“I’m proud to know / he is a member of the Sensitive Family,” the poet Allen Ginsberg once wrote of Harley Flanagan, the former Cro-Mags bassist who (allegedly) stabbed two of the Cro-Mags crew at Webster Hall last week. Current bassist Michael “The Gook” Couls took a knife in the arm and stomach (or chest, according to some reports), and someone named William Berario had his face bitten and stabbed. The message is clear: Don’t fuck with the Sensitive Family. I’ll take my chances with the Asshole Family, thanks.
Ginsberg wrote the introduction to Flanagan’s first book, Stories & Illustrations by Harley, published by Charlatan Press when Flanagan was nine. “His mother Rosebud was a Lower East-Side Hippie / and a friend of mine,” Ginsberg writes. “Harley is also a friend of mine since he / was a year old / We lived on a farm together / I’m glad he grew up to be an Artist.”
The Cro-Mags’ connection with poetry does not end there. The classic lineup of the band—the one that included both John Joseph and Harley Flanagan, and recorded The Age of Quarrel—_appears in _The Beat (1986), a feature film about alienated NYC street punks who learn to love poetry. Their lives are meaningless; they kick the shit out of each other at Cro-Mags (“Iron Skulls”) shows; they are at war with another gang; their well-meaning but powerless English teacher is laboring in vain to help them appreciate Walt Whitman. Then, an apparently autistic transfer student named Rex Voorhas Ormine appears and unites the youth with his spontaneous bop prosody and vision of universal brotherhood. At the end of the movie, all the young people forsake the Iron Skulls’ hardcore attitude and come together to participate in an ecstatic poetry slam. Where hardcore failed to unite “the mutants,” beat poetry succeeded.
Rex’s poetry is beat boilerplate: It describes a world where every turd is holy, every thought deserves to be enunciated, and all problems are the fault of gray men in suits who have forgotten how to say “Oh, wow” to life. The movie’s title refers both to its hero, Rex the Beat poet, and to the chant of “The beat! The beat!” that accompanies many of the script’s interminable street poems. As opposed to yesterday’s rapturous youth culture (poetry), which uplifts and unites, the Cro-Mags are meant to stand for today’s aggressive youth culture (hardcore), which degrades and divides. They are onscreen for 3 percent of the movie’s running time.
Cro-Mags’ performance in
After the show, as the teens roam the streets, Rex gives his review. “I could see the black head of death the whole concert. Everybody was feeling and breathing and praying to death, the skull. There’s so little beauty left since it was destroyed that we’re attracted to anything that generates power. Anything with some feeling in it seems good to us, even evil. It’s good to be violent and pray to death gods like the Skulls, because that’s better than nothingness, and sometimes that’s all we’re left with.”
This is the liberal fallacy The Beat is based on: Beat poetry is life-affirming, hardcore nihilistic. At the very least, writer/director Mones chose the wrong band to make this point, since the “death god” on bass was himself a published beat, and the Cro-Mags were strict vegetarians and devout believers in God. Like some other devout believers in God you could name, they were violent men, but so were William S. Burroughs, who shot his wife in the head, and Lucien Carr, who stabbed a man and dumped his body in the Hudson. “Lemi-leki-sama,” Rex’s healing spell that frees spirits, sounds like nothing so much as the Hare Krishna Mahâmantra of which Ginsberg was so fond, and which the Cro-Mags used to chant backstage before shows. Nihilism is not the problem here. Harley Flanagan loves God. Harley Flanagan loves life.
MTV interview with Cro-Mags on stagediving, Hare Krishna and God
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