Keith Morris – Wild in the Streets

Keith Morris

Photo by John English

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the infamous Black Flag show at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach that turned into a storm of thrown foodstuffs, shouted obscenities, and angry picnickers, and the exhibition of punk-rock art that’s scheduled to grace the walls of the Hermosa Historical Museum next month, we asked Keith Morris to share his thoughts on growing up in Hermosa, the earliest days of the local punk-rock scene, and what he’s doing now (working on the first new Circle Jerks album in 14 years).

Keith Morris lived in Hermosa for 16 years, until he left Black Flag, the seminal SoCal punk-rock outfit he co-founded with Greg Ginn. After leaving Black Flag he formed the Circle Jerks with former Red Kross guitarist and Hawthorne high alum Greg Hetson, bassist Roger Rogerson, and drummer Lucky Leher.

The Circle Jerks’ debut album (1980’s Group Sex) and their performance in The Decline Of Western Civilization documentary — filmed at the Fleetwood in Redondo Beach — sent them on a punk-rock odyssey that spanned four studio albums (Wild In The Streets, Golden Shower Of Hits, Wonderful, and VI), several personnel changes, and an appearance in the 1984 cult film Repo Man, before the band splintered in 1989.

Six years later, Morris and Hetson — who’d since joined Bad Religion — revived the Circle Jerks for Oddities, Abnormalities & Curiosities. But the band again imploded shortly after the album hit the streets. Since then, Morris has survived a 2000 diabetic coma, a stint as an A&R rep for V2 Records, and sporadic Circle Jerks reunion tours dating back to 2001.

Keith Morris on stage

Keith Morris rallies the troops during a 2006 concert at the Sapphire Club in Hermosa. It was his first South Bay concert in over two decades. Photo by Michael Cody

“I was born at Kaiser Permanente at the southernmost tip of Los Feliz,” says Morris. “We moved to Hermosa Beach when I was seven-and-a-half, so I started third grade at South elementary school on Monterey. We first lived on 2nd Street and Hermosa, then we moved to 10th and Monterey, then to north Redondo over by Aviation and Artesia, then we moved to 9th and Beach Drive.

“My junior high was right there at Pacific Coast Highway and Pier Avenue, where they have the community center now. That’s where I started smokin’ pot and skateboardin’ and listenin’ to music and doin’ all the things that teenage kids do.

“Then I went to Mira Costa High School. I worked at my dad’s fishing tackle store, Hermosa Tackle Box, down on Pier Avenue. It was right next door to the Rock & Gravel record store, which was kinda cool.

“But there was also the Record Hole, which was one of my favorite record stores ’cause they specialized in English imports. It was a tiny little store on Hermosa Avenue, two and a half blocks north of Pier Avenue. Right next to a Winchell’s donuts and this pizza place that made this thing called the ‘pizzaco’ — half pizza, half taco.”

“Yeah, that was good ’cause there was also a Foster’s Freeze right there. You get the root beer freeze and a couple of ‘pizzacos’ and the world is totally happening.

“And there was Rubicon Records, up on Pier Avenue, which was run by Michael Piper, who looked like Michael Bruce — one of the guitar players in Alice Cooper. He played a major role in corrupting my musical mentality. He was the guy who turned me on to Genesis, Gentle Giant, Trapeze, the Tubes …

“Michael was also insanely in love with Greg Ginn’s younger sister, Erica, who’s (artist) Raymond Pettibone’s twin sister and was like this goddess. Erica used to come into Rubicon to hang out and flirt with Michael and Greg would tag along ’cause he was interested in music. At this time, Greg was a big Grateful Dead fan. He was one of those guys who’d get in the VW van or the Toyota station wagon, load it up with all the other Hermosa Beach hippies, and go see the Dead.

“Anyway, they would show up and Michael would be playing Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles — something out of Laurel Canyon. The heaviest thing he would play would be like the first Heart album. I’m not badmouthing these artists because they all have their time and place. You certainly don’t wanna listen to Black Flag when you’re makin’ love, right? I would reserve that time for Marvin Gaye …

keith morris documentary

Documentary filmmaker Heather Longerbeam interviews Keith Morris last month at the scene of the now legendary Sunday Concert in the Park riot at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach. Photo by John English

Polliwog Park breakthrough
“So Greg is now all of a sudden becoming a major person in my life, just based on him coming into the record store two or three times a week. Michael and Erica would split to go hold hands and make out and do whatever young people like to do and I would be in charge of the store. And that would be when I’d put on Ted Nugent, Black Oak Arkansas, Mott The Hoople, David Bowie & The Spiders From Mars, the MC5 or the Stooges. Michael would come back in and he would be steamin’, like ‘Why are you listening to this?’ and Greg and I would be laughin’.

