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Keith Morris

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Interview with Vermin on the Mount founder Jim Ruland

by on May 17, 2017

Angel City Review is proud to present the first installment of an interview series that will feature exclusive interviews with writers and musicians about the literature and music that moves them. First up we have Jim Ruland, author of the award winning novel Forest of Fortune and the short story collection, Big Lonesome. He recently co-authored Angeleno punk rock icon Keith Morris’ autobiography My Damageand is the man behind the Vermin on the Mount reading series. We talked to him recently about his love for punk rock, Los Angeles, zines, and the future of VOTM.

Angel City Review: What were your first encounters with punk rock and literature? Did your affinity towards both happen simultaneously or at different points in your formative years?

Jim Ruland: The worlds of punk rock and literature seemed very distinct to me and didn’t collide until I started getting involved in zines. A friend in grad school was a lifelong subscriber to Flipside, which was based in L.A. He wanted to move to L.A. and work for Flipside. I told him I thought this was a realistic ambition and put him in touch with my friends in North Hollywood where I’d lived for an exhilarating year after finishing my undergrad. He got the gig and soon I was writing reviews, interviewing bands, and penning my own column for Flipside. Writing for zines gave me access to the music I loved and I quickly figured out that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I was raised Catholic and had served in the Navy, so I was a rule follower by nature. Having the freedom to write in a space where there weren’t any rules was huge for me.

ACR: How much has punk rock informed your style as a writer?

JR: Punk zines are where I cut my teeth as a writer and learned how to write for an audience. There was a time when I wanted to be Kickboy Face but thankfully that was a short-lived phase I outgrew a long time ago.

ACR: Many people feel like music criticism (or criticism in general) is on the decline. What do you think the role of the music zine or blog will become in the next five years?

JR: Zines can be critical but they aren’t criticism. I wholeheartedly endorse the fanzine approach: embrace, document, and share the things you are passionate about. The world is full of weirdoes. Find your people.

ACR: First punk rock show?

JR: The Ramones at the Wax Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1985 (I think).

ACR: At what point did you realize that there were tangible ideological and aesthetic intersections between punk rock / DIY culture and the literary scene in LA and SD?

JR: When Flipside folded, two friends from grad school, Todd Taylor and Sean Carswell, started a new zine called Razorcake in 2001. They kept everything they liked about Flipside and got rid of the rest. We started doing readings around L.A. and found that if we asked people if we could read at their café or record store the answer was usually yes. I had this ongoing series of stories about a punk rock band that was perpetually on tour told in the style of a medieval manuscript. So I went around dressed like a monk’s robe with studded leather Birkenstocks reading these weird hyper stylized stories. In 2002 I set up an event at Track 16 in Santa Monica to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Damned playing for the first time in L.A., and Keith Morris and Brendan Mullen read. We were even invited to open for X at the Knitting Factory. It was all very strange. Todd asked me to set up a reading for the Chicago writer Joe Meno, who was a columnist for Punk Planet at the time, and I thought it would be cool to expand the audience beyond the two or three dozen L.A. punk rockers who were amused by what we were doing and Vermin on the Mount was born.

ACR: Much of the literary canon from Los Angeles is often painted with a sense of dread and vaguely apocalyptic themes. Nathanael West and Joan Didion’s essays come to mind. Did the LA punk scene capture that same mood for you? 

JR: Yes and no. I don’t think the early L.A. punk rock scene (or punk rock in general) was particularly literary, but it inspired some great narrative art that is full of dread.

ACR: How important is it for VOTM to be a place on the periphery of the culture where writers can read, share, collaborate?

JR: I think it used to feel more subversive when Vermin was held in a bar in Chinatown and I had not yet addressed my substance abuse issues, but I remain committed to Vermin being a space for indie and emerging writers. I’m not against mainstream writers (whatever that means) but if I have to deal with a publicist to book a writer for a show I’m probably not going to be interested.

ACR: How did the collaboration with Keith Morris on My Damage come together? 

