When Harley Flanagan was growing up, he saw New York Dolls member Johnny Thunder stumble down the backstage stairs at famed nightclub Max's Kansas City with a syringe hanging out his arm before he asked the bouncers, "Are we up yet?" Flanagan, who was 12 at the time, later wrote, "As a kid you don't realize the level of wrongness in that."
To say the hardcore legend's young life was surreal is an understatement. A Lower East Side local who dropped out of school in 7th grade, Flanagan spent his youth drumming at venues alongside Hells Angels members, noted drag queens like Jane County, and NYC rock icons like Richard Hell and Debbie Harry. There's even a photo of the young musician mugging to the camera next to Andy Warhol, who he claimed to "not give a fuck" about. It was pure madness, even for a street smart pre-teen whose day-to-day existence in the late 70s centered on finding stores that were easy to shoplift food from, bathing in fire hydrants, and playing in punk rock bands, first as a drummer with The Stimulators, and later as a bassist for the Cro-Mags—the band that came to define New York hardcore.
Hard-Core: Life Of My Own, out September 27 on Feral House, is Flanagan's chronicle of his evolution from a street kid and downtown punk scene regular to a full-on hardcore hero. Equal parts punk rock manifesto and survival guide, the book covers Harley's ups and downs, including his rampant drug use, friendships with history-defining figures like Allen Ginsberg and members of The Clash, and the release of the Cro-Mags' acclaimed 1986 debut, The Age of Quarrel. It also details the musician's highly-publicized falling out with his band, which resurfaced in 2012 after Flanagan got in a fight with its current members, stabbed someone, and ended up in Rikers.
Today, Flanagan is 49 and teaches youth jujitsu in the city. He claims not to pay attention to the current punk and hardcore scenes, though he admits they will "always be a part of me just based on my contributions." VICE chatted with the punk rocker-turned-author about the improbability of a Cro-Mags reunion, his apathy towards famous people, and what made the punk community special back in the day.
VICE: I've been a big fan of hardcore and punk rock bands for years, but I've noticed that everything seems a lot mellower and calmer at shows today. There's no longer the feeling that anything could go down at a hardcore show. What do you think happened?
Harley Flanagan: I think New York City on a whole is a lot softer. I honestly don't know much about hardcore shows these days, but as time goes on things seem to always lose a little bit of that spark, whatever genre or generation of music it is. In the early days of punk, the bouncers were not really up on slam dancing, stage diving, and moshing. That used to cause a lot of problems at shows; people would get beat up by bouncers and mini-riots would break out. It wasn't as rehearsed back then. It was just spontaneous and it wasn't just the show that was intense. Getting to and from the show was intense too. Just being a punk rocker or a hardcore kid meant you got fucked with a lot on the street. More often than not, hardcore or punk shows weren't in good neighborhoods. The whole experience was pretty intense.
What's changed most?
The internet fucked a lot of things up. It's great you can research and it's easy to find stuff, but in a lot of ways it took the continuity and the natural progression and flow out of things. The early 80s were the last era that was really organic. Now it's such a cut and paste world. In those early days, you had to know where to get the records; it was more exclusive, more tribal. No matter what country or city you went to, there was always a little subculture that knew where the scene was. If you saw someone walking down the street with a mohawk, you'd run to catch up with them to find out what bands they liked. There was an instant bond. Nowadays, it's not as organic, you just have to google it, get a couple of tattoos on your neck, and pretend you're Mr. Hard Ass. We lost the exclusivity of the scenes and it's dummied down the artform.
What about the punk community originally attracted you?
One of the beautiful things about punk rock was that the people on the stage and the people in the crowd were the same people. The headlining band would be in the crowd watching the openers, and vice-versa. There wasn't that separation between the bands and the fans like there is now. That was more like the arena rock mentality. The Kiss-type fan and all that never appealed to me. Punk rock was more real. As a kid, you don't realize how bizarre your situation is because you don't have any perspective. I wasn't trying to emulate anyone.
