Skins, Smack, and 'SNL': 80s New York Hardcore With Agnostic Front's Roger Miret
Read an exclusive excerpt from Miret's new book that looks back at the wild days of New York City hardcore.
In the early 80s Agnostic Front were the toughest band in America and their 1984 debut LP Victim in Pain remains one of the toughest albums ever released. Recorded at Demo Demo Studios by legendary producer Don Fury, the eleven songs helped define the New York City hardcore punk sound and the title track and "Blind Justice," with vocalist Roger Miret screaming "There's no justice, it's just us," became hardcore skinhead anthems.
Born in Cuba, Miret and his family escaped the Castro regime by fleeing to the US where a young Miret found himself hanging out on New York City's Lower East Side in the 70s and early 80s. Surrounded by poverty and violence, he fell into the punk scene, first with his band the Psychos and later the legendary Agnostic Front. After turning to drug running to help support his family he wound up in prison on a felony charge. But after getting his shit together he returned to music and hardcore.
A new book, MY RIOT: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts, & Glory, provides insight into Miret's life as well as an insider account of the birth of the volatile New York Hardcore scene.
We asked him a few questions and he sent through an excerpt from the book that includes his first meeting with Agnostic Front guitarist Vinnie Stigma.
Noisey: What was it like writing My Riot? Did you find it easy to remember and recall the early days?
Roger Miret: It was the hardest thing I have ever done! It's not hard to remember key points in my life, but adding the full details in order to paint the story as accurately as I could was tough. These are my memories of my encounters, but someone who experienced the same things could have different memories. I never realized that until I shared my memories with friends and we reminisced about everything. It was fun, interesting and a challenge!
The excerpt covers your realization that some people were associating AF with racist skins and punks. Why do you think that was?
It was on our first US tour, once we hit the West Coast, that I realized what the hell MaximumRocknroll was talking about! As I mention, it followed us home and then things got more serious. It never dawned on me before then because I was living in NYC, which is a melting pot of different races, religions and cultures. I became aware of the hate that was trickling in a little later in the US by early 84, and it inspired me to write about unity and strength within our scene.
You also describe going to the July 16, 1982. Dead Kennedys, D.O.A, SSD, and Kraut show at Paramount Theatre in Staten Island. It sounds like a wild show. The flyers said "Just a Ferry Ride Away" but it seems more than that.
That particular incident was not so-called "scene" violence. It was a confrontation with the locals who did not understand the hardcore punk movement. Back then punk was not accepted or understood, and that made it challenging to go to shows in certain areas. Most hardcore punk shows were in the worst areas of the city, so going to a show alone was a huge commitment and risk. But it sure was worth it! I miss that element of danger. It stirred up something within us to come together as a true NYHC tribe. However, I don't condone violence at our shows. I oppose it and won't tolerate it. I'd rather just stop playing and leave.
The book also gives a good account of your experience at Fear's SNL appearance which has become folklore.
It was chaos. We knew shit was going to explode but didn't know when. SNL didn't know what to expect, and they didn't know how to handle it. I was a fly on the wall before I joined Agnostic Front, because I was very introverted. I felt comfortable just to observe the chaos.
Read an excerpt from Miret's book below.
The first time I saw Vinnie Stigma was on October 14, 1981, at the Peppermint Lounge. The Stimulators and The Professionals (which featured Sex Pistols' guitarist, Steve Jones) were playing, and Vinnie was a fucking maniac. I had no way of knowing how important he would be in my life over the next 35 years. Vinnie was on the floor doing this crazy dance, and I was standing at the top of the balcony looking down. I was flying on mescaline, which is why I wasn't down where the action was.
When I did mescaline I withdrew from the world and stayed within myself. I'd always feel worried, like something bad was about to happen. I don't know why the fuck I did it, but I did it a lot. Being high like that and acutely aware of my fears, I was looking for the scariest thing around, maybe as a defense mechanism. Whatever it was, I usually found it fascinating. At that moment Vinnie was the craziest, most outrageous thing in sight. He was dancing hard, going against the pit. Usually, guys in the pit rotate around with the flow of the circle like chunks of wood in a whirlpool. Vinnie was right there in the middle like a salmon swimming upstream. The pit was going one way and he was going the other, crashing his way through a wall of people, with a mad glint in his eye. He was with Big Paul, who was an American skinhead and a good dude.
