Atiba Jefferson

Keith Morris: Punk Rock Treasure

It doesn’t matter how you know Keith Morris, because above all else, one thing is for sure: he is rock royalty, a musical menace, and a kindred spirit with vocals galore (before and after a bout of COVID-19).

One of the most legendary figures in punk is Keith Morris; one of the founding members of Black Flag, vocalist for bonafide supergroup punk band OFF!, and the frontman of Circle Jerks for over 40 years.  Known for his flailing dreads and thick round-rimmed glasses, his frenetic live performances, and his crassness, Keith is just as PUNK now as in punk’s infancy. The Circle Jerks are well into their tour with Negative Approach and 7 Seconds, performing rescheduled dates from earlier this year, including two sold out shows at Irving Plaza. The Aquarian’s Ray Romanski caught up with Keith to catch up with the legendary musician (and could barely contain his excitement).

Hey, Keith. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I’m honored beyond measure. 

Thank you. Thank you for your time.

How are you feeling?

I’m feeling pretty good. I’m at a hotel in Weehawken, New Jersey over a body of water and looking at NYC from my hotel room. Great neighborhood for food, tourism, and a lot of fun things.

I’m glad you’re feeling okay because you are such a figure in music history. You’re an American treasure. 

[Laughs] I don’t know if I’m going to agree with you on that. That’s a pretty big statement. I try to keep a low profile and not allow my ego to be inflated by rock writers who tell me all these different things.

I know you must be a little cynical, but I’m a punk and have been for a long time. Just speaking to you, I have goosebumps.

Ok, let’s get into it.

How does it feel to be back on tour after postponing the east coast dates from April?

Everybody in the band has had COVID. I watched everybody get it and watch them go through what they went through. I finally got it – I was the last one to get it. Unfortunately, we were about… I want to say a week-and-a-half into a tour that would have taken us through July. I got sick and we had to cancel 19 shows. That’s disastrous because there are so many people attached to this tour. All the guys in Negative Approach, 7 Seconds, all the guys working with us. I want to apologize to everybody including my bandmates and the crew. I read a lot of stuff in the Circle Jerks Facebook and a lot of people don’t understand the severity of COVID and how it can pull the rug out from things that are supposed to be happening. “They canceled these shows three times already,” and it’s like, well yeah. What are we supposed to do if somebody’s sick and has to be quarantined?

I tested positive in Burlington, Vermont. Ended up being quarantined for 10 days on the side of a hill in what resembles Santa’s alpine village or North Pole toy workshop… or maybe the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel? I prided myself on the fact that I was able to make it through a couple tours where there were people getting sick. We passed through Florida and everybody on our crew was sick; our sound man, our T-shirt gal, our driver, thee Joey C who is playing drums. Both him and Zander [Schloss] got delta – that’s the fatal one. I think I got Omnicron. I was coughing and hacking and phlegm- ing, going through toilet paper because I was blowing my nose to the point where I wanted to chop my nose off my face. It was all good after a while. I got to go home and rest. Now we’re making up the dates.

What is touring with 7 Seconds and Negative Approach like?

Negative Approach – we really love them, they’re great guys, they’re just fucking… brutal. They’re uncompromising. John Brannon gets up there every night and it’s like his objective to peel the flesh from everyone’s faces. And 7 Seconds all got sick immediately. I think the tour started in Salt Lake City? They’re great guys and everyone is all good now. Kevin Seconds was sick for a couple of days. I don’t know if I got sick from them or from passing through Canada, or from passing through Burlington. Maybe I got sick because I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Bernie Sanders. 

42 years of Group Sex and 40 of Wild in the Streets. Is that surreal at all?

It can be. I don’t know if it can get psychedelic at all or if it goes that deep. That’s a long time, and when we recorded these records, it wasn’t like we were sitting around with some mapped-out program that says, “Hey guys, in 40 years from now, we’re still gonna be a band, tearing it up and having a great time, and doing what we’re doing.” At that time, it was like, “Let’s do this. Have some fun and see where it takes us.” Never anything like, “Hey, Greg [Hetson]?” “Yes, Keith?” “How long do you think this will go on?” It wasn’t something we’d ever consider. Now, we’re doing it and we’re happy.

