Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet
96 minutes, 2012
Images from the Internet
Circle Jerks – My Career as a JerkPhotographed, edited and directed by David Markey
96 minutes, 2012
The one time I saw the Left Coast SoCal hardcore Circle Jerks, it was at Irving Plaza in the mid-1980s, and if I remember correctly, they opened for the Dickies (rather than the other way around). There were more bands, but for many reasons, none of them pharmaceutical-, herbal- or alcohol-related, my memory of the night is quite fuzzy. As was my tendency, I started off standing by the stage, but very quickly I learned that was not a smart thing, as slamming had become more than just moshing. This was when the transition from jocks hating punks to jocks joining punks, so they can smash, crash and bash anyone and everyone. Yes, I was and remain a wuss about this mostly masculinist (especially at that point in hardcore history) activity, but I still have my teeth, so it was worth it.
By the end of the first song of the opening band, I was waaaay in the back near the bar, a place I had successfully avoided at the joint for most of the times I was there. Even the balcony was a ruckus of flinging bodies, so I just listened to the music without being able to see the stage, and enjoyed the noise. What I do remember is the distorted sounds over the PA. This was quite a different audience than when Eddie & the Hot Rods played at Max’s a few years before, and was annoyed that those in attendance just sat there, like there was anywhere else to go in that confined space, eh wot?
Also, I remember safely seeing the Jerks do a few songs on a special “punk” version of Rock Palace in 1985 (see clip below), sharing a bill with the likes of Rank and File. I still have it on VHS somewhere, which I taped off the telly.
Yes, I have their first three albums, and enjoyed them – though honestly I was more of a Descendants fan back then – but the Circle Jerks definitely had an appeal. They certainly had one of the best logos around, a drawing of a hardcore kid skanking, possibly only outdone by Black Flag’s four black bars. The irony, of course, is that the lead singer of the Circle Jerks, Keith Morris, started his life as the singer of BFlag. With the nearly infant guitarist from Red Cross (soon to be renamed Redd Kross), Greg Hetson, joined with drummer Lucky Lehrer and a series of bassists – most notably Zander Schloss (who appeared in both Repo Man  and the Ramones’ “Something to Believe In” video) – they were on their way in the early days of Hermosa Beach’s infamous scene.
Using a somewhat standard formula, director David Markey gives us a mixture of present-day interviews with some of the key players; at this point, it seems like dreadlocked Keith Morris will let himself be interviewed in just about anything, as I see him in so many music documentaries about the ‘80s. There is also some exciting live clips, and tons of interesting information. Happily, while the violence in the early hardcore scene escalated by the police and fire departments in California is mentioned a little bit, they don’t swim in it, which is fine because it’s been covered so many times.
What Markey does instead is to focus on the band itself, discussing the flow of successes and failures, tensions within the band over songs, people coming and going so quickly, good musicianship drummers Chuck Biscuits and Lerher over some guy who replaced him who Morris truthfully posits, “[Lerher] was replaced with a guy who played drums.”
Of course, it’s the anecdotes that make any of these kinds of documentaries, and people like Henry Rollins (who will also appear in any documentary music-related), Flea from the overrated Red Hot Chili Peppers who was in the band very shortly (there is a clip of him playing a show), Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, and Lisa Fancher, who ran the infamous Frontier Records, among others including other band members, flush out the stories from third parties. One interesting comment is that even though Rollins replaced Morris in BFlag, he still has respect for the Jerks as musicians, claiming in their own way they were better than his home-town Bad Brains. One thing that is missing, I am happy to say, is the music critics and writers to discuss their historical importance. I’d much rather hear it from the band themselves, and those that were there.
After a semi-disastrous turn towards mainstream – and I say this for the quality of the work, not the “sell-out” fantasy – by signing to Mercury Records, the Jerks began the very slow melt into the inevitable darkness of dissolving. One thing that often gets mocked about the band that I’ve heard in real life was when Debbie Gibson sang with them, but to tell you the truth, that made her more interesting (okay, just interesting) than putting anything on the band. For me, it was their stage dive into more “rock” (as Morris puts it) and dreams of the Nirvana bandwagon fame and wealth that put the final nail in, years before the relative final curtain.
The last third of the story by the Jerks is sad¸ including death, resentment and fading away with the occasional reunion show, such as the one shown in 2009, outside of North America.
It’s kind of telling that with all the interviews with several of the Jerks, some obviously done at different times (no historical discussions, all done recently with rearview mirror memoirs), nearly all of the conversations are in single rooms, and not once do you see any of the other members occupy any of the same space at the same time. One of the things I liked about the story of the Cockney Rejects, East End Babylon (reviewed ‘ere), is that you see some of the band interacting, often walking around the area they grew up. In this one, you see almost nothing of Hermosa Beach or the area, other than a couple of quick shots such as Morris standing on the block where he grew up. Photos and videos of the past are good, but they a difficult to get a peripheral feel of perspective.
Usually, over an hour and a half is quite a bit long for this kind of oral history, when dealing with a single group (in my opinion), but Markey wisely not only uses many clips of the band playing in its many stages, he also either shows entire songs, or much of them. I find it a bit of an annoyance when you see a 25 second or so clip; just as you start getting the song and the direction it’s either coming from or going, it’s over. Here, you get a better picture, and if that means a longer-length documentary, then it’s worth it. That is especially true if the band was as interesting as the Jerks. If this was a documentary about, say, Maroon 5, complete songs would probably drive me bonkers (Levine has a decent voice, but the music is awful, and the productions are worse, but I digress…).
Extras include some deleted scenes and 30-minutes of some very interesting additional interviews, including one of Rollins talking about being on tour being a roadie with the Teen Idles and seeing steel-tip boots, moshing and stagediving for the first time at a Circle Jerks show in San Fran, and then bringing it back to the East Coast, where it was very quickly adopted.