My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor
By Keith Morris with Jim Ruland
[Da Capo Books]
OK, I’ll begin this review by going out on a limb to say something that is totally uncool to say: Henry Rollins was, hands down and without a doubt, Black Flag’s best vocalist/frontman. Ranking from first to last: 1.) Henry Rollins, 2.) Keith Morris, 3.) Dez Cadena, 4.) Ron Reyes. Whew! There, I’ve said it. And what’s more, I am right.
Keith Morris was indeed great, but Rollins took it to an infinitely higher level. Keith was snide and surly (and funny), but Rollins was the perfect storm scenario guy: a maelstrom of insecurity, self-loathing and lust who took Black Flag to levels of insanity no band had reached before – or since, for that matter. You’d have had to have been there, I guess. Henry was the fucking man.
OK, now I’ll go further out on a limb and say that Keith Morris was much, much better in the Circle Jerks than he was in Black Flag. The Circle Jerks’ debut, Group Sex, predated Black Flag’s album debut, Damaged, by a year. And during that year (1980), the Circle Jerks was America’s preeminent hardcore band that set the template for the burgeoning genre. (Granted, Damaged was a better album that reset the template for hardcore in 1981.) Simply put, the Circle Jerks were a better vehicle for Morris’ talent and temperament. Rollins era Black Flag was the soundtrack to Armageddon, whereas the Circle Jerks was the jam you’d play on the night of your last paycheck before Armageddon. Black Flag was about destruction and pain, whereas the Circle Jerks were about partying down to forestall the inevitable destruction and pain.
Thankfully, Morris’ new biography, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor [Da Capo Press] is not solely focused on the singer’s two years in Black Flag. Only around 60 of the book’s 287 pages actually concern Morris’ Black Flag tenure. Granted, Morris played an important role in the development of the quintessential hardcore band, but that’s only one facet of a long life in America’s punk rock trenches. There’s actually more content about the Circle Jerks – an important band that ended up playing Anthrax to Black Flag’s Metallica, if you will. (In this orbit, Minor Threat is the correlate to Megadeth, as the Bad Brains are to Slayer.)
The son of “a straight-up drinking, drugging, hard-living, motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing, take-no-shit-off-of-anybody guy” who owned a fishing bait shop in San Pedro, California, Morris is a lot more working class than the usual privileged suburban hardcore schmuck. And My Damage is straight and to the point – perhaps lacking in subtlety, but strong by way of its honesty, directness and lack of pomposity. Sure, Morris is a little bit angry – at the world and at certain individuals including Black Flag auteur and (to a lesser degree) Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson. But he’s also more than willing accept a heap of the blame for the hard turns of his (once) hard-partying life.
My Damage reads like an oral history with a single source. It’s almost as if the reader is sitting down with Morris in a face-to-face conversation. Sure, Morris has already told these stories so many times over that they’ve taken on mythic qualities, to say the least. I mean, memory and “history” are certainly elastic – but who cares? My vibe is that most of this stuff is pretty much true, and that any portions that have morphed into “tall tales” are all the more entertaining for it.
In a nutshell, Morris was “there” from hardcore’s protozoan beginnings, and has more or less remained “there” (or at least at the periphery) for 40 years. Morris’ history is, in essence, the history of hardcore.
If you’re hoping for a bunch of dirt on hardcore luminaries of old, well, you’ll get a bit here – but only a bit. Shit-slinging is not the book’s raison d’extra beer, so to speak. For the most part, he keeps it classy, turning the bulk of his ire on himself.
So what we have here is one part musical history, one part addiction memoir and two parts funny anecdotes strung together stream-of-consciousness style. Sure, Morris is a hardcore guy. But he’s also a longtime Hollywood scenester and a careerist who partied down with Darby Crash and Jeffry Lee Pierce – and with Motley Crue and John Belushi and David Lee Roth.
Morris’ decade of decadence lasted over a decade, but he’s been sober for quite some time. To his credit, Morris is not smug or self-righteous. And he does not see his life as a hackneyed sin-and-redemption thing, either. Of his post-addiction era, Morris writes: You can get into a mindset where you’re going over all of your fuckups and you start to think, I’ve got to apologize to this person and that person. All of a sudden your list is like three hundred people long. You might as well rent a big hall, invite them all in, and get up on the podium and say, “Okay, everybody: I’m a royal flaming fuckup and I’m sorry!” But that’s not how it works.
The 61-year-old Morris, who wrote the song, “Live Fast, Die Young” 37 years ago, has beaten the odds in a number of ways. He survived the ’80s, survived hardcore, survived diabetes and survived addiction. And he survived rehab without becoming a 12-step goose-stepper. Now he’s beaten Fitzgerald’s adage that “there are no second acts in American lives” via his popular hardcore supergroup, Off! – and through this book. My Damage is not exactly a literary masterpiece, but it’s fun and fast and simple and honest and real, kind of like a Circle Jerks song.