I've followed the NYC hardcore scene and your work with the Cro-Mags since the 80s, but I never really knew your backstory or how young you were when you entered the scene. What was it like being a kid and hanging around all these punk and counterculture gods?
It's weirder for me looking back on it in hindsight as an adult because, at the time, that was just my life and I didn't know any better—I was a kid. For example, there's a picture of me, Andy Warhol, and Joe Strummer. I didn't give a fuck who Andy Warhol was. I don't even think I knew he was standing next to me because I was hanging out with Joe Strummer. I was in awe of The Clash. We were all punk rockers. Sure, they were punk rock royalty, but I felt that we were part of the same community and were on the same page. I didn't really give a flying fuck about all the other famous people that were backstage in the dressing rooms like your Warhol's or your Deniro's. In that picture of me as a kid with Debbie Harry, I just remember the photographer Marcia Resnick saying "Hey Harley, Debbie," and I turned and she took the picture.
Did it feel like you were in the midst of greatness? Did you think this movement would blow up like it did?
I never felt in awe of anyone. That was not what punk was about. I was in awe of some performances I saw—The Clash at the Palladium, Bad Brains, so many other great bands—but I was a punk. Punk was by the people, for the people. The bands and the fans were the same people, that's what made punk different. But no, I didn't think it would go "mainstream." Do I care? No, 'cause it's over for me. I still listen to the music, but scenes and genres are for kids. I'm not a kid anymore. I still play what I play, and I still listen to what I listen to. I'm friends with who I'm friends with, but I'm not a part of any "scene." I don't need to be. Hardcore and punk will always be a part of me just based on my contributions to it.
You describe yourself in your book as a "glue-huffing-dust-smoking-drug-taking-fighting-all-the-time nut." Can you talk about your relationship with drugs and violence as a young person?
Well, I wasn't trying to describe myself; it was just a fact. As far as drug escapades, there are too many to mention and you'll have to read the book. For the record, it's not something I'm proud of; it's just something that happened. And it wasn't that I felt a need to fight all the time, but rather that I had to. That was the life I was living. The neighborhood was tough—lots of gangs, lots of crime, and lots of violence. Who knew how long you would survive or what would happen? I certainly didn't. After a while, it became fun.
The Cro-Mags seemed destined for fame by the mid-80s, but instead you guys have lived on in infamy. Looking back, what went wrong and what held you guys back from reaching that next level?
Ego got in the way, then greed, and now there's just too much bitterness. I honestly tried everything I could to bring [the Cro-Mags] back together, but we all saw how that worked out. I am at peace with it now. If John [Joseph McGowan, Cro-Mag's frontman] wants to masquerade with his fake Cro-Mags, and Parris [Mitchell Mayhew, Cro-Mag's guitarist] wants to be pissed about the past, then that is that, sadly. That is where it stays. I am happy with my life and can't force them to change their minds or ways. My door is always open. It's not just for them; it's really for the fans and I would be honored to give them one more show.
You haven't played with the Cro-Mags in 15 years and you had a well publicized confrontation with the band in 2012 where you ended up in Rikers. How do you feel about the band's fate today, and has the animosity, at least on your part, diminished?
I laugh at that whole shit. In some ways, it was almost fun looking back [on that fight]. A room full of people jumped me, I put three of them in the hospital, got arrested, made the papers, while John ran down the stairs like a bitch. It's all laughable. I mean, yeah, I got stabbed, but it was a fight, whatever. I care less and less. I just think it's sad John was such a coward that he caused that to happen. But hey, again, that's why there will never be a real Cro-Mags reunion. Those guys have too many issues, too much baggage, and if he is nutless enough to pull some shit like that, how could it ever happen? It's sad and funny, but I'm over it.
See more archival photos of Harley Flanagan and the Cro-Mags below.
'Hard-Core: Life of My Own' is out September 27 on Feral House. Pre-order it here.
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