Twenty-five years ago, Harley Flanagan was onstage screaming lyrics at a crowd full of skinheads and fuckups, rage on his face and sweat dripping from his shaved head. On Thursday he’s mostly grey and standing before a judge at Manhattan Criminal Court downtown, soft-spoken in black slacks, a dark button-down shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. He is also accused of attacking two people with a knife.
Flanagan, best known for playing bass for the Cro-Mags, was in court facing one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree and two counts of assault in the second degree—a misdemeanor and a pair of felonies, respectively, encompassing the alleged knife wielding and physical attacks. But the state’s case isn’t coming together as easily as everyone assumed it would. With Harley in court, the judge asks the assistant district attorney what’s up. No grand jury has been convened yet, the ADA replies, and the case gets adjourned to Dec. 5.
If the case doesn’t come together, with witness statements and testimony and a grand jury the thumbs up to the ADA to proceed, then the clock runs out on the charges on December 8, and Harley can shut the door on the legal troubles stemming from that night in July.
I didn’t know Harley back in his days at CBGB’s, but I can reconcile the kid from then with man now because because our paths crossed in the mixed martial arts world. In 2007, I saw Harley fight at an Underground Combat League event in Queens; in early July of this year, he was awarded his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt by Master Renzo Gracie. And if you believe the New York Daily News, the New York Times and Gothamist—or if you believe the charges—the Cro-Mag walked into a dressing room at one of their shows at Webster Hall in Manhattan on July 6 and lost it, getting all stabby with the new bassist.
They say appearances are deceiving, but with Harley that's an understatement. Though covered in tattoos and sporting a 1970s Alphabet City denizen meets anime villain look, the 44-year-old, who's basically a salt-and-pepper ball of muscle, wears a constant grin and rarely wavers from friendly. Talking to him after court, he laughs easily.
After losing via armbar in his lone underground fight, Flanagan became friends with the dude who beat him, and had him over to his place often, training jiu-jitsu in his backyard. A father to two young sons who he adores and dotes on, Flanagan runs the kids’ classes at Renzo’s Midtown academy. He’s a tough, “take no bullshit”-type of guy, sure, but he’s also the kind of person you wouldn’t hesitate to let teach your child about chokeholds and joint locks.
To hear the other side tell it, Flanagan was crazed on the night of July 6, and may or may not have smuggled the knife into Webster Hall in his ass. Harley, speaking to me, paints a different picture: He was invited backstage and was ambushed, and in a subsequent fight for his life got stabbed, coming out of the VIP room with an oozing leg wound that at first looked like a compound fracture. “The only thing I did wrong that night was go out to the club,” said Flanagan on Thursday. “I got jumped by a bunch of wannabe thugs.”
Harley didn’t know he was in trouble until the cops arrived and he was labeled as the assailant. He spent the next six days on Rikers Island, somewhat of a celebrity because of his case’s notoriety. “I was like a white Mike Tyson,” he says.
In Rikers, his leg wound, which had been simply stitched up, became infected with staph and MRSA and ballooned, and after being released on bail, he wound up in a hospital bed for ten days. It was there that a doctor he didn’t know came up to him and congratulated him on getting his black belt.
Harley was back teaching at Renzo’s academy as soon as his leg was healed. “Renzo even offered to post bail for me…” he says, his voice trailing off, weighed down by gratitude.
In the wake of July’s stabbing, it was easy for everyone who read or heard about the story to latch onto the idea that a beef simmering for years with former bandmates led to July’s stew of violence, but no, screw that. There are two sides to every story, and in court, at least, the side making Harley out to be the next Jason Voorhees seems to be floundering. Besides, if he was an angry young man back in the day, singing of toxic worlds and a society that’s a mess, he’s a different man now. He’s got a life, complete with kids and a job teaching a martial art he’s been dedicated to for over a decade.
Regardless of what you may have heard, Harley’s older, calmer, and much kinder now. He’s beyond the age of quarrel.