The Deciblog Interview: Jack Grisham

Jack Grisham’s place in the world of punk and extreme music is secure. In the early 80s, he was the volatile frontman of T.S.O.L. (True Sounds Of Liberty), a band that along with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks defined southern California hardcore. He handled vocals on their debut EP and the eternal classic Dance With Me (he is credited on the back cover as Alex Morgan). After appearing in Suburbia and working with T.S.O.L. on the more ambitious Beneath The Shadows, Grisham left the band. T.S.O.L. went in a different direction with Joe Wood (see Blues Into Metal 3) while Grisham fronted the goth-influenced Cathedral Of Tears and, later, Tender Fury.
Throughout his teens and 20s, Grisham walked on the dark side: the crimes he admits to in his memoir An American Demon include arson, assault, vandalism, and theft. He also married a teenager in Mexico. The memoir is told from the viewpoint of a demon trapped in human form on Earth, perhaps to allow Grisham to revisit his dark past. It’s a borderline miracle or fluke that he didn’t end up in prison.

Grisham went clean in his late 20s and worked methodically to change his life. He still plays the occasional gig or tour with T.S.O.L but in recent years has reinvented himself, first as a hypnotherapist and, after a stint living in car, as a successful author. His new short story collection Untamed was released last month by Punk Hostage Press. He’s also a recent Decibel contributor: make sure to check out his must read elegy for Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman in issue 105. Grisham recently joined Decibel for a career spanning interview.

I understand you were married recently. Congratulations.

I met this girl (Robin) and it was cool because she had a bunch of kids and I have kids. We weren’t even alone for like a month of seeing each other. It was like a Mafia date — the grandma comes and the Mom and everyone. Remember that scene in The Godfather where he’s walking down the aisle and there are like twenty people walking behind him? That’s what this is like. Our dates were eight to ten people dates. It was like a month before we sat alone together. A lot of our contacts were through texting. I know people talk a lot of shit about that but when you start texting someone when you are getting to know them it’s like writing letters. Y’know what I’m saying?

A lot of great novels were built on letters.

That’s what this was — I can’t even see you and you have to turn me on somehow with your intelligence and wit. These were detailed texts where you get to know the person’s intellect. It was nothing like just drooling over a piece of ass.

I’m wondering if your wife read your memoir before you took the plunge. There’s some heavy shit in there.

Let’s not even talk about my wife. Let’s talk about her family. My future mother-in-law read it and wanted to discuss it. It was really heavy for me. I equate myself with a serial killer when the book starts and her mother read it. She was like, basically, what kind of guy does my daughter have? It was pretty fucking gnarly. If you read the book and don’t know me you will get a bad impression (laughs).

I felt that by the end of the book you reached a breakthrough. But I saw a lot of the reviews — people said Jack is basking in stuff from the past, he hates women, and he’s not nearly apologetic enough. How did you react?

I think some of those comments are from people who aren’t smart enough to understand the book. I hate to say that but it’s true. There’s no glorification in the book at all. It’s really told straight and matter of fact. Here’s what happened. What are you going to do? You are writing from the perspective of a character who is reliving that story. We’re not talking Jack now who has regrets. We’re talking about what that person did, a person who lives a selfish, fuck you, I can do whatever I want and don’t give a fuck how it affects you lifestyle. I’m writing from that perspective. Do they just want me to say “well, I feel read bad about this but here it goes!” That’s not how it was back then. I’m sorry. I was self-absorbed, selfish and totally self-centered. I am writing from a demonic perspective. What do these people want me to do?

Maybe they wouldn’t be happy unless you just flagellated yourself.

Well, there has been a change. People who knew me then and know me now say it’s not even the same guy. There has been a spiritual shift and I’m a new man. I barely even understand how I used to act let alone acted like that person. There’s been such a dramatic shift. Does that make sense?

People have written books about horrible things they’ve done and said it’s hard for them to get back into that mindset because they don’t like that person.

That’s exactly it. The first reviews that came out said it was 320 pages of brutality. And I was bummed. Because I worked my ass off on it and that wasn’t what I was looking for. My publisher, ECW, said it was going to take someone smart enough and brave enough to understand. After that most of the reviews were great.

Our culture demands confessionals. But then it wants to punish people for being honest.

