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The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor
By Keith Morris
With Jim Ruland
Formats and Prices
- Trade Paperback $16.99 $22.49 CAD
- ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 5, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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My Damage is more than a book about the highs and lows of a punk rock legend. It’s a story from the perspective of someone who has shared the stage with just about every major figure in the music industry and has appeared in cult films like The Decline of Western Civilization and Repo Man. A true Hollywood tale from an L.A. native, My Damage reveals the story of Morris’s streets, his scene, and his music-as only he can tell it.
I came to in a state of panic, covered in sweat with blood dripping down my face. I was behind the wheel of my car and I’d crashed into something. But what did I hit? What the hell happened? Where was I?
My whole life has been like this: coming out of the darkness, trying to figure out where I was and who I was with, struggling to assess the damage. I needed to figure out the answers fast because the car was still moving, rolling through a red light and into rush hour traffic.
I slammed on the brakes, stopped the car, and got out. I was on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in the shadow of Amoeba Records. I could see the headlines now: Punk Rocker Slams into Record Store. A fitting epitaph for a guy who’s been butting heads with the music business for forty years, first as the founding lead vocalist for Black Flag, then as the head party-meister in the Circle Jerks, and finally as the front man for a bunch of other bands and almost-bands from Bug Lamp to Midget Handjob. I’ve managed bands, produced records, and even worked as an A&R guy for a major label. I’ve had falling outs with band members and had my heart trampled by members of other bands. Now, as I write this at the age of sixty, I’m the vocalist of OFF! and still going after it.
That night in Hollywood I’d slipped into a diabetic blackout and lost control while on my way to see a show. I was able to figure out what had happened because it had happened to me before: crashing my car while loaded on pills in Hermosa Beach, losing control of the tour van after hitting some black ice in Texas, ending up in an emergency room in Norway after slipping into a diabetic coma. All my life I’ve pushed the limits and put myself in situations I had no business walking away from. As a recovering alcoholic, drug addict, and full-blown diabetic, damage is a fact of life.
This is my story as a punk rock survivor. My damage is always with me, a reminder that if I’m not careful, it will kill me . . .
Los Feliz, California, November 2015
My dad was a straight-up drinking, drugging, hard-living, motorcycle-riding, leather jacket–wearing, take-no-shit-off-of-anybody kind of guy. He was basically a thug.
When my dad was a teenager he got kicked out of Inglewood High for kidnapping the principal. One morning he busted into the principal’s office while he was getting ready to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” and recite the Pledge of Allegiance over the PA system. My dad tied the principal and his secretary to some chairs and gagged them. He proceeded to get on the microphone and tell the whole school it was a holiday and everybody could go home.
That didn’t go over so well with the authorities, and my old man was told, “Don’t ever come back here!”
My mom, however, went to the other high school in town, Morningside, which was Inglewood High’s rival. She was a cheerleader and a straight-A student. Friendly and beautiful and all that wonderful stuff. My dad was all leather and denim. Grease your hair back and get in a fight on Friday night. They were like Danny and Sandy from the musical Grease but without all of the singing, dancing, and nice vibes.
My dad was short, but he was a Golden Glove boxer. Because he was the smallest guy in the motorcycle gang, he would be the first one to pull up to the drive-in or the sock hop and start trouble. People wouldn’t take him seriously because of his size, but, being a boxer, my dad could usually finish what he started. Then the rest of the gang would come roaring in, and the shit would really hit the fan.
There were exceptions. For his initiation into the gang, he had to go to the big annual football game between the Inglewood Sentinels and Morningside Monarchs. He had to stand among all the Morningside fans and tell them to go fuck themselves. There he was, dressed like the Fonz with his leather jacket and chains, screaming, “Fuck you!” to all the fans. You didn’t see that kind of drama on Happy Days.
That night didn’t end well for my dad. Someone clocked him with a pipe, and they chained him to the back of the bleachers. When he woke up, the sun was beating down on him and he was soaking wet. He thought it was moisture from the grass, but it wasn’t dew. The Morningside guys had pissed all over him while he was unconscious and he was covered in urine. That was his initiation.
I’m not sure how long my dad lasted in the motorcycle gang. He would eventually have an epiphany and realize he couldn’t keep living like that if he wanted to get married and start a family. It was time to grow up, but trouble was in his blood.
MY DAD WAS BORN in Chicago but grew up in Tennessee. One summer evening he and his two brothers were playing outside when one of them kicked a ball over a hedge. They climbed through the bushes, and on the other side a burning cross lit up the sky as bright as day. Some guys in white robes were stringing somebody up in the trees—my dad and his brothers had stumbled upon a KKK lynch mob.
