Jiu-Jitsu and Jumpings: Cro-Mags’ Harley Flanagan Tells All
It’s easy to idealize our idols, turning them into characters without normal human complexities and making them larger than life. Such is the case of Cro-Mags, one of the most influential bands to emerge from the New York hardcore underground. The conflict between founder Harley Flanagan and longtime vocalist John Joseph is the stuff of legend. Both men are steeped in controversy, and both have ardent supporters.
Cro-Mags were born in a world that no longer exists. They are products of a wilder New York City, a dangerous city-state filled with chaos, depression and bad intentions. Their debut, The Age of Quarrel, referenced the Hindu concept of Kali Yuga (the Iron Age), a period of discord marked by warfare and collapse. It has become a specter that has followed them for the last three decades, coming to a violent climax at the CBGB Festival held at Webster Hall in 2012, ending with Flanagan and two other men being taken to the hospital.
Flanagan’s biography, Hard-Core: Life of My Own (Feral House), is an attempt to make sense of the chaos and chronicle the harrowing stories of his past, along with the formation of one of hardcore’s most important bands. He takes us through an intense journey of hard times, violence and chaos, ultimately finding peace through the study of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and family life.
At an age when most kids are reading comic books and watching Star Trek, you were playing drums in the Stimulators, hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol. Was there a dark side to this?
I think, obviously, there was. If you read the book, it wasn’t so glamorous. I had a real interesting life and I had a lot of fun, so I’m not complaining.
The skinhead culture was primarily a British thing. At what point did you become a skinhead?
I got my head shaved when I was in Belfast. I had been to England and been exposed to skinheads there in the '70s, but at that point, I wasn’t really up on the whole thing. I got into it in 1980. I had my head shaved by a guy that was a roadie for this band the Outcast from Belfast; the term Oi hadn’t really become the banner for that movement yet, so they were just a skinhead punk band. I brought that over here and it pretty much took off.
Back then, there really wasn’t a lot of the baggage that emerged later on.
There was some, but it wasn’t considered purely a racist movement. Skinhead culture was always about hooliganism; there was always fighting, but a lot of it was around their local football team or representing their town. The same type of shit we have with Red Sox fans hating Yankees fans, except over there it’s a little more extreme. There was always violence involved in the skinhead scene. I tell it in the book pretty well.
It seems like there has been a lot of chaos surrounding the Cro-Mags.
There was a lot of conflicting energies in that group. Think about it: the idea of me, a Lower East Side skinhead, getting in trouble all the time — fights, drugs and all that; and John, who was also a raging fuck-up and all of a sudden came back with this newfound Krishna consciousness. These things are complete opposites. We were a mess; it was like something out of a Woody Allen movie. It doesn’t even make sense: skinheads and Hare Krishnas in the same sentence. Then the fact that our music was a lot heavier than most of the hardcore bands at the time. We started attracting a lot of metalheads at those shows, especially when “We Gotta Know” started airing on Headbangers Ball. Now you got a bunch of skinheads, thugs, Hare Krishnas and metalheads all in the same crowd; you know there’s going to be some madness.
Did you ever get into Krishna consciousness?
A lot of the philosophy snuck in. I was living in abandoned buildings with no electricity; there was so much crime and drugs in the neighborhood. I was constantly getting into fights with the local gangs. Even before that, going to school down there, being one of the only white kids, and dealing with a lot of crazy shit — when you see enough action like that, when you’ve seen people die, you’ve seen people shot at, had people shoot at you, people trying to stab you, it gets to a point where you start searching. There’s got to be something more than this. There’s got to be something beyond this. You need some sort of a higher power, some kind of a spiritual anchor, because you realize that life could end at any moment. I needed something, but the fact is that I don’t follow any religions. Religious organizations are full of shit as far as I’m concerned. I want nothing to do with it.
That’s John’s gig. He likes to preach. It makes him sound good, but he doesn’t really live it, and that was part of the turn-off for me, too. I’m not trying to talk shit about him, but a lot of people preach a lot of shit and they don’t really live it and, to me, that was part of the hypocrisy of the whole thing. I think that had a lot to do with why things fell apart.
My understanding of Cro-Mags is that you started the band — the whole vibe and sound was put together by you. You’ve been the only consistent member throughout the whole thing. What are your feelings of the current version of Cro-Mags?
Anyone who knows the history knows that it's some jive shit; it’s a fake-ass band, and it's kind of embarrassing because I did try to approach [Joseph]. I did try to make amends with him and with Parris [Mitchell Mayhew] because I really believed in it. I thought it would be a beautiful thing even if we just got together for one show. I approached John when Dr. Know got sick and said we should do this and he said no. Then he went and did it anyway without me.
I went to Webster Hall. I tried to approach those guys then, and look what happened: I got jumped. I can only extend myself so far and try so much. I’m over it; I’m doing other shit. My book is out, I had a record come out this year. The band that calls itself the Cro-Mags hasn’t written one song since I haven’t been with them, so what the hell does that tell you? It’s a tribute band. It’s a frontman playing a bunch of songs I wrote 30 years ago. It’s a little bit embarrassing.
