Parris Mayhew Unloads on the History of Cro-Mags
The former Cro-Mags guitarist lays it all out
In every picture of Cro-Mags, Parris is always the guy who looks in another direction. Symbolic.
[Note: This interview was translated from French.]
Fame, success, troubles with skinheads, Krishnas, junkies, record labels, and promoters, true reunions, fake reunions, alliances, betrayals… Cro-Mags has seen it all. The band, which formed in 1982 has seen the New York hardcore scene of the 80s and 90s and marched through the ranks to become the godfathers of the hardcore/metal crossover that’s now the norm. All this thanks to the overpowering guitar riffs of Parris Mayhew. The guy has nothing to sell, nothing to gain, he doesn’t do juices or smoothies, he doesn’t stab his old bandmates either. The former guitarist and co-founder of the Cro-Mags just answered all the questions we threw at him about being the most famous hardcore band of all time…
Noisey: Why do you think Cro-Mags is still so loved and respected after all these years? Even outside the hardcore, punk, or metal circles.
Parris Mayhew: People still love and respect the Cro-Mags simply because of the music, the songs. Good songs stand the test of time. We stood the test of time, when you listen to Age Of Quarrel, it sounds like it was recorded yesterday. People can talk about the image of a band, which they claim is a major factor, and it can be, and certainly was a factor in Cro-Mags, but the band’s image had the luxury of riding on the shoulders of the music. The image would have been meaningless without the music’s power over people. And you can also consider what people think they know about us personally and what we were all about, like the tales of violence and the wacky religion, but the truth is, that all bands, any band, in time, becomes one thing and one thing only: the sum of what is on record. That is what lasts and what ultimately defines the band. No matter how Ozzy deteriorates in the public eye, forever in the minds of the fans, Black Sabbath is Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or Vol 4. When they hear "Sweat Leaf," that is Black Sabbath forever. And so, Cro-Mags are The Age of Quarrel and Best Wishes, it is inseparable and permanent in the minds of the fans.
John can play with his fake line-up of nobodies for 10 years. AJ can tell anyone he’s a Cro-Mags member, but he will never be. He had nothing to do with its creation, its inspiration, and the actual discovery of the Cro-Mags. And that means the music, the songs.
Good songs appeal to everyone, and our fan base reflected that. Fans always said to me, "When Cro-Mags came to town, everyone went: skaters, punks, skins, metalheads, and just regular kids. You never see that." I always appreciated those comments because I was never one of those things and I certainly never identified with a group of people like that. Cro-Mags crossed genre boundaries with the music. You didn't have to be a hardcore fan to love Cro-Mags.
It seems you don’t much like AJ Novello. But when late 80s New York hardcore comes up, there are two inseparable names: Cro-Mags and Leeway. Were you close to them?
Leeway opened for us in the mid 90s. Don't really remember their music. They were not my taste. And as far as inseparable, I never heard that. They were way down on the totem pole at the time. A cling-on band that's why AJ is now playing my music instead if his own. AJ is a follower. He has spent the last decade performing music under my name. What does that tell you about the value of his music? Even he thinks it ain't worth playing.
Thirty years later, do you still feel The Age of Quarrel is a good record?
Sure, it’s a great album. I can’t ignore 27 years of maniacal fanaticism over the record, but I much prefer the Age Of Quarrel demos, for a variety of reasons. One is John's performance on the album is weaker than the demo. When we recorded it, I stood in the vocal booth with John coaching him on the melodies and the cadence. He struggled with the rhythm and vocal melodies. He wasn’t nailing it so I had to jump in to guide him, and he begrudgingly took directions, but I think he gave a great performance. His best performance to date, as a matter of fact, and many fans agree. When John joined the band, he had almost no musical understanding, he was just a guy in the scene who decided, “I’ll be a singer” but didn’t understand what music really was, and wasn’t what we call a “natural » and you could see he was frustrated trying to figure it out but unfortunately he didn't have the wisdom to reach out to Harley and myself for help, he just clenched up and became confrontational out of insecurity and ignorance. We did help him early on but as time went on, he became uncooperative and by the time it came to record Best Wishes, his singing hadn’t improved so we ditched him. His initial momentum was easy because he walked in and sang Eric Casanova’s songs so it seemed like things moved fast but those songs were ready made for him. Don’t get me wrong, John wrote many great lyrics to songs like “We Gotta Know” and “Seekers of the Truth” but his progress slowed dramatically after Age of Quarrel. Again, I like his performance on the demo, it was close to Eric's vision for the songs and John added his own great thing on his own songs, in my opinion “Malfunction” was his best contribution.
