T.S.O.L. Frontman Jack Grisham Deals with Both Sides of the Camera

John Gilhooley

Jack Grisham is a 58-year-old Huntington Beach resident who happens to be the vocalist of T.S.O.L., which formed in Long Beach in 1978 and became one of the original purveyors of the early ’80s OC punk rock movement. The band still performs and recently played a string of local dates.

T.S.O.L. (for True Sounds of Liberty) has had a tumultuous history that has included tons of drama, violence and notoriety, especially in the early days. The band is now revered as a leading force in the deathrock/hardcore punk sound that has left a longstanding legacy, and next year T.S.O.L. celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Grisham also helped form Vicious Circle, Tender Fury, Cathedral of Tears and also played with the Manic Low. The famous anarchist ran for governor of California in 2003 and has written multiple books, including An American Demon: A Memoir (2011) and, in reference to his three decades of sobriety, A Principle for Recovery: An Unconventional Journey Through the Twelve Steps (2015).

He has also been shooting photography at a professional level for several years and found himself on the other side of the lens for a documentary someone else made about his pictures. Grisham recently paused just long enough to explain his numerous creative ventures and more to OC Weekly (for whom he used to write a column).

OC Weekly: How did you get into photography?

Jack Grisham: Well, I started when I was a kid. I used to write stories, and I had a little Kodak then a Polaroid and then I would pretend I was in a band and make up stories and take these pictures. And now, I still do the same shit; I pretend I’m in a band and shoot photos of people.

I did stop for a while and was dormant, but I got back into it around 2012. Of course, with Facebook and social media, smartphones and the internet, I’m taking pictures all the time with my phone and posting stuff.

Then a while back, I got this email from a friend of mine who is a professional photographer, and he told me to buy a camera, so I did and started shooting, but I had no clue what I was doing at first. The first portrait I ever took of a guy is totally flat; there is no depth to it, the lighting is all in his face. I didn’t know what was going on; I just started shooting and figured it out, then another buddy of mine, John Gilhooley from the OC Weekly, mentored me and taught me the basics and about lighting.

You mentioned your photo shoots of people form a social connection?

Yes, I’ve always had trouble connecting with people. I have social anxiety. I hate to go out. But I do because I have to. What I find is that when I pick up the lens, having the camera between me and someone else bridges the gap and it makes a connection where I can really talk to someone and feel comfortable about it and actually listen to them as well.

I started noticing this connection with people, and photographers were telling me I was connecting with the subject, meaning I got this look in the eyes and was able to pull emotions out of these people others can’t get. I had photographer friends look at my shots and tell me that I was displaying these peoples’ emotions, not just taking a picture. There is very minimal editing, it’s basically taking it straight out of the camera, because I really don’t know how to use Photoshop well.

Tell more about how this connection developed?

OK, so I started taking pictures of what other people might call people’s flaws, but I didn’t see them as flaws; I saw them as part of that person. Then people started getting ahold of me to shoot them like older women, specifically to see how they really looked, like they wanted to be themselves.

I also started shooting a lot of people with autism, and young people who were transitioning. What I find is that people don’t see me as frightening or as a threat who will hurt them. They feel OK to show me their inner self and all their flaws. I consider it an honor sometimes.

I don’t shoot other scenery of people because I don’t want to invade their space. I have done it and felt really uncomfortable. The pictures I take now are people who come to me. It’s a very intimate experience, and sometimes I never share any of the photos if it’s too personal. They stay between me and the person I shot.

We heard there is a documentary film about you, presented a month back at a film festival in Oceanside. Any plans for a future local screening?

At the moment no, but you would have to check with the filmmaker Brian McHugh. The movie is called Exposed: The Photography of Jack Grisham, and Brian shot it and put it together.

To be honest, it’s a little embarrassing for me personally to have this documentary, but I did think it was good. At the same time, I have to realize I am learning; I have humility because I know that I get stuff handed to me because of who I am and I truly appreciate that.

You ran for California governor; would you ever consider running for office again?

No. I hate that world. It’s awful, it’s foul, and even people that start out with a good heart and have good intentions for the public good, by the time they get to a place to where they can do any good, it’s corrupted, because of power and money and so much more.

When it comes to politics today, there are no rational voices out there. Everyone is so divided, beyond anything I have ever seen, and the trouble is the disagreements are so polarized it’s hard to come to a middle ground with such extremes.

You have been sober now for three decades. After all these years, do you find it easier as time goes on to maintain your sobriety?

Not at this point, no. See, it’s about dealing with self-centered personalities and emotional baggage. That lasts for the rest of your life. If you turn back to drugs and alcohol, it becomes exactly what it was when you left. We see it time after time. It does get easier after time for sure, and now I don’t trip at all. As a musician and touring, at shows, I have been around drugs and alcohol the whole time and [remained] sober. It doesn’t bother me. I find that you see the unattractive part of people using, and I get more work done so for me, it’s not hard at all.

Aside from the music of T.S.O.L., do you have any other upcoming projects or announcements?

Well, T.S.O.L. will have some tour dates announced shortly. Right now, I am completing a screenplay based on my book An American Demon. Shooting photos is driving me toward making films. I visualize a lot of my writing, so I am heading toward doing more of that. I am 58 years old and I feel like someone’s dad. … And I am someone’s dad!

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