Hand Jive

Punk legend Keith Morris battles back illness to emerge with a spoken word/musical hybrid and a talented oddball ensemble

Within the combat zone of punk rock, growing old, and yes, even growing up, can be painful, sometimes troublesome. How does one do it? Reunion cash-in tours (Pistols, Damned), movie careers (John Doe, Henry Rollins), the college lecture circuit (Jello Biafra, Lydia Lunch, the ever-versatile Henry Rollins), or the more seemingly rock 'n' roll choice of an early death (too numerous to roll call) can all be seen as viable solutions or easy outs, depending on your viewpoint.

Punk vet Keith Morris has opted to unleash his latest ensemble, Midget Handjob, as a means of keepin' on. The new group is touring to promote its debut Epitaph Records release, Midnight Snack Break at the Poodle Factory. Morris was the original lead singer in Black Flag, prior to Dez Cadina and Hank Rollins, and was the only front man for the hard-core cutups known as the Circle Jerks. Midget Handjob -- the name in itself is a mutant variation on the Circle Jerk, when you think about it -- combines Morris' well-respected verbiage with free-swinging, genre-busting music. Backed by an ensemble wielding homemade percussion, saxophones, guitars and bass, Morris tells tales of his life, his trials, his fuck-ups, his family and his future. It's spoken word with highly imaginative musical backdrops. It's beatnik meets Miles meets Burroughs meets the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And it's thoroughly fuckin' punk rock.

Though Morris is a diminutive guy, he built an onstage reputation as a hyper-energetic fireball. During the past few years, the dreadlocked roaring lion found himself having to turn it down a few notches as the result of ill health. In a very real way, this unfortunate turn of events led to the beginnings of Midget Handjob.

"That's pretty accurate," Morris confirms between bites of fruit and salad at lunch. He's a punker who now watches what he eats. "Because I had diabetes, I got to the point where I lost 40 pounds. There was no way that I had the energy to do the punk-rock thing. I couldn't jump around and be the punk-rock, studly superstar that I was before. Everything just kind of worked out the way that it's worked out."

Looking for other ways to express himself besides screaming through a mike in front of a line of Marshall 100-watt half-stacks, Morris began reading from his notebook on occasion at small gatherings. "It's been a very organic procedure," he says. "When I first started doing it, I was doing spoken word, and all I had was a boom box with tapes, like stuff from Bug Lamp [an early-'90s hard-rock band Morris fronted]." Morris attended such a gathering at one of his local hangs, a popular Silver Lake, California, diner known as Millie's. "One day I happened upon a party at Millie's restaurant. They cleared out all of the tables, and Jean LeBear was there with his saxophone, and the girl behind the counter played flute, and Craig Grady had all of these percussion instruments. He had this big tree branch with all of these leaves on it that he was sweeping back and forth making this swishing sound, like the wind blowing through the trees. I just did spoken word over it, and everyone was really excited about it. It was fresh, new, different, exciting and vibrant, and I got a charge out of it."

Pumped up about the new forum, Morris saw a fresh means of expression for his work. He was convinced from the start that his spoken word needed to remain in context with inventive backing music. "I always wanted to be accompanied by music. I didn't want it to be like me standing there in the spotlight having to be this amazingly talented, literary, funny comedian, politically correct type character, because I just kind of loathe all of that. We see Henry Rollins, we see Jello, we see Exene, we see Wanda Coleman, you know, all of these different people -- and I'm not bashing them or bad-mouthing them -- but it was just like I felt more comfortable with people blaring away behind me or along with me."

With a blueprint for the new musical format in place, Morris set about assembling the ultimate, uh, Handjob. The band that ended up on Midnight Snack Break at the Poodle Factoryconsists of some of the more imaginative renegades of L.A. underground music. Chris Bagarozzi (guitar/bass) and Jon Wahl (sax, guitar, bass) had logged time redefining American guitar rock in the grossly underrated Clawhammer. Bassist/guitarist Tony Malone had punk cred of his own as a member of De Tox, percussionist Quasar sat behind the kit for Lutefisk, and percussionist/guitarist Kevin Fitzgerald played with skewed roots group Geraldine Fibbers, while saxman Jean LeBear was formerly with international art punks Mano Negra.

"I've worked with a lot of the guys," says Morris. "I loved Clawhammer. Clawhammer is an amazing band, they just never got their due. I approached them, and they were big fans of both Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. We'd get together in Chris' living room and just whacked about, banged on things. Everything just kind of has a flow to it, a groove to it."

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