Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L.: Bedeviled
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.
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."
But you hop onto Google these days, and Wikipedia and a few forums will tell you it was really a punk-rock gang straight outta Huntington Beach and Long Beach.
"Vicious Circle wasn't really a gang; it was a crew. As for the leader, there wasn't really one—though if you looked at it from the outside, you'd blame it on me," Grisham says.
Referred to by insiders as "the Cult," Vicious Circle had armbands and its own official mode of transportation: Grisham's station wagon, which had been dubbed the "Cult Wagon."
He smiles as he recalls the vehicle: "It was yellow, and it had a giant middle finger on the roof that said, 'FUCK YOU, SKY PIGS,' so if a helicopter went by, they'd see a finger sticking up."
Describing the difference between Los Angeles punks and OC punks back then, he says, "There were a lot of punks in LA, but they were kinda . . . more arty, you know? Vicious Circle was like beach kids—bigger, meaner and in shape. There were a lot of guys running around beating up on punks, and there we were, big and willing to fight. And maybe it got too far with the robberies."
According to many books documenting California punk rock, at an average Vicious Circle show, there'd be 12 ambulances and 24 stretchers outside.
"Sometimes, yeah, it was pretty rough," he says. "They blew up my car, and people were after me all the time. It was just constant fights and craziness."
One night, Grisham tore up a guy's face—and maybe an eyeball or two—during a particularly violent show at the Fleetwood in Redondo Beach. He was wearing his signature cowboy boots with sharpened spurs.
Grisham went on the run—to Alaska—marking the end of Vicious Circle.
When he returned, Barnes, Roche and Emory asked him to join their band, the True Sounds of Liberty, or T.S.O.L. for short, named after a Christian band (the Sound of Liberty Band) the group had seen on some late-night evangelical program.
Grisham writes in An American Demon, "I sounded like I was from Long Beach via England," emulating the sounds and dramatic flourishes he loved from Adam and the Ants, the Damned, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
"Punk rock," Grisham writes, "was an angry voice for the revolution—but unlike the hippies of the '60s, punks were willing to use muscle to force change. Any change, good or bad."
Everything you've heard about T.S.O.L. is true: vandalism, grave robbing, ripping their equipment off from Long Beach churches (the back of 1981's self-titled EP thanks the church PA).
In "Code Blue," one of T.S.O.L.'s best-known tracks, Grisham's theatrical croon makes necrophilia sound cooler than wanting to be sedated.
Duane Peters, skateboarding's resident punk and front man of U.S. Bombs, says he thinks Grisham is one of the most important guys in the OC punk scene.
"[T.S.O.L.] had a great presence—they blew everyone away. Jack is one of the guys I truly admire. Just a really, really great front man—and there are so many bad ones!" Peters croaks in his signature raspy voice. "He can really captivate an audience and doesn't think twice about lighting a kid on fire and shit. He's great."
The band remain successful to this day—with a brief hiccup that can be called the Great Schism of T.S.O.L., when two different versions of the band were in existence, often playing in the same towns on the same night. After he left T.S.O.L. in 1983, Grisham went on to front other bands: Cathedral of Tears (Grisham's "mass-market, chicks-are-going-to-dig-this pop band"), the Joykiller, Tender Fury. The original T.S.O.L. lineup reunited in 1999, with the exception of the now-deceased Barnes.
* * *
In his book, Grisham writes that his "parents loved me the best they knew how." But the belt and a Hot Wheels track were the preferred modes of corporal punishment in his household growing up in the '60s in the Los Altos neighborhood of Long Beach.
Within the first 10 pages, Grisham lets readers in on how, as a young child, he made his father cry (by attempting to light the family poodle on fire), referring to himself as "a vicious raptor feathered in Snoopy pajamas and wrapped in a blanket." In the decades that followed, Grisham tried to drown a (hog-tied) neighborhood kid, ran away with a carny for a few weeks, and attempted to rob the local Surf and Sport, heading in and out of jail for these and other transgressions.
"It was will. I still have that issue," Grisham says. "I had a terrible relationship with my dad. I couldn't see what my dad did when he was younger."
Grisham, the second-youngest of five children, explains that his father was the type of guy who'd do anything to support his family, even if it meant flipping burgers at night after working for the Coast Guard in Long Beach Harbor all day.
Every morning, a young Grisham had to line up for "inspection" by his military father: "Jack Grisham reporting for inspection, sir!"
