Jack Grisham talks about his book 'An American Demon: A Memoir'
If there’s one thing Jack Grisham’s new memoir avoids, it’s reliving his past as the volatile frontman of a West Coast punk band in simple black and white. For most of the book, it’s pretty obvious he’s seeing red. Told from the voice of a handsome, volatile demon, Grisham’s book, aptly titled “An American Demon: A Memoir,” combines factual horror and narrative fiction.
This is not a run-of-the-mill band bio. The book, about growing up “brazenly punk” in the 1980s, chronicles almost two decades of Grisham’s inner struggles with family, drugs, sex and violence. Recounting his life from a paranormal first-person perspective, Grisham sees little need for conventional devices such as factual timelines or a sanctimonious happy ending. The 49-year-old Huntington Beach legend, however, isn’t shy about delving into the personal issues that brought him the most pain in life.
Since departing from his nihilist ways more than two decades ago, Grisham has gone on to shock people even more with his metamorphosis into more unexpected forms: family man, 2003 gubernatorial candidate, motivational speaker, licensed hypnotherapist. Given his new lease on life, this memoir is both a haunting retrospective and a cautionary tale covered in the sweat, grit and debauchery of the early L.A. punk scene. We talked with Grisham briefly about the memoir.
Pop & Hiss: Did approaching this memoir from the perspective of a demon allow you to express your true thoughts about your life without being trapped into a conventional writing style?
Jack Grisham: A lot of the writing is the way it is because I just don’t know any better. Other than writing a 50-word song that just said “… the government,” I’d never actually written anything. I didn’t take writing classes, so I didn’t feel like I had to do it a certain way. No one was really babysitting me. Some of those stories I talk about in the book, I don’t think I would’ve been able to write in first person. What people don’t realize is that the majority of the stories in that book are true, sadly. And then to revisit them at this time in my life, I’ve been sober for 22 years and do a lot of community work. So to relive a lot of the violence and abuse issues and the drinking, writing from a demon persona made that easier. It’s also to illustrate the selfishness and that we’re our own demons and we cause our own hell.
As you were writing some of the stories detailed in the book about the violence and hatefulness you inflicted on family and others growing up, did you force yourself to actually think like a demon?
Writing this book was terrible. [My family] actually tried to do an intervention on me because I was locked up in my room. I had gotten so absorbed in the sickness that I’d be writing 18 to 20 hours a day. My older daughter and some of her friends would come over, and they actually did an intervention on me. They basically said that my methods had become completely unsound. It was 18 to 20 hours where I would sit up reliving stomping the … out of people, reliving being a drunken bastard, having my father die. I’d barely sleep. The book was written in three months, between 130,000 to 160,000 words. I haven’t drank or gotten loaded in 22 years, but I had to sit back and remember what whiskey tastes like, or what it feels like when you’re punching someone in the face. So to step back into that person was horrifying.
How does your initial discovery of music, specifically punk rock, factor into the book?
In the book, I write about punk as if it was created just for me. And in a way it was. Punk was perfect for someone like me. Someone who was looking for a sense of community but was also fueled by anger, with an inability to sing [laughs]. It’s not like you could put me in some Journey band. I can’t sing, man. Then all of the sudden to be surrounded by like-minded people, punk became a license for me to act exactly like I did my whole life. And now within a certain group, it’s completely acceptable.
At the time, I remember thinking, "Oh, it was a blast throwing a brick through that cop’s window." There was no thought to it. I remember Jello Biafra [of the Dead Kennedys] used to want me to come up with some great plan [as] to why I was into punk rock. I was like, "What do you mean?" I was a teenager, someone was paying me to be a ..., and people tell me I’m cool. It was a blast. We weren’t all sitting around and going to punk-rock parties and laying out our history books and studying government. It just wasn’t about that. None of us were getting drafted, none of us had bills to pay. A lot of us were just kids living off Mom and Dad. Our only oppression was, "Where the … were you at 10 p.m.?”
In addition to this not being a straight biography, it also shies away from giving us a nice, gift-wrapped happy ending about your life.
I don’t get sober until the last page [laughs]. And even at that point, I still carry the same defiance and the same strength of will to say, "Hey God, … you. I’m not bowing down to you. I’ll definitely start thinking more about my kid and thinking of others, but I’m not bowing down to whatever you are." It’s really not about recovery. It’s an example of selfishness being pushed to the point where you’re destroyed by self. I thought it was important to let the ending hang like that.
How much of the book deals with your life as a member of T.S.O.L. Is there much of that?
It really doesn’t get into much of the day to day of being in T.S.O.L. Although that’s what the publishers paid for. They wanted nonfiction stories of Jack Grisham, T.S.O.L. and the West Coast punk scene. But I took their money and gave them something else. The publishers were stoked, but they didn’t expect this. The book is not really about dates and times. Most of the names in the stories are even changed.
So was there anything in your past that was off limits?
Nope, we went all in. My main goal was just to put everything I felt out on paper. And there are some embarrassing stories. Talking about failed attempts at sex as a teenager, for example. There’s a lot of stuff like that. Feeling suicidal, hiding from my kids. But the hard part of that is that I didn’t want to inflict pain on people again from revisiting certain stories. Because my whole motto now has been trying to pay back for what I’ve done to people. The book technically ends when I’m 27 years old. Basically it’s like I died at 27 because I was reborn into another way of thinking. That was the year when complete self-interest died. I just woke up one day and realized what kind of person I’d been. I started becoming responsible for my life.
How do you view yourself and your band T.S.O.L. today? Obviously, you guys have all mellowed out -- right?
With T.S.O.L. now, we’re at a point where we just enjoy playing with each other. It’s fun. We’ve all overcome so much that we’re really like a family. We never even practice. We won’t practice for a year, and then we’ll walk on stage like we just walked off. We’re enjoying doing little tours, we’re probably gonna write another record, basically just going out with some gratitude. A lot of rock stars don’t really care about what they’re doing. It’s all about the promotion. The cool thing about us is that we’ve ruined our career, so we don’t have to worry about it. You take all that ... away and we’re just a bunch of guys having fun.
-- Nate Jackson
Photo: Jack Grisham. Credit: Dani Brubaker