Continuing our series on Judaism and punk rock, Ha’Am interviewed the half-Jewish, punk icon, Keith Morris. Morris’s influence on American hardcore punk rock cannot be understated. The genre began as a rebellion against the commodification of punk rock, with cymbals bashing eighth notes at warp speed, a vehement anti-rock star attitude, and a buzzsaw sound, with Morris at its forefront.
Morris founded Black Flag with Greg Ginn and is responsible for their intense work ethic and virulent lyrics. After leaving the band, Morris acted as the frontman for the Circle Jerks, a band that took the subversive art form to new heights. Their album, Group Sex, is one of the most widely-acknowledged works in the genre. Morris remains at the forefront of the hardcore genre with his band Off! Currently, he is doing a world tour for the Circle Jerks and also filming a movie called Free LSD.
What was the nature of your relationship with Judaism growing up?
I never really considered myself to be Jewish, but I would attend Jewish-like holidays with my grandparents. My sister and I would celebrate Hanukkah until we got to the sixth day and ran out of gifts. We never really dug into the history.
When I say I am Jewish, I am a Goldstein, and that’s about it. I don’t get too much more Jewish or Hebrew than that.
My grandparents witnessed a KKK lynching, and my grandfather immediately said, “We gotta immediately change our name and we gotta pack up our things, we’re moving. We can’t stay here because we know the history of the KKK and we know we could be next.”
So I may not be much of a Jew. I do love eating at Canters: matzoh balls, garlic pickles, pastrami, and rye bread. That’s the closest I get.
Morris began by describing his interactions with “skinheads” as an American Jew, complete with a hilarious story about one of Black Flag’s early songs.
That’s why we got along so well with so many of the skinheads. Actually, we didn’t go out of our way to mingle with the skinheads. Being in Black Flag, we had a song called White Minority. The song is a joke, and unfortunately, most people didn’t get the joke.
The story behind the song is that Greg Ginn and I were on a lunch break at Hermosa Beach. We wanted to go bodysurfing. While eating lunch, we start looking across the beach, shaking our heads and thinking, “We are not going bodysurfing today.” The only way you would be able to get to the water is if you were to jump off the pier. I mean, there were so many people on the beach that you couldn’t even see the sand. It was a very mixed crowd, which we have no problem with. It’s all good, all for one, one for all. We even noticed what appeared to be a sheet bumping up and down. It turns out that it was a couple fornicating on the beach. Okay, that’s cool. Good for you.
So we were looking at the crowd on the beach, decided to not go bodysurfing, and went back to work. Because of the lack of Caucasians in this group of people, Gregg looks at me and starts laughing, and says, “It looks like we are going to be the white minority.”
If you look at the population of Socal, you know we are not the majority or the original population. Indigenous people were here way before us and our people. When I say our people: I am a Ukrainian and an Austrian Jew on my dad’s side. On my mom’s side, we are a bunch of hokey-pokey, moonshine-running hillbillies from Scotland and Sweden.
Getting back to the Black Flag thing, because of that song, our skinhead/ Nazi/ Aryan/white supremacist following starts becoming larger. It’s like, didn’t you get the joke with Ron Reyes who was Cuban/Puerto Rican? He doesn’t look like he’s from France or Italy or any of those types of places. Didn’t you get the joke?
When we started the tour, I wanted to put White Minority on the set to set the record straight. The band said that people wouldn’t get the joke and would think that we were white supremacists. It would have given me the opportunity to tell the story and ask, “Do you guys not understand this far into our history?” I wouldn’t be jumping up and down and waving a flag that was red, white, and black. Putting it on our set would have allowed me the opportunity to tell a story. When you’re on tour, everybody expects you to play music. Don’t talk. Don’t share. Just play music, play music. I could have told the story and said, “Look at me, I’m a human being.” This is what the song is about. The guys were like, “We are not gonna do that song,” so we didn’t play it.
I have definitely experienced white supremacy in punk. When I say “I,” I mean we, the Circle Jerks. (Half of the Circle Jerks are Jewish.) Many people never latched onto our party flavor, but that’s who we were and what we were about. We had songs about socialites, society, and political rants, whether right or left-wing. We were all about equality, where everybody gets to express their side. The skinheads following didn’t get the idea that we just wanted to be at the party, check out the girls, and drink foamy bears pouring out of the keg.
One of the stops on our tour was Bogarts in Cincinnati, Ohio. It happens to be the first city you will drive through if you are coming from Kentucky.
Back over in Kentucky, there is a large population of white supremacists, who influenced the young Aryan kids and teenagers: 21 and under-what-have-you.
They showed up to the show just as we were playing. There was a circle pit going of kids going round and round. In the middle of the pit, there was an island made up of all these white supremacist kids. Occasionally, one would stick his fist out and knock a kid over. A 13-year-old kid, a skinny 17-year-old. They were trying to do some damage and f*** up s***.
It kept carrying on like that. We had to keep playing because, as a band, we have to be into the songs we are playing. Finally, the skinheads knocked over the wrong kid. The kid got up, and it was time for fist to meet cuff. The whole time, security had been watching what was going on. It turned into a bloodbath. Everybody was still jumping around and dancing around while the security guards were giving Nazi skinheads kicks to the ribs and faces. They dragged them outside to an alley, kicking them while they were down, then they called the police to come and arrest them.
We have had some situations like that, but that would be the best example of how it is supposed to go down.
Keith talked a little bit about his tour, movie, and current artistic endeavors in response to being asked, “What about punk energizes you and has kept you coming back all these years?”