It’s ridiculous. You hear from some people that are like “I love Jesus and I’m all better.” But you look at their lives and they haven’t made any restitution for what they’ve done. I’ve spent the last 24 years, since I was 26 years old, paying back for what I did. This is on a daily basis. I post animal adoptions to try to make up for any harm I did to animals as a kid. I do service work, volunteer in the prisons. I’ve been paying back for what I did, not just with cash but with support. So fuck these people who say where’s the regrets.

One of the bittersweet moments in your book is how you left things with your father when he died. Is your mother still alive and do you have a relationship?

I apologized to my mother when I first got clean. At the start no one believed it . Even when it was a year or two years they still weren’t buying it. They’d think “in a minute we’re going to get the old Jack back.” But then I stayed clean. I started calling my Mom every morning. I’ve called her ever morning for the last 20 years no matter where I am. I just call and say I wanted to check in, I love you and I’m o.k. I have an older daughter in her late 20s who also got involved in speed, the police and craziness. I asked my Mom what she did when I was going through that. And she said, sweetheart, I lay in bed at night and I prayed that you wouldn’t die. That’s fucked to put a parent through that. I owe her for that. So that’s why I call. At one point my Mom tried to take an insurance policy on me just so she could bury me if I died. But they wouldn’t insure me because there was so much cocaine in my blood. They came back and said Mr. Grisham we can’t insure you. For a while my Mon didn’t say anything about it. So finally I said, hey Mom what happened to the insurance thing? Then she asked me to sit down. I thought I had AIDS! My Mom just showed me the test.

When a lot of people talk about punk in retrospect it seems like it was a very meaningful and formative experience, the time of their life. For you, it sounds like a lot of it sucked.

A lot of it was cool. When punk started I was stoked. It was crazy and fun as shit. You’d see people in purple hair and get out of your car and talk to them. It was an instant sense of community. Like anything else, you suddenly had people who said “our town is the best, not your town.” It was really fucked. When it started it was like family. Then it got to “You’re hardcore we’re punk.” It stopped being a family and started getting divided and awful. It was terrible. It became the exact same close minded, intolerant, judgmental things we supposedly fought against. Cathedral Of Tears was my way of saying fuck you to all of that. It was this lounge 80s band. I would wear chick’s clothes. I curled my hair into a perm. I wore Michael Jackson shit. I did anything to bum out anyone involved in punk.

Let’s take a step back and talk about Dance With Me. What do you remember about writing and recording the record?

We did it in two days. All the music was recorded in the first day. It was about eight hours in the studio. The next day, we did all the vocals and mixed it. So basically it took 16 hours to do that record. We already had those songs. A lot of people think we switched from a political punk rock band to like this Goth band. But if you look at the front of the first T.S.O.L. EP you’ll notice I have white face makeup, black around my eyes and my hair is standing straight up. I look like a zombie. They just happened to be political songs. We were playing the songs from Dance With Me for a while. But we gave Posh Boy the earlier songs and saved the later songs to for Dance With Me.

Did you like the Dance With Me material more?

I sang on the first record but the only song really wrote was “No Way Out.” I joined the band when they were writing those songs. I wrote all the lyrics on Dance With Me except for two pieces that were stolen, one that was taken from bits and pieces of an Edgar Allan Poe poem. I had more involvement. But I love all that shit.

What’s your favorite song?

Shit, man. (laughs). I like “Sounds Of Laughter” because it sounds big and there are gaps. They are all good for different parts of the show. Sometimes you need to take stuff down and sometimes it’s heavier. Sometimes you want to speed it up. The songs are for different parts of the show and sometimes we run them all together. I don’t sit and listen to any of them. But performing — it’s “The Triangle” “I’m Tired Of Life” and “Sounds Of laughter.” And “Code Blue” — it’s always fun to see the kids going crazy. Back then, “Code Blue” was just another fucking song. It is about fucking the dead but it was in the middle of the set, maybe third.

The song that always stuck with me was “Silent Scream.”

The lyrics were stolen! It was from a book. Ron (Emory, guitarist) stole them and never told anyway. I knew Ron didn’t know who those people (in the song) are!

What’s the book?

I think I remember the guy who wrote it. But he hasn’t sued us yet and I don’t want him to now.

Dance With Me has remained in print. Do you know how many copies it’s sold?

No and they’ll never tell us. Nobody knows what’s going on with it. Who fucking knows? It’s sold a ton of copies. I don’t even like thinking about it.

Did you have any interactions at all with the death rock scene or Christian Death, who were also from Southern California?

