Portrait by Richard Kern One morning on my way to work, hungover and feeling sorry for myself, I ran into John Joseph, who I knew a little bit through our mutual friends in the hardcore scene in New York. John was the lead singer of the Cro-Mags, who are responsible for Age of Quarrel, the best hardcore record of all time. Through the years I’ve always heard these insane stories about him but never had the balls to ask him what’s for real and what’s not. Now that I’ve read his autobiography though, I know that all the shit I’d heard about John—and way more—was indeed true. Yes, he was a 14-year-old runaway on the streets of Rockaway in Queens. Yes, he sold fake acid at Madison Square Garden, joined the navy and then went AWOL, rolled with Bad Brains, and hustled with Hare Krishnas in New York City and Hawaii. But anyway, I digress. So I ran into John and I was feeling like shit. I said hello and he said, “What’s up, man? You don’t look so good.” I said I was feeling ill. He grabbed me by the shoulder, walked me into a nearby juice joint, ordered me a combination of stuff that I had never even heard of before, then handed me a bottle of all-natural liquid medicine and said, “That should set you straight.” He was carrying all these deli bags with him, and I asked why. He said they were meals and that he was on his way to feed the homeless. What the fuck!? That moment had such an impact on me. I felt like I was fucking up—that I had lost the plot. I mean John Joseph is out there helping hungover dudes on their way to work and feeding the homeless all at the same time. What? Plus he was in the Cro-Mags and just wrote one of the most intense memoirs I’ve ever read. What the fuck have you done? Vice: This is not a thin book you’ve written here. It’s hefty. John Joseph: Ha, that’s what my uncle said. He goes, “Jesus Christ, I could use it for a fuckin’ weapon.” I was at the restaurant Caravan of Dreams with Googie from the Misfits recently and some dude came up telling me he got the book and that it’s fucking insane. These girls we were sitting with were like, “Oh, you wrote a book?” So I started telling them stories about the Lower East Side—some crazy shit. They asked Googie if he read the book and he was like, “I don’t have to. I heard these fuckin’ stories a million times already.” He’s in the book, right? Yeah, because when I was a kid he saw me riding on one of these junkies’ bicycles in Rockaway. He was like, “What the hell is this kid doing?” Rockaway was like the Irish Riviera then. All the poor Irish people had their summer bungalows out there, and his family had one. You were like 14, living on the streets. Yeah, I was a heroin mule for addicts. How were you involved with so many drugs without doing them all? I did do drugs. I tried heroin one time. I fuckin’ skin-popped it, vomited, and I was like, “Fuck that.” I was more into hallucinogens like mescaline, microdots, and acid. Weed, too—I was a huffhead and I was fuckin’ smoking dust. Union Square was a big place to score drugs in the late 70s, right? Fourteenth Street and Union Square Park, people don’t know this now, but that place was a drug supermarket. You could buy anything there. There were hookers there, too. Once, me and my crazy friend Dave Dolan, we bought Placidyls there and then we went to Max’s Kansas City. That was my first time going to that club. What were Placidyls like? They called them “jellybeans.” They were horse tranquilizers and they were the size of a fuckin’ 50-caliber machine-gun round. What would they do to you? Just lay you the fuck out. There were also Tuinals and Seconals—they’re all barbiturates. I must have good genetics, because with all the shit I’ve done to myself, I’m still running marathons and triathlons. I can pop off a 20-mile run in a clip. But anyway, we got the shit stomped out of us that night at Max’s. I was passed out in the doorway outside, but my friend Dave went in there and stole all these dudes’ money off the bar. I was outside, 14 years old, fucking drooling all over myself, and next thing I know the door comes flying open. I see this guy getting the shit stomped out of him. All the punk rockers back then used to wear those pointed shoes and the dudes in Max’s back in the day were ass-kickers. It wasn’t like these punk-rock motherfuckers right now. Like I said in the book, they would stab you in the face 20 times with a bottle because they just didn’t give a fuck. Plus you could get away with it back then. So I’m looking and this dude is getting fucked up. He crawls over and looks up and was like, “Yo, John, help,” and they’re all like, “Oh, you’re with him?” Boom! Did you consider yourself a punk at that time? I don’t know. I wasn’t like, “Yo, I’m a punk rocker.” I didn’t call myself nothing. I called myself a mess, you know what I’m saying? But then I hooked up with this girl Nancy and she turned me on to a lot of stuff. She took me to CB’s and Stickballs and these crazy after-hours punk-rock clubs. I liked the energy and the craziness of it. Were you on the streets back then or were you in a group home? I was already on the streets. I had been in the Saint John’s Home for Boys but I just wasn’t feeling it. How did you get involved in spirituality? From what I