They left the ball and ran back home to tell my grandfather Saul what they’d seen. If my grandparents hadn’t been aware of the secret white societies that ruled the South, they were now. Shortly afterward my grandparents changed their name from Goldstein to Morris, packed up all of their belongings, and moved to California.
MY MOM, MAUDENA CALDWELL, was eighteen when she had me on September 18, 1955. I was born on Sunset Boulevard—just a few blocks from where I’ve lived in Los Feliz for the last twenty years or so. My parents were living in Gardena at the time. My dad was supposed to go away to fight in the Korean War, but he was turned away because he had lead poisoning. So instead of going to war, he went to work for his dad. Saul owned a scrap yard and garbage dump in the desert outside of Palm Springs. We moved out to the desert, and my dad worked construction and did a lot of odd jobs for my grandfather, who was another tough guy. He was one of the few Jews who worked for Al Capone.
I saw a lot of weird shit out there in the desert. One time my dad and I were driving along one of the back roads when he hit the brakes and pointed up at the sky. The sun was flashing on these silver objects that were moving horizontally and vertically at incredibly high speeds. There was a naval air base out there, and I’d seen the Blue Angels doing maneuvers on a couple of occasions, but this was nothing like that—this was a flying saucer situation. When they disappeared my dad said, “We’ll probably never see anything like that again.”
He worked with a lot of rough characters at the scrap yard and got himself into some hairy situations. At one point my dad and my grandfather decided to dig a pit in the middle of the dump and hold dog fights there. My dad thought it would be good idea to put his Doberman in the ring with a pit bull. He thought the Doberman could hang. He learned almost immediately that he was wrong. Within a matter of minutes the pit bull had bitten off all four of the Doberman’s legs and was thrashing him around by the throat, spraying blood everywhere. My dad told me it was one of the most brutal things he’d ever seen.
Our time in the desert was rough for everyone. When I was five or six years old a teenager molested me. She was a freckle-faced redhead with blue eyes. A cute, normal-looking girl. She took me behind one of the garages in the neighborhood, and that’s where it went down. I don’t really remember what happened. I just know that it was something completely foreign to me. The traumatic part was afterward, when she told me that I would get in big trouble if I told anyone what had happened, that it was our secret. That was really confusing to me because I didn’t know what I’d done that was wrong. I thought we were just playing. It was a heavy thing for a kid to have to deal with. In fact, I’ve never told anyone about this, but maybe it explains my fascination with redheads.
I was smaller than the rest of the kids in the neighborhood—a lot smaller—and people were always messing with me. I was the shrimp, the runt of the litter. Got some anger or aggression you need to get out? Take it out on the little guy—everyone else did. I don’t want to paint a picture that I didn’t have any friends or that I was constantly getting picked on, because that wasn’t the case, but sometimes people went too far.
One afternoon I was playing in front of the house with some local kids when the neighborhood bully decided he was going to mess with me. He grabbed me by my ankle and my wrist and swung me around like an airplane. I wasn’t too cool with that and told him to put me down. Well, he put me down all right. He let me go.
I went flying through the air and crash-landed in the driveway and cracked my head open on the cement. My mom came outside and freaked out. She didn’t even take me inside the house. She put me in the car and drove straight to the emergency room, where they stitched me up.
When kids picked on me, there wasn’t much I could do. I could have run to my dad and told him what was happening, but even then I knew that wasn’t a good idea. My dad didn’t take shit from anybody, and I didn’t want to sic him on my friends or their parents—that wouldn’t have been a good situation for anyone. I think my dad knew what was going on, and he probably allowed some of it to happen to toughen me up; he wasn’t going to step in and fight my battles for me. I had to learn how to take care of myself. If that meant a few scrapes and bruises along the way, so be it.
Unfortunately it didn’t work. Being tough didn’t make me weigh more or stand taller. What’s a kid who weighs 40 pounds going to do to someone who weighs 120? Bruce Lee could have taught me the Monkey Paw or the Golden Sparrow or the Donkey Death Kick to defend myself, but it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
MY DAD WASN’T CUT OUT FOR working at a garbage dump. He was dabbling in drugs and got addicted to heroin. One of his high school buddies had moved to Puerto Vallarta with another friend and had started a pot farm. They reached out to my dad and concocted a scheme to smuggle a flatbed truck full of marijuana across the Mexico-California border. My dad flew to Puerto Vallarta and started driving. He made it all the way up to the US border in Tijuana before he was caught. He was arrested and sent to county jail for a year. The story they told my sister Trudy and me was that our dad was up in Northern California dredging for gold on the Klamath River.
