With Resolve & Resiliency; TSOL Celebrates 40th
With Resolve & Resiliency; TSOL Celebrates 40th
By Jeff Alexander
Photos by John Gilhooley
For guitarist Ron Emory, TSOL’s 40th anniversary allowed him the unique opportunity for introspection. The group was a trailblazing force in the world of punk but their notorious antics led to blacklists, violence, and ultimately, implosion. Crafting dark melodies amidst fiery tempos that are hallmarks of Emory’s unique style, TSOL were largely responsible for merging first wave hardcore punk with gothic themes, complemented by singer Jack Grisham’s sensual vocals.
TSOL has weathered storms of substance abuse, incarceration, violence, and tragic death and their 40th anniversary further reinforces the group’s collective passion and resiliency to continue creating, no matter the circumstances, even if self-inflicted.
“It’s amazing to have friendships this long. There were times I felt I couldn’t go on. I have been friends with bassist Mike Roche for over 40 years and Jack and I have been friends since I was 16 and we’re still creating. My grandfather was in the entertainment business in the ‘30s and ‘40s and told me after I got my first guitar, to learn everything I could and here I am, still growing and honestly, even with everything that went on it didn’t always feel like work,” laughed Emory.
TSOL emerged in 1979 amidst the California punk explosion, its rich lineage giving birth to stalwarts such as Black Flag, Adolescents, X, Dead Kennedys, and Social Distortion, to name a few. Disaffected youth searching for their own place amongst the sprawling suburban landscapes created a new wave of punk, and a new culture clash with profound hostility from authorities and political officials greeted them. Violence and police instigation were common as many clubs were threatened to close and bands were routinely targeted and harassed. President Reagan was a recurring theme in lyrics and artwork while threats of impending nuclear war and reinstatement of selective service, for possible military draft further contributed to a sense of fear and futility.
“The violence was real and it was heavy at times. We did unethical stuff like fighting and stealing. With TSOL, you never knew how a show was going to go. I miss the element of uncertainty and the exciting, uneasy feelings of a TSOL show. Being unable to play out right now due to the pandemic has been hard. I don’t condone violence but it does bum me out that things feel too safe at times with shows and music,” stated Emory.
TSOL sold out hometown gigs with regularity but their early East Coast tours were sparsely attended. As the group became more associated with violence with Grisham presiding over the stage as a Vincent Price meets punk persona madman, they eventually struggled to earn bookings. Amidst the chaos, they were creatively progressing and already breaking from their hardcore punk foundation. The addition of keyboardist Greg Kuehn anchored Emory’s dark melodies and they rose from the background to the foreground. Grisham began to abandon the staccato vocal styles that were already too prevalent in hardcore and Roche expanded on his bass prowess, eventually creating the group’s trademark rhythms. 1983’s Beneath The Shadows is now looked upon as some kind of benchmark but it was initially met with confusion and contempt. Emory looked back on TSOL’s earliest records.
“Going back to our first EP and even the Dance With Me record, we had a lot of the songs for Beneath The Shadows written. Our first EP was released by Posh Boy and that record deal was shit so we gave them the older songs. Looking back on Weathered Statues EP (1982, Alternative Tentacles) I was using a Fender Twin Reverb amp and working hard on different chord structures and it has some of our most intense writings between me and Roche. I think it holds up very well,” Emory stated proudly.
Beneath The Shadows was such a creative risk because it was released at the group’s height and during hardcore’s most intense periods. TSOL were notorious all over their hometown, with police attempting to track Grisham’s extensive criminal history to the point that he used pseudonyms on records. Emory reflected on TSOL’s progression and the record’s initial reception.
“People didn’t understand it, ‘why would they release something like that?’ People said they felt abandoned and wanted the aggressive tones but we were progressing as players. Jack was playing some keyboard but didn’t want to do it live, so we got Greg. When we played a handful of those songs live, it’s like people would just stand and scratch their heads, not knowing what to make of it. Todd (Barnes) was such an innovative drummer and people still mention this.”
