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.

"I had lost everything. I was living at my mother's house. I pulled my car over to the side of the freeway, got out and started hacking myself up with a razor. I went down a ditch and then crawled into a drainage pipe because I didn't want my family to find me. That's where all that hate and anger took me."

He survived the hacking and came to the sudden realization that "I couldn't live like that anymore." He credits therapy and meditation for helping him, although the first professional he turned to said the punker couldn't be helped because he didn't know right from wrong. Grisham believes what worked best for him was support from people who'd once been just like him.

Now he's returning the favor. He has a couple of lost souls living at the house he shares with his wife, daughter, baby and mother-in-law. He's also trying to track down everyone he's wronged in the past and apologize.

Much of Grisham's growing up and mellowing out can be attributed to parenthood.

"If there hadn't been some spiritual change—and I don't mean ramming religion down people's throats; that's bullshit —then I would be beating and raping my kids today," he says. "That's what happens. You come home all angry, your kids pop up, and you let your kids have it. The cool thing is I used to cower. I still feel like I'm going to get hit if a person raises a hand or tries to hug me. But my little girl, when I reach out, she never cowers to me. I've never hit her.

"My little girl never has to be scared. All she knows is love and respect. When she gets older, if she finds a guy who is abusive, she can say, 'Hey, guys don't treat me like that.' When I was growing up, I was a bully. I teach her to stand up for weaker people. I was teasing one of her friends, and she had to tell me, 'Dad, you're out of line.' So there's me having to apologize to a couple of fucking kids."

He's been able to rein in his anger in the grown-up world as well, recently going before the Huntington Beach City Council to complain about a proposal to move a trailer park onto the beach. "My first reaction was to go down there with paint bombs," he said. "But I went through the right channels."

One thing that hasn't changed with the mellower Jack Grisham—or Gentleman Jack Grisham, as he's known in his solo career—is his wild stage presence. LA Weekly reported that at a T.S.O.L. show at the Troubadour last month, Grisham exhorted the sweaty masses to climb up the towers in front of the stage and dive off them, which they did repeatedly.

"It's my jumping-on-the-bed theory," he explained. "When you were a kid jumping on the bed, your parents would come in and tell you to stop or you'd get hurt. So you'd keep going and going until you got hurt. You'd push the fun as far as you could go until you crossed that line between fun and injury. When I'm onstage, I feel I'm playing with my friends. Sometimes I might tell a few thousand people, 'Hey, let's all jump off the curtains.' And they'll say, 'Sounds good—let's do it!' I love seeing people get hurt at our shows because it means we're having as much fun as we can have."

Grisham is known for an angry stage demeanor, but—now and even during his darker days—he's actually found it's a place where he can exorcise his inner demons. "Onstage, I'm able to be a whole other guy. There may be pissed-off lyrics, but up there I just want to be loved. I might come off as pissed-off and angry, but the worst of it is off me."

But make no mistake: the anger he expresses in T.S.O.L. songs such as "Abolish Government/Silent Majority," "Code Blue" and "Silent Scream" isn't made-up.

"Some guys live normal, peaceful, loving, little-son lives," Grisham says. "Then they get onstage, their voices drop three octaves, and it's, 'Hail, Satan!' I wish I could have done that."

Which brings us to today's music scene, where Grisham does not find misguided anger; he finds ungenuine anger.

"A friend of mine—not me—used to have a joke about Rage Against the Machine. What my friend heard was someone in the band came from a really nice neighborhood. So my friend asked, 'What are they so pissed-off about? Did somebody's gardener fire up the mower at 6 a.m.?' My friend came from a place where there were no lawns, no mom, no dad, no school. We dropped out in elementary school. And I love Rage Against the Machine's music, but some of this stuff today is just fake."

Old-school punks, he says, came from the gutter. Today's punks seem to be playing a part.

"Just because you cut your hair and have a couple of tattoos doesn't mean you're pissed-off," Grisham says. "It's a lie, a lot of it."

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