But on the album, John was sick with a cold when he sang it and it sounded weak and off. Also, by that time, he had become a problem. He had already been trying to cause discord between Harley and I and was trying to alienate me altogether so he took no direction when we recorded the vocals. I also tried to get him to re-sing his vocals after he recovered from his cold but he refused. So the vocals were never what they could have been. John was very foolish in his approach to Cro-Mags. When he joined, he didn't look at what was happening and see that Harley and I writing this unusual music was the thing to value in the equation. Instead, he saw that bond as a threat, because it was something he couldn't participate in, so he did everything he could to push me away.
I also just preferred the musical performances on the demo. The drumming was better too, Mackie had become an obstacle to the band’s progress too and changed the drum beats every time he sat down to play, mostly because he couldn't remember anything and he began resenting being reminded what to play. When he started with us, he had some chops but no ideas. Harley sat down and showed him how to play every beat on Age Of Quarrel. Harley is quite a good drummer himself. At first, Mackie ate up the input and took the direction, but of course by the time we were making the album, he had received a lot of accolades for his playing and wanted to pretend it was all him and began acting out when Harley would remind him of what he should be playing. He would even play the opposite of what you asked for to be a pest. The result is that the drumming is off on Age Of Quarrel and of course, the recording was a nightmare with Mackie. He was replaced soon after Age Of Quarrel. He had simply become intolerable. Despite my personal feelings about the record, I realize fans don’t hear what is missing, they only hear what’s there and they love it. So at this poin,t that’s good enough for me. I could talk about that record all day. It just wasn't right for me. But it could have been worse. Like when John and I screamed at each other when he wanted to chant “Hare Krishna” over the fast part of “Life Of My Own.” I put my foot down hard and said, "No fucking way!" Obviously, that never happened but that's just an example of the way things could have gone if not for my force in the band.
Are you still listening to your old records?
No, I never listen to them, ever. Too many bad feelings and a pain over what could have been. I do listen to Revenge, despite Harley’s voice (a bad reminder), I do like that one. I’m proud of that one. I’m proud that people like the others but that’s a different pride. With Revenge, my pride is in a real personal accomplishment. It was a lot of work on my part, I produced and wrote most of the music again, like on Age of Quarrel but the music was less compromised by petty bickering and poor playing. It was as close as I ever got to making a great record. I always hate to think how much better it could have been if Harley had tried half as hard as I did and if I didn’t have to exert so much energy managing his emotions and insecurities and needs. But all things considered it is my finest work to date. I also knew when we finished that album that there would never be another. It was too hard to make, I gave it everything I had, the label gave us an insane amount of money and we had freedom and time to cater to Harley’s dragging feet and eternally negative attitude. We would never have that again unless we had great financial success. Even then, we wouldn’t because no one would have ever let us get away with the studio time wasting we did on that. We never got a chance at that success since Polygram dropped us in the midst of a merger and the album was never really released. I printed up 20,000 copies and sold most of them at shows, one at a time, and that was the end of it. A real shame.
How did you get this Polygram deal by the way?
The Polygram deal came about through my connections in making music videos. And A&R guy there said, "If you guy got back together, you'd get signed in an instant." So we did.
Do you receive money out of the numerous Age Of Quarrel reissues?
I do not get money from these reissues. That's John J's bootleg.
You don’t mention Alpha Omega or Near Death Experience obviously because you’re not on them, even if the riffs are very similar of yours. What’s your opinion on those two records?