People are asking us, ‘Why now?’ Because we can still do it. People want to come see us and we’re doing really, really well; selling out just about every show and the majority of the people talking to us have nothing but great things to say about us, so we’re obviously doing something right.

As such a seminal figure in punk history, do you ever receive compliments from someone who leaves you starstruck?

When it comes to people who have told me how much the Circle Jerks mean to them, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. He pulled me aside one night at a bar and told me he and his brother would listen to our tapes while they skated. He also said, “We wouldn’t be doing this without you.” As far as non-punk people go, I get compliments from everyone outside the punk/hardcore genre. One of the greatest living sci-fi writers, Philip K. Dick, said his favorite band for a time was the Circle Jerks. This guy wrote Blade Runner!

I have been paid compliments by Joe Strummer. I was working at a bar during some downtime. He was in Los Angeles recording an album with The Pogues. They all happened to be in the bar, and it was Joe Strummer’s turn to buy a round for all the guys. He came up to the bar, he recognized me, and he said, “Keith, I would like to thank you for your body of work.” 

Holy shit. 

Yeah. “I really appreciate your body of work.” My jaw hit the floor. I didn’t even know what to say to him, he’s one of my heroes. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is one of my favorite records. 

I have that album behind me. Not to brag, but it’s a first UK press. During my college radio show, I would do The Weekly Clash Track and pick a deep cut that was calling out to me that week.

What’s your favorite song?

Probably “Rudie Can’t Fail.”

“Tommy Gun” is my favorite. All of the Clash people didn’t care for that record. The problem being is the producer was a guy who produced Blue Oyster Cult, who are one of my favorite record-producing rock bands. People thought it sounded slick. I liked the guitar sound. Listen to the drums on “Tommy Gun.” It’s like you’re being gunned down by a machine gun.

Speaking of your heroes, I just saw the MC5 in May. Brother Wayne’s still got it and he announced an album coming out later this year. Their first in 50 years. Are you still a fan of them?

I’m a huge fan of the MC5. I consider them one of the more important American rock bands. They sometimes get unfairly grouped in with Creedence, The Guess Who, Steppenwolf. but I really think Fred “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer are a very important guitar duo, up there with guys like Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton of the Alice Cooper band. I’m not familiar with the current lineup’s live footage, and I don’t know if I would consider this album a true MC5 album, because it’s just Wayne. But I still applaud him for playing the way he does at the age he’s at.

I read your autobiography. It’s hilarious. Is it true your decision to join a band was after seeing Thin Lizzy and Journey?

I had a friend that owned a record store. He says, “Hey, let’s go to a show at the Santa Monica Civic. Let’s go see Journey and Thin Lizzy.” Greg Ginn just happened to be there, the three of us went to the show, and after Thin Lizzy got through playing, Greg looks at me and says, “I’ve got a few songs I’ve written. Do you wanna hear my songs? Let’s start a band.” That’s the seeds of what started Black Flag.

Another big part of the book is when you’re talking about The Downfall of Western Civilization and Darby Crash’s death. Do you ever reflect on the night he saved your life?

Whenever I think about Darby Crash, I think of the scenarios he and I found ourselves in. Just hanging out with him in Hollywood; a drinking buddy. Partying on the beach outside of the Strand in Hermosa Beach. A couple guys in Black Flag were living in an abandoned beach house and we decided to have a party. Have some bands playing, stuff like that. Unless you had the doors open, you couldn’t tell if it was music or noise coming from inside the building. Darby had a friend who lived over in North Redondo, and she happened to be friends of ours. She showed up with Darby, and we ended up drinking beer on the beach, smoking cigarettes and telling jokes. I tell the story in my book about how we’re driving down the freeway, doing 65 or 70 mph, and I decide to fling the door open and hang out the window. Darby prevented me from being killed by yanking me by the belt loop into the car. I most certainly would have been hit by an oncoming car or something if not for that.

