“Circle Jerks: My Career As A Jerk” chronicles the controversial but seminal L.A. punk band

By on September 12, 2017

Filmmaker Dave Markey’s 2012 documentary Circle Jerks: My Career As A Jerk — now streaming in our recently-upgraded selection of newly-added titles over at Night Flight Plus — chronicles the controversial but seminal L.A. punk rock band the Circle Jerks.

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The Circle Jerks — one of the more explosive bands of the second-wave hardcore ’80s punk era, formed by one-time members of Black Flag and Red Cross (later, for legal reasons, Redd Kross) in late 1979 — typically shared bills with the likes of Suburban Lawns, Fear, Black Flag, the Blasters, the Gun Club, 45 Grave, the Minutemen and many others.

Here, Markey chiefly concerns himself with letting the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris and Greg Hetson — the only two founding & permanent members throughout its tumultuous 30-years-plus existence — and founding drummer Keith “Lucky” Lehrer tell their own stories, in their own occasionally contradicting narrative ways with keen anecdotal insights.

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Circle Jerks: My Career As A Jerk also shares a lot of rare live footage and and performances, with supplemental short interview segments with Circle Jerks bassists Earl Liberty and Zander Schloss.

He also gets additional memories from scenemakers like Henry Rollins, J Mascis, Brian Baker (of Minor Threat and Bad Religion), Greg Graffin (of Bad Religion), and Lisa Fancher, founder of the indie label Frontier Records.

Read more below.

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In 1979, Morris (one of the founders of Black Flag) left that band, and about three weeks later formed the Circle Jerks with former Red Kross guitarist Greg Hetson, bassist Roger Rogerson (who overdosed in 1996), and drummer Lucky Lehrer.

Morris and Hetson and Lehrer all have differing stories about how they formed, with Morris remembering that they’d talked about it in the basement of “The Church.”

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The Church in Hermosa Beach with the “Creative Craft Center” sign over the entrance (photo by the South Bay’s Daily Breeze newspaper, circa September 1983)

If you already know your L.A. punk rock history, you probably already know that The Church was the former First Baptist Church on Manhattan Avenue in Hermosa Beach, a small, hilly seaside town in the South Bay, twenty-two miles southwest of downtown L.A.

The town had always attracted a counterculture crowd — jazz bohos in the ’40s, mid-’50s beatniks, and ’60s-era hippies — but, by the late 70s, Hermosa Beach had become pretty run-down.

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The jobs at oil refineries nearby had dried up, the schools were all in disrepair, and walls everywhere were covered in graffiti.

The Church — with its mission-style structure and distinctive bell tower — was still recognizable in the ’70s as a former house of worship.

It had become a local artist’s co-op, the Creative Craft Center, where hippie holdovers made metal sculptures and other craft items they sold for a few bucks.

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The back wall of The Church in Hermosa Beach (photo from We Got Power! by Dave Markey & Jordan Schwartz)

By the late ’70s, the Church was the perfect petri dish scenario for punk rock to grow and flourish.

A lot of angry hardcore punk songs — railing against bosses, teachers, cops, and the government — were birthed where previously prayers and bible passages had been read aloud.

The Church was eventually divided up into rooms of varying sizes and rented out as rehearsal and creative art studio space, but a few musicians lived there too.

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It was where Greg Ginn — who lived in a big room in the back — was running his electronics company SST (for Solid State Tuners), selling modified WWII-era surplus radio equipment by mail order.

Then Ginn had started playing in bands, eventually turning SST into a vital indie punk rock record label and releasing Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown EP in the fall of ’78 (recorded a few doors down from the Church at Media Art Studios).

Black Flag’s singer Ron Reyes lived in a closet in the basement, paying $16 a month, but a lot of squatters turned it into a punk rock flophouse.

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Keith Morris lived in the janitor’s quarters of the Church, and the Circle Jerks rehearsed in the upstairs janitorial storage room.

He later moved to Inglewood, and by the time Penelope Spheeris’s landmark SoCal punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization — she’d shot several scenes at the Church — was released theatrically in July 1981, Morris hadn’t been there in ages.

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The Circle Jerks frequently played at the Fleetwood in nearby Redondo Beach, located inside the decaying Redondo Triangle Shopping Center, where bands like the Germs, the Bags, the Plugz, the Gun Club and others, including South Bay bands, played to 16-and-older punk rock crowds.

That venue held its last show on July 3, 1980, because of too many problems with cops and crowd fights.

Thereafter, after being banned almost everywhere else, the band played shows at Elks Lodges, Rotary Clubs, basements, backyards, etc.

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This is just part of the story you’ll hear outlined in the music-filled Circle Jerks: My Career As A Jerk, which means there’s much more to their story (be sure to check out our personal Night Flight post about the cover photo shoot for their first album, Group Sex).

Morris, Hetson, Lehrer and others talk about the band’s numerous lineup changes over the years; their various drug addictions; their fights and subsequent injuries that forced their breakup.

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Dave Markey

Markey — best known for his acclaimed 1992 Sonic Youth/Nirvana tour documentary film 1991: The Year Punk Broke — grew up in the L.A. punk scene of the early ’80s and became a friend and fan of the Circle Jerks in the process.

You may also want to check out his book We Got Power!: Hardcore Punk Scenes from 1980s Southern California, which includes all six issues of Markey’s fanzine We Got Power (published between ’81-’83).

Circle Jerks: My Career As A Jerk is now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.