The riffs on Alpha Omega are not "similar," they are my riffs and Rob Buckley’s riffs. I wrote about this extensively on the Cro-Mags website. These two records are an example of the worst kind of transgression one artist can do to another, stealing his creations. It's just shitty. Artistically, the vocals suck and the tempos are off. I only listened to each one once. Near Death Experience is just embarrassing. Horrible amateur crap.
What about White Devil?
White Devil was just Cro-Mags with a new name. The name seemed a useless gesture since promoters always booked us as White Devil/Cro-Mags and the truth is we were Cro-Mags and after the record was done, it was clear it was a Cro-Mags record. Simple. So we changed the name back to who we are.
What do you think about old hardcore bands reunions in general?
As far as reunions are concerned, I support them if they actually are reunions--the actual band reuniting and making a record in the spirit of making new music. Like When Harley and I reunited to make Revenge, it was all about making new music. We weren’t even going to call it Cro-Mags. We just wanted to recapture the lightning in a bottle we had when we wrote music together in the past and it was there all over again. But when one guy getting a band together and calling it “the band” is wrong. Black Flag, Misfits, Cro-Mags, Journey, all these so-called reunions sadden me. It belittles the value of the original phenomenon. And no matter how well the replacement musicians are that go up on stage and try to imitate Cro-Mags by simply performing the songs, they are not the musicians. They are just parrots. Harley put it best. He said, “If you put John Joseph, AJ, and Mackie in a room together with instruments and told them to write a song. What do you think would happen? The answer is nothing.” And that really sums up the fake Cro-Mags. They have been playing together for almost two decades and made no new music. They play only Age of Quarrel songs but of course even many of those songs couldn’t possibly be claimed by John or anyone else that pretends to be Cro-Mags because none of them wrote any of it. It’s a cover band plain and simple.
Cro-Mags is infamous for this eternal beef between John and Harley, and we never got your opinion about that. As a former member of the band, I guess you had to choose side in the past. Has your view evolved since the Webster Hall incident?
Of course I took a side: mine. Me and Harley started the band, we created the band and we made the discoveries that defined the phenomenon. Harley was my partner in this. John came in after the fact and was replaced after he proved inadequate. We went on to record Best Wishes without him, which outsold Age Of Quarrel two to one. That's an easy question. I always thought of him as a prop--someone who fit the suit. There certainly would have been a Cro-Mags with or without John, no question. All that said, John could have worked out well in Cro-Mags as the singer but he handicapped himself by not turning to the two musicians in the band who could have guided him to excel within his limitations and of course, if he hadn't tried to sabotage my relationship with Harley. John used his Hare Krishna banter to manipulate people and Harley bought into it hook, line, and sinker but when John tried to fish in my waters, he got nothing. There was no “way in” to me from his Hare Krishna recruiting handbook. I wasn't a lonely kid with abandonment issues, I didn't need a family to join, I had a family. So when John realized he couldn't turn me into a robe-wearing Krishna, he saw me as the enemy. And began to sew the seeds of discontent and tried to push me out. That was so foolish because we had something that worked and excelled and he destroyed it from the inside out. Carl Sagan summed it up when he said, "An organism that is at war with itself is doomed." John declared war against me when he saw he could not sway me towards his Hare Krishna schtick so he declared war on me and from that moment we were doomed.
As far as the Webster Hall incident, that was all Harley's fault, no doubt. And it began years before he stepped foot in Webster Hall, because Harley created the environment where it would be acceptable to the fans, that a fake band could play as us. When Harley became a scene pariah and made the fans hate him so much that they would say, "Fuck Harley, I support John" that was when it all began. Or even before that: when he alienated me. When we were at our peak, no one would have ever supported this bunch of nobodies pretending to be Cro-Mags. Ever. Harley made it possible to accept. With his publicly embarrassing internet rants, betrayals, and egomania.
