is he?
“Well, this is what I tell people. You can take a totaled car, and you put it into the shop, and they can straighten it out and clean it up and paint it. But when you drive it out of the shop, it goes down the street cockeyed. So I just roll cockeyed,” he says. “That’s all.”