Keith Morris is annoyed with himself. It’s just after nine on a Monday morning in Los Angeles and he is still in bed, having missed an email confirming our interview. “I'm seven minutes late,” he grumbles. “Normally, I'll be the first guy to the party.”
That isn’t an idle choice of words. Morris, the founding vocalist of both Black Flag and Circle Jerks, two of the most important bands in American punk history, has been sober for decades, but his younger self went hard every chance he got. Take, for example, the Black Flag’s first show at a real venue.
It was a Saturday night early in 1979 and the band, led by guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn, booked the Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach. By load-in, Morris had cleared a couple six packs. Black Flag’s set of gnarly proto-hardcore was so short they decided to both open and close proceedings, sandwiching performances by local bands the Alley Cats and Rhino 39. That was the plan, anyway.
In reality, Morris got 86’d after the first set for pulling a giant American flag from the wall and throwing it around. The veterans at the Lodge, from the wars in Vietnam and Korea, from World War II, maybe even World War I, didn’t like that at all. Luckily, they also didn’t recognize him when he came back in disguise for the night’s capper, borrowing a flowing wig from bassist Chuck Dukowski’s girlfriend. Some in the crowd of a couple hundred cursed him out for looking like a hippie. He didn’t care.
“If the crowd’s going apeshit, I know something's happening,” Morris says, his voice halfway between surf-bum and attack dog, all long, patient vowels until a sentence’s rat-a-tat-tat payoff. When he was up there, at the Moose Lodge, at punk hideouts like the Masque, at a party in someone’s backyard, at a basement kegger, even during a now infamous family fun day-turned-riot at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach, something was guaranteed to happen.
That hasn’t really changed. Today, Morris is still playing wild shows and doing weird stuff. Once he gets off this call he’s going to head out for a meeting about a sci-fi movie he’s making with his band OFF!. It ties in with their recent record Free LSD, a convulsive late career masterwork that melds outright fury with instrumental wigouts and lyrics that traverse conspiracy theories, dark-underbelly hippie shit, and the CIA’s plans for mind control through the medium of psychedelics.
Personally, Morris only remembers doing acid twice. One time someone dosed the barbecue sauce at a cookout and he spent the evening watching continents form in the cracked plaster of an apartment ceiling. The other time, his friends got his Coca-Cola during a day out. “It was at an amusement park called Disneyland,” he says. “I had a brilliant time. It was amazing.”
Morris turned 67 in September of 2022. Picture him: dreadlocks, saggy cap, tombstone grin. His performance on Free LSD is powered by the sort of sarcastic, abrasive fire that he was bringing to Black Flag songs almost 50 years ago, perhaps proving that you do not outgrow the particular strain of anger and frustration that fuels his antic stage presence. “That's the foundation, but we're building a house,” he says. “Let's make it a three storey house and paint it chartreuse with black trim.”
When Black Flag first started in Hermosa Beach back in the mid-1970s—initially going by the name Panic, which has often been observed to be a perfect catch-all for their belligerent music—Morris looked like what he was: a Budweiser-chugging, cocaine-fuelled, speed-freak burnout in jeans that didn’t fit. The band, meanwhile, played relentless, aggro songs that lasted two minutes max and drew polarizing responses.
The punks in Los Angeles hated Black Flag. Their scene was about weirdo art, and fashion, and pop culture. It was the Screamers, and the Go-Go’s, and X, and the sardonic, barbed words of Slash magazine. It was frazzled and funny, and gonzo in a way that bands in London and New York could never get a handle on. Black Flag was none of those things. They were suburban, and angry. “There were all of these people walking around who were on their high horse, who were letting everybody know what was cool and what wasn't cool,” he recalls. “I don't need that. I'm quite capable of making up my own mind.”
Morris and his bandmates were real outsiders—kids who’d get the shit kicked out of them by jocks, not stylized, safety-pinned provocateurs. Ginn might have been a truly confrontational guitar player but he was also a straight up nerd, a gangly kid who liked the Grateful Dead and ran a mail order electronics business. “We’ve always traveled our own path, littered with the dead bodies of people who at one time were the punk rock police,” Morris says, with more than a hint of satisfaction at the body count.
