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.

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.

"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 Factory consists 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."

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.

"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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