Grisham eventually quit in ‘83 though not for creative reasons, as he has attested throughout the years. For Emory, ceasing to create and gig was not an option. TSOL still carried weight and the music community was still strong despite ongoing resistance from authorities. The second lineup of TSOL featured singer and guitarist Joe Wood, Mike Roche, and drummer Mitch Dean, formerly of the infamous punk group, The Joneses.
Fans were conflicted as the Grisham lineup undeniably gave birth to a new subgenre of punk and their sold-out gigs were a testament to their widespread support, but the overall sound was not hardcore punk, as Wood’s bluesy vocals and songwriting fused with Emory to yet again have TSOL veer in a new direction. The gothic undertones were still present within Emory and Roche but fans were slow to accept Wood, despite videos surfacing showing the new lineup playing some packed gigs with raucous fans onstage. Change Today? earned positive reviews and fans did embrace the track “Flowers By The Door," earning the song an appearance on an ABC special addressing teen suicide. TSOL toured consistently but Wood still bore the brunt of fans longing for Grisham.
“I have no hard feelings at all about any of that time. I wanted to continue, there was no other option for me. I had played with Joe before, in The Loners and then Roche came aboard. There are people that really like that era of TSOL and I’m proud of Change Today? (1984, Enigma Records) and Revenge (1986, Enigma). Prior to those records I never played a Strat before; I got that ’62 Olympic White Fender from Steve Hunter who played with Alice Cooper, which turned out was the first show I went to with my brother as a kid! I traded my Danelectro and my ’62 Les Paul Jr. for it. I guess that’s coming full-circle. I continued experimenting with tones and just progressed naturally. I learned a lot about playing during that era and things were calmer for a bit; less violence. We had some crazy times, too,” reflected Emory.
The long shadow of the original TSOL lineup still casted itself upon Emory and the Wood-era lineup. Unsuspecting fans attending Wood-era shows expecting to see Grisham became hostile and to further compound the issue, Grisham’s newest group Cathedral of Tears was also signed to Enigma Records and featured Kuehn. While Grisham pursued a more dance-oriented sound, TSOL expanded its gothic sound but eventually mired in substance abuse, adopted a commercial hard rock sound. The group was earning impressive bookings with Guns N’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers but the overall style was inconsistent. The group’s legacy was further blurred as 1987’s Hit And Run resembled nothing the original lineup stood for or sounded like. TSOL descended quickly. Emory quit and depending on whom you ask, Roche was pushed out leaving nothing but the name ‘TSOL’, with Wood eventually leading a lineup containing no original members.
“I quit in 1987 because it was just not my style. Some songs you might hear a little of my style but I really felt, musically I had no say. It just got to the point that everyone was listening to producers and not each other and at that time, everyone was using,” Emory solemnly said.
Asked if drummer Mitch Dean personally impacted him due to the well-known substance abuse of The Joneses, Emory carefully responded.
“At that time I wasn’t using, just drinking. I was working at a welding job and after work driving far out to booked studio times we had after Hit And Run. I would wait and wait and everyone would be late, showing up strung out on coke and heroin. I have no personal issues with Mitch looking back and we’re cordial now, but he did make some lifestyle choices while we toured that I really disagreed with. We all did stupid things and it just got toxic. Everyone was a mess when I quit,” he stated.
The dark cloud hung itself over Emory and all his bandmates. Former drummer Todd Barnes never stopped engaging in substance abuse and alcoholism, Grisham documented his own struggles in American Demon, a disturbing yet unique memoir published in 2011. He remained the most musically active with Tender Fury, during which he began his journey to sobriety. For Emory and Roche, they remained creatively stagnant as Emory himself descended further into addiction.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the original TSOL lineup was resurrected, despite Emory and Roche still struggling. A reunion show with Grisham was recorded and released via Triple X Records, but not without legal controversy. Joe Wood was the current, legal owner of the name ‘TSOL’ and the group had to perform under their full names during sporadic reunion gigs. Wood was critical in the local press as he was performing live during the same time. As recently as 2020, Wood has performed select dates under the moniker, Joe Wood Change Today, playing TSOL material from when he fronted the second lineup.