Punk is one of the only things that I know. When we broke up, we still had places we could go to draw 2000 people. We played a couple of rooms in Florida. One could hold 700 people, and about 80 people showed up. That was it for me. I was thinking, “Why do we need to drive it into the ground?”
Years went by, about 12 years to be exact. Punk rock has gained some momentum in some places. For some odd reason, the Circle Jerks’ popularity went off the hooks. Last Sunday we played at the Palladium with 7Seconds, Negative Approach, and the Bouncing Souls. (The Palladium is a well-established concert venue in Hollywood.) We had been asked to play there before. The first time, Run DMC asked us to play with them, but there had been a gang fight in Long Beach. We didn’t have enough insurance protection and the gig fell through. B52 had also asked us to play with them. They said that they normally honored what the headlining band asked, and it would have been fine if they asked for X or Missing Person. But they had heard all these rumors about the Circle Jerk guys being nothing but trouble: pulling urinals off walls; setting buildings on fire; M80s blowing up toilets; the whole night being a bloodbath.
Of course, that wouldn’t have happened if we opened for the B52s at the Hollywood Palladium. Maybe 100 of our fans would have shown up, not so much punk rock but the ones who heard us on K Rock: the music lovers with more open minds.
After we broke up, I found myself in a position where I was just barely able to cover rent every month. I had a friend come to me and say, “Morris, what do you have planned for retirement?” I never really thought about retirement because the path I chose to travel down has led the course of my life. There’s no money to put into a 401k punk rock retirement plan. He said, “Well, let’s change that’ and suggested getting the Circle Jerks back together to play about 30-40 shows. It was too soon for me to leave the band. I didn’t want to get into a room with those guys, and I didn’t want to talk to them.
At a certain point, you can hate on them all you want, but you have to not be a hateful person and know that you are a good person who is going to get over this hurdle. I started talking with Zander because he was good with some of my close friends, and we became more friendly. After that, it became easier for me to listen to what my friend was suggesting.
Ultimately, I was told 30-40 shows. We ended up playing close to 85 shows, which is the equivalent of a world tour. We even went to Coachella when they started to do those two weekend-in-a-row events. At Coachella, we were offered more money to play two forty-five-minute sets than we had probably made on a couple of earlier tours put together.
It was really crazy for me to do all these shows and keep a schedule during a pandemic. So many people are anti-vax. They say, “I don’t have a vaccine card because I’m anti-vax. I am not getting a vaccine. They are putting diseases in the shot that makes your brain spill out of your eyes and your penis is going to have an erection forever and never get flaccid.” Just all this wacky, goofy stuff. It’s really simple. We had a mask mandate. People are still getting sick with each new variant.
The reason it is not going away is that people aren’t getting vaccinated. I don’t know if you remember what happened in Huntington Beach with the anti-mask protests. We were close to herd immunity and all these people who said, “We are going to riot and protest. We aren’t going to listen to a doctor who worked for Biden.” They ruined it for everyone. Consequently, it’s not going away, and we will continue to have these waves. I hope that with each passing wave it becomes less damaging.
Unfortunately, we have some dates on our tour that we aren’t able to play because a lot of our team got sick. Some people are complaining that the Circle Jerks aren’t going to come back here because they’re “p******” or whatever, and that they want their money back. I can’t go on Facebook and answer every ridiculous statement about it. What do you do when four of your guys are sick? Are we going to spread it? No! We are human beings. We are level-minded. We are open-minded. And good human beings don’t want to do any harm to other human beings, except bad human beings.
Everyone in the Circle Jerks has been sick, including our sound man and our female friend Tonya, who sells our merch. We also had everyone in 7 Seconds get sick, including their merch, bus driver, and sound person. All of the guys in Bouncing Souls got sick. Maybe a couple dozen people who attended the Palladium said they got sick the next day. To those people, if they are reading this, I choose to apologize. I am sorry about that and hope you get better and get to be well.
I have got to study lines for Free LSD. It’s going to be science fiction. I am the main character in the movie. We also have an accompanying album of music, also titled Free LSD, which we recorded to be in the movie. It’s a double whammy with new music and a new record label.
I don’t like basking in glory like that. My ego says, “Keith, take a couple of steps back. Close your eyes, lean your body forward, and relax. Don’t worry about it. Don’t be the egotistical, arrogant prick that you can be.”
I have been rehearsing scenes with my love interest in the movie. She is amazing and she represents hope for the world.
We all lead these lives of existence. Eventually, we reach this point in our lives where we are like, “Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I jump off the high dive? Even if it wasn’t this fancy swan Olympic dive and you’re just making the jump. If there is something you want to do, you need to find a way to do it. I don’t mean thinking ugly thoughts like killing people. What I mean is so far from that. If you’ve never eaten Mexican food, go out and have a chicken taco or cheese enchilada. Have the salsa, maybe some hot sauce, and take some bites out of a jalapeno.
Something unique about this series is that I like to include a playlist with each installment. Can you recommend any of your own songs that you are most proud of that I should include, songs by Jewish artists that inspire you, or songs in general that made you who you are?
There are a handful of CJ songs that I love: “Casualty Vampires,” “The Crowd,” and “I Don’t.” I love a lot of our songs and wouldn’t want to play them if I didn’t like them.
When it comes to inspirational music, I think of albums. I grew up listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, David Bowie, and the Velvet Underground. There’s so much influential music. I always go back to the first record I owned when I was a kid, which would be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. The first record I bought with my own money was The Jimi Hendrix Experience. I also love Lola Versus Powerman- The Kinks, Let It Bleed- The Rolling Stones, The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust– David Bowie, Wild Gift- X, and Fire of Love- Gun Club.
“The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or ASUCLA Communications Board.”