The near-death of the Circle Jerks' Keith Morris

Categories: Interviews
keith_morris.jpg
The Circle Jerks' Keith Morris.

The Circle Jerks won't appear as scheduled at Punk Rocks 2008, an August 22 Red Rocks concert also featuring NOFX, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bouncing Souls, Street Dogs and Frontside Five -- but they've got a very good reason. Keith Morris, the Jerks' longtime frontman (and co-founder of Black Flag), fell into a diabetic coma and nearly died during a trip earlier this month to Norway, where he was scheduled to perform with members of Turbonegro at Oslo's multi-day Øya Festival and record with the band as well. Instead, he spent over a week in a hospital, as he recounts in the following interview, conducted on August 18.

Morris, who has diabetes, flew to Oslo in the days before the fest's August 5 kickoff to rehearse with Turbonegro's members -- and while things started off rough at their initial session together, he says they'd improved by a huge amount by the time they were finished. Then he went back to his hotel, got something to eat and started vomiting -- and vomiting -- and vomiting. The next morning, a woman on the cleaning staff entered the room, but instead of recognizing his dire medical condition, she simply assumed that Morris had partied too hard, like some of the other rockers staying at the facility. Fortunately, though, she returned about thirty minutes later, and this time around, she realized something was terribly wrong -- he was in a diabetic coma. "If she hadn't," Morris points out, "I wouldn't be here."

An ambulance was called and Morris was rushed to a nearby medical center, where doctors managed to bring him back from the brink. A weak but lucid Morris picks up the tale from there:

Keith Morris: When you’re a diabetic, they’ve got to keep you there, because they’ve got to monitor your blood. They stuck me with so many needle. They do a thing where they test your glucose by tapping your fingers with a really sharp object and then you bleed and they take the blood and they measure the sugar in your blood. It got to the point where my fingertips were, like, the color of a pair of used Levi’s. They’d say, “We’re going to be back in a half an hour to take your blood,” and I was like, “If my eyes are closed, just grab my hand and use whatever finger you want to use. Whichever one hasn’t been stuck thirty times.”

Westword (Michael Roberts): Obviously, you missed the performance. At what point did you start feeling like yourself again?

KM: Well, I’ve been back since Friday [August 15]. And the first thing I did was I went and got an In-N-Out burger with cheese and fries and a giant iced tea. One of my problems is that I vomited so much that I just fucking ruined the roof of my mouth. See, I don’t normally vomit. Normally, when I get food poisoning, I just crap my brains out for, like, a couple of hours and I’m on my merry way. I thought it was food poisoning and it wasn’t. It was because I had started to go into what’s called ketoacidosis [a condition in which one’s body builds up dangerously high levels of acid in the blood]. And while I was going into the ketoacidosis, what was happening was, one of my organs was pumping up the glucose. And when the glucose started to get pumped up, some other organ in my body decided, “I’ve got to do something to counteract that, bring it down.” And I wasn’t able to do it with the insulin that was being pumped out of my pancreas. So the acidity level in my body went through the fucking roof, and that’s what I was throwing up.

At the hospital, they were like, “You have to eat” – but the food is so horrible over there. And I said, “Okay, then bring me some food. Something that I can eat.” So they’d bring me this, like, bread and this brown meat – and one day they brought me this piece of cheese that looked like a chunk of dried pineapple. But luckily, Pål [Pot Pamparius], who’s one of the guitar players in the band, came up and saw me in my state and realized that the nurses were bringing me all of this food, and I wasn’t eating any of it, because it wasn’t edible. So he took it upon himself to go downstairs to the little market – I was at the university hospital, and they have a nice little pharmacy and a nice little convenience store. So he went down and bought me, like, a hundred dollars worth of chocolate. And that’s what I lived on for the last three and a half days I was there.

WW: As a diabetic, was eating that much chocolate a risk in and of itself? Or did you figure, it’ll be okay – I’m in a hospital?

