John Joseph of Cro-Mags Has the Craziest Stories Ever
We talked to the legendary hardcore frontman about his new book, his walking tours, and whatever else he wanted to tell us.
John Joseph isn’t a particularly “big” guy, but you couldn’t tell it from looking at him. His eyes look like they win more fights than his fists do and his personality furthers the stereotype of a working class New York tough guy. He talks fast, colorfully elaborates, and has an astoundingly firm grasp on the word “motherfucker.” He’s not the kind of guy you want to meet in an alley, unless within that alley lies a hidden juice bar. JJ’s band, the Cro-Mags, have made an impact to the hardcore scene the magnitude of which cannot be measured and if it could, would most likely be well worth its weight in blood, sweat and tears.
Logan Worrell: I'm a big fan. I've been following your music for as long as I can remember. I think you're one of the more charismatic men in hardcore. Tell me about the New York City walking tours you've been doing.
John Joseph: My book, The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, talks about the changing face of New York City, growing up in New York, being on the streets in the really rough neighborhood called Alphabet City in the 70s, the music and the clubs of the era. I felt like I'd like to give these tourists a real look at the “real” New York, off the map, off the grid. I remember the first time one of those double-decker tour buses came down by A-7 or whatever, we were standing outside and they're like, "Here's some of the colorful individuals of the music punk rock scene down here that give the neighborhood its diversity." And then they just all piled to the side of the bus taking photos of us like we were fucking animals in a zoo or some shit and I just remember there was a fruit stand there, Kim's Fruit Stand on Avenue A, and I was like, "Motherfucker!" We just started bombing all the tourists with fucking grapefruits and fucking whatever the fuck we could throw at them and they just got the fuck out of there.
But the idea came because Jake of Rocks Off is a really good friend of mine. He's one of the like, legit promoters in New York that takes care of the bands. He's like, "Dude, that's a great fucking idea, what would you do?" And I was like, “I would talk about the drugs, the whole different neighborhoods and personal accounts of shit that went down.” And he's like, "Let's do it." So that was the birth of the walking tour. And then motherfucking Greg Ginn from Black Flag came on my Facebook page saying "Oh, yeah, this is what punk rock is…” I'm like, “Motherfucker, shut the fuck up. You always got something to fucking say. And it's like you don't even fucking know me first of all.”
I mean, Greg Ginn is a fucking jazz musician.
Yeah, I mean dude, let's back up. Pre-hardcore. I was going to Max's Kansas City in '77. I went to my first punk club in '76 at 14 years old. So I said, "First of all, jerk off, it's a fucking crime tour, first and foremost. And it deals with punk rock and other music too." We go by the Fillmore East, it’s a music/crime walking tour. Everybody got something to fucking say. But everybody that came out on the tour told everybody else about it. Like, "Yo, this shit is so diverse and crazy." It's been three years now.
Sounds like a breath of fresh air. You're showing people a New York they're never going to get to see otherwise.
Yeah, telling stories. We've been on The Today Show, Sunday Morning, NBC Today Show, New York Times, Time Out. I had fucking 65-year-old women from Israel taking my tour. And it's never a dull moment. I had this fucking dude try to challenge me to a fight because I wouldn't give him fucking money and he's dressed in like $300 fucking sneakers. And I'm like, dude, if I wasn't on a walking tour with like 30 people right now, I'd fucking bang you out. So do me a favor.
Get a punching tour after that.
Yeah, it would be a knock-down drag-out. But whatever. It's good. It's a lot of laughs.
How often are you doing it?
Well, the last one was like two weeks ago. But I start in like April and go all the way to like the end of October.
Were you around when the whole Reagan Youth thing went down? I know you were terrorizing the streets of New York around the same time Dave Ignorant ‘s old lady got murdered by Joel the Ripper.
That's just a fucking terrible story.
As a matter of fact, I knew the whole Reagan Youth crew and that fucking guy, Joel Rifkin. I remember when Dave's girlfriend got murdered, that was the body wrapped up in a tarp that they found when they busted him. He was going to dump it in Long Island. But I know Dave. Me, Dave, and HR from Bad Brains in '81 had an organization called the UFF -- United Freedom Fighters. I knew Dave before he started getting high. Great, great guy but shit happens. God rest his soul.
I think it's one of the eeriest stories in hardcore punk, like it's one of those ones that gets told around the punk rock campfire.
Yeah, he killed another fucking punk rock dude’s chick that was hooking at Forsyth Park. And everybody doesn’t know that park used to be a big heroin hooker park back in the '70s and '80s.
When did you start Cro-Mags? When you were 25?
I'm fucking 51 and the original Cro-Mags started in '81. I was living in the Bad Brains studio, Harley was there and it was Dave Stein on guitar and Dave Hahn, the Bad Brains manager, on drums. That was the original Cro-Mags and then things happen. We went our separate ways and then I traveled around and the band got back together with Eric Casanova singing.
What's it like, at 51, singing songs written in your early 20s?
Well, here's the whole thing. When you write about the truth as opposed to historical events that are going down, that's not subject to time. Every lyric I wrote, "Seekers of the Truth," "Street Justice," "We Gotta Know," "World Peace," all this stuff is relevant today.