It was actually a good thing for my dad. While he was in jail he got cleaned up and never did heroin again. It wasn’t something he was proud of, but he was able to prove he wasn’t a slave to his past. He made mistakes, but he outlived them. He was always trying to do better, and he was never satisfied.
After being cooped up in jail for a year my dad wanted to work outside again, so we moved to Las Vegas, where he worked in construction. This was before Las Vegas had turned into the big corporate adult playground it is today. I used to walk to school past blocks of empty desert that eventually would be built up into hotel towers and casinos.
One of my dad’s uncles, Howie, lived there and worked as a pit boss in a bunch of the casinos. When he was sixty years old and getting ready to retire, he married a twenty-year-old Playboy bunny. All of our relatives were shocked and concerned, but my mom thought it was great. Her motto was, “Do what you want and have a great time.” She’s always been a real open-minded person.
I had my first public performance in Las Vegas when I was seven years old. I had to sing a solo performance of “Red River Valley” at an elementary school show in front of about five hundred people. It was an evening performance in an outdoor setting, and I was really nervous. The piano started up, and I started singing and almost immediately forgot my words. I was so terrified that I pissed my pants. It was an inauspicious beginning to my illustrious musical career.
We didn’t last in Las Vegas very long, and eventually my mom and dad moved back to California. I was really excited because the town we moved to was right on the ocean. One of my earliest memories of Hermosa Beach is walking to South Elementary School on Monterey with my sister and a neighborhood kid named Morgan.
We used to walk down the alleyway that ran parallel to the street. We were in this alley twice a day, five days a week. We started to notice a really foul odor, like rotting meat, only much stronger. We were on our way to school when we came across this yellow tape blocking the alley. Police line. Do not cross. Something was going on in one of the garages. We were looking around, wondering what to do. We were little kids, and this was our route to school. Now what?
I took it upon myself to walk into the taped-off garage. The place was packed with policemen, but being the curious kid I was, I was able to squeeze in next to the car. The window was rolled down, and it really stank in there. I looked over to see what was making this horrible smell and saw a dead body behind the wheel. Apparently the guy had tried to asphyxiate himself but got impatient and decided to blow his brains out with some kind of a gun instead.
It turned out the guy had been in there for weeks, and no one knew until someone who lived nearby complained about the odor. I was checking it out, thinking, Wow, this is something you don’t get to see every day! when a cop noticed me and yelled at me to get out of there.
I didn’t really understand what I saw that day. I had no concept of death and what it meant to the dead guy’s friends and family. It was my first glimpse of death up close and personal.
HERMOSA BEACH is located in LA’s South Bay, which stretches from the LA River just below the marina in Playa del Rey all the way to Palos Verdes. It includes all of the beach cities, like El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach, and dozens of densely packed quasi-urban suburban towns like Hawthorne, Gardena, and Torrance, each with its own history.
The South Bay provided me with some of my earliest musical experiences. When I was ten years old I saw Arthur Lee and Love play a matinee show at a theater in Palos Verdes, the Beverly Hills of the South Bay. You bought your ticket and saw two movies, and in between a band would play a short set for fifteen or twenty minutes. Love played in between two movies, one of which was Skaterdater, one of the very first skateboarding movies, and it was actually filmed in places like Redondo Beach and Torrance with real skaters who were from the South Bay, so it was kind of a big deal. But it was Love who made the biggest impression on me that day.
Two weeks later I saw the Barbarians at the Fox Hermosa Theater on Hermosa Avenue. The Barbarians had a hit in 1965 called “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” and their drummer had only one hand. He fixed a drumstick in his clasp, and away he went. It was really something to see.
I got to see a live band play when my Aunt Frances had a party in her backyard in North Redondo Beach right across the street from Mira Costa High School, which I would eventually attend. She unhooked the plumbing to her antique bathtub, dragged it out to the backyard, and filled it with ice and red wine—the party was ready to rage.
She got some friends of hers who were in a band to play. They were called Smokestack Lightning, after the Howlin’ Wolf song the Yardbirds and the Grateful Dead covered, and they played up and down the Sunset Strip. They wanted to be a psychedelic blues band, but I didn’t think they very inspiring, probably because of the mediocre PA system they were working with. I was only about twelve years old, and I was already a music critic.
Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable party. Somebody spiked the tub with LSD. All the adults, including my grandparents, drank the wine. Everybody was dancing around and getting their groove on. Normally when there’s a live band playing in your backyard, the older folks are covering their ears and shaking their heads. “What is this shit? This is horrible!” Not this time. Everybody was laughing and smiling and having the time of their lives.
Many years later my mom told me what happened. Naturally, my dad wasn’t there. He was working.
My Aunt Frances was a free spirit. She was a teen model and a go-go dancer at the Hollywood Palladium. She was also the president of the Elvis Presley Fan Club in Los Angeles, which was no small thing. I remember they had a meeting at my grandparent’s house in Inglewood that turned into a slumber party. I walked in, and all of the girls were in their nighties and pajamas and sleeping gowns. Naturally, I wanted to see what was going on with all of these cute girls. The next thing I knew, they’d stripped me out of my pajamas and tossed me naked into the backyard, which wasn’t so terrible, all things considered, but it was still embarrassing.
One of the things you need to understand about me is that, being a small kid, I was always told I couldn’t do things. I was never part of the most popular crowd. I never had a girlfriend. In high school I stood five-foot-five and weighed 76 pounds, so you can imagine what I weighed when I was in elementary school and junior high. I wanted to play sports. I have a passion for football and baseball that persists to this day. I have great memories of going to the Coliseum with my grandfather Bob to see the LA Rams play. I’d go to the May Company and buy a pair of tickets at the Ticketron counter for $20. Fifty-yard line, fifty rows up. We wouldn’t even have to get on the freeway—just drive up Hoover and park a few blocks away from the Coliseum.
I never got to be the quarterback or the running back or the wide receiver. I never really had an opportunity to be the guy who makes a play and gets a little glory. I was always picked last. I had to be the guy who stayed in and blocked so that the bigger kids would have an excuse to push me around some more.
I was surrounded by guys who played Pop Warner football or Little League over at Clark Stadium or basketball at the junior high gymnasium on Pier Avenue. Hermosa Beach was your typical Southern California town where kids played sports year round. I wanted to play too, but there was no place for me. I was constantly being told, “You’re too small.”
I wanted to play so bad that I tried out for the Mira Costa football team. This was like the D team, junior-junior varsity, the absolute bottom level. The players were all laughing, but it wasn’t a joke to me. The coaches left a uniform out for me in the locker room, the smallest one they could find, and told me to get suited up. None of the equipment fit me. The helmet was three or four sizes too big. It started to sink in that I wasn’t going to be able to play. If I went out on the field, I was going to get crushed. My dream of playing football wasn’t realistic. Even with all the pads and the protection, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. Maybe you have a vision of this little guy darting between the legs of all of these enormous dudes like something out of a Three Stooges comedy skit, but that wasn’t going to happen. I would have been destroyed.
These disappointments were burned into my memory.
AFTER WE’D MOVED to Hermosa Beach my dad started working for one of his friends as a salesman for one of the biggest fence companies in Southern California. A lot of his customers were available only on weekends, so rather than leave me with my grandparents, my dad would take me with him on his sales calls. He wasn’t above using me as part of his pitch, and it didn’t hurt that I looked a lot younger than I really was because of my small size. My dad closed a lot of deals with me as his sympathetic sidekick. As a consequence, rather than making friends at the beach, I was being dragged by my dad all over Southern California.
Eventually my dad saved up enough money to start his own business: a bait and tackle shop at 21 Pier Avenue. I started working for him right away. I’d pack bait, count hooks, stock sinkers, and sweep the floor and the sidewalk in front of the store. I hated sweeping the fucking floor!
My dad had an uneasy relationship with Hermosa Beach, but he got along really well with the other business owners on Pier Avenue. It was a bait shop, so it opened early for the fishermen, but it was also an unofficial hangout for an older generation of pro surfers. Hap Jacobs, Greg Noll, and Dewey Weber would hang out at the shop and drink coffee and shoot the shit with my dad. Then in the evening the jazz club across the street would come to life, and my dad would hang out with the musicians. My dad was friends with Dez Cadena’s dad long before his son and I became friends, though I’m sure we must have bumped into each other when we were kids. Dez, of course, would become a vocalist and guitar player for Black Flag.
Even though my dad went legit with his business, he didn’t stop being a tough guy. While he was locking up the store one night, five guys accosted him in the alley behind the store. Down by the beach, when the marine layer crept in, it could get dark and dank and downright spooky, but my dad wasn’t intimidated.