The punks in Los Angeles might have hated Black Flag, but Black Flag was undeniable. The first song on their first record says everything about what they represented: Ginn’s guitars buzz and scrape over a machine gun snare as Morris drawls, “I'm about to have a nervous breakdown.” It’s aggressive and snotty and nihilistic, it’s fun and it’s dangerous. A minute or so later, his voice distorts, betraying both his effort and the rudimentary recording equipment available to the band, as he yells, “I just want to die!” And you’re like, “Hell yeah, man.”
Morris wasn’t in Black Flag for long—three years, give or take—but nobody else could capture the feeling of wanting to climb out of your own skin quite like he could. Standing five feet, five inches tall, he took Ginn’s attacks on their stultifying existence in the suburbs and made them flesh and blood. He found a way to crystallize the rage that comes with being bullied and ignored.
Morris was born on Sunset Boulevard on September 18, 1955. His mother was 18-year-old Maudena Caldwell, later of the teletype department at the Los Angeles Times, and his dad, Jerry, was a tough dude out of Chicago who was raised in Tennessee. “He 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,” Morris wrote in his autobiography. When Keith was getting roughed up at school, he’d keep it to himself in case his old man’s reprisals made things a lot, lot worse.
For much of his late adolescence and early 20s, Morris worked at his father’s bait shop, interspersing that with ad hoc shifts at a record store, where he first ran into Ginn. The pair bonded over a love of music that dug so deep inside them that it bordered on an obsession. This was perhaps the only place where their personalities overlapped, but it was enough.
While Ginn prioritized rigorous rehearsals and a sense of DIY savvy behind the band’s business dealings—he started SST, eventually one of the most storied labels in punk rock, to handle their first EP after growing tired of dealing with Bomp! Records—Morris was driven by uncut mayhem. When they parted in 1979, it’s no surprise that Black Flag became more intense, more lacerating, and Circle Jerks became California’s go-to hardcore band for a good time with their seminal debut Group Sex.
The suggestion behind this binary is that Morris is not a serious person, but that’s not accurate. He speaks about music with the zeal of a true believer and the knowledge of a university librarian. Across the street from his dad’s shop on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach sat the Lighthouse Café, a world-renowned jazz club where Jerry, a die-hard jazz head and hobbyist drummer, once sat in with the legendary Elvin Jones. His son was paying attention.
All these years later, Free LSD is home to jazz freakouts, driven by guitarist Dimitri Coats and drummer Justin Brown, who normally plays with the virtuoso bassist Thundercat, that hold a mirror up to these moments in Morris’s formative years. His dad might have hated the heavy rock and punk his kid gravitated towards, but young Keith absorbed every skittering off-beat.
In making this record, he and Coats bounced from videos of Haitian Vodou rituals to Ravi Shankar and the German experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten. In talking about it, Morris takes you on a similarly head-spinning ride, spiraling off into lists and asides like he’s throwing records at you from across the room, pleading with you to catch one of them for your own sake.
“We have a certain thing that we do, that our fans want from us, but we're gonna go to some places that we're not supposed to go,” Morris says. “That's our decision. That's not a decision that's made by anybody else. We got into discussions about Miles Davis. I was very fortunate in my musical adventures; I had a period where I was listening to jazz fusion—the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever with Chick Corea and Al Di Meola.
“On a whim, I decided that I was going to go see Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters at the Santa Monica Civic, and as it turns out, Miles is playing with them. It's like, 'Okay, now I'm getting educated. Now, I'm being taken to some place that I've never been before.' If I had told him that I went and saw Miles Davis, my old man would have bought me a steak.”