JR: Everyone asks about that and it’s not particularly interesting. My agent heard about the opportunity and introduced me to the publisher, which is not the way things usually work, but is still not a very good story. Keith has been amazing to work with. The guy has so much integrity. When he commits to something, he commits 100%.

ACR:  So many rock “tell all” biographies tend to fall into the realm of sentimentality and cliche stories of debauchery and eventual cleanse and rebirth. In working with Keith on the book, how up front were you guys about avoiding the pitfalls of the rock bio?

JR: That’s a good question. I think there were some things we didn’t want to do—like we didn’t want to start the book with 75 pages of childhood memories—but I don’t know if we talked about how to avoid the pitfalls of the redemption trajectory. I knew that Keith’s stories would attract a lot of people who aren’t necessarily readers. So we hit on the idea fairly early to write short chapters—like a hardcore song—to keep the reader engaged and turning pages. But one of the myths of the redemption trajectory as it pertains to sobriety is that your life will get better after you get clean. Newsflash: it doesn’t. For many people, things get worse when they stop drinking and/or drugging because now they have to deal with the damage. I think Keith falls into that category. The glory years of punk rock were behind him when he quit and there were some hard years before he started to enjoy success with his band OFF!

ACR: Best place to eat a taco and catch a reading in SD?

JR: Salud in Barrio Logan has the best tacos in San Diego. On the last Thursday of every month So Say We All puts on VAMP at the Whistle Stop Bar in South Park but you better show up early if you want a seat because every show is standing room only.

ACR: Your favorite LA writer of the last 20 years?

JR: Chiwan Choi.

ACR: Favorite LA punk record?

JR: That’s a tough one but my go-to is The Adolescents self-titled debut, aka The Blue Album.

ACR: With nearly every corner of LA becoming more and more affluent these days, does that, in your opinion, affect the music scene in a negative or positive way?

JR: Punk rock has always thrived in the margins. It’s always been informed by class and power. Always, always. When Hollywood was the locus of the L.A. punk scene it wasn’t the Hollywood of stars and starlets but the Hollywood of teen hustlers and junkies. It’s ground zero, The Masque, was a bunker under a porn theater that Brendan Mullen converted into a practice and performance space. Glamorous it wasn’t. But even then you had punk in East L.A. Punk in the beach cities. Punk in the valley. Punk in Oxnard. So it’s a little disingenuous to talk about L.A. as a “scene,” which suggests some degree of homogeneity. It’s just too massive.

ACR: What are you currently working on?

JR: A novel set in near-future L.A. about a woman who works for an underground organization who breaks people out of prison hospitals.

ACR: What does the future hold for Vermin on the Mount?

JR:  I’m always looking for ways for Vermin to be a more meaningful experience for its participants. I’m presently experimenting with podcasts and planning something in the category of an anthology. I recently came to the conclusion that I was holding Vermin back by doing everything myself. I’ve basically been re-inventing the wheel with every show, which is dumb because even with the 13th year anniversary coming up I have no intention of quitting or slowing down. I recently posted a solicitation for volunteers and asked for help. I’m not interested in “taking it to the next level” in the sense where Vermin on the Mount becomes a thing that burns up the time and energy of everyone involved – like so many magazines and websites do. I just want it to continue. If anyone reading this is interested in getting involved in an irreverent, irregular reading series with a punk rock aesthetic, drop me a line.


Follow Jim on Twitter: @JimVermin

Book Review

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by on November 22, 2016

9780306824067My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by Keith Morris (with Jim Ruland)


Keith Morris, founding member of the classic Los Angeles hardcore punk bands Black Flag and Circle Jerks, has just released a new memoir that takes us back to the embryonic days of the Los Angeles punk scene. A career renaissance man, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, charts Morris from his youth in the sleepy south bay town of Hermosa Beach, to his notorious stature as frontman of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, to his battle with diabetes and formation of OFF! My Damage strips away the legend of Morris and sheds light into areas of his life that have been unilluminated until now. With so many rock memoirs being bloated exercises in ego and hyperbole, My Damage takes the road less traveled and paints Morris as humble punk rock guru. The book ultimately solidifies Morris amongst the most likeable guys in a musical landscape that is filled with so many titanic egos.

