It seems a little hard to believe these days, but there was a time when music was really threatening to people. Not in some Marilyn Manson/KMFDM raincoat mafia or profanity-laden, smack-my-bitch-up manner, but simply by its being. It was more akin to the Jets and the Sharks; the very existence of these individuals seemed a threat to as well as an indictment of their way of life.
It’s been so long since punk was anything more than a style of music that it’s easy to forget that–in its nascence–this expression of social dissatisfaction actually frightened people. And perhaps nowhere was this as strongly felt as in California, with bands like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Minutemen, X and The Circle Jerks leading the charge.
Absent from this list is TSOL, who, at the time, were as popular as any of their SoCal peers, and probably twice as crazy. Authors of songs like “Abolish Government/Silent Majority” and “Property is Theft,” they were one of the most popular L.A. area bands in the early ’80s. Led by singer Jack Grisham, theirs was a furious, leather-jacketed punk rock machine, with Grisham showing himself to be a true madman, stalking the stage as if possessed, climbing light stanchions, throwing himself and equipment from the stage–a real rebel without a pause. (“Henry Rollins once told a friend of mine that I was the only guy who he would be ‘scared to be in a fucking room with,’” Grisham says.)
Referring to those early years, Grisham says, “What was going on then was akin to these kids going and shooting up a school now. People are so fucking shocked by that. That’s how it was for us on a daily basis. Just the way we dressed or the fact that these kids would have the nerve to say, ‘Fuck the government; we’re not paying our taxes, we’re not going to school.’”
But Grisham quit the band in 1983, just as punk and the underground movement was beginning to filter into the Midwest and into smaller cities. He was replaced by Joe Wood, his brother-in-law, who took the band on an ill-fated metal mission that tainted the group’s legacy. Now, 10 years after their last release, TSOL has cut the ties to their hair metal past and returned to their eviscerating punk guitar sound, and–with Grisham back on board–resurrected one of rock’s most outrageous frontmen.
“We were punk,” Grisham says, talking to The Independent by phone from a venue in Minneapolis. “None of us were going to have jobs. There was no way. We weren’t going to learn how to pay our bills. We were going to end up in prison, dead, or in an institution. That’s just the way it was, and that’s exactly what happened. … I’ve tried to hold jobs; I was an actual mailman. It only lasted for a couple months. I lost the vehicle; I was just clueless. I mean, one day, I turned around behind me and watched my mail truck go rolling away down the street.”
Indeed, it was Grisham’s own predilection for drugs and alcohol that led him to quit the band in the first place. “At first I didn’t care because I was drinking a lot. You know? So when I stopped drinking, that’s when it sank in,” Grisham says.
“The whole big deal about this band is we’re a total underdog, anti-elitist band. A lot of bands talk about it, but we really put our money where our mouth is. Like, we’ll play a show and they’ll pay us $5,000 and the next day we’ll show up and play in some kid’s living room for five bucks. We don’t care. We love it, playing and trying to include everybody. We’ll grab kids from the shows and take them with us for a couple days. We’re easily accessible. We give out our phone numbers, and tell people where we live. Our whole trip has been a non-hero trip, that’s what we stood for. Then later on when those guys went through the metal years, it got into some fucked rock star thing. I hated it, I couldn’t stand what they did to the reputation of that band,” says Grisham.
“A lot of bands, like Social Distortion and Bad Religion, nowadays people look at those bands and they’re like, ‘That was the stuff.’ But at the time they were second-bill bands.”
The band reunited in 1989, but it was short-lived, because while Grisham had gotten clean, none of the other band members had. It was only after one member was arrested, and another died of an overdose (drummer Todd Barnes) that this changed, and paved the way for the band’s current reunion. It started with a show in 1999 at an art gallery with old-school L.A. punks The Urinals and The Weirdos. Next thing they knew, they were on the Warped Tour, bringing to life the same frenzied stage show they were known for in the early ’80s.
A cop “favorite” for much of his life, Grisham attributes it to the fact that for him, there is no line. “There never was a line–I’ve had therapists tell me I was a sociopath,” he says of his onstage antics. “It’s like, ‘I don’t understand, I don’t get it.’ I have to have somebody tell me, ‘Hey, please stop now,’” he says. “We walked off the stage at Warped Tour, and Kevin [Lyman, Warped Tour founder/promoter] said to us, ‘Great show, the cops want to see you,’” Grisham recalls. “They were throwing condoms on stage, so I picked a condom and I said, ‘Do you know how hard it is to get hard on stage with people watching? I’ll give someone $50 if they get up here, jerk off and get it hard and show us how to put a condom on properly.’ So this kid jumps on stage, pulls his pants down and starts jerking it off. They wanted to get me for soliciting prostitution, because I was going to pay the kid $50 to see him jerk off.”
Grisham goes on to relate an incident from this year’s tour when he gave a 12-year-old a beer: “It was funny. But it turned out there was an undercover cop inside the place, and they don’t take contributing to the delinquency of a minor very coolly in Texas … so I had to run out the backstage of the club while we were playing,” he says.
So, while age hasn’t mellowed Grisham’s sense of outrageousness (“My 13-year-old daughter is more mature than me,” he admits), it has tempered his perspective. “At the time, we thought the band was the only thing,” he says. “Now you realize that it’s just a band. Yeah, some of the ideals we talk about and believe in are really important and they’re everlasting, but a band is just a fucking band.”