Morris’s own music has given a few folks a similar sort of education. Where punk had been known for its sneering attitude, its pogoing, and gobbing, hardcore was faster, more physically punishing. Very few bands had this antagonistic blend down like Black Flag. The kids in California were early adopters—Middle Class, out of Santa Ana, hold a disputed claim to the first hardcore release with their sub-five-minute 1979 debut EP Out of Vogue—and the music’s brutish sound was reflected in a changing crowd. “All of the skate kids were starting to get attached to punk rock because of its aggressive energy,” Morris observes.
Slamdancing, stage diving and the free-for-all of the pit became the focal point for a lot of fans. In its ideal form, the pit is a self-sustaining ecosystem defined by respect as much as physicality, but violence quickly became a badge of honor. In Los Angeles, the uptick in shows and the accompanying carnage drew the attention of the police department, who notoriously followed Black Flag everywhere, kicking off riots and assaulting punks with regularity. In response, Ginn penned a song called Police Story. Released on Black Flag’s debut LP Damaged in 1981, when the band was fronted by Henry Rollins, their fourth vocalist after stints from Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena, and accompanied by an incendiary sleeve from the group’s resident artist Raymond Pettibon (who also designed their iconic ‘bars’ logo) it neatly distilled his feelings on the running battles that attended his desire to make music: “Fucking city is run by pigs, they take the rights away from all the kids.”
On one occasion the cops raided the New Masque club in Hollywood, causing what Morris has described as “a really fascist scene” by demanding IDs and, eventually, dishing out beatings. He slashed the tires of a police cruiser in retribution, only to get collared, choked out while handcuffed, and hazed at the county jail. It soon felt like they were under attack from all sides. “All of a sudden we had all of these punk rock gangs, and with that came the violence,” he says.
“What happened was, there were all of these bands that were starting to spring up down in the South Bay, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Huntington Beach, Orange County,” he adds. “We have all of these younger dudes who skate. If you look at slamdancing, it's basically a guy on a skateboard without a skateboard. I appreciated that until it got to the point where the fights would break out.
“We had this rash of jocks that would show up, there's this whole new group of people coming in. I guess their mentality was 'fuck shit up': if that guy elbows me in the face, I'm going to kick his ass. That guy kicked me in the back of the leg, I'm going to kick his ass, or that guy stepped on my foot, I'm going to kick his ass.”
This shift was particularly galling for Morris, who had spent his youth getting clubbed by the same sort of jocks who were now attending his shows. “That's when I got turned off by all of it,” he says. “Jump around, get loose, get excited, let off steam. But that's not an excuse for you to be getting violent with anybody.”
Once Morris was out of Black Flag, he kept going. He left of his own accord, tired of taking orders from Ginn, who would have soon pushed him out anyway after growing similarly tired of his pharmaceutical lunacy. Forming Circle Jerks with Greg Hetson, former guitarist of Redd Kross and future Bad Religion member, Morris endeavored to create an atmosphere that was all fun, all the time.
Released in the fall of 1980 by Lisa Fancher’s fledgling Frontier label, Group Sex is every bit as good as Black Flag’s work from the period, thrashing through 14 songs in 15 minutes and change. For starters, it’s more melodic, and funnier. Three years on from Circle Jerks’ reunion tour to celebrate its 40th anniversary, it still rages. It’s the sound of people moving on while being cognizant of that fact. To Morris, it’s the sound of home. It’s the sound of kids from the South Bay who grew up in perpetual motion
“We come from this place where you just go for it,” he says. “Oh, there's waves. Let's go surf. Oh, there's no waves. Let's skate. It's freezing cold, we can't surf, the streets are wet, let's go up to the mountains to ski. You gotta keep moving. Our freeways are now clogged up, but at one time the minimum speed you would be driving would be 70 miles per hour. We have this zoom-zoom-zoom-zoom, go-go-go-go mentality. That's where we come from.”
At his core, Keith Morris is still that guy. Forty six years after he first picked up a microphone and decided to get some things off his chest, he’s still kicking against expectations and moving to his own beat. He’s older, definitely a little wiser, but he’s still a subscriber to the chaotic spirit of punk rock. If a crowd is a pool of gasoline, he is a walking match.