The thing is, Harley was in the right when he stood his ground against them at Webster Hall, but it was way too late. The timing was idiotic. He could have stopped that gig and every previous and subsequent gig with a phone call. He owns the trademark for Cro-Mags live performance but he never did that. What people don't understand is Harley went there on a mission. He was at rock bottom. His band was hijacked by a bunch of cardboard cut-outs and he was a laughing stock. But Harley knew the real truth, that no matter what anyone thought he was, he still was the real deal. And he is the real deal no matter what a public buffoon he has become; he is still the co-creator of Cro-Mags and nothing will change that. I think Harley actually believed that if he showed up at Webster Hall that his presence alone would expose the fakes for what they were, just fakes. He asked John to play with them and John denied him. At that moment, Harley made a decision. All Harley had left was to try to ride the legend he had created to its zenith. But I don't think he planned it in advance, he made the decision in a flash. He was in a rage, backed against the wall, so he acted in a moment frustration and helplessness. He would be the legend and kill John. He would go to jail but he would be the legend again.
Harley doesn't have long to live so what difference would it make if he died in jail as long as he was loved again. I know this sounds crazy but believe me, I know Harley and it is exactly how he thinks. I really think Harley believed this attack would be perceived as a heroic act. So he went after John but was intercepted by the nobodies. He slashed the wrong guys and didn't kill anyone and the entire thing went south. Because, if he had killed John, it would all be over. He would have accomplished everything he desired. There would be no more Fake-Mags and he would have his legend back. But instead, he slashed a nobody. And of course he didn't intend to kill those guys because he slashed them, not stabbed them. Those are two very different things. A stab is deliberate and a slash is hesitant. They actually call them hesitation wounds. I know what a stabbing is, believe me. So Harley failed big time because his mission backfired on him completely. You know the rest, the scene raged against him for his actions. He wasn’t the hero he expected to be and it didn’t realize his legend. It was an impotent act.
I was very disappointed when I heard no one would press charges against Harley, because yet again, Harley gets away with being the biggest asshole on Earth, again with no consequences! On the flip side, I also understand why Harley did what he did because if you came into my house to steal my stuff you might just get stabbed and when those guys get up on stage and pretend to be us, they are stealing from us. Stealing our legacy and our income. And of course, the applause belongs to us too.
This battle of egos eclipsed the fact that Cro-Mags was an entire band of five musicians. How do you people from different backgrounds with different aspirations came together and get along ?
It was the music. Harley and I clicked musically right away. There was a chemistry and mutual support. I loved his riffs and he loved mine and he would embrace my music totally. So much so, he often claimed he wrote my music, which is another nightmare bullshit story for another time. When Harley and I sat with our instruments, we were bonded. It is very hard to find people who play what you feel and finish your musical sentences in a way that makes you think, "Yes that's exactly what I meant." And that relationship is the key to the phenomenon of the Cro-Mags. Our ability to communicate musically and tell a sonic story that is cohesive and continuous. Together, Harley and I made a sound that moved people. That comes from personal time and discovery. It starts with sitting alone in a room, picking up your guitar for the sheer pleasure of it and making a sound that pleases you. Then adding another chord or riff until it rings out in a way that makes you happy. Like a sound puzzle until the picture is complete. That personal discovery is what songwriting is. Someone can't come along 20 years later and learn the chords and play them on stage and say, “That's good enough to be a Cro-Mag.” That's ridiculous. That's why Harley and I got along. We respected each other. We looked to each other to see ourselves. And I found myself in an odd place indeed. I loved playing music with Harley more than anyone I ever played with. Period. I also hope I never see him again.
You grew up in the Bronx. How was it back then?
The Bronx was an amazing place to grow up. It was a real old New York City neighborhood. Rooted with generations growing up in the same five-block radius. I went to the same grade school as my mother. Gangs ruled the streets but they were not like gangs today, driven by organized crime and criminal violence. It was a club, a brotherhood and they protected our neighborhood and the kids in it. Our Bronx neighborhood gang was the Savage Skulls and there were 10,000 members. It was a little army of kids. Teenagers mostly. I always felt safe and we ran those streets with immunity and had the times of our lives together. But the neighborhood was suddenly and irreparable destroyed over a few days, when there was a city-wide black out. The lights were out for several days and every night, the looters went out and ransacked the shopping areas. Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse, the two big shopping streets in my area, were gutted. When it was all over, the people were in shock. Store-owners refused to rebuild. There was nowhere to shop for food or anything. People were afraid and they began moving out in droves. The Bronx became a ghost town. Landlords began burning down their buildings for insurance money and within a year, the Bronx was all but burned to the ground. That was the end of my home. I left the Bronx a few years later and never went back. There was nothing to go back to.
