Book review by Jason Reed
February 25, 2017
I had the pleasure of seeing Keith Morris and OFF! perform at Sweet Springs Saloon in Los Osos California on November 11th of 2016. It was a packed, sold out show, no small feet as many of the local music cognocenti already had tickets to see critically acclaimed Toro Y Moi performing in their small neck of the woods the same night. Those that made it to see Keith were not disappointed in their zero sum game gambit.They quickly knew that they had made the right decision and that their investment was going to pay dividends.
Earlier that evening Keith had performed a reading of excerpts from his new co-authored autobiography entitled “My Damage” to an enthralled crowd at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo where I had the chance to meet him, get a couple of my vinyl records autographed and, more importantly for the sake of this article, pick up his new book.
Co-written with Jim Ruland, Keith Morris’ “My Damage” offers a compelling confessional of someone who is looking back on years of self-destruction and missed opportunities, tempered with the satisfaction of recognizing his own frenetic accomplishments and resiliency. Keith’s recollections offer a photorealistic and satisfying snapshot of the LA area in those formative years. It isn’t hyperbole to say that there were times when Keith’s descriptions were so vivid that I felt like I, too, was barreling down the street in a car driving to my dealer to score my next hit or rushing off to my next concert gig. And yet, the figurative landscape of the book provided other satisfying rewards as we get a sense of the larger socioeconomic milieu in the music scene that made Keith the independent and fractured individual that he was prior to obtaining sobriety, ultimately becoming better able to conquer his youthful bacchanalian impulsivity, and able to grab (and hold onto) the strings of opportunities around him.
Fans of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and OFF! will find this book indispensable in providing insight into the psyche of one of the modern punk era’s most iconic figures. However, these very fans may be ravenous to consume more of the salacious stories than are fully served up here. Although there are, indeed, stories to be told, one also gets the feeling that Keith isn’t someone who normally “kisses and tells.” No doubt he is probably sparing some of his cohorts a great deal of unnecessary embarrassment here, further iterating that Keith wasn’t one to “fuck over” his friends (or even his enemies for that matter) out of anger or jealousy. One also gets the sense that even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t allow himself to fall into a pit of victimhood where he extends blame onto others. There is an existential self-awareness here in which he seems to recognize that he’s the one with the hands on the steering wheel of his own destiny.
Readers who want to learn more about the larger music industry state of affairs from the 1980’s into the early 2000’s will get some satisfying tidbits in Keith’s accounts of navigating the corridors of major record labels, rubbing elbows (but, luckily, ethically disinclined to grease any palms) with numerous predatory industry people around him. Keith describes his own jaunts in the profession of music representation and management at a time when big labels were still bankrolling bands and the lucre flowed freely after the “rush to sign the next Nirvana.” There are multiple glimpses of missed opportunities here in which Keith and his much deserved associates could have hit payday and become amply compensated for their efforts. And yet, Keith recounts the ways in which these potentialities were just outside of his grasp, tauntingly close yet frustratingly unattainable. Despite the recalled disappointments, there is minimal bitterness or acrimony. The world that the author portrays is a yin-yang of polarities in which many industry folks prey on the talented and there’s always the danger of “crossing over to the other side” where one’s morality may be summarily compromised. It’s really no surprise which side Mr. Morris has staked his claim in this mutually exclusive proposition.
At various points in the book, Keith takes on the role of a world-weary punk senior statesman, as though he was instructing us about important life lessons and pitfalls for us to look out for ourselves, without being preachy or patronizing. If there was anything lacking in the narrative, I would say that at times it felt like there’s a protective shell around certain aspects of Keith’s psyche. One gets the feeling that Morris is not someone who normally likes talking about himself (his detractors may very well say otherwise but I see no evidence here of narcissistic self-gratification). So the mere existence of this book is no small feet. Still, at times certain aspects of Keith’s identity feel kept at arm’s length. It is at that point that I yearned more for outside accounts and testimony from others (biographically) about their perceptions of Keith during these various stages of the singer’s life. Perhaps future biographies by other authors may shed light on this.
Although it will sound cliche given that “My Damage” is a rock autobiography, Keith displays a passion for music that appears to weave through every thread in the tapestry of his life. Keith is quick to express his opinions about music and, seemingly, holds nothing back in this regard. Keith freely cites his dislike or disinterest in a number of bands without ever sinking to the unbecoming status of being a “hater.” Luckily, in “My Damage” there are also tidbits of innocent love scattered throughout the pages, where Keith mentions his early musical infatuations ranging from Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Procol Harum, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Edgar Winter, Kiss, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, to Iggy and the Stooges. In interviewing countless musicians through the years for this site and public television, I’ve learned one secret that will almost always get my interview subjects to open up: If I can get a musician talking about the music of their youth (first albums ever purchased, first concert ever attended, etc.., I can usually sidestep any pretense and tap into something innocent and pure. Similarly, it is in such halcyon segments of the book that we get a sense of the tough, scrappy, yet wide-eyed and receptive “inner child” that still resides in Keith.
Although understated in its emphasis, the author ultimately conveys a sense of satisfaction in his life by the time the reader reaches the final pages of “My Damage.” In some respects I, too, got my “happy ending” without any further words needing to be massaged by the author. There is optimism in this veteran musician, finding passion and energy touring and creating new music with the guys from OFF!, yet mindful and appreciative of the mortality and limits that he must work within as a recovering alcoholic, addict and diabetic. The conclusion of the autobiography gave me the distinct impression that Morris has found a level of creative synchronicity, gratitude and good fortune at this stage of his professional career that there still lays a tabla rasa in front of our beloved punk pioneer for him to populate his cathartic creations onto. I felt genuinely happy for him. I am optimistic that the years to come with bring some good things from Keith as he has found his second wind and his heart beats with fire and resolve, no entropic inertia anywhere to be found.
Despite it’s substantial exposition (just shy of 300 pages),”My Damage” is a book that even someone who doesn’t view themselves as “literarily inclined” could easily devour in a few reading sessions. That’s not to say it’s a “simple book” to digest. It is chalk full of juicy, filling stories about the early LA punk scene, yet maintains its balanced diet by various warnings about not taking one’s nine lives for granted. Morris’ straight forward prose dispenses with pretention or unnecessary narrative. It is direct. In your face. Authentic. Just like Keith Morris.
We’re giving it a 4 out of 5.
To purchase a copy of “My Damage” (in either paperbark, hardcover, digital download or audio CD formats) on Amazon.com click here.