The Circle Jerking Goes On
Los Angeles. Late 1970s. Jimmy Carter's presidency is in smoke and flames. Youth violence in America is at its all-time high. The most obvious failures of free love are right around the corner. Art is looking for traction in the debris of California country, disco and what Carter himself calls "malaise."
It is the worst of times; it is the worst of times.
And then this: Keith Morris helps form Black Flag (with Greg Ginn); splits soon after recording their first EP, Nervous Breakdown; and births in 1980 (with ex-Red Kross guitarist Greg Hetson) the Circle Jerks. Suddenly, everybody's a punk: button-down frat boys at USC, Young Republicans at Cal State Fullerton, bored high school kids from the Valley, Latinos from the barrios of San Diego. Marines from Camp Pendleton show up at Fear shows in Hollywood ready to pound the fuck out of Orange County kids sporting ceiling-scraping mohawks. The Circle Jerks' first album, 1980's Group Sex, sets them alongside X, Fear, the Germs and the Henry Rollins-led Black Flag in the going-off West Coast punk movement captured on film by Penelope Spheeris in The Decline of Western Civilization. The movement spins out anger, stupidity, beauty, curiosities, business opportunities, mutually exclusive politics and—symbolically, notably—the corpse of Darby Crash.
The Jerks record albums throughout the '80s; split up in the early 1990s; re-form in 1995 on the lower, safer crest of punk's second coming to record Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities (special bonus: guest appearance by former teen queen Debbie Gibson); and fall apart almost immediately during the reunion tour that follows.
Since then, Morris has formed the genius Midget Hand Job and suffered a catalog of health problems. I found him working in a vintage-clothing store on Melrose, where he told me the Circle Jerks are back again with originals Morris and Hetson, as well as later member Zander Schloss and ex-Geraldine Fibbers drummer Kevin Fitzgerald. Their reunion tour blows through the House of Blues on Friday.
OC Weekly:Some people consider you the godfather of West Coast punk.Keith Morris: What about Darby? You know there are people before us, and the godfather, godschmather, godmother, godbrother, -sister, -uncle, -aunt, -dog, -cat, apples, oranges—I really don't pay attention to the majority of that stuff. We just do what we do, and people can say whatever they want to say about it, and I hope they're saying nice, friendly, beautiful polite things. Like, "Gee, those guys are swell! I'm taking my parents to see them!" Why are the Circle Jerks back now?
Oh, it's like we never left. We're like that sore you had on your penis that went away, but if you ate the wrong foods or you started stressing out, it came back glowing and ready to go off like a volcano. We're kind of like the girl that stalks you—you know, the one you broke up with, like, three years ago, and all of a sudden, she's back—only we're not wielding knives or guns. We don't want to ram our vehicle through your porch and into your living room; we just want to come to your town and PARTY!
Are you guys just dinosaurs trying to roam the earth again?
Basically, we want to get out there and rock out as hard as we can and then run backstage to the oxygen tank. Yes, we're going to play for 15 minutes, and we're going to take a half-hour break because we need some Viagra, hair transplants—and yes, I need to get hooked up to the IV because of my glucose. I mean, yeah, we're going to come out in our walkers and our wheelchairs, come out on crutches.
Are your medical bills the only reasons you're getting back together?
No, we got back together for two reasons. One of the guys in the band doesn't want to be a deadbeat dad; his daughter lives in Connecticut, and he lives in Los Angeles. Now it's time for you to do the math: you want to see your daughter one weekend a month, so you take 12 months and multiply that by the cheapest roundtrip fare from LA to Connecticut, and that's a big chunk of dough. Also, we were asked to play some dates on the Warped Tour, and we went, "Wow, that could be great!" We're a bunch of old guys, and to get up and play for a half an hour? We could do that—no sweat, no problem. It would be great for us. It would be like an everyday workout, like going to the gym. But the negotiations sort of fell through. Our booking agent said, "Look, you know they don't really want to pay you any money. They don't want to pay you what you're worth. You're worth much more than they're offering. So why don't you just wait until the Warped Tour's over and go out and do your own tour?"
There were some problems at your first reunion gig at the Key Club.
Here's the really hilarious thing—I guess this would either be the punch line or the end of the fable or whatever: the guy who got into the fight [at the Key Club] was causing trouble on the floor, but nobody really cared—you know, everybody was having such a good time that it didn't even matter. But this guy was apparently looking for trouble, and he eventually ended up getting the trouble he was looking for because members of the Suicidals gang bum-rushed the door, dragged him outside and stabbed him. Greg [Hetson] ran into him at a club somewhere in Hollywood, and the guy had two big knots on his forehead, and he was just proud of the whole scenario—like, "Look at me! I got stabbed in the back! I've got a three-inch wound in my back!" They, like, stapled his back together. Greg was telling me the guy was about a dozen ants short of a picnic.
So you would say that incident was atypical of your shows?
That's not typical, and that's not what we're about. You know, we sing songs, and some of the songs contain violent lyrics, but we're just making a statement about things we've seen and trying to put a sarcastic spin on it. I certainly hope a lot of people don't think we're a bunch of conservative, Republican right-wing yo-yos. We've made some statements in the past, and I hope that we've lived those down.
Speaking of which: Why did you endorse Ronald Reagan back in the day?
Um, yes: we're human beings, and we're allowed to make a few mistakes because human beings are known to do that occasionally. And that was a big mistake.
A mistake or a joke?
Well, it turned out to be a joke, but at the time, there were three of us who supported Ronald Reagan and one of us who supported Jimmy Carter, and you know Reagan managed to just fuck things up royally. But you have to learn from your mistakes. That's what this whole thing we're going through is all about—so that in our next lifetime, we don't vote for idiots like Reagan. We don't vote for nitwit-fucking, coke-snorting, beer-guzzling, boozehound, frat-boy Bush types.
Isn't it possible that Reagan's presidency actually helped you guys?
Well, a thing about politics and politicians is that they are really easy targets; it really is easy to point your finger. You know, a lot of people like to complain, but if you look at our voting statistics, the number of people who turn out gets smaller and smaller. I'm really willing to bet that the majority of the people don't care.
Are they lazy?
Yeah, I keep hearing about the revolution: "The revolution is coming," "There's going to be a revolt," "The people are going to overthrow the powers that be." My response to that is, I don't think so—Home Shopping Network is on. I think more people need to get out and vote. I think it has to start somewhere. You have to be a good person, a responsible person. I consider myself a fairly responsible person—you know, I keep my car tuned and recycle all my plastic.
Circle Jerks perform with U.S. Bombs at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $15. All ages.
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