Punk lifers TSOL ponder “Is This Our Wonderful World?”—watch
The new TSOL single and its unconventional release are either the least punk thing the band have done in their 41-year history—or maybe the most. The song itself is almost as old as their singer, Jack Grisham, whose gentle croon is in fine form, even though he’s feeling every minute of his 57 years, many of them misspent.
The surprisingly delicate tune is a parody of the feel-good classic “What A Wonderful World,” first released in 1967 and immortalized by jazz icon Louis Armstrong. The late Joey Ramone punked it up prior to his passing in 2001. Much like Grisham, the song can take a beating and keep going.
Founded in 1978, TSOL were an unruly mob of suburban surfers and jocks who crashed the Orange County punk party and raised the stakes. They made some impressive musical contributions and influenced generations of bands from AFI to Slayer, Offspring to Avenged Sevenfold. Over a fractured four-decade run, the punk-hardcore-goth crossover crew have been impossible to pigeonhole, because they’ve never made the same album twice. After a saga that’s impossible to summarize, TSOL have featured four of its founding members in recent years. And Grisham is still the band’s mouthpiece.
Like the new single, the infamous singer was uncharacteristically subdued when he took AP’s call. His riotous past is far behind him, and the 2019 version of Grisham is still the bubbly—albeit frustrated—guy you might recognize from the punk-rock parenting documentary The Other F Word.
Where did the idea to do this song come from?
JACK GRISHAM: A friend of ours, a fan. I did a portrait of him for the cover of one of our singles, “Low Low Low,” a European seven-inch. We were going back into the studio to record something. And he said, “I’d really like you to record a cover of ‘What A Wonderful World.’” I told him, “We’ll just do a quick thing, and I’ll send it to you.” It was no big deal. I sang it as a joke, because that’s what it is to me: a joke, a naive look at reality. They wrote the song for Louis to sing like, “We’re in all this trouble, but look at the beauty.” I rewrote the words in five minutes.
The song was just piano and vocal. Then we added the strings on it. It was never even intended to be done with the band. It was just the keyboard player [Greg Kuehn] and me. It was a one- or two-take vocal, at the most.
And we played it back. It was a really sad, emotional moment. It was like we were sitting in a funeral. The producer, Paul Roessler [Screamers, 45 Grave, Mike Watt And The Secondmen], looked at me misty-eyed and said, “That’s kinda heavy.”
We’ve always done piano stuff. Then I played it for a string player, Eric [Gorfain]. He said, “Man, you need real strings. I love it. I’ll do it.”
There was no thought in this, no plan, nothing. Our publicist asked me, “Where’s the link to buy the song?” [I'm] like, “No, we’re giving it away. It’s free.” It’s just a statement. It’s a piece of art. It’s not like I don’t need the money. I play in a punk band, man; I dig ditches when we’re not on tour. We’re making a statement. I want you to pause and think about this: Is this really a wonderful world?
I knew that we weren’t going to sell it. But it’s hard to just give away a song. You can give away a couple-minute movie, though. If anything, it’s going to cost us. It’s just a statement, art. It’s a painting on the side of the road. It’s not a product. It’s nothing. It’s like a Banksy.
Where did the concept from the video come from?
I know Trevor [Ward, the director] from the last video [the punk elegy “I Wanted To See You”]. The small homeless family, that [idea] was me. We have a really extreme homeless problem. I basically live on the beach. Right now, I’m sitting on my balcony. And between me and the beach, there’s a field of homeless people, camping. Now we’re denying travelers to come into the country. Are we really looking out for our brothers? Are we taking care of these people? Are we living up to the ideal that America was set up to be?
So I wrapped that homeless family in an upside-down American flag. And at the end, the camera comes off me. The idea is to pull away and be of service to people, without the limelight, just pure altruism. People are dying. How can you turn your back on them and say, “Well, the economy’s good. Fuck ’em”?
In your words, talk about the tradition of using the upside-down American flag as a symbol.
I came from a military family. I used to have to salute my dad when he came home: “Jack Grisham reporting for inspection, sir!” My brothers and my nephews and my daughters [are in the military], and my daughter’s a ship’s officer. So I knew the upside-down flag was a sign of distress. We’re in trouble.
Let’s go way back for a moment: What drew you to punk? You surfed, and nobody in the band was an obvious punk type.
I got in a lot of trouble as a kid. School didn’t hold me. So the music came in, and it was everything I was thinking of: “Fight your parents out in the street!”
[X co-founder] John Doe and those guys got mad when we came into punk rock. They said we brought violence. And I said, “Fuck you! You write these words, and you send them out to us. And I’m a kid in the suburbs listening. And I’m going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ And then I put your words into action.” We’re friends now, though. I just wrote a chapter for his book [More Fun In The New World: The Unmaking And Legacy Of L.A. Punk, with Tom DeSavia]. He said in Rolling Stone, “We started it; you finished it.”
Some readers may recognize you from The Other F Word. How old are your kids now?
I have two biological daughters, which is crazy. They’re 31 and 19. They’ve been going to shows their whole lives. One was probably 14 the first time she dove off stage. It was a huge show, a couple thousand people. And everyone knows her. It was like a rite of passage. I said, “You don’t go in feet-first. You swan dive into the crowd.” And I said to the crowd, “If one of you grabs her, I’m gonna stomp your fuckin’ teeth in.”
My oldest daughter said to my youngest [that] although I was unconventional, I had never left her, and I was always there when she needed me. When they’re younger, they want this game and this phone. But when you get older, all they want is you. I’m a parent, not a sperm donor.
As a someone who’s a bigger guy and getting older, what are you doing to take care of yourself?
I walk on the beach every day. I swim. I do tai chi. Try to eat well. But my body is thrashed—so many falls. My pop was a hardcore service guy. So the first time I shaved my head, he was stoked. Then he realized I shaved it so people couldn’t grab my hair when I fought.
One morning, my dad comes downstairs, and I’m in a dress and wearing earrings, watching cartoons, eating a bowl of cereal, and I’ve got two black eyes. My dad says, “All right! You finally got your ass kicked. One day, you’re going to feel this.” I said, “You’re going to feel it, old man.”
What’s so crazy is: I’m now at the age where my dad died [from being] overweight, alcoholism, all that stuff. And now I’m 57. And in the same place. And some mornings, if the toilet seat’s not up, I’ve gotta piss in the sink, because my back hurts so bad. It’s a little rough.
The old days. You regret any of that?
I don’t think “regret” is the word. Do I wish that some of those people didn’t get hurt? Yeah. But it has given me compassion and understanding. And the ability to see things from more sides. So I don’t regret that. But it wasn’t a fun lesson for anybody around me to learn.
The band are over 40 years old. Would you have taken a bet you’d last this long?
I wouldn’t. The problem was I was incapable of doing something else. I tried to go straight. I hang out with these guys that are trying to be so punk. And I’m trying not to be punk. I was always trying to straighten up. And next thing you know, I’m taking off.
When we play shows, we play some older songs. Like Sammy Davis, Jr. always played “Candy Man.” He said, “That song made me. I’ll play it every night.” But I see these old punks; they live in the past. I laugh when I see these guys still looking like that. And a lot of them have gotten so conservative. I just shudder.
We don’t live in the past. We record. We’re always making something. You’re only as good as what you’re doing right now.
Check out the new TSOL video for “Is This Our Wonderful World?” below.