will wash away

ron emory's lovely green gretsch. also, his tattoos.
tsol @ reggie’s, 2011-05-14

When I try to talk about the TSOL show I went to last week, I usually resort to repeating stories I’ve read in books. Early LA hardcore, I love it to distraction, but I wasn’t there. I don’t have first-hand knowledge; I have legends, anecdotes that have been passed down and which show up in old zines and new oral histories. I’ll say I went to see TSOL, and the person I’m talking to gets this look on their face, like they know that band but they don’t know why. To catch them up on the band, and on the show, I tell them this story:

In the early 80s, in LA/OC, TSOL was drawing bigger crowds than Black Flag. There was this one show, early in 83*, somewhere in Hollywood**. Like all other LA hardcore shows of the time, it was oversold, maybe 3000 kids there, maybe only 2000.*** Regardless, the cops showed up in riot gear, because that’s what cops did in 1983. TSOL’s frontman, Jack Grisham, said, “hey, everyone sit down, the cops won’t fuck with us if we’re all sitting down.”

…and they all sat down.

It sounds sort of stupid, I think. So they sat down, so what? But take a second and try to imagine it actually happening, because I sure as hell can’t. I can barely imagine 30 well-behaved kids sitting down just because someone told them to, let alone ten times that many. And punk rockers? Fuck that. It would take one hell of a frontman to pull that off.

One thing you should know about this story is that Grisham is the one who tells it most often, and so you have to take it with a few licks of salt. There are, however, glimmers. He definitely told the kids to sit down. Many of them did. All of them? I don’t know. Let’s say most of them. But then someone shot off a fire extinguisher, and the punks panicked, thinking it was tear gas. Grisham decided that rioting was more fun than not rioting and told the punks to go after the cops. That ended as well as it ever did.

In 2011, in Chicago, the riot police did not come to the TSOL show.**** Capacity at Reggie’s is 450, and I don’t think it was sold out. But I’m reasonably sure that if Grisham had told us all to sit down, we would have done it. I’m also completely sure that I have seen a lot of frontmen tell a lot of crowds to stop throwing shit at the stage, and this is the only time I’ve seen it work.

It’s difficult to talk about charisma or stage presence. How do you quantify it? I mean, I can say that I buy the story of the punks sitting down in a way I didn’t before, and I can say the crowd stopped throwing beer. I can say that Grisham is huge (like the rest of the dudes in that band, for that matter), 6’3″ or so, and he prowled around on stage with this off-kilter smile on his face and he made the stage look tiny, like it couldn’t contain him.

As for the rest of the band, Ron Emory is some kind of guitar genius***** and — okay, sorry, Mike Roche is the regular bassist, but Shane Haddock was filling in, and it took me like a week to realize that, but whatever. I thought he did a great job, managing to hold everything together through a fair number of crazy tempo changes. The drummer, a dude who is apparently named Tiny Bubz, is hilariously fun to watch. He’d bounce a stick off one of the toms and send it ten feet in the air, and he’d still be drumming with the other hand and the kick would be going, and he’d snatch the stick out of the air and go right back into it. During one long drum solo, the rest of the band watched, drifting to the edges of the stage to let him have it all, their grins getting wider and wider until they were doubled over with laughter. He did a lot of other tricks, too, and unlike other drummers I have recently seen who are great fun to watch, he’s also a fantastic drummer.

TSOL hasn’t played Chicago in ten years, and the crowd was pretty thrilled to see them. I wasn’t any different, hanging on the front of the stage (and can I say, Reggie’s, the lead pipe rail may match your decor, but it hurts like a motherfucker) and shouting the lyrics along with Grisham and my fellow fans as the band slammed through their songs. I have no idea about a setlist, but I know it included “Sounds of Laughter,” “World War III,” “Abolish Government/Silent Majority”, “Wash Away,” and also many other songs. And as always, they closed the main set with the grand “Code Blue” singalong. The audience part goes like this: AND I WANNA FUCK, I WANNA FUCK THE DEAD. We sang it happily, as one, straining for the mic.

As if that weren’t awesome enough (come on, does it get better than the necrophilia singalong??? Unlikely!), Grisham talked to us a lot, and built up a great sense of community in the room. Usually when someone tells us stories, they just tell us stories, but there’s a lot of back-and-forth with Grisham: People would shout things at him and he’d stop, make sure he understood, repeat it for the crowd and give the audience the chance to respond before he took over again.

I don’t remember all the things he talked to us about. The setlist (“you know, they write these fucking things out, but I can’t see ‘em”), his daughters (“my kid goes to school now, and the teacher asked her what her dad does: ‘oh, he hates the government and sings in a punk rock band’”), hating the government (“yeah, you fucking punk rock anarchists think abolishing the government is a great fucking idea until the power gets shut off and you have to drink warm Coors”). He also mentioned the American Hardcore documentary. Someone in the crowd yelled “STEVE BLUSH IS AN ASSHOLE” and I yelled “FUCK YEAH” and there was a lot of hilarious solidarity in the crowd about how much we disliked that guy. It’s not often that I feel part of the hardcore community, but right then, I did, and it felt like home. It was exactly right.

Small handful of half-decent photos are on flickr, as usual.

And that brings me, at long last, to the second part of this post.

title: An American Demon
author: Jack Grisham
other shit: 2011, ECW Press. 351 pages.
rating: 4.25/5 safety pins

cover of an american demon

I didn’t know that Grisham had written a book (I also didn’t know he did a reading the afternoon of the show, or I would have gone) until Emory mentioned it on stage, and so of course I bought a copy. I read it quickly, in a day or so, and I think it’s going to be with me for a while.

As I’ve said, if you spend any time with the history of LA hardcore, you hear stories about Grisham, some of which I’ve mentioned or alluded to, the ones about his terrifying charisma. I have not mentioned his equally terrifying sociopathy; those stories are just as prominent. The relentless, senseless violence (“I was torturing this guy in the garage…”); the misogyny (gang bangs, mistreating groupies, kicking his very-pregnant girlfriend in the stomach); the grave robbery and desecration (“Code Blue” is probably a joke.); the vandalism and burglary and drugs and alcohol and sex with underage girls. The charisma is true, and these stories are true, too.

And now there’s a memoir!

Except… it’s not a typical memoir. It’s nothing so predictable as, “and then I sobered up and realized what an absolute motherfucker I’d been and I’m very sorry and now everything is great.” There aren’t gossipy details about the other punks on the scene, and it wouldn’t be of much use to someone interested in straight-up historical facts about the early days of hardcore.

Instead, it’s a fucking trainwreck, a deceptively dense piece of disordered, dissociative compulsively readable brutality. It’s a memoir, sure, but it’s told from the [first-person] POV of a demon who inhabits Grisham’s life and his world, that stultifying suburban sprawl of 70s/80s Orange County. It’s sort of a mythic shithole, frankly, the American Dream gone wrong, the hippie utopian dream collapsed, the economic shambles of gas lines and government cheese, of unused swaths of tract housing, boring-ass music on the radio, and everyone pretending everything is juuuuust fine. The suburbs always have hidden a multitude of sins; here, they hide a host of demons.

Maybe Grisham exorcises his demon (i.e., himself). Maybe not. For what it’s worth, I think he has, but it didn’t happen in the book. It may have happened with the book, because this is a purge if I’ve ever seen one, but it doesn’t happen in the book. There’s a moment at the very end, a final fuck-you send-off after a lifetime of them, and maybe that’s what other reviewers are called the redemptive moment of this redemption story, but I’m not buying it. There’s no redemption here. The decision to change is a crucial first step, but it’s the first step. It’s not all the steps. It’s not the change itself. It’s a beginning, not an end. And that’s how this book ends: with that beginning.

Then what? As recently as 2009, Grisham was living out of his car behind a Starbucks; it’s not like he said he was sorry and he decided to change and then everything got better. Is that okay? Did he get what he deserved? Where’s the redemption? Is such a thing even possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sure he does, either. There isn’t any justification in this book, no apologies or moralizing or guilt. It is what it is.

I don’t know that I’d call it light reading, necessarily, although the style is conversational and keeps things rolling at a pretty good clip. I likely would have read it in one sitting if I’d been able to stomach it, but I had to put it down a few times and walk away. That’s what I meant when I said it was deceptively dense: It comes across as a pretty easy read, you know, “hey, punk rock shenanigans and the author says ‘fuck’ a lot! Sign me up!” But there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that, and it should come with a list of trigger warnings a few miles long.

If Grisham has reformed or repented even half as much as he claims (I believe he has, although I’m also cognizant of the fact that that’s one of Grisham’s things: you believe him, you come back for more) this cannot have been an easy book to write. That’s quite probably why the demon persona is there. It gives everyone a little much-needed distance, enough of a buffer between you and what’s going on in the book that the atrocities are bearable. It does get a little heavy-handed and pretentious at times, though. There’s a little too much pseudo-mythological God stuff in there for my tastes, and then there is something about how he’s basically the #1 demon. Not a surprising statement, really — he’s arrogant; that’s another thing you hear about him — but one that mostly just made me roll my eyes. Of all the things to romanticize and blow out of proportion. You’re the worst thing out there? I don’t think so. Bad, yes. Worst, no.

Anyway. My final verdict is that it’s well worth reading if you’ve got a strong stomach and a love of trainwrecks.

* 8 January.
** SIR Studios, on Sunset Blvd.
*** Social Distortion played this show. The other bands there were Redd Kross, Los Olivdaros and Toxic Reasons.
**** Though apparently the LAPD has still got it.
***** He has a solo album out called “Walk That Walk.” It has Mike Ness on it! (Also Tim Armstrong.) I bought it at the show, but the jacket was empty when I got home. I’m currently waiting on the replacement, and so I cannot tell you without reservation that it’s awesome, much as I’d like to.


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