“Eventually we started going to concerts. Michael, Greg and I would get in my Chevy Impala and head to the Santa Monica Civic to see Thin Lizzy and Journey. And that’s where the seeds of Black Flag were sown.”

“When we started Black Flag, the local scene was terrible,” Morris continues. “There weren’t any original bands. We’d go to a dance and it’d be a band doin’ Doobie Brothers covers or some chick tryin’ to sing like Robert Plant.

“We weren’t punk-rock guys. We were just guys that were bummed with the musical landscape in the South Bay — and even up in Hollywood, it was slim pickin’s — that channeled our angry energy and turned it into what we turned it into.

“We were the guys who were always picked last in P.E., the guys that were turned down by the girls, the guys that the jocks would pick on. And maybe it was our way of sayin’, ‘Hey, fuck you.’ It wasn’t like we were hopin’ to get harrassed by the Hermosa Beach police, but everytime we turned around they were like breathing over our shoulders …

“Right now, I’m looking at that photo from Polliwog Park that ran in Easy Reader, which is pretty amazing ’cause it was taken from behind us and shows the crowd. So there’s Medea, who was Greg Ginn’s girlfriend, and there’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce [from the Gun Club], Dianne Chai [from the Alleycats], and Jay Bentley from Bad Religion. His dad lived in Manhattan Beach and said, ‘Let’s go to the park’ and it just happened to be the Sunday we were playing. The opening band was the Tourists, who were Red Kross before they became Red Kross, then Eddie & The Subtitles from O.C. [Big Wow, according to the Easy Reader story], then us. It looked like there were 500 people in this bandshell.

“I really felt sorry for Robo ’cause he was sitting behind his drum kit and had no where to go. The rest of us were able to dodge whatever trash — chicken bones, watermelon rinds — that the people who didn’t like us were throwin’.

“I remember the guy from the park was really bummed and he was making us stop every 10 minutes so he could sweep everything up. I basically look upon that gig as our baptism. That when we knew that we made it. That’s when we got under a few people’s skins. We didn’t set out to do that. We just wanted to get out and play, do our thing.

“But the Black Flag gig with the Alleycats and Rhino 39 at the Moose Lodge on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo was pivotal for us ’cause [KROQ DJ] Rodney Bingenheimer was there with [Dead Boys frontman] Stiv Bators and they both were like, ‘Wow, there’s serious excitement happening here.’ That’s when Rodney started playing the Nervous Breakdown EP on Saturday night.

“That really helped out. ‘Cause a lot of people in the music community up here [in Hollywood] looked at us like ‘What are these fucking hippies doing here?’ ‘Cause we looked like beach rats. We looked like roadies for Peter Frampton. We didn’t look like we were part of the punk-rock community. We didn’t look like we were from England. That wasn’t our concern.

“We played the EP at a party up on Fountain and [Masque founder] Brendan Mullen and Claude ‘Kickboy’ Bessey from Slash magazine were there and they were like, ‘What the fuck is this? You guys did this?’ They were goin’ apeshit over it. And it completely changed their mentality toward us. They knew that we were real.

“We made that record at Media Art Studios, which was on the northeast corner of Pier and Hermosa. I remember when we were recording a band was playing in Shenanigans, the bar downstairs, and it was bleeding through, but we were playing so loud it didn’t really matter.

“We put that record out ourselves ’cause we got a two-page contract from [local indie] Bomp Records and Greg read it aloud and we were all just like rolling on the floor. We’re gonna pay for the recording, they’re gonna press it up, and give us like a nickel for every one that’s sold? Are you kidding me?

“And it wasn’t like we were gonna get any kind of better deal from any record company at any level. We put our own record out ’cause we didn’t have any choice — and we didn’t know any better.

“By this time we were living in the [former Baptist] church on Manhattan Avenue, directly across the street from the Altadena dairy, which was like our convenience store. Jim Lindberg (of Pennywise) used to work there. They leveled the church and turned it into this place called Einstein’s [Now Union Cattle]. Some kinda yuppie, happy hour, hang-out kinda thing.