Grisham's father had 30 years in the military, including serving during World War II and the Korean War. Grisham says he was a constant hassle for his veteran father until he had a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 56.
Grisham went to see him at the naval hospital in San Diego. "He was lying in bed, looking weak, and he looks up at me and says, 'I love you.' And that was the second time he's ever said that to me in his life," Grisham says. "So I told him I'd go home and mow the lawn. He died the next morning."
Afterward, Grisham, 23 at the time, ended up taking his father's clothing and belongings, putting them in bags, and throwing them in the trash.
"I was looking at this man: a powerful man who'd inflicted pain on me countless times over. And he lay there, looking up at me, without defense, and he admitted he was weak. And I had nothing to say to him," Grisham recalls in An American Demon.
Things didn't get better later. "My dad had a heart attack at work, and my mom had no money, no way to live. The lawsuit was over the possibility of a job-related death," he explains.
His father's workplace retorted that it was all the stress his son, Jack, had put him through that caused the heart attack. Grisham's mother ended up settling out of court.
* * *
Grisham had always dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He recalls his first time "getting loaded" when he was in kindergarten, taking hits of marijuana in the back yard from his older brother's jade pipe shaped like a Native American's head.
While intoxicants were a constant presence, things didn't really start falling apart for Grisham until years later, in the early '80s.
When he was 25, he got his girlfriend Vickie (a pseudonym) pregnant—and while she was living at his mother's house, he started seeing another girl, Casey (also a pseudonym), who was 14 years old. (Grisham and Casey married in Mexico two years later.)
Vickie and Grisham had terrible arguments, and during one particularly bad one, Grisham kicked her in the stomach; she was almost nine months' pregnant.
Several failed suicide attempts, a total of maybe 15 arrests, driving backward down PCH from the hood of his car, an accidental stabbing and being arrested for an armed robbery he actually didn't commit (which resulted in his older sister dumping his sawed-off shotgun off the bridge in Huntington Harbor) also pockmarked this period.
"I never shot anything up. So that was my reasoning that I didn't have a problem," Grisham says, laughing in disbelief.
People began seeing him around, and instead of the usual awe he received, Grisham got a lot of "Do you know who that guy was?"
"The sad thing about it is the crazy behavior was cosigned by everybody," Grisham says. "Like, why the fuck didn't someone tell George Lucas that Jar Jar Binks was a bad idea? It's like, hey, that character is fucked. But no, everybody was busy kissing Lucas' ass, so here I am, drinking, going nuts, and yeah, people were getting pissed off, but they also said it was cool, getting drunk, getting into fights."
Grisham first started going straight in 1984, but the birth of his daughter, Anastasia, a few years later acted as a catalyst to cement his sobriety. He says he's been clean since Jan. 8, 1989.
"For me, when I got sober, it was like a tidal wave came, and I was swept along with it," he says. "I'm not really seeing what's happening, and it's dropped me off, and as the water recedes, I start to see things—just not right away. The water sucks back, and I'm 26 years old, living with my mother. It sucks back some more, and hey, you've got a daughter you're not seeing. It sucks back more, you owe $20,000 in child support. Sucks back more, you've got warrants out for your arrest. Sucks back more, you've got a father whose death you were blamed for. Sucks back more, you can't stand to be touched. Sucks back more, you've never been able to be intimate with anybody. The more it receded, the more I was able to see the damage and look at this behavior. It was like a coroner's blanket had been pulled off a frightening mess. I started waking up."
It was during his period of awakening that Grisham resolved to start helping people wherever he went, whenever he could—take, for example, T.S.O.L. stage manager Bobby Sepulveda.
In 1995, Grisham's then-band, the Joykiller, performed at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood. He pulled onstage a 19-year-old Sepuvelda—who was promptly punched by a bouncer, ripping open Sepulveda's eyelid.
The kid approached Grisham after the show: "You fucking owe me!"
Grisham gave Sepulveda—who had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as being a victim of physical and sexual abuse—his number, and soon after, Sepulveda departed on tour with the Joykiller, helping to sell T-shirts, but actually giving away most of the merch or exchanging it for drugs and booze. Grisham eventually helped Sepulveda get into sober-living homes and treatment centers.
