I Was Just an Asshole

Remembering the bad old days with Jack Grisham

photo by Jack GouldIt's the stuff of which punk legends are made. Jack Grisham—the tall, disturbingly dark and handsome vocalist in the OC old-school punk band T.S.O.L.—once brought a kid from the audience up onstage, tied him to a chair, and lit a pile of papers underneath him until the fan's clothes caught fire. In his later band, Tender Fury, Grisham threw a speaker at bass player Robbie Allen, injuring the sideman's back. And then there was the infamous incident in which Grisham punched the boss of T.S.O.L.'s first record company in the nose during a dispute over royalty payments.

"I just got off the phone with that guy," Grisham says of the record exec during an interview. "The thing about all that stuff is you've also got to go back and clean all that shit up. It was a big fucking mess. Record companies had to hire bouncers just so they could have meetings with me, to make sure I kept my hands to myself. None of it did me any fucking good. Old school means you live with your mom till you're 30, and you can't write a check. I destroyed myself."

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Grisham talks while whipping up breakfast for his 12-year-old daughter ("I'm a punk rock fry cook," he jokes). A previous interview had to be rescheduled because he snoozed through the appointment, the parental fallout from a week-old infant's erratic sleeping schedule.

This isn't the angry Jack Grisham of old. In the '80s, he spent several years trying to snuff out his personal demons with the three V's: vodka, Valium and violence.

"People come up and say, 'You look the same,'" the 38-year-old Grisham says. "Well, I feel different. My body's taken some punishment."

The early '80s version of T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) has been hailed as "the wildest, most popular and musically most diverse band in the original Orange County punk rock explosion" by no less than Times OC critic Mike Boehm. The Offspring's Dexter Holland has cited T.S.O.L. as an influence, and much of the credit for that has been laid at the feet of Grisham, whom Boehm once called a "mercurial front man. . . . Grisham was strapping, handsome, athletic, charming—a natural clown and rabble-rouser, a self-described troublemaker who got his teenage kicks from vandalism, petty theft and beating up people. He also was a literate songwriter steeped in romanticism and introspection as well as typical punk defiance."

Grisham appreciates his friend's kind words, but he also notes of the not-so-good-old days, "I just could be an asshole sometimes. We used to have a saying: 'You haven't played in a band with me if you haven't been punched out by me.' I was basically an asshole to anyone I came in contact with. My values were just anger, resentment, fear and jealousy. That was the way I lived my life. If you stood in my way, I attacked you. I didn't care about the music I was playing. I didn't care about people in my band. I was just an asshole."

He says his anger was based on fear and that he was mentally and physically abused as a child.

"That's what got me pissed-off," he says. "My parents had born to them an asshole with a high IQ. Their reaction was to beat me because they didn't know what else to do, and it just didn't work. I don't blame them now.

"When I got older, punk rock allowed that anger to come back the other way,"he continued. "The little kid they used to beat up was now a 6-foot-3, 200-pound skinhead. Whatever I'd got given to me, I'd give it right back."

A boss once told Grisham he belonged "in a jungle or in jail. I had turned into an animal."

His professional life suffered. He left T.S.O.L. in 1983. His brother-in-law, Joe Wood, took over as vocalist, and the band distanced itself from its punk roots and followed a heavy-metal path. Along the way, original drummer Todd Barnes departed—never to return. Founding members Ron Emory and Mike Roche left in successive years because of heroin addictions. Grisham achieved critical success with his later bands Tender Fury and the Joykiller, and as a soloist, but never again found the all-around acclaim that accompanied the early T.S.O.L.

Grisham, Emory, Roche and former Down by Law drummer Danny Westman now hope to recapture some of that old glory. They're working on a new T.S.O.L. album and plan to tour in February, an extension of their string of reunion shows from this past summer.

None of this would have been possible, Grisham says, had he not experienced a "spiritual change" 11 years ago—which happens to be the same length of time he's been sober.

"I wasn't allowed to see my daughter," he says of the events leading to his metamorphosis. "The police were constantly at my house. It was just a bunch of crap. And I had thought I was doing okay because I'd never gotten caught for bad stuff. I'd never gotten a 502 [drunken-driving arrest]. I used to drive better drunk than sober. I never got to prison, but I was just lucky that I never got caught. I attacked people, kidnapped people, drove around with a sawed-off shotgun in my car; if I ever got caught for everything I did, I'd never have gotten out. The only thing I didn't do was kill somebody, but it could have happened at any one of those shows. One fucking PA system thrown on a kid, and that's it: he's dead.

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