By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
Ask anyone to describe legendary West Coast punk outfit T.S.O.L., and along with tales of larceny and a fast, "dark punk" sound with chorused-out guitars, they'll tell you those guys were huge: Drummer Todd Barnes was the shortest at 6 feet even; guitarist Ron Emory is 6-foot-2, and bassist Mike Roche towers at 6-foot-4. Singer Jack Grisham stands 6-foot-3.
Back then, T.S.O.L. caught a lot of flak for being too good-looking for a punk band. As the front man says now, he much preferred being a fit surfer/skater and "pulling prom queens."
Probably the best demonstration of what Grisham can do onstage happened on Jan. 8, 1983. At SIR Studios on LA's Sunset Boulevard, T.S.O.L. were headlining a show; fellow OC punks Social Distortion and Hawthorne's Redd Kross were also on the bill.
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The riot squad was outside, as per usual with punk shows back then, and they weren't happy.
But Grisham wanted to make them work for it. And so, during his band's set, instead of ordering the crowd to throw bottles and engage in general chaos (as he normally would have), he told everyone to simply sit down. That way, he thought, the police would have to take the time to drag kids out of the place one by one.
"And it was, like, on key, 2,500 punks dropped to the floor," Grisham says. "That's a lot of power. There are guys in politics that'd love that kind of power, but I didn't dig it. After that, people kept screaming, 'Jack, tell us what to do!' There was a backlash. 'Jack was God.' And 'Jack was my hero.' And I didn't want anything to do with it."
Of course, the peaceful sit-in idea didn't work for long: With Grisham's battle cry—"Let's get 'em!"—the crowd ended up surging into the street, and then the bottle throwing and bodily injury started.
Just a few days after he'd incited what came to be known as the "Sunset Riots," Jack Grisham quit T.S.O.L.
What followed was a twisted path of drugs, violence, plenty of gratuitous sex (once with an 80-year-old woman), alcohol and a spiritual awakening. At the end of it all? A damn good book.
* * *
It was what Jerry Roach, legendary owner of the also-legendary Costa Mesa punk venue the Cuckoo's Nest, called the attribute required to be a leader—and Grisham has it.
Though the two didn't like each other at first—"I was the authority figure, and he was the punker," Roach explains. "We had our roles to play"—he says Grisham had charisma to burn.
"Jack is a punk-rock Elvis . . . but he wasn't that great of a singer," Roach says with a small hint of a laugh. "Can Tom Waits sing pretty, or Bob Dylan? You don't have to be a good singer. You have to sell it—and they'll follow [Grisham] anywhere. He's a force even today."
Vandals bass player Joe Escalante calls Grisham the "closest thing you could get to a cult leader."
In early 1978, a friend of Grisham's returned from a stay with Adam Ant in England—a trip expensed by one of Grisham's many grifted credit cards at the time—and he brought back a tip: Grisham had to start painting his face white for shows. Grisham complied, and soon after, so did his followers.
It got to the point where Roach put up a sign inside the Cuckoo's Nest banning all "white faces."
With a reputation like that, it's not too surprising that Grisham, now 49 and residing in Huntington Beach, is now an author.
But what is surprising is the kind of book he has written—not a simple, self-indulgent aging-punker memoir, but a melded work of fiction and nonfiction driven by the classic struggle of the hero versus the anti-hero, of good versus bad, of hope versus the dark fucking bottom of the barrel of debauchery. In An American Demon, Grisham lays out the story of his life as a brutal tale told from the perspective of a demon—himself—and includes his transformation into humanity.
"I'd never tried to write before," he says, "other than a little poetry. And, you know, how many words does it take to say, 'Fuck the government; give us free cheese?' What is that? Seven words? Give. Us. Free. Cheese," he says, ticking them off on his fingers.
After a walk in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, he had a different idea.
"It was supposed to be 'Gimme stories of violence, T.S.O.L., Orange County.' That's what the publisher wanted. I actually wrote a whole book about it and threw it out," Grisham explains. "I've never done what I've been told to do."
* * *
In 1979, Vicious Circle didn't seem like a gang. The name of a teenage Grisham's short-lived punk band, the Vicious Circle title was applied to anybody who hung out with these guys—Grisham and drummer Barnes, guitarist Steve Houston and bassist Laddy Terrell.
"Our friends were just as fucked-up as we were, so we had a whole bunch of crazy fuckers running around, and if you were in the area, and you liked punk rock, well, then you'd better like a band like ours that was surrounded by a bunch of crazy mean motherfuckers," Grisham writes in An American Demon. "Whatever the logic, the Vicious Circle was a maniac attractor."