In the late Seventies, fronting the original incarnation of Black Flag, Keith Morris helped create the blueprint for hardcore, and in the following decade, his Circle Jerks paired essential punk cuts with erratic behavior, the singer's drug use occasionally pushing him to the brink of death. Lately, though, Morris has been recharged by his new group, Off!, and the band's third album, Wasted Years, is their most berserk, frantic and pissed-off yet. Two weeks ahead of the LP's April 8th release, Rolling Stone spoke to the 58-year-old singer about his new songs, the times that inspired them, recent conflicts with Black Flag and a few of those near-death experiences.
You're usually pretty mad or agitated in your songs. But on the new album, you sound particularly angry. Keith, is everything okay?
Well, why not be mad? I live in a really kind of obnoxious neighborhood in a really busy part of Los Angeles. You have this hustle and bustle. You have the people racing to get to the red light so they can be the first to go when the light turns green. There seems to be a prevailing mentality of "me before you." All of this negativity doesn't seem to be going away. There are more cars, police and crime then ever. We're fighting the war on terrorism and drugs. "Hooray, let's go kill more people!" This is my fuel.
Do you enjoy being angry?
It's good to be angry and I use lyrics and music and jumping around on stage and getting all hot and sweaty and bothered and freaked out as a form of therapy. It's a way to let off steam and get stuff off my chest. But ultimately, it's probably pretty unhealthy.
The new album also finds you focusing more on politics then ever before.
You see, it has turned into the good guys versus the bad guys. We certainly need a third party. On Facebook, my sister posted, "Obama is a failure." Well of course he's a failure! But Romney, would he be any better? He's a bigger failure. When will someone step up to represent everyday working people? We need people that actually represent us.
Do you think some of the anger stems from the whole Flag/Black Flag lawsuit? What's going on with that?
We're still going through with the litigation. We have papers to sign. There was a Black Flag fan site with about 800,000 likes on Facebook and there was the Black Flag official Facebook site that had about 100,000 likes and they were losing people left and right because they weren't allowing anyone to comment unless the comments were pro-Black Flag. The fan site is gone now. That was something that came up. Now, it's time to start talking money, and when you talk money, things get really ugly.
The concept of Wasted Years suggests regret. Do you have a lot of regrets?
I probably have a few regrets. I've had the opportunity to do a lot of different things. Getting to "wasted years," or regrets – I was plagued with being an alcoholic and a cocaine addict, trying to find out where the next party was. If you look at the guy on the front cover of the album, he's the guy that I hung out with in junior high and high school. I grew up in Hermosa Beach, so the major players were the guy on the album cover – the Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Their biggest challenge was trying to find the party on Tuesday night during summer, or find the dealer, or raise the cash to buy the four-finger baggie or roll the keg into the swimming pool. Those were their challenges, and at times, those were my challenges.
Some people get trapped in that mindset their entire life. Why were you personally able to break out of that cycle?
I think some of it has to do with how intelligent a person you are, and being able to judge your environment and elevate yourself above the people around you. I had hit a wall. In doing so, that was my bottom. When you go to AA or NA or whatever anonymous organization you are going to, they say you have to hit a bottom before you realize it's time to see the error of your ways. I had my epiphany. I was tired of waking up with hangovers. I was tired of going out on a binge that lasts five days and having to take two weeks to recuperate from that binge. It had run its course.
"Death Trip on the Party Train" seems to be about that.
That's [Off! guitarist] Dimitri Coats and I – stuff that has happened to us. For Dimitri, it was going on up until recently. He's got a grasp on his situation and understands that if you think you're a rock & roll vampire, you can only let that go on for so long. Eventually, you look in the mirror and realize, "I'm not immortal." How high are you going to get? How low are you going to get? How fucked up are you going to get? How many disastrous, near death situations are you going to find yourself in?
Actually, you had a near death situation not too long ago, right?
I've actually had several. When I was seven weeks old, I came down with dysentery. When my father came to the hospital, him being as tough as a motherfucker, he crumpled up into a ball and almost fainted when he saw me. He described me as having a liquid drip on my brain to keep me from being dehydrated. He said I looked like a giant raison. Much later, I rolled a brand new van on black ice and rolled down a hill several times. Nobody should have survived that tumble, but everybody was okay. The van was about seven-and-a-half feet tall, and when I was done with it, it was three-and-a-half feet tall. I did have to pick glass out of my scalp.
Most recently, I'm a diabetic, and I have to eat every four-and-a-half or five hours. I flew in from Australia and had an early breakfast. I had messed up my schedule. I came back with my girlfriend, and we did what boyfriends and girlfriends do. When I closed my eyes, I was mumbling and gurgling. I didn't know where I was at and slipped into a diabetic coma. Thankfully, the 911 guys were down the street. But then, I had the same thing happen again about ten days later.
You also once alluded to the fact that Darby Crash of the Germs saved your life.
It was on the Fourth of July. There was a group of us partying at Venice Beach. We decided to go see Fear at the Hong Kong Café. On the way, on the freeway, I decided that I was going to jump out of the car on the freeway at full speed. Just as I was getting ready to jump, he grabbed my by the loop of the back of my pants, and pulled me back into the car.
Did any of those near death experiences give you a new perspective on life?
It's kind of a slap in the face. These brushes with death were a kick in the ass, definitely influential on my outlook on things. I'm 58-years-old. I had all those years where I was attached to other bands and I was running on their schedule, and there were all those wasted years. Now it's time to just go for it.