OFF! has had a busy year, too. Recently reissued catalog by Fat Possum records, a few festival dates, and a feature film on the way.

The first record came out as a compact disc and a series of 45s. Once that was sold, they weren’t going to print any more. So now it’s gonna be a 12’ slab of vinyl, which is good for the people who got it in the first place, or for the lazy people who don’t like having to stand up to flip. Lazy music listeners!

How do you all manage time between all your projects? You have OFF!, Greg has Punk Rock Karaoke, Joey plays with everyone, and Zander

Zander, too! He’s currently at a record store in New York doing a show and signing for his new album. We just get through by the skin of our teeth. The scheduling can be really rough at times, but we just figure out a way to manage all of it. I was sick, then started feeling better, and my other band, OFF!, started filming our movie. We have a movie in post-production right now. The songs on the soundtrack are from our new album from Fat Possum Records. It’s been about six years to get to this point. Dimitri [Coats], who is our guitarist and the film’s director, wrote the script, and is also one of the producers, and an actor in it. Him and I had moments where we were going to clobber each other, grab whatever piece of furniture we could and start swinging, but because we’re such good friends, we were able to work past it. I’m extremely proud of the movie. I haven’t seen it yet and probably won’t see what resembles a movie for another month to month-and-a-half. We’re pulling footage from the movie for music videos. It was grueling, but we’ve got some great people in this movie. David Yow from the Jesus Lizard, D.H. Peligro from the Dead Kennedys plays our drummer. Speaking of Darby Crash, we have Don Bolles, drummer from the Germs. He’s in it and his scene… is fucking… brilliant. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Was it your idea to cover Metallica for their massive boxset last year?

What had happened was our booking agent was contacted by Metallica’s people. “Metallica wants you to cover a song off of the Black Album.” I had only heard the hits, y’know “Enter Sandman.” We heard that all over the radio. That’s not the Metallica I want to hear. I want to hear, [singing] “fight fire with fire.” Dimitri came to me and said you have to listen to the album and see if there’s anything that catches your ear. I listened through four or five times. The only song that caught my ear was “Holier than Thou.” Our new bass player, Autry [Fulbright II], agreed that was the song. What was great about the scenario, this was the first song by the new lineup of OFF! that we recorded – this was a golden opportunity for us to hammer out the song, record it, and actually help us become a band.

Are there any plans for CJ following this tour?

We’re going to Australia, Japan, Europe… South America in 2023. When the Circle Jerks finish up, OFF! gets fired up. We have a U.S. tour. We’ve got a brief European tour. We’re actually going to show the OFF! movie at European film festivals – as many as possible. I don’t think we’ll get anywhere near Cannes, but take it from there. I’m not sure if it will run in theaters, or stream on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu. We don’t know… just playing it by ear.

Many of your songs – from Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and OFF! – are unfortunately still socially relevant. Songs like “Question Authority,” “Red Tape,” “Killing for Jesus,” and so on. What are your thoughts on that?

We find ourselves in situations – social, political, situations. We get pissed off, start lashing out. The answer to all of this, is to play it as lies. We just do it. We hope for the best, we hope people latch onto it, like it, tell their friends, and it starts spreading. Maybe we could predict the future, but we can’t predict the future, because here we are. Going backwards, reading tea leaves and the lines in the palms of our hands. Fortune tellers – I went to a fortune teller. The fortune teller told me, “You’re an idiot, stop doing it. Find something else to do.” And my response was, “I’m stupid. I’m having a great time. I’m having a lot of fun doing this. What else would I be doing?”

Keith, this has been an absolute treat to speak with you. 

I want to thank you for speaking with me. You’re trying to butter me up and that’s not necessary. As soon as we get off the phone, I’m going to urinate and deflate my head so I can fit through all the doors of this hotel.