Sounds of Liberty for All

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.

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.

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Rob Patterson