got out of the book, you were intrigued by the higher power that HR from Bad Brains was tapping into. There are two dudes that I credit a lot of my spiritual development to and one is undoubtedly HR. He’s such a brother to me. He put a mic in my hand and was like, “Get the fuck out there and sing.” I was trying to be a drummer. But yeah, it was HR and Jerry Williams, who was a really instrumental person behind the Bad Brains’ first album. He produced it, recorded it in his studio, and even put the Bad Brains up there. If it wasn’t for Jerry Williams that album never would have happened. He also got me into raw foods. Then one time HR took me for vegetarian food and ordered me a dragon bowl. I was like, “OK, where’s the dragon meat, motherfuckers?” It was seaweed, and I was like, “What the fuck?” I loved HR but I ran around the corner and got a burger. Then he started taking me to Vegetarian Paradise and this place on Sixth Street called the Cauldron, I thought that this shit could taste pretty good. Then I got me a job at Prana Foods and, shit, the state didn’t raise no fool. I was like, “All right, I’m eating this shit for free now.” Were you hooking up all the Bad Brains dudes with free food too? Oh yeah, they were coming by. They rolled up every day and I was loading bags of sandwiches—$100 worth of groceries—for them. I’m just trying to picture you working at Prana and all the dreads showing up. It was like the window for the juice bar—it was a to-go window [laughs]. All of a sudden five dreads would pop up in the window and I would be like, “All right, what do you guys need?” Going back a bit, I like how you describe the first time you ever heard of the Bad Brains from some guy at a club in Virginia. I was like the wildest squid then, man. I fuckin’ did drugs, I sold drugs, I just did whatever the fuck I wanted. So you were a squid—you were still in the navy at this point? Yeah. I would sneak off base to go to happy hour. I’d get out of my uniform, put my leather on, and go see all the bands. I saw the Teen Idles and the Untouchables at the Taj Majal. So I was going there for happy hour one day and Doug, the owner, comes running out and he was like, “Dude, you got to fuckin’ see this band.” I was like, “Cool, all right, I’ll go check it out.” He was like, “No, no—you don’t understand.” He looked like he’d just seen 20 people get gunned down by a fuckin’ terrorist or something. He was blown the fuck away. So I went upstairs and the motherfuckers clicked off a song and I was just like—get the fuck out of here. It must have been insane to see them that early on. And you couldn’t praise HR. He would give all praises to the most high. You know, I don’t care what the fuck that man is into now or whatever. I owe him a lot of shit and I can’t ever disrespect him. He’s a genius and an amazing human being. All of us have our problems and you can’t knock anybody for it. Bad Brains changed the whole fuckin’ game, you know. That’s why when I ask these kids today if they ever heard of the Bad Brains and they’re like, “Nah,” I’m like, “Go buy the fuckin’ ROIR CD today. Go get the Live at CBGB 1982 DVD today. Do your fuckin’ homework and know where this shit comes from.” I don’t see any current punk-rock bands trying to go anywhere near as hard as the Bad Brains now. Nobody is going for a revolutionary thing. They don’t. They are just a bunch of whiny douchebags with eye makeup and it’s disgusting. And with shit being so fucked up now… George W. Bush, the Iraq war, the coming recession… I mean, this could be debated but there is not a lot of great music addressing that shit. I ain’t gonna debate you on that. I will pat you on the back for saying that. I don’t even listen to 90 percent of the shit that’s out there now. I like shit where there is some soul pouring out of it. If motherfuckers ain’t going through something, how are they going to say anything about anything? You’re singing about how tough you had it in the suburbs of Connecticut because you didn’t get your fuckin’ Gameboy on time. I mean, give me a fuckin’ break. If you don’t go through some adversity in life, you don’t have shit to say as far as I am concerned. That is why the Cro-Mags put out Age of Quarrel. I was living in a motherfucking squat—and it wasn’t like we were summer squatters going to Western Union to get money from Mommy and Daddy. We lived that shit and that is why the album was the way it was. Are you the type of person who gets bummed about New York City now compared to the way it once was? Do you miss the crazier days? Well, my mom can walk down the street now and not get mugged. But I think you would see a lot less of these fuckin’ jerk-offs around here if it was still dangerous. Back then you didn’t go to Alphabet City. Avenue A was adventurous, B was bold, C was crazy, and D was dead. And like, I’m paying all this rent now. But what goes up must come down. I wrote a song called “Seeds of Destruction.” We have been planting these seeds for a while. No great empire lasts forever, and you know America is next.
We’ve barely scratched the surface here. If you ever cared about punk rock or “underdogs beating the odds,” you need to read John’s book The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon.