Keith Morris waves the FLAG at Riot Fest this weekend
Keith Morris (far right) is still waving the punk FLAG after all these years.
Black Flag paved the way.
It's no exaggeration to say that the circuit of underground touring in America would not have happened as early as it did — or perhaps at all — without Black Flag opening the routes for so many bands, punk and otherwise, to follow. Along with guitarist Greg Ginn's record label, SST, Black Flag helped establish an ethic and aesthetic that remain influential today, far beyond even the band's music. Keith Morris was there when the group formed in 1976, and is undeniably influential in his own right. Just don't call him a singer.
"I think that's the proper way to describe what I do, rather than, 'Well, you're a singer,'" Morris declares. "No, I'm not a singer. I'm not gonna croon to all the girls and get them wet between the legs and get them excited so they want to go home and have sex with their boyfriends or throw their panties at me on stage or what have you. I'm not a singer; I'm a vocalist. I'm a screamer, and a yeller, and a shouter. I get red in the face, and then I turn blue in the face. I actually ache afterwards from headbanging and all of that fun stuff.
"Here's the brilliant thing about what we're doing," he goes on. "I've had people as far-reaching as Los Lobos, Ryan Adams [and] Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes tell me how much they appreciate what we've been doing. When you listen to them, obviously you don't hear any strands of what we're doing running through what they're doing. It's very far-reaching. We struck a nerve; we hit all of the right chords for all the angry youth out there. It was never like some huge, great payday, but it has allowed us to survive. It has allowed some of us to not have to bow down to a boss. It has allowed some of us to not have to punch the clock at 9 a.m."
After leaving Black Flag in 1979, Morris went on to have further impact as one of the founders of Circle Jerks, and these days, he's getting plenty of fulfillment as the frontman of OFF! But at an outdoor show in Los Angeles in 2011, Morris and original Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski discovered a mutual enduring interest in their old band. "The opening band was Ceremony, who are a really cool band from San Francisco," Morris recalls. "Our friends No Age, who adhere to the all-ages-or-nothing mentality, invited Chuck and I to come and sing and play some songs with them. So we got up, and the place went crazy; all the kids — when I say kids, the average age was maybe seventeen or eighteen, so I guess it would be easy to call them kids — went apeshit. It was nuts; the vibe completely changed. Chuck and I were witness and part of a couple of performances where this happened.
"The second one was at a big party down at the Santa Monica Civic," continues Morris. "Gary Tovar at Goldenvoice was doing a thirty-year anniversary party. The Descendents were headlining the last night, which was a Sunday. Gary asked Chuck to give a speech, and Chuck said, 'No, I play music. Let me play some music.' So he called me and he called Billy Stevenson, who was already going to be there with the Descendents. So it was easy to get Billy and Stephen Egerton to play a seven-minute set of early Black Flag songs in front of about 4,000 people. That place also erupted into just a giant barrel of monkeys. Everybody was having a great time, and it seemed apparent to Chuck and I that we needed to have a meeting of the minds and see if we could maybe continue doing this, because between the two shows, we had such a great time. It was kind of inevitable; it would have been ridiculous for us not to do it."
Thus FLAG was born.
"Those first couple of shows were pretty much the Nervous Breakdown EP," Morris points out. "Of course, now we've added more songs to the list and dug a little bit deeper and reached out a little bit more. Now Dez-o is part of the band. Rhythm guitar. He was the third vocalist. You have to understand that in the first four years, there were three vocalists. I took up space for the first three years, then Ron Reyes showed up for six months, and he bailed, and then Dez Cadena came in. That's pretty much the history of the early guys. Then you had Henry Rollins, who was the main vocalist and probably the focal point of the band for I don't know how many years.
"But we're having the time of our lives," says Morris without reservation. "For one thing, we're all friends, and we have the opportunity to hang out with each other. Billy, out of all of these people, is the guy I've known the longest. I've known Billy since he was about seven and a half or eight years old. Billy just kind of wandered into my dad's fishing tackle shop down in Hermosa Beach. I'd known him for about four or five years, and one day it was just Billy and I in the shop, and something was blasting out of the radio that shouldn't have been blasting out of the radio.
"When you're in a store open to the general public, you don't want to be offensive to them unless they're assholes. I was playing Ted Nugent or Black Sabbath, or somebody from that piece of fabric. Billy kind of perked up and asked, 'Well, who's this?' I named them, and he asked, 'So who do you listen to? Who should I be listening to?' I just started rattling off a bunch of names, just stuff off the top of my head that I was listening to at the time. Even Cheap Trick, who obviously became a very big influence on Billy's direction in music with the Descendents."
As one of the most formidable and ferocious frontmen in music today, Morris continues to have influence. But to maintain this sort of presence is something you have to work at, he says. It takes dedication. "You have to understand that the music is very energetic, and it takes a certain level of athleticism. You don't just jump up there and do it. You have to kind of whip yourself in shape by rehearsing the songs, blasting them, going through the set four or five times. The fuel for me is the fact that I love what I'm doing.
"We talked about this earlier with not having to bow down to a boss or punch a clock," Morris continues. "There's a certain vibe that happens when you're playing — not only among the guys in the band, but the people that are there who are witnessing it. At some point, they almost become part of the performance. There's something really exhilarating and really great being able to yell and scream, 'I hate you! Fuck you! Get out of my face!' We're very fortunate that we're allowed to do that, because there's a lot of people that don't like that. There's a lot of people who are complacent and want to stay in their little cubicle. There's a lot of people out there who want to walk around with a box on their head.
"So that's what inspires me," he concludes. "There's an anger and an energy. I'm making enough to pay my bills, but I don't have enough spare cash to sit on a guy's couch and tell him all my problems. That's what keeps me going. The world is my couch."