“It was an abandoned church that they were renting spaces in. It was basically a hippie arts community — one guy was a potter, one guy did metal sculpture — that lived in the building. Greg was already renting a big room at the very back of the church and that was where SST Electronics was going down. Greg was manufacturing an attenuator, which soups up the power of your ham radio, so you can pick up who you need to pick up easier. That would’ve been ’78. [And he was writing music reviews for Easy Reader.]

“The church became almost like a flophouse. It became the place to go in the community for all the have-nots, the miscreants, all the kids that are getting picked on in school. I lived in one of the rooms. Ron Reyes [who replaced Keith as Black Flag’s vocalist] was living in the basement. All of the punk rock people in the South Bay knew that the church was happening. Red Kross rehearsed in the basement; we rehearsed upstairs in the janitorial storage space, so we’d occasionally throw parties.

“Jill Jordan, who was a backing vocalist in the Flesh Eaters and is now a really popular tattoo artist, was from Hermosa. The Nolte brothers [Dan, Joe and Mike] are Hermosans. We didn’t really know them until we became fans of the Last. They were a big influence on Black Flag, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it by either one of our bands’ music.

“And the Descendents were from Manhattan and Redondo Beach. Billy worked for my dad and our conversations would be like, ‘What are you listening to? OK, why doncha listen to some stuff you’re not listening to? Here’s your homework assignment: Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath … ‘ And he would come back and say, ‘Keith, thank you for turning me on to all of these bands, I like all of them.'”

On the road
“When I left Black Flag, I moved to Inglewood, so after 1979 I didn’t spend a lot of time in Hermosa. Greg [Hetson] and I formed the Circle Jerks and all of a sudden we’re off in the van, goin’ to every little place in America. Goin’ out there without any machinery — no manager, no booking agent, no publicist, no Internet. We’re playing in these clubs to four people, 12 people, a 100 people — that would be a success. Driving two days to get to a place and the only people there are the bartenders and the guy that’s working the door. Doin’ the same thing that Black Flag was doin’, mapping out the route that all these new bands have to travel.

“Like Pennywise, who are from Hermosa. They’re like the ultimate, punk-rock party band. They’re one of the Warped Tour bands. And that’s a whole new generation of kids, who are all tapped into the computer and MP3s. Plus, they were on Epitaph Records and that label certainly knows what they’re doing.

“The Circle Jerks played a Warped Tour a couple of years ago and we were on the old-school stage with the Adolescents, the Dickies, Fear, and all these wonderful bands. Pennywise played with Bad Religion on the main stage and I was just like in awe. There were people who weren’t paying attention to the bands who were playing on the stages in front of them because they were facing the stage where Pennywise was playing. We’re talkin’ like 15,000-18,000 people watching Pennywise.

“And as far as stage-diving, slam-dancing, and all that,” Morris continues, “we’re from Southern California, so there’s lots of guys who ride skateboards, ski, surf, skydive, snowboard. We have this gung-ho mentality — just get on whatever you’re going to get on and go for it and see what happens. You see a swimming pool, you’re gonna jump in. That’s where stage-diving originated.

“And it’s not the mosh pit — it’s the slam pit. Mosh pit is what they call it on the East Coast. It started here with the kids on the West Coast. If you notice the motion of a kid riding a skateboard, it’s almost like a jog, almost like a dance. If you remove the skateboard, it becomes a dance, it becomes the slam-dance.

“[Skateboard legend] Tony Alva’s crew used to follow us around. They loved us, they loved the punk-rock thing ’cause it was aggro. It was taking Ted Nugent and Black Sabbath and ZZ Top, speeding it up, and taking it the next step. It was the perfect music for them to do what they were doing. And if you looked at those kids from Dogtown — which was Venice — they didn’t look punk-rock, they looked exactly like us.

“The legacy would be that we just happened to trip and fall, pick ourselves up, and be there. We didn’t know what we were creating. We didn’t know that we were gonna touch people as far reaching as the Black Crowes and Ryan Adams and Los Lobos. We didn’t know that Bill Ward, the drummer from Black Sabbath, was gonna be a huge fan. We didn’t know we were gonna play a role in shaping the musical mentality of Slayer or Megadeth.

We just went where we were allowed to go — Europe, South America, Canada, Mexico, Hawaii — and just made the best of it.

“I tore knee ligaments, got a crushed vertebrae, fractured ribs. Got my nose broken two nights in a row. And I rolled a van in Texas, turned it over like 10 times, crushed the van in half. All the guys survived. The worst thing that happened was we had a sprained ankle and a bruised shoulder.