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor was penned by Morris, with Jim Ruland (founder of local So-Cal reading series, “Vermin on the Mount”) lending a contributing hand. The book is written in a fairly conversational tone, with Morris’s deadpan, self-deprecating humor appearing in flourishes. The delivery is as blunt and direct as Morris’s extensive musical catalog, and Ruland does well here to not obscure Morris’s true voice in favor of more richly stylized prose. The result is a wild and no holds barred trip down memory lane to the beginnings of Southern California hardcore punk, and a look at the life and survival of one of its main progenitors. My Damage is not unlike other rock memoirs. Passages and anecdotes of spiraling excess (Morris smoking crack with David Lee Roth), battles with alcohol abuse, inter-band rivalries, and cautionary tales of the music industry are all here. What separates My Damage however, is the tenderness by which Morris describes his battles with addiction, diabetes, and a world that has been perpetually “up his ass.” Unlike so many of Morris’s peers, his tone is charmingly affable throughout My Damage, which gives it an endearing quality that is lacking in the memoirs of Morris’s peers.

My Damage not only chronicles the personal struggles of Morris, but also charts the nascent hardcore punk movement that helped shape not only the underground and DIY ethos of the scene in Los Angeles, but worldwide. We are given intimate accounts of the seminal Black Flag and Circle Jerks, the untapped promise of Morris’s oft-forgotten Bug Lamp, as well as his late career revival via his current outfit, OFF! For fans of the hardcore punk movement, My Damage provides more than enough to satisfy. Recording sessions for classic records like Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” EP, and the Circle Jerks’ debut Group Sex, are all told in wonderful detail.

Morris also reflects upon Black Flag’s infamous early performances, including the legendary Polliwog Park performance, which cemented Black Flag’s reputation as anti-establishment torch bearers and all-around threat to the safe and sterile Reagan suburbia. Morris also looks back on encounters with the police, with some confrontations resulting in extreme violence and abuse. There are stories of riotous gigs in Hollywood, and of police rushing into venues in riot gear. Through these anecdotes, My Damage proves itself to be a chronicle of a different time, a time that is perhaps hard to understand in 2016, where a punk rock “threat” sounds absurd and infantile. The music Morris made with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, was a very real perceived threat to Reagan’s America, and was truly transgressive on a level that is hard to comprehend.

Lesser known facts about Morris abound here. His somewhat untold story as self-proclaimed “A&R boy” for Virgin Records in the late 90’s and early 2000’s is described in some detail. His struggles adapting to the office world of fax machines, copy machines, and conference calls are particularly comical. His short comments on being sent by Virgin to see a Vampire Weekend showcase in New York City and being so disappointed that he left mid-set because they sounded like “Paul Simon’s backing band when he discovered world beat,” provided some laughs.

Beyond all the band tensions, touring mishaps, stoned rampages, and weighing in on the dross of the music industry, Morris’s fights with diabetes and addiction really take center stage here. In his conversational candor, Morris recalls falling into a diabetic coma in Norway, just hours before he was set to perform with Norwegian punk legends Turbonegro. There’s also the time Morris passed out and crashed his car while driving to Amoeba Records, due to toxic levels of acid in his blood brought on by the diabetes. His battles to remain sober are inspiring, and are written here to the point where his struggles become universal and relatable.

Ultimately, My Damage has something for even the most fringe fan of punk. For those looking to get an insight into the early hardcore punk scene, there is more than enough. For those looking for a cynical take on the music industry, that’s here in spades. For someone looking for an unlikely source of inspiration when it comes to battling diabetes and kicking drugs and alcoholism, look no further. My Damage holds no punches, and where it outshines other memoirs is in its ability to present true human spirit in a way that isn’t overreaching or self-aggrandizing. With My Damage Morris cements his place as the ultimate punk rock every-man. And we love him for it.


My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor is available through Da Capo Press.