"The thing with Jack was, I learned to be honest with him 100 percent. He didn't judge me. He'd share some of his experiences he never talked about before the book," Sepulveda says. "I feel more related to him than any family member I've ever had—I have more of a connection with that weirdo than my own father. [Punk rock] saved my life. If you're a fucked-up kid who's been raped and beaten his whole life, punk rock just kind of saves you. T.S.O.L. and the Damned were my two favorite bands ever. Those songs just lit me up inside."
Sepulveda is credited in the epilogue to An American Demon as the spark who finally taunted Grisham into writing the book he'd always talked about.
"Bobby comes up with these plans that's, like, 24-hour Laundromat/50-cent taco/dry punk-rock swap meet. Or laundromat/punk-rock massage. So I told him, 'Fuck you, if you just do one of them, I'd back you.' I'd be the Lieutenant Dan to his Forrest Gump," Grisham says with a laugh. "And that's when he said, 'What about you? You've been talking about writing a book for years, and you haven't done shit.' So we were on tour in 2005, and I came back, and by the first week, I'd written 20,000 words."
* * *
Community is a big thing for Grisham.
Sitting in an RV parked behind the main stage at Irvine's Punk Rock Picnic on April 9, he complains that the sense of community in the original punk-rock scene, which attracted him to the genre, has been sucked out of it. Grisham wears frayed, tan flip-flops, mid-calf-length purple board shorts and a royal-blue button-up. Shiny, rhinestoned, beige women's sunglasses top the outfit.
"They ruined something so cool. If you saw someone walking down the street with colored hair or wearing a Sex Pistols shirt, you'd pull over and ask what they were into. Instant friendship. 'What are you doing around here?' 'Hey, what are you into?' 'You wanna go to a show?' It was a real family," Grisham explains. "That's what attracted me. That sense of community. And it still does today and now."
It's hard to reconcile this new Jack Grisham with the menacing sociopath everyone knows he was. While the broad shoulders and towering stature (his exact height varies depending on how his back feels that day, he says) remain, Grisham has welcoming, sad, green eyes that stay intently focused on anybody he's talking with.
Throughout that conversation shared in that warm RV trailer that afternoon, it's obvious Grisham is well-read. He quotes Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; jokes he "ran into Lampwick"; references reading from the Koran, Deepak Chopra, Dickens and the Jefferson Bible; and even cites Luke 11:17.
A sense of community even played into Grisham's campaign for California governor (other names on the ticket? Arianna Huffington, Gary Coleman, Mary Carey and, yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger) during the recall election of 2003, running on a platform of health care—a real buzz issue only now, some six years later.
And it's community that really helped Grisham himself.
In the summer of 2009, Grisham's address was his gunmetal-gray Toyota Corolla, parked by the Dumpsters behind a Starbucks on PCH. He was homeless, bankrupt and without a job.
He had lost Georgia May, a clothing business he owned in San Juan Capistrano with his ex-wife, after the recession hit. He would take showers on the beach thanks to his state-beach pass.
One night, Grisham posted a status on Facebook saying he needed a job.
A friend, Elizabeth Shober, noticed the message and left a note: "Will you do whatever I say if I help?"
Grisham agreed ("What am I going to do? I live in a fucking car!"), and Shober suggested he undergo hypnosis training, in addition to neuro-linguistic programming—a somewhat controversial method of bringing together the conscious and your subconscious for a sense of self-awareness to alter mental and emotional behavior.
"I sat him down, and I told him he was wasting his time and talent," explains Shober, who sent Grisham to the Transform Destiny facility in Fountain Valley for training on her own dime. "It was time to step up and do something. Jack is an incredible speaker, he has this way of drawing people in and being able to communicate with people in a way they want to hear."
Grisham emerged from his 520 hours of training knowing not just more about himself, he says, but also about ways he could help and counsel others on addiction, fear and other topics. Shober became Grisham's manager, or, as she puts it, his business partner. He became a Personal Recovery Assistant, speaking to audiences small and large around the world on recovery and sobriety as often as 10 times per month.
But Grisham doesn't find much solace in the fact he has dedicated the past couple of decades to helping others.
"If you look at something horrible that happened, it stays horrible," he says. "Yeah, you can talk about kindness afterward that was shown. Reconstruction, reconciliation—but the horror is still horror. It just doesn't take away the horror from the past."
He's quick to clarify that the altruism he practices isn't out of guilt.
"It's more out of duty than it is out of guilt," Grisham explains. "It is more out of payback and duty than it was ever out of guilt. But it's also out of gratitude and realizing that I'm extremely lucky—people say, 'What do you mean? You drive a car with 200,000 miles on it, and you're broke' . . . but that shit doesn't really have anything to do with it.