What and where would you be if you didn’t form the Cro-Mags?
I would have made another band, absolutely. I had written a few of the Age of Quarrel songs before I met Harley like “World Peace,” “It’s The Limit,” and “Life Of My Own” so I would simply have found people and played those songs with them. You also must remember that John Joseph, Doug Holland, and Harley were in another band together; that did not have the effect on people that Cro-Mags did. If it had, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a Cro-Mags. They had a band called MOI, for Mode Of Ignorance. MOI was Harley’s dream band of skinheads and since Cro-Mags wasn’t going to be that dream, he gave it a shot. MOI was put together while Cro-Mags were developing, so it could have gone either way, and it looked like MOI was gaining ground on Cro-Mags because they were actually a full band and were playing shows. It was John's first attempt to hijack Harley away from me and "do it without Parris.” MOI live were pretty good but they didn't have the fire and most importantly they didn't have the songs! They didn't have the impact. It was the image without the substance and in all humbleness, I was the wildcard that made Cro-Mags different than MOI.
So of course MOI went by the wayside in the wake of Cro-Mags exploding. That was easy to predict and the reason I never protested when Harley wanted to do MOI with John and didn't ask me to be in it. It was obvious what was going on, at least I was suspicious but I figured whatever happens, happens and it did work out for me. Or I think it did, maybe if MOI had been a better band, they would have continued and Cro-Mags would have never happened and I could have formed another band that would last. I did have that chance but let it go. Ironically enough, there was a moment when Harley and I wanted to replace John and Mackie in one move. We jammed with Roger Miret and Pete Hines way before the demo was recorded. It was a great jam; Harley and I spoke briefly after the jam and decided, "This is great, Mackie and John are out." But then me, Pete, and Rodger went out together for a beer. Pete and Rodger had a few minutes to talk amongst themselves and they told me "We don't want to join Cro-Mags. We want to start a new band with you. We don't want to play with Harley. We knew before the jam but when you brought in that new song for us to jam (“Malfunction”) and we could see where the real music was coming from, we were sure." I didn't see that coming. Rodger was always around so he knew I wrote “World Peace” and a bunch of the best stuff so it made sense. People who knew Harley long enough didn't like him and Rodger knew Harley well enough at that point. I had already put in what I thought was a lot of work into Cro-Mags so I told Rodger and Peter, "Thanks, but no thanks" and continued on with Harley. Mackie and John never knew about this and it was business as usual from then on until we finally got the chance to replace them.
Are you still in touch with past Cro-Mags members? What have they become?
I speak to Doug Holland on Facebook but otherwise, I have no contact at all with any of them. The only one I ever really cared about was Harley. I wasn't friends with any of them except Harley and Pete Hines but I have not heard or seen him in decades. When John was in Cro-Mags I didn’t even know his phone number.
Now, John and I are on speaking terms. He actually contacted me about two years ago through a mutual friend, UFC judge Doug Crosby, for a meeting to clear the air. The three of us met at a coffee shop and John immediately went into an apology for the way he had treated me publicly for years. I certainly was surprised but so was Doug and he took the apology as his cue to let us talk alone. Once John had set a positive mood with his apology he immediately launched into his real reason to talk. He wanted me to write a Cro-Mags album for him. He said, “Those guys I play with don’t write music.” I said, “Well, even if they did, they wouldn’t be Cro-Mags songs.” OK, I’m not saying I’d do it but if I did, there would have to be a few things to clear first. One is that band would be incorporated and independently managed. And all of us would profit equally from all sources of income. That includes Harley, although non-participating partners’ cuts would have to be discussed as far as live performances go and merch sold at shows. Otherwise, we would all be equal partners. (John, Harley, and myself.) Second, Harley would have nothing whatsoever to do with performances, but would still get a negotiated cut of non-participant earnings such as merchandising sold at shows. It’s only fair and fair is how we have to start off; we have to be on level ground. Third, I would assemble an acceptable band to work with. The band of scrubs he has had off and on don’t cut it. Also, as a test run, I would like him to sing on two unreleased songs from Revenge and if all went well, we could re-release Revenge with all new vocals by John, we would release it and tour on it and then if that all worked out, I would consider writing new material for another record. Lastly, he would have to publicly and repeatedly confess that he lied when he said, “Parris ratted me out to the military.”