In the UK, a bunch of skinheads were messed-up motherfuckers. They were hateful and malicious, and a lot of them supported an ideology of white power. They'd go gay-bashing and beat up black people and other minorities. I wasn't oblivious to the messages in the music I liked. I thought about what bands were saying in their lyrics. I never liked racist or bigoted bands. I hated everything they and their followers stood for, and I wanted nothing to do with them. But sometimes things aren't so cut and dried.
Music is a funny thing; it can be blinding. If it's really good or catchy, you may overlook certain things like goofy lyrics or a mixed message. Especially when you're young, dumb and punk.
The shock value can also skew your logic. I mean, I've seen African-American punks with swastika pins. That's ridiculous, right? That being said, as soon as White Power became a clear-cut genre with a hateful agenda, most of us instantly boycotted it and the accompanying mentality. There were some guys who secretly—or not so secretly—continued to support that message, either as a fan or because of some sick ideological delusion.
In the early days, if you didn't disrespect people and minded your own business, people tended to let most things slide. But even that ultimately ceased. Our scene was evolving, and it was too multicultural for bigotry to be accepted or tolerated. The sympathizers took a more discrete approach. The rest took a more vocal and aggressive approach against it—rightfully so.
This new approach inspired me to write songs for our first full-length record, Victim In Pain. Songs like "United and Strong," "Fascist Attitudes," and "Your Mistake" focused on bringing kids together. Just read the lyrics!
Despite my efforts to bring unity instead of hate to our scene, there were those that had already formed an opinion, based on stories they heard instead of taking us at face value. They certainly didn't listen to Victim In Pain! They also didn't realize that I'm a Cuban immigrant. I was raised in multicultural neighborhoods in New Jersey and New York. I always had friends from all walks of life and still do.
In the late '80s, after a shit-ton of media attention was put on skins, wrongly identifying them all as White Power, there was an even stronger reaction against the White Power genre skins. People drew more definitive lines in the sand. It's a shame the media never paid as much attention to the multiracial side of things. But unity doesn't sell. Hate does.
My idea of being a skin came largely from American bands like Iron Cross and The Effigies. Obviously not all UK skinhead bands where messed up. If it wasn't for Sham 69, Cockney Rejects, The Business, or The Last Resort, I probably wouldn't have channeled in such great working-class music and discovered the American skin bands.
Elio was the first person I knew who brought the European skinhead look to the New Jersey scene. He was British, kept a fresh buzzed #1 crop and wore Ben Sherman shirts, pressed slacks, braces and steel-toed oxblood Dr. Martens boots. We mostly wore American military boots, homemade T's of our favorite bands, ripped jeans and spiked bracelets. We had our own thing. It would be a while before I had to worry about fascists coming to my shows.
We were from New York and New Jersey. We grew up with different races, religions and colors, and that lent great diversity to the scene. We accepted everyone as long as they were into the same music. We didn't mind offending anyone. We loved it. It was great to insult people and be obnoxious, but we never set out to put down anyone's race and we never tolerated racism.
The Psychos were barely big enough to draw any type of crowd. Chessie came to all of our shows. She was one of the few chicks, along with Billy's girl, Kitty Hawk, from the band Killer Instinct and my cousin Tito's girl, Laurie. We'd get a few hardcore dudes, maybe a New York skin and a punk or two. There was a big division back then between the punk and hardcore scenes. I always liked both, but the punk scene was artsy, self-destructive and suicidal. A lot of the artists and fans were drug addicts and those that weren't shooting up were depressed all the time. It wasn't positive. Hardcore was violent, but it was a fun violence—a decadent celebration of destruction and chaos.
I didn't know anything about heroin at the time. Then on October 30, 1981, I went to see Misfits with a girl named Zoe, whom I had just started dating, and I got a firsthand introduction to the dangers of smack. The band was playing the Ukraine Hall with Necros and I was losing my mind for the whole show, jumping up and down while holding her shoulders. I figured she was just as stoked about the show as I was. Before the concert was over she excused herself to go to the bathroom. I figured she had to piss; we had been drinking a lot of beer. I needed to go also, but I didn't want to miss any of the show. After, I went to the bathroom and emptied my bulging bladder. I was pumped and in a great mood.
We went back to Zoe's car, and I could tell she was definitely out of it. I thought, "Damn, jumping around at the concert took a lot out of her." Then I figured she got really bombed during the show and it had just hit her, because alcohol takes a little while to get into people's bloodstreams. I don't know why I thought she was okay to drive, but she got in the driver's seat. Before she turned the keys in the ignition, she slumped over.