Asked about the initial reunions, Emory confessed he has trouble remembering.
“It’s hard for me to recall that time in ‘91 because I was still really struggling. I haven’t listened to that live record in years but what I do remember is us needing help, sonically,” stated Emory.
1999 served as the watershed year for Emory and his path to sobriety. TSOL was asked to appear at a local art gallery event to accept a music award. The idea to play ‘maybe 3 songs’ took shape and the band regrouped again. The name battle was eventually settled with Wood but lingering issues re-surfaced due to Joe Wood marrying Grisham’s sister, D.D. Things were tense and there was a time when the three of them had lived under the same roof! The L.A. Times published stories detailing the complexities.
“At that time, we hadn’t played together in forever. Roche was on parole and got sober while in prison, he served 3 years. Jack was sober and contacted Roche. I really struggled, I detoxed at the hospital for 2 weeks and it was awful but I tried hard. They reached out to me asking about playing a little at the gallery and X would also be there. At that time, I had never played sober before! Within minutes, chaos ensued and people were getting hurt, which was sadly all we knew up to that point. I was trippin’ on the fact that I was finally playing without any substances in me, using nothing to cure my anxiety or shyness!” stated Emory.
The small show further served as a catalyst and creatively, TSOL was reborn but not without a lot of discussions, individual work, and sadly, tragic loss. Emory further reflected on his path to sobriety.
“After I got sober people confronted me about the horrible shit I did. I trusted them with what they said and tried to make amends. It can be very difficult, especially if you have no recollection of what happened. I can always remember songs and how to play them but there are periods of time I just don’t remember. I can apologize, I can work to make it right,” he sighed.
Asked to clarify any pre-conceived notions of sobriety and the steps involved, he quickly stated he took issue with the advice of being asked to no longer associate with individuals from the past.
“That part I certainly don’t agree with, personally. To be told not to see longtime friends that I loved while getting sober, how can you have support if all those people you still loved you’re told not to see? Mike Roche helped me get through so much. I would stay with him and see him do daily routines, like getting up, dressed, going to work and coming home with money still in his pocket. Those seemingly little things we take for granted, I could never do during those times when I struggled. It was inspiring, I felt if he could do it, so could I. And looking at Jack, he’s amazing! Over 30 years (sober) and doing what he does with his energy,” stated Emory.
Not every member of the group was fortunate enough to earn a second chance. Drummer Todd Barnes was a lifelong drinker and never stopped drug usage for any length of time, according to the band. Barnes had suffered a brain aneurysm in 1999 and was hospitalized. The group was tasked with the unimaginable burden of being the deciding factor to discontinue life support.
“Todd told his family that we were always more of a family to him so his mother had given us the decision and permission to take him off life support,” Emory solemnly said.
To an outsider, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the group fell into despair and reengaged in substance abuse, but yet again they collectively demonstrated resiliency.
TSOL returned with a newfound vitality, releasing Disappear (2001) and Divided We Stand (2003) courtesy of Nitro Records. Their hallmark sound was intact and the group toured with a new sense of purpose. However, tragedy struck again in 2002 and the group’s momentum was marred by a backstage shooting during their performance at LA’s House Of Blues. The audience and group were largely unaware due to the concert volume. TSOL hired an attorney in response to being named in the lawsuit filed by the victims. Ultimately cleared of wrong doing, the group halted touring due to the outstanding legal bill.
During this time, Grisham remained a fixture in the community by hosting sobriety meetings, volunteering, and even engaging in public speaking bookings. His work with the homeless was lauded and he slowly saw positive changes. Grisham made a strong run within local politics, putting his lyrics ‘wake up silent majority’ to the test during his run for California governor in 2003. He finished in the top quarter of the election results with healthcare reform a priority in his platform. TSOL resumed touring and appeared on the Vans Warped Tour and other festival dates, including select dates for the 2003 UK Download Festival. They also returned to the East Coast in 2005 after a long absence. Life, Liberty, & The Pursuit of Free Downloads marked their newest studio effort in 2009. Sponsored by Hurley, the record coincided with their 30th anniversary and was a free gift to fans.
