TSOL's Jack Grisham Looks Back on 32 Years of Hero Worship and Riots

Jack Grisham: The "closest thing you could get to a cult leader."
John Gillhooley

Ask anyone to describe legendary West Coast punk outfit TSOL, and along with tales of larceny and a fast, "dark punk" sound with chorused-out guitars, they'll tell you those guys were huge: Drummer Todd Barnes was the shortest at 6 feet even; guitarist Ron Emory is 6-foot-2, and bassist Mike Roche towers at 6-foot-4. Singer Jack Grisham stands 6-foot-3.

Back in the '80s, TSOL caught a lot of flak for being too good-looking for a punk band. As Grisham says now, he much preferred being a fit surfer/skater and "pulling prom queens."

Probably the best demonstration of what Grisham can do onstage happened on January 8, 1983. At SIR Studios on L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard, TSOL were headlining a show; fellow OC punks Social Distortion and L.A.'s Redd Kross were also on the bill.

The riot squad was outside, as per usual with punk shows back then, and they weren't happy.

But Grisham wanted to make them work for it. And so, during his band's set, instead of ordering the crowd to throw bottles and engage in general chaos (as he normally would have), he told everyone to simply sit down. That way, he thought, the police would have to take the time to drag kids out of the place one by one.

"And it was, like, on key, 2,500 punks dropped to the floor," Grisham says. "That's a lot of power. There are guys in politics that'd love that kind of power, but I didn't dig it. After that, people kept screaming, 'Jack, tell us what to do!' There was a backlash. 'Jack was God.' And 'Jack was my hero.' And I didn't want anything to do with it."

Of course, the peaceful sit-in idea didn't work for long: With Grisham's battle cry — "Let's get 'em!" — the crowd ended up surging into the street, and then the bottle throwing and bodily injury started.

Just a few days after he'd incited what came to be known as the "Sunset Riots," Jack Grisham quit TSOL.

What followed was a twisted path of drugs, violence, plenty of gratuitous sex (once with an 80-year-old woman), alcohol, and a spiritual awakening. After he left TSOL in 1983, Grisham went on to front other bands: Cathedral of Tears (Grisham's "mass-market, chicks-are-going-to-dig-this pop band"), the Joykiller, Tender Fury.

The original TSOL lineup reunited in 1999, with the exception of the now-deceased Barnes. The band remain successful to this day — with a brief hiccup that can be called the Great Schism of TSOL, when two different versions of the band were in existence, often playing in the same town on the same night.

Everything you've heard about TSOL is true: vandalism, grave-robbing, ripping their equipment off from Long Beach churches (the back of 1981's self-titled EP thanks the church PA).

In "Code Blue," one of TSOL's best-known tracks, Grisham's theatrical croon makes necrophilia sound cooler than wanting to be sedated.

"Jack is a punk-rock Elvis . . . but he wasn't that great of a singer," says Jerry Roach, legendary owner of the also-legendary Costa Mesa punk venue the Cuckoo's Nest. "Can Tom Waits sing pretty, or Bob Dylan? You don't have to be a good singer. You have to sell it — and they'll follow [Grisham] anywhere. He's a force even today."

Vandals bass player Joe Escalante calls Grisham the "closest thing you could get to a cult leader."

In early 1978, a friend of Grisham's returned from a stay with Adam Ant in England — a trip expensed by one of Grisham's many grifted credit cards at the time — and he brought back a tip: Grisham had to start painting his face white for shows. Grisham complied, and soon after, so did his followers.

It got to the point where Roach put up a sign inside the Cuckoo's Nest banning all "white faces."

With a reputation like that, it's not too surprising that Grisham, 49, is now an author.

But what is surprising is the kind of book he has written — not a simple, self-indulgent aging-punker memoir, but a melded work of fiction and nonfiction driven by the classic struggle of the hero versus the anti-hero, of good versus bad, of hope versus the dark fucking bottom of the barrel of debauchery. In An American Demon, Grisham lays out the story of his life as a brutal tale told from the perspective of a demon — himself — and includes his transformation into humanity.

"I'd never tried to write before," he says, "other than a little poetry. And, you know, how many words does it take to say, 'Fuck the government; give us free cheese?' What is that? Seven words? Give. Us. Free. Cheese," he says, ticking them off on his fingers.

After a walk in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, he had a different idea.

"It was supposed to be 'Gimme stories of violence, TSOL, Orange County.' That's what the publisher wanted. I actually wrote a whole book about it and threw it out," Grisham says. "I've never done what I've been told to do."

And that's one reason Grisham's so respected by his peers in the punk community. Duane Peters, skateboarding's resident punk and front man of U.S. Bombs, says he thinks Grisham is one of the most important guys in the OC punk scene.

"[TSOL] had a great presence — they blew everyone away. Jack is one of the guys I truly admire. Just a really, really great front man — and there are so many bad ones!" Peters croaks in his signature raspy voice. "He can really captivate an audience and doesn't think twice about lighting a kid on fire and shit. He's great."

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