I didn't realize she had overdosed. Since I hadn't experimented with hardcore drugs yet, I didn't know what people looked like when they were nodding off. I didn't see her shoot up. She must have done it in the bathroom, but when I nudged her she didn't move or make any noise. She had foamy spit running down the corner of her mouth, and I couldn't tell if she was breathing. We were right by St. Mark's Place and since the concert had just let out, there were some people on the street and police patrolling the area. I looked around desperately and ran up to a police officer.
"Hey, there's something going on! I just saw this girl in her car. I thought she was asleep, but she's not moving."
I acted like it was just something I saw because I wasn't sober and didn't want to get arrested. The cop came over to check Zoe out and then shouted something into his walkie-talkie. Before I could ask him what was happening, an ambulance arrived. Paramedics jumped out, scooped up Zoe and took her away.
I didn't know where they took her and I didn't hear from her afterwards. I didn't know if she had a seizure, a heart attack, or a brain aneurysm. I contacted one of her friends, and she told me Zoe had overdosed. She was the first one I knew who did that. She wouldn't be the last. But the night went from a great experience to something horrific. Apparently, doctors revived her at the hospital and she lived. But she separated herself from the punk scene afterwards, or her parents made her stay away from the people she had been hanging out with. I never saw her again.
I hardly had time to take in what had happened on Halloween night when Fear played Saturday Night Live. John Belushi, who was a big fan of the scene, pushed the show's producer, Lorne Michaels, to have them on the show. Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye and a bunch of kids from DC and Boston came up to Rockefeller Center, and we waited in line with them. Fear played six songs, two of which were filmed for broadcast. Organizers let us in as soon as the band started playing, but they brought us to a back room instead of to the audience. We were all fucked up and pissed off, so we trashed the place.
We pulled all the strings out of a piano and smashed the bathroom sinks because we were frustrated and wanted to get down there to see the band. Finally, they let us downstairs and into the studio for the last song, and we went off. Even before they started playing we were slamming into each other and diving into the audience. Then everyone started getting rough and throwing punches. The kids from DC and Boston were in our town acting tough, so we got right back in their faces and the show erupted into a big brawl. Security tried to break up the fights while the band was playing. We saw these pumpkins all over the set and started throwing them at each other and at the security guards. Finally, the NYPD came in with batons and started beating kids, so we split. Cops were chasing us down the halls, and we managed to get out of the studio and escape through the street.
It was sheer insanity—a Misfits show and an overdose, followed by Fear, a bunch of fights and escaping from the cops. For punks, living was like walking a 50-foot tightrope made of razor wire. It was as dangerous as it was fun, even on Halloween. A lot of the kids in the NYHC scene didn't expect to live long, but they didn't waste time thinking about dying. They were living in the moment and didn't worry what would happen down the road. We stayed out as long as we could, as if that would slow down the arrival of the next day.
On a typical night we went to the Mudd Club because they had punk nights downstairs and reggae upstairs. And when the night was over there, we went to A7, which didn't open until 2 AM and which also doubled as a reggae venue. Of course fights could erupt at any punk show at any time, but sometimes being at concerts kept us out of trouble. When nothing was going on and we were just fuckin' bored, that's when we acted like real degenerates, especially if we were too drunk or on speed or angel dust.
One time I was standing by a parked car outside the Mudd Club, where Fear and The Young and the Useless were playing, and Big Paul and Jimmy Gestapo from Murphy's Law came out looking for a fight. They broke the antenna off a car, snapped it in half and started beating on one guy. I didn't know who he was or why they were bashing him, but they got in a few good lashes. The guy's shirt tore with every stroke. It looked like a slow motion scene in a hardcore version of A Clockwork Orange. The antenna came down and made a sickening thwack. Then a long line of blood appeared; it started at one corner of the shirt tear and spread to the other end, as if some force was coloring all the gashes crimson—at least that's what it looked like on hallucinogens. I watched fascinated, but also kind of sickened because it reminded me of my stepdad and the punishments he dished out whenever he was in a bad mood—and sometimes when he was in a good mood and wanted to feel more empowered.
When I turned around I saw a group of people coming down the street straight towards me! I went, "Fuck. This is it!" I pulled off my chain belt and got ready to fight, but everyone ran right past me and started beating on Billy Psycho. Billy saved the day yet again.
Billy was always a target, but he loved it. He'd get in the pit and get knocked over and roughed up. Someone would kick him in the ribs and someone else would step on his head. He'd come out of every show limping and black and blue. Sometimes he'd have a broken nose or he'd have a fat lip or a black eye. The more abuse he took, the more fun he had.