Emory remained sober and with a self-admitted newer appreciation of life. After relocating to Sioux City in 2006, he began his path to altruism by opening The Sioux City Conservatory of Music with his wife, Gia. The conservatory has expanded and earned positive accolades from the community, further inspiring Emory. The family has received local awards from officials in recognition of their contributions.
“Music saved me and I realized, through teaching the kids that putting an instrument in a child’s hand and giving them an opportunity they might never have gotten before, is an amazing and incredible thing. It was awesome to see students grow! I remember this one girl I taught, she was 10 and such a natural at Country music. She could play every song she learned but never wrote her own. I worked hard with her, and she had said that she couldn’t write her own songs because she was too young to have a boyfriend break up with her and that was all she heard in country music! She thought that was what you had to write about,” laughed Emory.
He remained in touch with his student and eventually taught her the value of songwriting. Additionally, Emory states the conservatory is not strictly relegated to music-based activism in the community.
“We really bring it all here. We work with struggling people of all kinds; kids, homeless individuals. I love what we do and I think if I was still in California the conservatory wouldn’t have been possible. I feel it’s a responsibility to give back and it’s a mission everyday here.”
For Emory, the pandemic has allowed some of the uneasiness to return. Prior to the lockdowns, TSOL was playing steadily in support of 2017’s Trigger Complex and anniversary shows at The Observatory proved successful. During local closures, TSOL had no other option but to live stream an additional anniversary performance. Emory utilized his time to re-immerse in kustom kulture, something that always surrounded him while in California.
“When I was growing up and living in Bellflower, I used to skate all over the place. I’d go to LA and visit George Barris’ kustom shop. It was really cool to see what everyone was building back in the day. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to own and work on restoring so many cars! My first was a 1964 Dodge Polara and a ’59 Oldsmobile Super 88 convert. I had some muscle cars, too; Nova, Chevelle. I did have a 1967 Dodge Coronet 440. The sad story, it broke down back when I was strung out and I just left in the street and jumped on the bus. It was purchased from the original owner untouched,” lamented Emory.
Emory is currently building a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird kustom bike for his wife, Gia.
As TSOL continues celebrating its anniversary, Emory reveals that Grisham is hard at work on a TSOL documentary. Additionally, Emory stated the group is working on a box set but no further details are available just yet.
“My brother is going to retire and move out to Sioux City. He has an amazing collection of stuff and has recorded material of TSOL since day 1. I sold an Orange guitar cabinet to pay for the recording of the original EP, and he has the actual, reel-to-reel tape. There’s also a lot of pictures and unheard songs,” he revealed.
The group has demonstrated a resilience perhaps unrivaled by their peers, though many obstacles were self-inflicted it feels the group is poised to soldier on, finally earning more widespread recognition. Fender Guitars formally endorsed Emory and Roche during their Roadworn Guitars ad campaign, leading to Emory’s signature acoustic model in 2013. Emory also formally endorsed Gretsch Guitars in 2018 during an ad campaign for their iconic, semi-hollow model. His unique, trailblazing style continues to be embraced by fellow punk guitarists but the inability to gig out due to the pandemic has Emory longing for the stage even more. There is a scheduled, June appearance for So-Cal Hoedown but circumstances may change.
“I have to admit, not being able to play out right now is getting to me but there’s a balance because I feel extremely lucky. I have lost too many people that didn’t have the same luck. I have incredible kids, I know every parent says that but I am really blown away by them! Good and bad things happen but if you work at taking the positive route, you can learn and move ahead. Giving back is something I have to do on a daily basis,” he concluded.
If you're loving the free features here at GnarlyMagazine.com, you can support us here: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/gnarlymagazine
While you're here, grab some Gnarly Magazine merch!