Do you think the incident at Webster Hall was premeditated?
It absolutely was. I got set up. I got invited into the dressing room and I got jumped. What a bunch of fucking cowards. I grew up fighting, I don’t mind a fight. Yeah, I got stabbed, some people got cut … shit happens. The fact that I got set up by people that had been my friends and the fact that they all lied about it to the cops, the fact that I almost ended up doing a few years of prison time over some shit that didn’t go down the way they said it did — all of that is fucked up.
I got jumped and I wound up slicing some people. I bit someone on the face — I’m not going to lie — but I had like five people jumping me. In a situation like that, you do what the fuck you got to do. I would have torn a motherfucker’s balls off. These guys are lucky I didn’t have a gun; I would have put holes in them. I’m no bitch — if you jump on me, you will get hurt. I love Jiu-Jitsu, I love training, but there’s a difference between competitive Jiu-Jitsu and a street fight. A street fight is quick, ugly, and people get damaged … sometimes they die. The only thing I was thinking of was wanting to see my kids again. When I got five people stomping on me, all I was thinking about was trying to clear a path to that door to get the fuck out of there. If I had wanted to kill one of them, they would have been dead. Everything I did was defensive in order to get myself outside that door. It didn’t work out that way, but like I said, shit happens.
I’m not crying about it. A fight’s a fight; sometimes people get hurt. A roomful of those motherfuckers jumped me, and I took three of them to the hospital with me. They tried to sue me for me fucking them up! That is just shameful. If you’re going to start some shit and it doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, don’t cry about it afterwards.
Even after all of this has gone down, do you still think there is the possibility of you guys playing together again?
No. I really don’t. Like I said, I’ve tried and tried so many ways, and I don’t even care anymore. I have a great life, I have two great kids, I have an amazing wife, I have a job that I actually love. How many people can say that? I teach Jiu-Jitsu at the Renzo Gracie Academy. I spend my days surrounded by the Gracie Family; they treat me like family. They love my kids. I’m respected by the people I work with, and I respect them. Renzo is a mentor to me. He’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever known. I work with UFC fighters, I hang out with George St. Pierre; what do I care about a bunch of fake tough guys in the hardcore scene? I play music every day, I practice with my band once a week. I’m playing my instruments all the time. I don’t feel a need to pursue those guys. I’m just trying to do what’s right.
After years of running wild, how did you get onto a more positive path?
Things started to really change for me when I had my kids. Obviously, training really did a lot. When I first got into Jiu-Jitsu, it was about fighting. I wanted to learn new techniques for dismantling people. The longer you train, the more it's just purely about the love of the art. I’m definitely at peace with myself, and I think that training helps get you there.
Family life was a big game-changer for me; I had to be responsible. Not everyone comes to that realization. My father was a total maniac. My mom had her issues, too; there’s no such thing as perfect parents. When you have kids, you have to step up your game.
Why write the book?
I started writing it in the '90s. It went through several different attempts before I started getting it down. The reason I started writing it was I knew the kind of impact the Cro-Mags had made. I knew that I had left a mark on hardcore music, and even crossover metal, whatever you want to call it. I knew that if anything had happened to me, someone else would write the book, someone else would tell the story. That’s what happens when infamous people die. I say that kind of jokingly, but when people have a reputation, people are going to tell their story.
In the ’90s, I was really fucking up. I was doing some damage to myself with drugs and just the life I was living. I really didn’t think I was going to live for that much longer. I could have OD’ed at anytime, I could have gotten stabbed or shot; anything could have happened. I thought that I had to start writing this shit down. My whole life, people have been saying that I should write a book. I was documenting my demise. I thought that was what the end of the book was going to be: me dropping dead in some alleyway somewhere. The original title was going to be The Longest Suicide Note Ever Written. Fortunately, I survived and it wasn’t a suicide note; if anything, it was a survival note. I am hardcore; you can’t survive this shit and not be. It doesn’t have anything to do with the genre. I think hardcore is a way of being; it’s not a genre of music.
You had a solo record titled Cro-Mags come out earlier this year. What’s next musically for you?
I got approached by people from Madison Square Garden to write some music that may be used for the Rangers, the Knicks and the Giants. They’re looking for like a New York anthem. They already have some music written that wanted me to collaborate on. For the last few days, I’ve been going over songs and putting my two cents in, so there’s a good chance that the next time you go to support your favorite New York team, you may be singing along with me.
I don’t have a schedule for the band stuff. I’m just doing it because I feel like it. I don’t have a record deal, so I’m not in a rush. Nobody’s cracking the whip to get product out, so I’m just taking my time and doing it. I get together with my band at least once a week and practice because I just like to play.
I don’t have any urgent need to go out on the road or anything. If the right tour comes, I’ll do it; if the right gig comes, I’ll take it. I’m not looking for it because I’m really content right now. I’m happy. I don’t have any need to be in a van or tour bus. I like waking up in my bed, I like going to my job, I like waking up next to my wife. I think at my age, people who are desperate to be out there just need the money or are desperate for the ego-stroking. I’m quite content with my life.