“Give us your wallet and your keys,” one of the guys said.
“Come on and take it,” my dad replied.
That’s how my dad rolled. That’s the kind of confidence he had. He wasn’t going to let anyone take what belonged to him without a fight. He stood his ground and proceeded to teach them one of life’s hard lessons, and every single one of those guys ended up in the hospital.
LIKE ANY BUSINESS OWNER, my dad had his ups and downs. On the corner of Hermosa Avenue and Pier Avenue my dad rented a ballroom above a men’s clothing store and ice cream parlor. He’d bought out a company in Gardena that manufactured fishing equipment and used the ballroom as storage. One night one of the freezers in the ice cream store shorted out, started a fire, and burned most of the building down. The ballroom was filled with airtight wooden crates packed with parts for fishing rods and reels. When I say airtight, I mean vacuum sealed. So when these crates caught fire, that’s when the real fireworks started.
We were living on 10th and Monterey, right up the hill, so we had a great view of the inferno. Each time one of these wooden crates caught fire it exploded and shot into the air like something you would see in a war movie. There were about fifty of them in all. It was four or five in the morning, shortly before dawn, and my dad and I stood on the porch watching the show.
“You’re watching your college money go up in flames,” my dad said.
I didn’t really know what that meant. I just knew that my dad was really bummed. A couple of days later, my best friend Chuck Underwood, a couple of our buddies, and I stole Chuck’s dad’s car and drove down to where the fire had gutted the building. They hopped over the wooden wall that had been erected around the scene while I watched out for cops. They went into the clothing store and starting throwing clothes over the fence, and I stuffed everything in the trunk. This was on a Saturday morning in broad daylight—a pretty brazen maneuver on our part. We definitely had some hair on our balls.
We got in the car and drove away. We were all so proud of ourselves because we were going to give the clothes to our dads. We were all thinking about how much they were going to love us for this, that they were going to think we were the greatest. It turned out all the clothes were scorched and smoked and sodden beyond repair, and all of it had to go in the trash.
Not too long after that Chuck Underwood had an epileptic seizure while he was surfing one morning before school. He went under and didn’t come back up. He got caught in a riptide and was sucked out to sea. He washed up a week later. All the sea creatures had eaten away his skin. His nose and eyelids were missing, and he didn’t have any ears. They had to have a closed-casket funeral for him. He was the first person I was close to who died way too soon, but he wasn’t the last.
As I got older my dad gave me more and more responsibilities until I could run the bait shop on my own, but I was starting to explore my own interests—namely, booze, drugs, and rock and roll.
I was fourteen years old the first time I got drunk. Two of my best friends were twins named Ted and Dave. I’d go over to their house and watch live broadcasts of boxing, wrestling, and roller derby from the Olympic Auditorium. These events would inevitably inspire the twins to try out some new moves, and a fight would break out. Fists flying, bodies rolling on the floor—I always got pulled into it. Their mom would come in and say, “You guys can’t do that in here. You’re gonna have to take it outside.”
On one particular night they scored a big bottle of Blue Nun, which was a cheap wine that wasn’t going to give you a religious experience. We drank the wine and listened to Black Sabbath on an eight-track player. I’d always liked Black Sabbath, but this time they sounded heavier and more intense. There was a hippie couple who lived down the street from the twins, and they smoked us out. It was my first time for that too.
When I came home it was still early. I went into my room to crash, and the bed started spinning. I got nauseous and ran for the bathroom. I made it in time but missed the toilet and puked on the floor. That happened like five or six times, and I missed the toilet every single time. My dad was out, but my mom was home, and her response
- "A compelling, unexpectedly moving, and all-around badass memoir."--Esquire
"My Damage is characterized by sharp wit, abundant empathy, and the wisdom of a man who has outrun his many demons."--MOJO
"A winning memoir from a punk icon"--A.V. Club
"A portrait of a famed frontman that is complex but earnest"--PunkNews.org
- "An insightful and expansive look at an unconventional life"—Men's Journal, 10/27/1
"A wild tell-all told in a no-holds-barred style, My Damage is an epic autobiography told with humor, honesty, and courage."
—The Good Men Project, 11/15/16
- "Morris' book benefits from the same energetic, frenetically authentic style that makes his music so memorable. His description of the early punk scene and the inception of his two most famous bands is a fascinating read."—Under the Radar, 11/18/16
"[My Damage] delivers the behind-the-scenes kind of stuff we all love reading in rock autobiographies."
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Da Capo Press