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Getting Ready for a Gathering of Rebels

Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks will be one of the performers at this Saturday's celebration of all things punk.

September 12, 2002|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Keith Morris is wondering whether being included as one of the patriarch acts on a show marking 25 years of punk rock might have some negative implications.

"Is that 25 years too looong?" he asks, eating a Caesar salad on a restaurant patio in his Silver Lake neighborhood.

The lead singer of the Circle Jerks raises his eyebrows above his round glasses and under his long dreadlocks as if daring a retort that perhaps it has been too long.

Well, it is long enough that the daylong concert on Saturday at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion will encompass a complete generation turnover. The bill runs from the Sex Pistols, who set the U.K. punk standard in 1977 with spitting fury and spiked-hair and safety-pin styling, to Los Angeles' new keeper of the flame, the Distillers, whose leader, Brody Armstrong, wasn't even born when Sid Vicious died in 1979.

It's long enough that it doesn't seem incongruous that the show's very title bears both the name of a corporate sponsor ("Don't forget the word 'Levi's,' " Morris sneers on first mention of the show) and a catchy tag title ("And don't forget the words 'Inland Invasion,' " he adds).

It's long enough that the once-rebellious music is safely entrenched in the mainstream, with such bands as the Offspring and Blink-182 (who are both playing Saturday) having sold millions of albums, and long enough to have spawned sub-genres, sub-sub-genres and sub-sub-sub-genres.

And it's long enough that Morris himself has gone from his late-'70s days of singing with the first version of Black Flag in whatever South Bay hole they could talk their way into, to recently getting a job in the very music business that he once disdained--and that disdained him.

Today he's a talent scout for V2 Records, the company owned by Virgin founder Richard Branson.

But too long?

It isn't too long to prevent Morris from attending the show not just as a performer, but also as a passionate fan.

"I believe there are 17 bands on the bill, and I'm a fan of 15 of them," says Morris, whose severe health problems due to adult onset diabetes a few years ago has dimmed neither his wit nor his enthusiasm. "I've seen the Sex Pistols twice and they're amazing. I saw the Buzzcocks three times--they're brilliant. I saw the Damned a bunch on the Warped tour and they're amazing."

And it's not only the older acts that attract him.

"The Distillers are a great band," he says. "I liken Brody to a punk-rock version of Janis Joplin."

Morris hardly will be alone. The show has sold more than 40,000 tickets to the open-air San Bernardino County amphitheater, more than Ozzfest recently drew to the same location.

The lineup has few holes. There is heavy presence of both the English old guard and the Jerks' fellow Southern California first-generationers ranging from urban bohemians X to thoughtful aggressors Social Distortion and Bad Religion to '80s Orange County skate-punk icons the Adolescents, TSOL and the Vagrants. And at least most of the newer bands follow in the progenitors' traditions, if sometimes only superficially.

And the sponsorship?

"This isn't one of those scenarios where I have to say something politically correct and put down Levi's, is it?" he says. "I've heard all these kids complaining. But the Buzzcocks did commercials. Iggy Pop had 'Search and Destroy' in a Nike ad. I'd rather hear that on TV than some new band I don't care about."

What bothers Morris is not commercial tie-ins, but commercialism at the core of music, something that troubled him about some of the younger bands he saw when the Circle Jerks joined the Warped tour this summer.

Few of these acts, he felt, had any sense or appreciation of the social circumstances and political issues that fueled punk in the first place. "They're boy bands with guitars," he scoffs. "If they were in car crashes and had severed limbs, they'd still be out there smiling. It's as if they don't have any real-world experiences."

It's just the sort of thing the Circle Jerks made a career of spoofing and deflating. Combining cutting sarcasm and furious, economical aggression (the band's first album, 1980's "Group Sex," spewed its eight songs in just 16 minutes), the Jerks' music has always been marked by a guileless immediacy and a refusal to mince words.

For Morris' tastes, many of today's bands seem only concerned about business affairs.

"We didn't pay attention to any of that--Billboard charts, sales," Morris says. "We were just happy to be playing music, to load up the van and get out of town. We weren't interested in the business aspect."

And it's not that different now that he's in the business.

"I work for Jon Sidel out of his house," he says, referring to V2's West Coast head of A&R. "The idea is, let's keep away from the creeps. And when I say creeps, it's us vs. them, that mentality."

*

Levi's Inland Invasion with the Circle Jerks, the Sex Pistols, the Damned and others, Saturday at Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, Devore, 11 a.m. $35. (909) 886-8742.

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