I came across another cache of old t-shirts recently that I must have packed away a good two or three years ago for the purposes of creating space in our closets. On the top of the pile was a blinding yellow-gold Circle Jerks t-shirt in relatively pristine condition. Time was when I simply couldn't have too many Circle Jerks t-shirts. I've either since grown out of most of them or they've just ceased to function as wearable garments. In any case, I immediately donned this one, trying to remember the last time I 'd worn it. Featuring the band's scrawled, infantile logo over should-be-legendary cartoonist Shawn Kerri's signature "skank kid" design (a by-the-numbers Hermosa Beach hardcore kid in furious, limb-flailing mid-slam, resplendent in boots, spikes and shredded flannel, etc.), it's simply a classic.
Later this afternoon, as I was walking up University Place to go grab some lunch, a lady in her early 60s snapped at me, giving me quite a startle. "Circle Jerks?!?!," she barked, "that's repulsive!" As she huffed off, I marveled at the t-shirt's unlikely capacity to offend this many years after its design. Not that I would have expected this lady to know (or care) that the Circle Jerks are a storied American punk band, but in this day and age, the very name Circle Jerks seems like a remarkably tame thing to get all riled up about. I do, however, remember wearing a different Circle Jerks t-shirt (a white Wild in the Streets model) during high school and having a similar episode. I ran into the wife of Mr. Tambini, my freshman year history teacher, on the corner of 71st street & Madison avenue. We chatted amiably while her pre-teen daughter fidgeted in her catholic schoolgirl finery. Mrs. Tambini glanced at my shirt in mid-sentence, broke off from her thought and asked "Wait a minute ....what's a circle jerk?" Before I could answer, she grabbed her daughter by the hand and -- again -- huffed off down the street. Incidentally, if you're still in the dark, the name is an expression used to describe group masturbation.
Anyway, if people still want to get humorlessly bent out of shape by the name of the band, that's fine with me (and probably the precise reaction vocalist Keith Morris had in mind when he christened the ensemble). Much like the case with Venom, I find it hard to imagine how anyone could still be offended by these guys so many decades after the fact. The `Jerks themselves stopped being anything more than an on-again/off-again going concern in recent years. Though inarguably one of the crucial names in American hardcore (right up there with Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Black Flag et al.), their best days are invariably behind them. As I stroppily asserted back on this post in 2005, the debut album by the Circle Jerks, Group Sex is a veritable prototype. I was lucky enough to see them perform a couple of times in the mid-80s, and they were truly a mighty force to be reckoned with.
Beyond the band's music, though, my imagination was always fired by Shawn Kerri's illustrations, which appealed to both my love of punk rock and my roots as a comic book geek. Her artwork, simply put, was just sharp, kinetic and fun to look at. Along with her iconic Circle Jerks design, Shawn also designed several flyers that went onto become classic images of the genre (most notably her Germs flyer featuring the mohican skull). I'm not her only big fan either. I vividly remember seeing Murphy's Law at the Ritz (now Webster Hall) in the late 80s, and at some point during the proceedings, a hulking, shirtless skinhead bounded onto the stage. Upon his chest was a massive, painstaking tattoo-replication of Kerri's "Skank Kid." I also met this dude in Washington Square Park a number of years back, who clearly appreciated Kerri's work.
Not knowing much about the elusive Shawn Kerri, I've periodically googled her name, but nothing much ever came up. I was incredulous that she didn't have some sort of official website by this point. A more recent search turned up this authoritative blog entry, documenting as much of Shawn Kerri's trajectory as I've yet to find. I'm sad to report that all evidence seems to indicate that Kerri had a run of bad luck later in life and has since passed away, purportedly some time in the 1990s. I was also sad to read that she and the Circle Jerks nearly came to litigation over the rights of her images (before Shawn supposedly signed away the rights to Keith Morris to avoid any further bad blood). Lastly, I came across this blog entry, which documented a suitably star-struck encounter with the cartoonist, culminating in a customized portrait.
If Shawn Kerri is indeed dead, it's a tragedy that her work has not been elevated to a higher level of greater critical acclaim. But I was moved by one quote from the artist in a bio cited on that first blog entry: "I enjoy drawing cartoons simply because it's the most fun art form I know. I figure, if other people get a kick out of the stuff I'm doing, then I've succeeded."