Keith Morris: The Books That Changed My Life

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Keith Morris, the founding vocalist of the legendary hardcore band Black Flag, is a punk rock music legend. After his departure from that group, he started the influential Southern Californian punk band the Circle Jerks, and he now plays in the equally intense quartet OFF! His latest project is the memoir My Damage, written with Jim Ruland, and it covers his experience of the Los Angeles punk scene of the 1970s and '80s and struggles with addiction and health issues over the years. The result is an insightful and expansive look at an unconventional life. We talked with Morris about books that have made an impact on him, the pantheon of musical histories associated with the scene in which he came of age, and what he thinks of Elizabeth Warren's memoir.

What book, would you say, has had the biggest impact on your life?

I wouldn't say one book impacted my life. It's a couple dozen novels and short stories that have had the most influence on me. I'm a fan of anything by Kurt Vonnegut, including Cat's Cradle, Charles Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, Tom Robbins, Kenneth Robeson, who was responsible for the Doc Savage pulp magazine series, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Dr. Seuss, Chris D, Lester Bangs, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and a few other writing characters.

Where did you first discover them?

I think my Wells, Verne, and Bradbury phase happened while I was in the fifth or sixth grade. Kenneth Robeson happened during my senior year in high school. I do remember getting busted for allowing one of my friends to borrow from my book reports. I was blazing through a bunch of science fiction stuff, and the guy who was copying my book reports wrote his word for word from mine. Needless to say I went from an A to a C in that class.

A wide stylistic range of bands and artists are mentioned in My Damage. Would you say that your taste in music and other creative work has changed over the years, or become more focused?

I've always been fairly open-minded when it's come to music and the arts, so I don't think my tastes have changed. I go through periods where I'm listening to specific genres, such as the newer San Francisco psychedelic scene that includes two of my modern heroes — being Ty Segall and John Dwyer and Thee Oh Sees. As for anything I'm doing creatively, I've certainly become more focused on my sobriety and the energy of the people I surround myself with.

You chronicle many years' worth of touring in My Damage, up through your current work with OFF! Do you get much reading done when you're out on the road?

When I'm home I read the Los Angeles Times at breakfast. While traveling, the majority of the hotel chains provide free copies of USA Today, so I'm going from bland to worse. I start with the sports section for baseball, basketball, and football scores and work my way to the headlines. I did make it about three quarters of the way through Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance, and her story was so boring I had to stop reading it. She's a great political figure, but it's Wonder bread and Kraft cheese slices compared to In-N-Out burgers. The last book I raced through was John Doe of X and his co-writers’ Under The Big Black Sun. What I really appreciated was the involvement of other musicians who were part of the L.A. punk scene in its infancy, teenage, and adult years being allowed to contribute their stories. Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s both wrote fun and enlightening stories, as did Jack Grisham, who is the lead vocalist of TSOL.

My Damage covers several decades of Southern California's punk history. Are there any other memoirs or books on the same scene that you'd recommend to someone who enjoyed your writing on the subject?

My recommendations would include Brendan Mullen and Mark Spitz's We've Got The Neutron Bomb; Don Snowden and Gary Leonard's Make The Music Go Bang!Slash: A Punk Magazine From Los Angeles 1977-80, edited by Brian Roettinger and JC Gabel, Violence Girl by Alice Bag; Lexicon Devil by Brendan Mullen with Don Bowles and Adam Palfrey; Live At The Masque by Brendan Mullen and Roger Gastman. You've read the name Brendan Mullen quite a bit here, as he was pretty much our gang leader, president, mayor, main man, party meister, and [who was] singlehandedly responsible for many of us being the delinquents that we were. He also played the biggest role in Jim Ruland and I writing My Damage. I wish he were here to read it! R.I.P., Brendan Mullen… if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be responding to these questions!