Hand Jive

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

The image of a wound-up cat reading from his journal while hipster musicians chase the cosmos conjures images of '50s Beat poet coffee houses, but Morris shrugs off the comparison. "A lot of the early jazz spoken word, the scatting or whatever you want to call it, was like very beatnik, like the bongos, and everyone sitting around smoking cigarettes wearing sunglasses. I didn't even think of it in terms like that. To me, this whole process is so new. I've never been involved in anything like this, so I just go along with it. Whenever I feel like saying something, I just say it. About 75 percent of the time it seems to fall into place."

The 11 pieces -- "I don't call them songs," says Morris -- began to take shape for the recording at Rancho de la Luna studios, located in the California desert. It's the same studio frequented by Queens of the Stone Age and many of the other "desert rock" bands. "They don't like being called stoner rock, and I don't blame them; they're a bit smarter than that," notes Morris.

"We recorded in this living room. It was brilliant. Perfect atmosphere. It was fun because we weren't in a sterile environment. Sometimes you get into a studio and it's like going to the dentist's office. We got there and settled into the hotel. About a half an hour after we were there they had a big earthquake, the epicenter was about 10 miles from [the hotel]. Everything was really moving and shaking.

Keef 'n' the boys: Punk vet Morris dreams up his most skewed ensemble to date.
Keef 'n' the boys: Punk vet Morris dreams up his most skewed ensemble to date.

"I was sick while we were recording. I would be there until seven, maybe eight o'clock at night, and they would just continue playing. We went through 10 reels of tape. It was recorded on tape and then mixed down to computer. All of the final vocals were done on computer. I've always been opposed to that, but you don't know how much time it saves when you have to rewind tapes and everything. With the computer you just punch a button."

The record was completed at producer Tom Grimley's studio located in the American Hotel, situated above famed hangout Al's Bar, in the artist district of downtown Los Angeles. Grimley, who has worked with left-of-the-dial artists such as Kryptonite Nixon, the Rentals, Pop Defect, and even Beck, was so taken by Midget Handjob's brand of verbalizing and improvising that he joined the touring edition of the band. "He plays pot and pans, cymbals," says Morris. "He loves it because he's never heard anything like this, and he's worked with some pretty oddball, wacky musical organizations, like Solid Eye."

Midnight Snack is pretty eventful listening, bouncing around in waltz time, and conjuring visions of crowded urban environs or a New Orleans street band. Morris, in turn, bears a considerable hunk of his soul and reveals much of his history. On "Hurricane Morris," he relates the recipe of the infamous New Orleans specialty drink, tells of his mass intake of same, and the resultant hallucinatory tale that follows is both hilarious and true. Equally real is the harrowing story that begins "Ugly Days," wherein Morris tells of his father who, as a child, happened upon a Ku Klux Klan lynching party while he and his brothers were kicking around a ball after school. His grandfather picked up the family, and moved from Kentucky to California. The gloom this story casts is broken by Morris' segue into the modern day: "And now it's a lousy, cruddy, shitty, ugly, motherfucking nasty day in my goddamn neighborhood! How could they be any less considerate? The meter man-maiden parking-ticket distributor has my car singled out for the Denver boot. It's a long-haul tow, and this really blows!"

Anyone who has seen the Circle Jerks knows that these kinds of spontaneous raps are as much a part of Keith Morris as are punk anthems like "Beverly Hills." Will the Jerks' fans make the transition to the older, ever-so-slightly mellower Morris? "It's a departure, and a lot of people aren't going to get it," he says. "You would think that a lot of the punk-rock kids would be open-minded enough to accept something like this, but at the same time, what can you expect?"

Having won a two-year struggle with diabetes and an emergency appendectomy, Morris is nothing if not optimistic. "It's been pretty amazing, because I thought there was going to be a big backlash of all of these people that hated it, because it is pretty out there, and very far removed from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. But, at the same time, I welcome it, because it's a whole new thing. It's cool. So what if it's not like '1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4'?"

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