Back when I was in the Psychos, I hung out a lot with Billy and Stu, but I didn't fit in with the rest of the New York scene. Since I had a Mohawk (which was more punk than hardcore) and I came from Jersey, most guys didn't go out of their way to befriend me. They didn't talk to me and I didn't talk to them. They respected my band, which was cool, but when I wasn't onstage I felt awkward, even though I was around people I had a lot in common with.
When the Psychos got a show at A7 it was a big deal, at least to me. Only about ten people were there—which was pretty good for us—and Vinnie Stigma was one of them. We talked after the show and discovered that we liked a lot of the same bands, even outside of punk. Vinnie was one of the main reasons I joined AF. He's always had my back and has been like a brother to me. Alex Kinon from Cause For Alarm and Jimmy Gestapo from Murphy's Law also liked the Psychos and slammed at our shows. We played on bills with Murphy's Law, The Mob, Abused, Major Conflict, Urban Waste, Cause For Alarm, Kraut, Rapid Deployment and Killer Instinct, and we tried to be crazier and more energetic than all of them so people would notice us. At first, we weren't accepted by the hardcore crowd. Even though we played hardcore music, we looked more punk than most other bands, who were adopting the new hardcore look. Everyone else had cropped hair, jeans and combat boots, and I still had a Mohawk and a leather jacket with studs on it. But we played so much it didn't take long for crowds to get into us, and our look quickly evolved, too.
As punk and hardcore spread, more venues booked bands and some were pretty unconventional. There was a place called 171A that screened movies and scheduled shows. I went there one day in 1982 to see Shellshock Rock, a 1979 documentary about the evolution of the punk scene in Belfast, Ireland. They also played The Outcasts' concert film Self-Conscious Over You, and between the two flicks the Stimulators performed. That's the night when I really clicked with their drummer, Harley Flanagan, whom I had briefly met previously at a show. He was 14 at the time and was playing drums for the Stimulators. He looked 12, and I was only 16. I went up and talked to him after the show. I was amazed at how approachable he and the rest of the Stimulators were. That's when I realized how genuine the NYHC scene was. Soon after, Harley went to Canada for a year so I didn't see him for a while. A year can seem like a lifetime when you're not yet 20.
A really solid bonding night for the developing New York hardcore scene happened on July 16, 1982, when Dead Kennedys played a show with D.O.A., SS Decontrol and Kraut at the Paramount Theater in Staten Island. The show was in an old art deco movie theater that had been converted into a concert hall. The whole New York crew took the Staten Island Ferry to the concert. And while the locals there had gotten used to concerts they had never seen a group of deviants like us invade their side of the New York Bay. The working class natives decided they didn't like the way we looked and were gonna keep us from coming back to their community by teaching us a lesson. They underestimated who they were up against. We were used to conflict and abuse. We were reckless and eager for an excuse to bust some heads. And we were hyped up by the volume and intensity of the concert.
Some of the locals tried to threaten and intimidate us at the show, but we weren't having it. Before Dead Kennedys finished their set, fists started to fly. All these Staten Island guys had to do was wait until the end of the show and we would have gotten on the ferry and gone back to the City. Either they weren't that patient or they weren't too smart. They thought we were criminals and wanted us out. They wanted us to flee with our tails between our legs. Not gonna happen! I hadn't fully come out of my shell yet, but I learned how to take a stand. As soon as the show let out, these goombahs started throwing punches and we fought back.
Agnostic Front's original bassist, Diego, took off his chain belt and started beating the shit out of these guys. They clearly weren't ready to take on anyone as crazy and amped up as our crew was that night. A Staten Island chick was hitting on our scene photographer, Ran-D, and her boyfriend pushed him away and slapped her. So Ran-D decked the guy. That enraged the guidos further. We battled our way back to the ferry. Lazar saw a pile of bricks on the ground, picked them up and threw them as hard as she could at anyone within range. She popped one of those idiots in the head and he collapsed. Between Diego's belt, which must have leveled a half-dozen people, Lazar's bricks and other punks who had spiked rings and studded bracelets, we wiped the floor with those guys right up to the point where we boarded the ferry. We celebrated the whole way back to New York, chanting and shouting lyrics from our favorite punk songs. On most summer evenings on the ferry, the air was hot and muggy and smelled like old socks. That night the smell of victory was in the air.
Photographs: Amy Keim