Music History

Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris Told a Story of a Decapitated Truck Driver in a My Chemical Romance Song

Keith Morris (second from right) and his band Circle Jerks play Dallas on Sept. 1.
Keith Morris (second from right) and his band Circle Jerks play Dallas on Sept. 1. Atiba Jefferson
Talking to Keith Morris feels like listening to your war veteran grandfather tell cool stories about giving a fascist a swirly shortly before he stormed the beaches of Normandy with the grace of a GigaChad.

The formidable punk rock vocalist has a rich backlog of stories going back to when he cut his teeth in the then-burgeoning Los Angeles punk scene. He made his first foray into this circuit when he cofounded a humble band of artsy fledglings called Black Flag and got commissioned to be the first of the band’s many vocalists based solely on the strength of his rendition of The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” during a jam session.

This cemented Black Flag as an icon in a scene that boasted other greats such as the Germs, X, The Gun Club, Bags, The Screamers, Fear and Catholic Discipline. Many of these bands were costars with Morris in The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary often credited with raising the acclaim and notoriety of the hardcore punk scene among an otherwise uninitiated audience.

Morris starred in this movie shortly after leaving Black Flag and starting another band with members of Redd Kross, the Circle Jerks.

One year after Morris did vocals for Black Flag’s inaugural release, 1979’s Nervous Breakdown EP, he did vocals for the Circle Jerks’ first full-length, 1980’s Group Sex. Both releases are considered to be among the greatest achievements in all of punk music, and for good reason.

Needless to say, these credentials have given Morris a hell of a life. In his 66 years of existence, he has amassed bragging rights that transcend his already stacked CV: He sang “Roll Over Beethoven” on stage with Chuck Berry, who was himself a fan of the Circle Jerks; he is one of the few people in existence to get a Germs burn from Darby Crash, which puts him in a considerably exclusive club given that Crash died at 22; and he (allegedly) smoked crack with David Lee Roth.

Still, Morris says when one record label executive tried to sign him back in his salad days, the bigwig thought that he wouldn’t even live long enough to recount such stories as he does today from the comfort of a Doubletree Hotel in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

“He said, ‘I’ve got to sign you before you kill yourself,’” Morris says about the late David Anderle, who worked as an A&R representative at A&M Records. “So that’s when he went to the roundtable, and they said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s not going to happen.’”

Morris has been telling vivid variations of this same story during various dates of the Circle Jerks’ ongoing tour, which hits Dallas' Granada Theater on Sept. 1. To enrich the ambiance, he even tells the story right after the band plays house music from legendary jazz trumpeter Herb Alpert, who co-founded A&M Records with Jerry Moss in 1962.

Circle Jerks eventually signed with Faulty Products, which released the then-pending album (1982’s Wild in the Streets) exactly 20 years later.

“What happens with these record labels is they see one of the labels sign a band like this, and then all of a sudden, all of the other labels start sucking up all of the other bands,” Morris says.

His experience as a professional artist notwithstanding, Morris is no layperson when it comes to how the record sausage is made. Morris himself worked as an A&R rep for Richard Branson’s V2 Records, and it led to one of the least likely interactions between him and one of his potential gets: My Chemical Romance.

In 2003, Morris’ boss advised him to go to a My Chemical Romance show at a small ballroom with a capacity of roughly 500 people.

“When they started playing, the whole place just went fucking apeshit, like, OK, this is the new, young punk rock,” he remembers. “They became huge. More power to them.”

My Chemical Romance would ultimately secure a deal with Reprise for the release of their subsequent album, 2004’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, but in his individual capacity, Morris still played a role in its recording process.

The way both Morris and the band have told it, MCR rhythm guitarist Frank Iero saw Morris at a convenience store shortly after that gig. It was there that Iero asked Morris if he could contribute vocals on the record in exchange for monetary compensation and Chinese food.

Morris thus collaborated with the band on their track “Hang 'Em High,” contributing backup vocals toward the end of the song and offering an indecipherable spoken word piece in the middle of it.

The spoken word portion of the song has been a source of mystery to fans of My Chemical Romance, but as Morris revealed, the monologue recounts a story Morris’ dad told him as a teenager. Per the story, a truck driver refueled his truck at a truck stop and simultaneously tried to change a flat tire. The tires, Morris says, were held by metal pins. As the truck driver attempted to remove the metal pins, a vehicle part somehow shot from the axle and decapitated him.

“I told them, ‘This is the story that I want to tell,’” Morris says. “I told them it was a story my dad told me when I was 14 or 15, and I never forgot it because of the way my dad described it. I told them, ‘This is my spoken word. I’m just going to describe what my dad told me.’ And they said, ‘Fine, that’s great.’”

Although a considerably left-field collaboration for Morris, his work with his more recent band OFF! is steering even further away from the hardcore punk orthodoxy with which his fans are accustomed.

“What happens with these record labels is they see one of the labels sign a band like this, and then all of a sudden, all of the other labels start sucking up all of the other bands.” – Keith Morris

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The band’s upcoming LP is titled Free LSD, and if one of the teaser tracks is a sign of what’s to come, it’s aptly named.

Simply titled “F,” the track has the same brevity as other OFF!, Circle Jerks and Black Flag tunes, but shows a clear predilection toward the avant-garde jazz tendencies of artists like Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, and the tape loop sounds of Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Songs on the album like this were written as incidental music for an upcoming movie of the same title that will feature the band and be released almost in tandem with the album. Morris says this change in style came after the band listened to avant-garde jazz artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra, and industrial/noise acts such as Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten and Hunting Lodge.

“We were listening to all of the stuff that we weren’t supposed to be listening to,” Morris says.

The band will embark on a tour that will swing through Dallas’s Deep Ellum Art Company on Oct. 28, less than two months after the Circle Jerks’ Granada show.

An exhausting undertaking, no doubt, but two shows in two months is nothing to Morris, who had just recently returned from Europe at the time of our conversation and will be gearing up for an Australian tour shortly before OFF!’s tour.

One of Morris’ fondest memories of Dallas involved his playing two shows in the area. This two-night stand took place at a venue called the Circle A Ranch, which was located on Commerce Street, directly west of Deep Ellum.

“There was a view of the grassy knoll from upstairs, so we were all kind of excited about that,” Morris says. “We were on a tour where we play a night and then we wouldn’t have shows for a couple of days. What would happen in those couple of days [is] we would ask the promoter if we could play an all-ages show.”

To make North Texas warm and receptive to yet another twofer offer of his, Morris partakes in the local language by spitting venom at a common enemy: DFW International Airport.

“That Dallas airport is terrible,” he says. “Every time, it’s like, ‘Well, your gate is here, but your connecting gate is eight miles away.’”

Circle Jerks is playing Granada Theater on Thursday, Sept. 1.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.