KM: They were monitoring my blood. They knew what was going on. They were like, “You’re a little bit low. You need some sugar.” I was also drinking fruit juice. I don’t normally drink fruit juice here, because fruit juice here is all sugar. I’ve resolved myself to the fact that I won’t be drinking a lot of fruit juice here. But what they were doing, they’d take a large glass and fill it with ice – and I was drinking a lot of apple juice, because their apple juice is, like, fresh-squeezed apple juice. They don’t add any corn syrup or corn starch or any of that type of stuff to their beverages – unless you’re drinking Coca-Cola, of course. You can’t avoid it that way. So I was drinking a lot of apple juice, eating a lot of German chocolate, and occasionally they would bring me something I could eat, like some tomato soup or some cream of cauliflower soup, which was actually really good.

WW: Really?

KM: All I was doing was dipping bread in the soup. That would be a meal. Plus, I had to keep it to stuff that I didn’t really have to chew on because my throat right now… I’m getting ready to eat and then I’m going to the doctor. But my throat right now, the front of my throat feels like somebody just stabbed me. And for a vocalist – even though the big show is Friday or Saturday, for what I’ve been through, you don’t get over it in like a week. And to make matters worse, the entire time I was in that hospital, I might have slept maybe seven or eight hours.

WW: So you need some major recuperation time…

KM: Yeah, I do. If I was, like, ten years younger, fifteen years younger, I would say, “I’m going to be on there on Friday…” But I’m 53-years old and you don’t just get over stuff like this that fast. That’s just the way it is. I’m kind of upset, but I’ve got to also resign myself to that fact.

WW: You need to make sure you’re going to make it to 54…

KM: Yeah (laughs)… But I’m really upset, because we’ve never played with NOFX, and I was really looking forward to hanging out with those knuckleheads and seeing what they were up to. And the Bouncing Souls, we played with the Bouncing Souls in Atlanta, and they were fantastic. I’m not a big fan of all these more poppier punk-rock bands, but Bouncing Souls gets to do that, because they do an amazing job of it. It’s not like this is just some kind of band, and they do it like they do it every night. They mean what they’re doing. It’s not like they’re just going through the motions. And I believe the Street Dogs might have been one of the other bands....

WW: They are.

KM: They’re a really good band. Boston, street-punk-rock kind of band. Good guys, good songs, good times. And it didn’t resemble anything that would have been a part of the Warped Tour. Although all of the bands would have played on the Warped Tour, and we would have crossed paths somewhere along the way. But luckily, all of the guys in these bands, they have testicles.

WW: Well, Keith, go get something to eat, and keep feeling better…

KM: I will – and we’ll be back. We usually always play Denver once a year, and it’s always a really good time. There’s always a good amount of people… But I’m really bummed that we aren’t going to be able to play this show. We were going to play a half-hour set, and I love playing a half-hour set. In half an hour, you can just toss everything you have into it. It’s like the hundred-yard dash, you know. You just throw fucking everything into it and hope you’re fucking standing at the end of it. Whereas if you play an hour and a half, you have to pace yourself. There’s those moments in your set where you're standing around, where you’re trying to collect your thoughts and collect your breath. But we would have gotten up and probably have played 25 songs, just blasted through 25 songs and said “hello” and “good-bye” and hoped that everybody had a really good time. But my throat is really fucked up.

The thing is, my father died of an ulcerated esophagus. The second time I saw the doctor, that was on my list of questions for him. And he said, “You vomited until you were in a coma. You probably burned your esophagus. But we see no blood. We’ve been running these blood panels, so your immune system is fine. I wouldn’t let you leave the hospital and get on a thirteen-hour flight if I thought you were in harm’s way. We can only keep you in here for so long. You’re going to have to get on a flight anyway, so you might as well get on the flight and get home and try to get back into your normal routine. Because that’s what’s going to lift you out of all of this.” So I’ve got to get into my normal routine.


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