SUNSET BEACH — Jack Grisham is a self-confessed troublemaker, an inveterate, excitement-craving rock 'n' roll bad boy whose unpredictable, sometimes violent behavior and rabble-rousing stage exploits have been the stuff of legend on the local rock scene for more than a decade.
But sitting over a pre-concert dinner recently, the strapping, handsome lead singer of Tender Fury insisted that he has changed. At 28, Grisham says, he has turned into a sober professional.
One of the reasons Grisham cites for his more dependable approach these days was sitting across the table from him, wearing a floppy billed cap and a perpetually crooked grin.
"With Hunt I've gotta be good," Grisham says. "I can't (mess) around. I can't go and pull some crap."
Hunt is Hunt Sales, a 34-year-old rock veteran who has played drums behind Todd Rundgren and Iggy Pop and is currently a member of David Bowie's new band, Tin Machine. Sales produced Tender Fury's hard-hitting new album, "Garden of Evil," and over the past few weeks he also has been playing live shows with the Long Beach-based band--including a concert tonight at the Coach House.
Working with a rock pro who started out at 15 (Sales and his brother, Tony, the bassist for Tin Machine, first appeared playing on Rundgren's debut hit, "We Gotta Get You a Woman") may have had a settling effect on Grisham. Something had to.
Dating back to his days as front man for the punk rock bands Vicious Circle and T.S.O.L., Grisham's ledger is full of what he calls "sketchy" behavior. There was the time Grisham locked T.S.O.L.'s equipment in his garage because he didn't want to go on a road trip, threatening to call the police on his band mates if they retrieved the gear. Or the time he punched the boss of T.S.O.L.'s first record company in the nose in a dispute over royalty payments. Or the time Grisham lobbed a speaker at Tender Fury's former bass player, Robbie Allen, in a fit of not-so-tender fury, scoring a direct, injurious hit to Allen's back. And then there was the time that Tender Fury's members all quit the band in disgust after a fearful Grisham vetoed an already-booked national tour at the last minute. "It was hard for me to leave the house for more than 24 hours then, I was so (messed) up," Grisham said. "I would have had a nervous breakdown before we got to Barstow."
"Living was my problem," he said, reflecting on his erratic dossier. "I had a life problem. If things were going good for me--that tour deal--I'd (mess) it up. I was beating up on myself. I stopped all that and realized I want to play."
Grisham says the most important change came 13 months ago, when he quit drinking alcohol and taking drugs after about five years of heavy abuse.
"That's made all the difference," he said. "I don't do the sick stuff I used to do, and it's made me a better performer." Nevertheless, Grisham says he still can be a rabble rouser--as he showed on stage in a reunion show by the original T.S.O.L. late last year.
"You take a drunk horse thief and sober him up, and you've got a sober horse thief," Grisham said with a laugh, explaining that he's still excitable.
Some substantial changes are evident in the lyrics Grisham wrote for "Garden of Evil," Tender Fury's second album. The group's 1988 debut album, "Tender Fury," was a strong, catchy record, but Grisham now disowns it because of its subject matter: nearly every song was about the war between the sexes being fought dirty, with sometimes grim male retribution (even so, the album avoided crossing that thin line where harsh realism turns into exploitative sexism).
The first album took that half-comic, half-angry slant because "I was (messing) up so many relationships, and I thought it was (the women's fault)," Grisham said. "A lot of those songs bring up bad memories. A lot of that is sick stuff--beating on women, sleeping with underage girls. I'm not into that anymore, and it's hard to sing them with conviction."
Instead, Tender Fury has been playing short sets devoted to the songs from "Garden of Evil." While not strictly autobiographical, the album's themes arose from personal issues Grisham said he had to confront to break out of his drug problem. The record is full of portrayals of crumbling, distorted family life. In "Travel Lodge," a girl destroys herself with drugs while her parents remain too wrapped up in their own pursuits to notice. In the strange, Oedipal tale "Dining at Diane's," a son follows in his alcoholic father's footsteps--right down to starting an affair with dad's mistress, who also happens to be mom's good friend.