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Two Rock Bios: Steven Tyler and Keith Morris

By Wil Forbis

I’m a big fan of rock autobiographies for two reasons. First, as a kid I wanted to be a rock star and reading about them gives me a vicarious taste of the life I’ll never live. Second, I’ve long been interested in how the music industry works and these books provide insight into the strange machinations of that world.

I hadn’t picked up a rock bio in some time until recently when I burned though two: Steven Tyler’s “Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?” and Keith Morris’ “My Damage.” The books offer interesting similarities and contrasts between the lives of two musicians from very different worlds.

That I would be interested in the autobiography of Steven Tyler, lead singer of the fantastically successful and enduring Aerosmith, should come as no surprise. As a teenager, I fell headfirst for hard rock music, right around when Aerosmith’s hit-laden comeback album “Permanent Vacation” came out. The band’s mix of bluesy riffs and hooky choruses was right up my alley and Tyler’s bio gave me a chance to learn the gritty details about their lives.

That I would choose to read Morris’ tome is a bit of a surprise. Morris has been the lead singer for several southern California punk bands, most famously Black Flag and The Circle Jerks. Despite having hung around various punk scenes, I’ve never been a big fan of punk. The mediocre musicianship and elitist attitudes of many punkers turned me off long ago. But I do make an exception for “funny punk,” a subcategory I feel includes bands like The Mentors, The Dayglo Abortions and The Circle Jerks. (Some people would probably point out that my favorite band, Devo, is considered punk, but I’ve never really agreed with that classification. I would call Devo experimental art rock or something like that.)

Before we look at how the books intersect, let me just offer a brief overview of each man’s life and career.

Steven Tyler grew up in New York. The son of a music teacher, he had early exposure to music and as a teenager worked as a drummer and singer. He easily found success, first on a local level, and then with Aerosmith as they worked their way up though the Boston music scene over the course of three years. The band recorded several classic and lucrative albums in the ‘70s, briefly broke up in the ‘80s, and then regrouped and became even more successful. Since then, they’ve toured on and off and maintained a radio presence with a slew of power ballads. I’m not sure of the current state of the band but their place in the world of rock royalty is secure.

Keith Morris’ musical adventures were more under the radar. He grew up in Hermosa Beach and in 1976 joined forced with guitarist Greg Ginn to create the seminal punk band Black Flag. Morris’ tenure with the band was brief and soon he was fronting The Circle Jerks, the group with which he found the most success. The Circle Jerks eventually petered out but Morris has kept active in numerous music projects such as Midget Handjob and Off!.

I mentioned that Tyler and Morris shared certain similarities. Most obvious is the fact that for substantial periods they were both enthusiastic drug addicts. Tyler’s drug abuse is infamous and his book cops to all of it. As a teenager he started smoking pot, taking acid and using those strange drugs from the sixties we never hear about anymore, “reds” and “bennies” and whatnot. The grinding touring and recording schedule that pushed Aerosmith to become a major concert draw in the ‘70s was fueled with seemingly endless piles of cocaine. It amazing he’s still alive.

Morris also had an early introduction to drink and drugs, somewhere in his teens. He describes himself as something of an outcast in high school and he happily pursued chemical thrills with his fellow misfits. Once he ensconced himself in the Los Angeles music scene of the seventies and eighties and started hanging out with bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Thelonius Monster, he frequently used copious amounts of cocaine. (It’s never clarified how he paid for all this though he was working various jobs and touring with the Circle Jerks.)

Eventually both men had to clean up. Morris was more successful at it. After a violent, drug fueled fight with his girlfriend in the late 80s, he quit cold turkey, mainly by becoming a frequent visitor to 12-step meetings. He’s sustained this sobriety ever since. As he tells it in the book, he hasn’t really felt much of a pull towards drugs since quitting.

Tyler, however, took repeated trips to rehabilitation facilities before entering a period of sobriety in the mid eighties. However, years later, after dealing with severe foot pain, he returned to drugs, particularly prescription painkillers like Oxycontin. He cleaned up again, but one gets the sense his sobriety is always dangerously close to dissipating.

Both men also recount contentious friendships with fellow band members. Tyler’s relationship with Aerosmith’s lead guitarist Joe Perry is often said to match the rivalry between Mick and Keith. Reading between the lines of Tyler’s book, I got the sense that while Tyler is devoted to Perry, Perry doesn’t return the sentiment.

Tyler’s relationship with the rest of his band seems curt. He takes a lot of credit for showing drummer Joey Kramer how to play, and doesn’t spend much time talking about bassist Tom Hamilton or rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford. If anything, Tyler comes across as a frustrating prima donna, though I doubt that was his intent.

While Morris makes the case that he’s a pretty mellow guy, he makes clear that his relationship with Black Flag’s Greg Ginn has disintegrated over the years. Various attempts at reforming the first Black Flag lineup have failed because of what are essentially artistic differences between the two men. (An interesting nugget about Ginn: while his playing is synonymous with punk and hardcore, he’s actually a big Grateful Dead fan and prefers to play songs slow.) Morris has also had a troubled time with Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson who, according to Morris, was more focused on playing with the band Bad Religion.

Both Tyler and Morris have also battled health issues, though Morris’ have been more catastrophic. The Circle Jerks singer was diagnosed with diabetes several years after quitting drugs and the disease has challenged him since. At one point he passed out behind the wheel of his car and hit another vehicle. Later, he traveled to Norway for a show and fell into a diabetic coma in his hotel room. (Despite the near fatal nature of the experience, he reserves most of his ire for the terrible food he encountered in the Norwegian hospital.)

Tyler has also struggled with health. As mentioned previously, he developed foot pain from his years of performing and this led him back to drugs. He also recounts a year of taking the drug interferon to battle hepatitis. During this time, his wife left him for a younger man.

The issue of money is where the two bios diverge sharply. Because of Aerosmith’s continued success, Tyler is filthy rich. He owns numerous houses, can easily provide for his children and generally seems to want for nothing. Morris, on the other hand, never struck gold in music. It sounds like he did all right and keeps his head above water, but he won’t be buying a house in Beverly Hills anytime soon.

In the end, both books are enjoyable reads. Tyler writes in an esoteric kind of jive-talkin’ beat poet style whereas Morris is more direct. And while you might think the two men would have little in common, coming as they do from opposite ends of the rock world, in fact there are a lot of shared traits. Enough to give an onlooker such as myself a certain vicarious thrill.

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - acidlogic@hotmail.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.