That was all I could think of off the top of my head but I could see while I was talking that John’s mood had turned. I could see the realization in his face. He realized he was not the boss when we were together and he had gotten use to being the boss but now he realized he was just keeping the king’s throne warm for him. This especially sank in when as a last ditch effort he said, “Well, Parris, I was hoping you, me, and Mackie could just get in a room, like in he old days and write songs and see what happens.” I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I know you have been telling your own version of our story so long that you actually believe it, but you me and Mackie never got in a room together and wrote songs. Me and Harley wrote the music alone and brought the songs in to rehearsal arranged and then taught Mackie how to play them and then you wrote lyrics to the ones that Eric hadn’t or Harley hadn’t. And if I wrote new music, I would need good musicians with good attitudes to work with and Mackie is out! And we should get Doug Holland too.” I could see he was a little stunned. I delivered all this in a calm neutral matter of fact tone, but I really had no intention of doing any of it, except maybe re-recording vocals on the unreleased songs but I could see the reality of the situation was a shock to John.
On a side note, John told me, “Well if we don’t do this, I am going to stop performing as Cro-Mags in two months and put it to rest.” That was two years ago and he hasn’t stopped playing gigs with whoever is around to be a Cro-Mag fill-in or made any new music. I also said, “I need to say this: I hate what you are doing with the name Cro-Mags but the truth is, Harley made it all possible for you by being an asshole and pushing me away and I have no interest in Cro-Mags without Harley or with Harley. As as far as I’m concerned, I understand your position of wanting to perform music you are proud of, but I still wish you wouldn’t do it. I just had to say it.”
Overall, I felt good about sitting down with John if only to put a stop to all the hostility. We achieved that much and when we see each other, we shake hands and smile. And why shouldn’t we be civil? We have a mutual past that we are both proud of and we should be a reminder to each other of that pride. But of course a few months after we met, I saw an interview where John said, “I spoke to Parris and he finally admitted Me and Mackie are original members and have a right to perform Age of Quarrel live.” Of course, I never said that and I never would say that, for the simple reason that it’s not true. So that kind of pissed me off but didn’t surprise me at all.
Will you adapt his autobiography, Evolution of a Cro-magnon, to the screen if John asked you? [Laughs]
Funny, but I certainly have not read it. I am an avid reader, but I couldn't imagine reading a book by an author who never read a book himself.
Cro-Mags made an appearance in The Beat, a movie from 1988. Is it a good memory?
Funny you mention The Beat film shoot as a possible good memory. Because Harley was behaving like such an asshole that day, the film director walked off the set in disgust. It was typical Harley fucking up a good thing.
What do you think of the John’s New York street tours? I read even Gregg Ginn thought it’s fake.
The street tours John is doing is just sad. Pathetic. And on a separate note, it is typical JJ sellout behavior. Nothing is sacred to him. But most of all, it's sad.
Are you still living in New York? What’s next?
I live in Brooklyn and work as a steadicam operator on commercial, TV, and movies. New York is a dying and resurrecting city. Right now it is dead, and its corpse is being trotted around by outsiders. It bears no resemblance of the vibrant place it once was but I have hope that it will rise again as it has before and I will be here when it does. I also have been writing music for about three years and am patiently putting together a band. It's called BLOOD4PAPA. It's heavy guitar rock. A little of my past with a lot of my present. But there really isn’t anything to talk about until it’s on a stage. I find inspiration everywhere and as I have changed, so shall my music. I embrace what I have done but I have no interest in a continuation. I feel like the Cro-Mags ended long ago.
Rod Glacial prefers Best Wishes. He’s on Twitter - @FluoGlacial
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