I didn’t listen to gothy death rock stuff at all. I listened to early Adam Ant, early Siouxsie, Sham 69, The Sex Pistols and The Damned. I never heard a whole Misfits song in my life. I know a little bit of that “Skulls” one. I’d see (Roz Williams) around but I never hung out with him. I keep to myself. I never went to LA and hung out. I might check out shows. But I was never trendy. I just wanted to hang out with my friends from the neighborhood and get fucked up and cause trouble.

That regional pride comes through in the book.

I like my community. I was telling someone that the other day. I walk around and know everybody. I walk down to the pier. My phone number is in the phone book. I’m fucking listed. This is my home, my family and my friends. This is what I do. I don’t want to be anything else. It was never my goal to be some rock guy. Some of those people are more concerned with being cool than making music.

When you left T.S.O.L. as the band was just taking off were people surprised?

I wasn’t thinking. I wish someone would have just sat down with me and told me to pay attention. But I didn’t. I didn’t think anything of it. When they said they wanted to use the name I said “big deal.” Someone should have said one day you’re going to regret it. But I didn’t. I regret it now.

Tell me more about Cathedral Of Tears. Do people still talk to you about it?

They ask, although not so much. I’ve done so much shit. I get more people asking me about this band I was in called The Joykiller. They ask me more questions about writing and The Joykiller than T.S.O.L.

Do you go back and listen to Cathedral or Tender Fury?

The only Tender Fury record I really like is the last one, If Anger Were Soul, I’d be James Brown. You can get them for 99 cents on eBay. You’d probably dig it. It was ahead of what followed. It has all sorts of samples and shit. It’s when I started focusing on making music and not just being a drunk fuck making music.

I heard about a lot of the difficulties you had writing An American Demon. How did you teach yourself to write?

Writing songs is way different than writing a book. The bottom line is I took an advance for a book and I spent it. I had to learn to write because I was screwed. I do read a lot of early science fiction stuff like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. And I give a lot of talks. That was it, basically. My ex-girlfriend helped a lot on my first book with editing. I’d write a chapter and she’d grab a red pen. I have the original draft of the book and the first chapter is totally redlined. By the end chapters have one or two red marks. I learned from her how to do things; she was critical at the time.

That’s sort of a punk rock way of writing: just start doing it.

Well, a lot of people do it like that and out comes shit (laughs). There was stuff I had to learn. I would try to not be “by the rules.” But in writing there is a reason for rules. Some rules need to be followed and others can be broken. But you have to learn them first. With music you can be a passive listener. It can be on in the background and you can tell if people are into it. You can see it. With a book you need to have someone sit down, stop and give you all of their attention. I think I got really lucky; the book was well reviewed. I still don’t call myself a writer. It would seem like a lot of ego.

Was the book optioned?

It’s in the long process of becoming a movie, which means hurry up and sit around waiting. A script has been written and it looks like it could be cool. Now we’re waiting for funding, waiting for something to get going.

Weren’t you living in your car in 2007? Did the advance help you achieve financial security?

No. Not even remotely close. I didn’t get an advance yet. There’s been no money given to me for the film. I live my life broke. I tell people that playing hardball basically means you are broke a majority of the time. Who knows? Maybe there is something down the line. You can make money off a book if it is done correctly. For my new book I’m with Punk Hostage Press — a non-profit.

What was it like writing fiction?
It’s still really heavy. But it’s just stories. A lot of them have to do with parts of me. It’s not like I was stretching that far.

What is the status of T.S.O.L.?

We played my book release party. I basically paid my band to play. T.S.O.L. is going to Europe in August. It’s hard for us to tour because everyone has work and families. Maybe we’ll do a week or two of shows every once and a while. I’m going to concentrate on doing talks and readings. That be most of my time.

Do you still like playing with the band?

It’s great. We don’t even practice. We’re like brothers. I hate to say that but that’s the deal. We’ve been doing this on and off since 1981. That’s 30 something years. Sometimes we won’t see each other for a year until we walk on stage. One time, I walked on stage in Idaho and saw Ron and said “let’s start with this.” And no one says it’s bad or that we should quit.

T.S.O.L. probably seemed expendable when you were young and it’s become the thread that’s run through your life.

It’s not that it was expendable I just didn’t think about it. I didn’t think in those terms then. There might have been some intelligence but it was pretty far buried. I was just completely unaware of what was happening around me. I didn’t even think about what would last or what should be protected. It was a minute-to-minute thing. This is what’s going on now. It was all about what was going on in the moment. There was no thought or plan. I just lived for whatever was going on.