"There was this guy my friend and I ruthlessly beat the living shit out of for no reason at all. We were just driving around, and we see this guy. I stomped on his head; we threw his stuff all over him. . . . What was funny at the time was actually really vicious. Once you get sober, all of a sudden, you start seeing all the damage you've done. It never leaves. You wake up in the morning, and you still think of this guy—30 years later. There's no way I can find out his name or what happened to him, so all I can do is when someone is trying to ask for help, I can stick out my hand and try to help him instead."
* * *
Grisham does find solace in his two daughters: Georgia, 11, and Anastasia, 23.
Anastasia actually attempted to stage an intervention on Grisham while he was working on his novel.
"She thought I'd lost it. I was eating rotten food because that was what was around, and I'd work 18 to 20 hours a day, just pounding away writing that stuff and really getting sick from it. I'm writing about beating up on people, and I've got to be like that again. I'm writing about drinking, and I haven't had alcohol in my mouth for 22 years, but I have to remember what it tastes like. And dealing with my father and what it felt like when he died and tried to hug me—what it smelled like, what his clothes were like; I could feel the creases in his shirt. And then, at the same time, go back to diving from the stage and kicking that guy's eye out . . . to remember what it felt like to have spurs run up someone's cheek again. Just a straight purge," Grisham says.
"It felt good afterward. It really did. I'd hate to use that cliché, but it was like a weight got lifted," Grisham explains. "It felt like I don't have to be him anymore."
T.S.O.L. bassist Mike Roche, 50, who now splits his time between Los Angeles and working in Las Vegas as a tattoo artist, says that the high caliber of the book isn't all that surprising.
"It would surprise me if Jack wrote a book that wasn't good," he says. "It wouldn't surprise me if he ended up with a movie deal or something. He's just that much better than everyone else."
Paul Roessler, 53, of early LA punk band the Screamers, has called An American Demon the "first true literature to come out of our pathetic little punk lives."
Roessler says he saw Grisham as the embodiment of the anarchist spirit. "I never really enjoyed the destructive nature of it, but I see whenever you're casting off old ways, there's going to be a certain element of it that's going to have to express itself violently and destructively."
He goes on to refer to Grisham as beautiful and fearless—"like a Viking, but much more beautiful.
"He expresses himself so incredibly verbally—I wasn't certain he'd be able to take those verbal skills and turn around and harness that, but it's not completely shocking if you've ever spent any time around him as a raconteur and storyteller. I kind of thought he'd end up with a talk show or something . . . except with no other people talking."
Grisham dedicated An American Demon to his girlfriend, Kate Kieve, a beautiful 25-year-old resident of Fountain Valley who is also in recovery. She worked with Grisham throughout the entire writing process, not just editing line by line, but also helping him with organization, content and transitions, scribbling notes such as "WTF?" in the margins in her favorite kind of red pen, which Grisham purchased for her.
Besides Grisham's occasional stubbornness ("Why can't I use a dash here?"), the ordeal was particularly difficult for her, as these real-life horror stories she was editing were the first she'd heard of most of them. The misogyny, the senseless violence, the pyromania . . . of her boyfriend.
But it all paid off when the manuscript returned from the publisher in nearly untouched form.
Grisham is already in the midst of his second book, a work of fiction with a plot and title so extraordinary he's not willing to share them yet.
These days, when he's not writing, playing music, giving recovery speeches, or driving three and a half hours to the next one, he's by the ocean or taking walks in the wetlands. He's an escapist when it comes to music and literature—it's sci-fi, fantasy and mellow soul for him—but he sees his own story as downright Dickensian.
"It's a fucking Southern California Christmas Carol. I really was an asshole that basically got a look at himself, woke up and said, 'No, man. I'm in the wrong business.' It doesn't mean I don't play in T.S.O.L.—because of T.S.O.L., I've had the chance to stick my hand out to a lot of people," he says. "Guys come out to the show and say, 'Hey, man, I'm having trouble; I'm hurting,' whatever. I freely give my number out; I hand it out onstage and say, 'Call me. Here's my number; call the house,' whatever.
"I'm Jack Grisham. Call me."
This article appeared in print as "The Devil In Mr. Grisham: In his new book, the infamous front man of OC punk legends T.S.O.L. describes how he exorcised An American Demon: Himself."
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