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06 Apr 2015

The Warrior of Punk: Black Flag/Circle Jerks Vet Keith Morris Is as Busy as Ever With Off!, Playing at Coachella

Written by 
Off! Off! Steve Appleford

If Iggy Pop is the Godfather of Punk, Keith Morris the Warrior of Punk.

The former Black Flag and Circle Jerks frontman is almost 60 years old, but he’s not slowing down: Since 2010, he’s been fronting his new band, Off!

Off! will be playing at Coachella on Sunday, April 12 and 19.

Black Flag was one of the first Los Angeles punk bands to make an infamous name for itself. The band recorded its debut EP, Nervous Breakdown, in 1978; it contained what would become four of Black Flag’s most-well-known songs: “Nervous Breakdown,” “Fix Me,” “I’ve Had It” and “Wasted.”

However, Morris left Black Flag in 1979 due to disputes with band mate Greg Ginn—and a severe cocaine addiction. Morris soon formed the Circle Jerks with Greg Hetson (who later went on to join Bad Religion). Fun fact: The Circle Jerks also included Zander Schloss, half of semi-local band Sean and Zander. The band was active up until 1990, when it became more of a part-time group. During a recent phone interview, Morris discussed his days with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.

“I was in Black Flag for three years, which isn’t really that short of a time compared to Ron Reyes, who was in the band for six months. Dez Cadena was there for a while; Henry Rollins was there for a while—but Greg Ginn was there the longest.”

Most of the early punk groups that formed in New York City and Los Angeles never saw any career potential in what they were doing.

“My whole strategy was a non-strategy and just being kind of a straggler,” Morris said. “I had no set mentality, because there were no rules, and there was no manager standing over us telling us to line our bank accounts, sell lots of records, lots of CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks, T-shirts or any of that fun stuff. There were no rules. That was my saving grace in that. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a follower, but there was a wide-open road, a map and a van. You would get in the van and go wherever the van would go and play wherever the van would stop, and all of that fun stuff.”

Where did the van stop? Morris has stories … lots of them.

“You’re pulling into Mobile, Ala., and you’re playing at Nick’s Fun House, dealing with all of the rednecks,” he said. “The Circle Jerks did the same thing Black Flag did: We played locally and everywhere we could play. We played a birthday party in Malibu on a cliff overlooking the ocean in front of a bunch of rich Jewish parents, and they didn’t like what we were up to. We got invited to play the all-girl Catholic school in Flintridge, where the Los Angeles county sheriff showed up in full force with two or three helicopters and the billy clubs. We had our moments.”

The bands also played shows for all-ages crowds at Veterans of Foreign Wars halls. “We’ve actually played places like that where the kids were breaking the showcase in the entrance room and pulling the Civil War bayonets and swords out of the display and actually swashbuckling. They probably didn’t realize the history—they weren’t fighting any kind of civil war, and they weren’t fighting North versus South. They were all being like a bunch of pirates. They were pirates, and it was Black Flag anarchy.”

Morris said that while he’s almost 60, the past several years have been among his most active, while Off! has released three records and toured the world. Morris also took part in a Black Flag reunion called FLAG in 2013.

“I’ve never been as busy as I have been in the last four years,” he said. “All of the other guys have kids, wives, families, relatives, rent and health insurance, and all of those responsibilities, so we don’t get to go out for three months at a time—maybe four weeks at a time.”

Morris said he’s wowed by today’s punk-rock DIY network.

“It exists now more than it ever has,” he said. “Granted, we have had bands that have actually tapped out and mapped out and charted out routes for bands when they go out on tour. But there’s always that place where you pull into town, and the bartender is going to have hemorrhoids, and he’s not going to want to have all the all-ages kids come into his bar.”

Morris recently signed a book deal that he described as “decent” and is putting the finishing touches on an autobiography. One issue that he will probably discuss is his health: In the late ’90s, friends organized concerts to help him with his medical bills. He also became ill while touring in Europe with Off!—and nearly died.

“I’m a diabetic, and I’m approaching 60 years old,” he said. “I love Southern California weather, but I wish that when it was cold, it would be cold for two weeks so we could get acclimated to that. … For me, having been a cocaine addict, I’ve fried all the fibers of the interior of my nose. My sinus passages are completely ruined. Anytime there’s a drastic shift in the weather, I get clogged up; I get post-nasal drip, and wake up with a headache, sort throat and a stomach ache. My deal is that I find myself in this mentality that I’m thinking I’m competing with these younger guys, and I don’t want to get out and jog, so I have to mentally get myself up to the fact that I’ve got to get up there and act like a 19-year-old kid with a cherry bomb that’s been lodged up my rectum.”

Morris said Off! is happy to be playing at Coachella.

“There are a bunch of other bands that are playing, and we hear all the complaints (from fans): ‘I’m looking at the roster, and they want $8,000 for a weekend, and there are two bands that I like, and I hate all the rest of this stuff. And why are you playing with Drake? He’s no good.’ … The bottom line is if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go to it, so shut up and move along!

“This will be our second time at Coachella, and the reason we’re playing Coachella is because the first time we played, we played in a big tent in front of about 8,000 girls trying to find some shade. If you’re in a band, and you get to play in front of 5,000 women, aren’t you going to take that opportunity?”

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