It's been a good quarter-century-plus since punk rock raised its snarling li'l head and slammed out those loud, fast chords and rimshots heard 'round the musical world. So, like, dude, time to grow up already, right? Hardly. As the folks who make Vans will happily (and profitably) tell you, punk rock is still the howling voice of disaffected (or at least trend-affected) youth, even if the Sex Pistols did play the Trump Marina Casino in Atlantic City earlier this year.
But a listen to and talk with the original T.S.O.L.--True Sounds of Liberty, in the long form--proves that punk rock can grow up and neither burn out nor fade away, hey hey, my my. Nearly 25 years ago, the band sprung up from within Orange County's endless summer of teenage discontent to usher in a second wave of American punk that still echoes from such star descendants as the Offspring. Despite a history that's checkered if not shredded--way too many drugs, one death too many and the descent of its service mark into '80s heavy metal stoopidity--its three surviving members regrouped a few years back to reclaim their tarnished legacy. And even polish it back up to a spitshine with the ultrasonic potency of slamdance rocking.
"The only reason they haven't done a VH1 special on us is that we never sold any records," says singer Jack Grisham with a chuckle, citing "the insanity, the arrests, the drug problems, the underage marriages." And the booze, fights and prison time. But what made T.S.O.L. significant wasn't their truly delinquent, if not downright anti-social, behavior. ("We were basically: You don't want to run into these assholes.") Rather, it was the way they blasted out of the ultimate Southern California suburbia in 1979 and brought the suburban kids with them into the movement. They did it with their relentless yet tuneful buzzsaw sound, anthemic songs and a near-anarchic onstage presence. These strapping, good-looking lads also broadened the male-dominated hardcore punk scene by seducing the young gals into the clubs. By 1981, they were headlining The Hollywood Palladium over soon-to-be far bigger bands like Social Distortion and Bad Religion.
T.S.O.L. plays November 28 at the Live Room as part of the Vans "Off the Wall" Club Tour.
But by 1983, it all began to crumble. Grisham left the band and spent much of the rest of the decade wallowing in what their local weekly paper dubbed "the three V's: vodka, Valium and violence." Drummer Todd Barnes exited soon after. And then, as T.S.O.L. descended into becoming a rote hard-rock act with a punk edge (and some moderate success), guitarist Ron Emory and then-bassist Mike Roche quit the group. By the end of the decade, a version of T.S.O.L. was recording and touring without one original member. When the founders reunited briefly in 1991 for some shows and a live album, they couldn't even use their own name.
Grisham laughs about a recent review "that said, 'These guys have taken off their leather pants and stopped shaking their asses, and now they're playing punk rock.' People don't know the story. They don't know what it's about. I don't blame 'em. It's not a school test," he insists. "But it was two completely different bands."
Grisham ended up getting clean and sober nearly 15 years ago. Emory and Roche wound up in prison. And Barnes landed in the grave, dying from the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse in late 1999.
That same year, Grisham was asked to sing some T.S.O.L. songs at a gallery show of punk rock poster art. Roche was out of prison "and stopped by the studio where I was working," explains Grisham, "so I asked him to come play bass. He told me Ron was cleaned up and out of jail. I said, 'Let's get Ron, too.'
"We just went over to this art exhibit to have some fun. And we played a couple of songs. And then someone saw us there and said, 'Hey, would you guys like to do a tour?' And we said OK and did a tour. Then someone else said, 'Hey, would you like to put out a record?' And it's like, yeah. And that's really how it started. We never got back together. We're still not back together," he insists.
After all, stating that fact just might kill what's been reborn. "If we're back together, there has to be a plan. And if there is a plan, someone has to be in charge. And we're not very good at making plans and being in charge. So all we're really doing now is casually dating," quips Grisham. "And we just happened to do some tours and go to Europe and put out a couple of records while we are doing it."