“And, yeah, the coma. I was looking at death there. Then they diagnosed me with diabetes and I had to spend about a year figuring it out. I have my days where my feet hurt and I have my days where everything’s fine. It’s one of those diseases where it’s what you make of it.”

Full circle

“Right now, the Circle Jerks are halfway through making a new record. It’s with the original members Greg and me with Zander Schloss — who’s played with Joe Strummer, Thelonious Monster, the Weirdos, the Low And Sweet Orchestra, and has been playing bass with us for quite a while now — and Kevin Fitzgerald, who’s from Alaska and is currently touring Europe with Eleni Mandell, playing drums.

“Dimitri Coats from the Burning Brides — I worked with them when I was working at V2 Records — is producing. And it’s gonna sound like what a punk-rock record’s supposed to sound like. Because we’ve gotten away from that with modern technology — this device that makes it sound like tape and this super-duper-duper-dizzer that does this. Fuck that. We don’t need to be adding all this shit. We need to strip off the fat like we did in the beginning and just fuckin’ go at it.

“I don’t know if I could say what made Hermosa Beach so different. Yeah, there was the Lighthouse, which was one of the major jazz venues on the West Coast. My dad’s shop was right across the street and during the summer, they would do early shows and they would open the top half of this double door that they had in front and you could watch whoever was performing. My dad used to go there, but I was never old enough to go in. When I was old enough, at that point in my life, I wasn’t interested in jazz.

“But there was also the surf thing. Three of my dad’s best friends were world-class surfers: Dewey Weber, Hap Jacobs, and Greg Noll. They were like the triumvirate down there and they were like the three points of the pyramid. Greg was this guy who was living in a trailer with three different women and all their kids. Dewey was this rambunctious, really energetic family guy. And Hap was like the real conservative out of the three of ’em. In the South Bay, those are the guys. It all starts with them.

“And there was the Insomniac coffee house. My mom took me there when I was about eight years old. She was always one of those people who wasn’t afraid to go out there and see what was goin’ on, so here we are inside the Insomniac. No furniture, just a few tables and a bunch of pillows on the floor. It was candlelit, dark, looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno. You can damn well bet that the city council were just losin’ sleep over that.

“And Greeko’s Sandals, which started on Pier Avenue next to John’s Barber Shop. The barber was one of the conservative guys: ‘We can’t have Greeko in our town — look what he’s doing to the minds!’ ‘Cause Greeko is the guy who had all of the Doors and the Shrine Auditorium posters and when Santana or Big Brother & The Holding Company were in town, they’d come in and get sandals made. So Greeko moved around the corner, redid the face of the building, and made the sidewalk in front of his shop like a cobblestone sidewalk. The city apparently loved that: ‘Oh, he’s becoming more conservative! Maybe he’s voting for Ronald Reagan?’

“And they jacked up the rent so high they finally ran the Either/Or Bookstore out. It had been there before I even moved there. You’d think a great city like Hermosa Beach would be very open-minded, but they weren’t. It was like, ‘We can’t have these hippies, these Communists doin’ all this stuff!’

“But they’ve just destroyed downtown Hermosa. Their mentality is they want every weekend to be spring break down there. Every other space is a bar. I was stayin’ down there with a girlfriend on Valentine’s Day two years ago and we were just hangin’ out, walkin’ around, checkin’ it out. And at night there’s just people like ‘I’m walkin’ in the middle of the street; whaddya gonna do about it?’ Just lookin’ for a fight. And the police don’t even show up. What the hell’s up with that? They should change the name to Knucklehead Beach.

“But I already went full circle when I became sober. Goin’ back to Hermosa Beach and goin’ to meetings at the junior high that they’d turned into a community center and a skateboard park — which I don’t mind ’cause that’s productive, that gives the kids someplace to go. That’s where I started doin’ drugs so it was totally appropriate.

“Now I still like eating the cheeseburger at the Mermaid, but Taco Bill’s is gone. That was a Hermosa Beach landmark, just like the Either/Or bookstore. I don’t mind going back to the Hermosa pier and taking a walk and checking it out, but that’s about it. When I think about what they’ve done to the city, I wouldn’t want to live there — and I couldn’t afford it.”

Don Waller grew up in Lawndale and north Torrance. He was the lead singer for semi-legendary proto-punk outfit the Imperial Dogs and an original staffer at the far more legendary Back Door Man magazine. He first met Keith Morris at Rubicon Records when he and Imperial Dogs guitarist Paul Therrio were living at 1450 Bayview in Hermosa Beach back in 1973. He also saw Black Flag play that show at the Moose Hall in Redondo. B


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