If I didn't, I wouldn't go up and do the songs. You see too many of these reunions. I manage to keep in shape to do the Cro-Mags, and I don’t ever want to be there making excuses about why I sucked. If you ain't gonna give it your all and leave everything on the stage for the people, then don't do it. Stay the fuck home, man.
It should be noted that John Joseph is wearing really, really fast sneakers.
My new Asics, man.
Is that what you train in?
Yeah, I train in these and I run in Zoots when I race. I get hooked up. I get in magazines. I got in Triathlete Magazine and ESPN or whatever, so they're like, my friend managed to hoodwink me some merch.
So one of the most disturbing parts obviously is the dietary issues with your first…
Foster family, yeah.
There's that part in your book where you talk about your foster mother scraping off the Oreo filling and spitting it in between two pieces of bread for your sandwiches. Honestly, it made me sick to my stomach. It's reality, but a tough pill to swallow. No pun intended. Honestly it's good for me to hear that, reminds me of how I didn’t have it that bad. Do you think that based on how you had no control of your diet early on that that's what dictated your diet as an adult? Like, now you like having the power to eat healthy and well so that's what you do?
Yeah, I wrote about that actually in a new version of Meat is for Pussies. It's like, when I was finally able to get food for myself, I ate everything in fucking sight. Luckily, thanks to the Bad Brains and their whole camp in early '81, they pointed me in the right dietary direction.
What's the phrase HR used to refer to vegetarians?
Ital? If you're not ital you must be vital, man
You met HR when you were how old, 17, 18 years old?
I met HR in March of 1980 --
In Richmond, right?
Norfolk, Virginia at the Taj Mahal.
Are you guys still in touch? How is he doing?
He's doing good. I just did the HR documentary thing, I'll go see him, but I'm more in touch with Doc and Darrell and actually we been talking about doing a project together, half Bad Brains and half Cro-Mags. So me, Mackie, Doc and Darrell.
So it would be kind of like FVK?
No, not like that. Something new.
I like that. New shit. Do you listen to current hardcore?
Some of it is good. I like Iron Age, fucking great. Believe it or not, my musical taste is so eclectic. One minute I'll be listening to Marvin Gaye and then Bob Marley or whatever. I listen to all different kinds of music.
I'm interested to know what your training music is because you know the Cro-Mags is everyone's training music.
Straight up mother fucking Bad Brains, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden.
I did not think you would say Alice in Chains or Soundgarden.
Oh, man, fuck, I love all that shit. As long as it's hard… Motorhead, Metallica… I got my whole iPod shit I could show you my playlists.
I'm super curious to see what's on your playlist.
Slayer. You can't do what I do and listen to fucking classical music. Some people could, but I can't.
I imagine you just cooking a healthy vegan meal and listening to Tchaikovsky or something like that. That's what I think of --
Cooking, yeah. I'm not gonna put fucking Slayer on while I'm making veggies.
Do you still practice Hare Krishna?
Wouldn't you be putting a negative vibe out there if you're listening to Slayer while cooking? Wouldn't that transfer the bad vibe on the food possibly?
Probably. I don't know. I listen to like -- I mostly listen to reggae when I cook, man. I just take the vibes on it. I like old school, Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, Scientists, Sly and Robbie. Black Uhuru.
Are you into movies?
The good ones. I just saw Dallas Buyers Club. That was fucking great.
I haven't seen that. It just came out, right? Who is in that, Matthew McConaughey?
Yeah, it's fucking brilliant.
That's my dude right there. OK, so is there going to be a movie based on Evolution of a Cro-Mag?
So who is gonna play you?
It's me as a kid so I don't have no say over that. We made it a period piece.
So it's only going to be your youth, it won't be when you get older? No Navy stuff? No Cro-Mags stuff? It won't cover the '80s stuff?
No, no, no. That's gonna be a whole other flick. There's like five movies in that book. Even a comedy. Yeah, I'm writing a punk rock comedy, a cult comedy.
Are you familiar with James Lipton, Inside the Actors Studio guy? I want to ask you his ten questions.
Go ahead, man.
What's your favorite word?
What's your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
When I see artists doing things from the heart and I'm inspired daily by artists that make great art and I think like Robert McKee said that there's a direct correlation between the decline of art and a decline of value in society. And if you look at society and what people are considering art these days, it's a reflection of where we're headed as a society. So I think it's up a lot, everybody looks up to the artists so I'm inspired when I see artists that really are passionate about what they're doing and not just doing it like this microwave theme society that you have now. I mean if you look at how long it takes to write a film, I've been writing screenplays since '89, so that's fucking going on, so you do it because you love it. That's what turns me on, man.
What turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally?
Hacks! Hack writers. Hack musician. Just hacks. Trying to fucking get into the fame game. And more worried about how they look and fucking everything else than the art?
What noise do you love?
What noise do you hate?
Babies crying on an airplane. [Laughs]
What's your favorite curse word?
I knew it was motherfucker.
What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
Well I have several professions so… Writer, musician.
What's like one thing, if you had like a little kid kind of fantasy?
Smoke jumper. [Laughs]
What profession would you not like to attempt?
A slaughterhouse employee. [Laughs]
If heaven exists, what would you want God to say at the Pearly Gates?
Well, I don't care about heaven because that's still in the material world. I want to go to the spiritual platform, to the spiritual planets.
What would you like Krishna to say when you get there?
What took you so long?