Though less-than-fond of Disappear, T.S.O.L.'s 2001 re-entry offering, Grisham says he's chuffed with Divided We Stand, released two months ago. And he should be. It bears the original T.S.O.L. stamp of catchy sonic slugging and middle-finger-atop-a-fist defiance in the lyrics but with a focus and finesse from maturity to match the fury and a return to the initial prime directive: fun, fun, fun, surf-punk style. Yes, the disc has its whiffs of retro, but compared with much of today's paint-by-numbers punk, it plays as downright refreshing.
"You just do this to have fun," asserts Grisham. "And it's supposed to be fun. And if we can get out on the road and maybe run into a few people we can help or whatever, then great. Then we're doing it right."
Which doesn't mean that Grisham lacks a serious side. One of this year's biggest jokes was the motley crop of contenders in the California gubernatorial recall contest. And the punk rock singer's entry into the fray alongside Arnold, Gary Coleman, a porn star and other assorted Cali-style oddballs may seem par for the race. But for Grisham, it was an earnest effort to make a difference.
"I couldn't afford health insurance for my family. So it was basically just a public forum to say, 'Hey, look, the health-care system in our country is a mess.' Especially in California, where we have the sixth-largest economy in the world and we can't take care of our own people. The funny thing is, I was the only candidate that was even complaining about health care," he laments. "And then right after the election, a huge grocery strike goes on in our state, and one of the main reasons they're striking is their health-care situation. It's a mess."
Grisham--a once-notorious bruiser who might also handily challenge the Terminator to a slugfest--finished 34th out of 135 in the election. "I ended up with a few thousand votes, which was good because I didn't treat it as a joke. I wouldn't even talk about my band. Like, they'd say, 'Hey, you're in a punk rock band.' I'd say, 'So? If I was a plumber, would we be discussing the toilet I just shoved in today? No. That just happens to be my job. And right now, we're talking about this.'" He views the experience as a positive one and admits he just might run for a legislative seat one day. "I was probably more legitimate than the majority of people they have up there. At least you know what you're getting with me."
And where T.S.O.L. was once a gang of pissed-off thugs to be avoided anywhere but the stage, "in contrast to the past, we're now known as one of the nicest bands around," Grisham claims. Then again, they have nothing to prove these days except when they are onstage. "We've done enough. Hey, we don't have anything to prove to you, man. We just want to have some fun, and this is what we're going to do, and if you like it, you like it, and if you don't, you don't."
It's an attitude he feels is diametrically opposed to what he sees far too often in today's "punk" bands. "They'll do whatever to reach their end goal, which nowadays when a band gets together is radio, record sales and stardom. And that wasn't what we were in it for.
"Don't get me wrong. I love money. I love spending it, and I spend it like a 'tard," he asserts. But Grisham says he makes no money as yet from records and comes away from their tours with just a bit more than chump change. "I recently figured it out that I make something like 69 cents an hour."
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The careerism and competition in some punk scene quarters today differs greatly from the milieu that T.S.O.L. emerged from, as Grisham sees it. "We all encouraged each other to have a cool band." He recalls the Los Angeles and Orange County area in the late '70s and early '80s as "a great breeding ground for the sound. In an epicenter around my house, you've got the Germs, X, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, T.S.O.L., Agent Orange, the Adolescents, China White, the Vandals--on and on."
And like many musical movements before and since, it left its share of casualties on the battleground. When asked why he got clean and survived while drummer Todd Barnes--still admired in some quarters for his innovative stick'n'skins contributions to the punk rock oeuvre--didn't, Grisham attributes it to the "X factor" of sobriety. "Call it God or whatever you want."
Prior to cleaning up, Grisham simply says of himself, "I was fucked. When I'd be in trouble before, I'd say, 'Fuck everyone. I'll fucking show you.' That's how I used to think. All of a sudden one day I'm saying, 'You know what? I'm in trouble. I'm sorry. I'm going to clean this up.'" A daughter, now 16, was a big factor in the change.
"Somehow my thinking switched," he concludes. "Todd's never did. You can't make people get that. Some people get it. Some don't. I got it. Todd didn't. And Mike and Ron got it. We were lucky to get three out of the four of us."