My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory By Roger Miret
Read chapter 15 of My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory by Roger Miret exclusively with Kerrang! ahead of the books release on September 17. It’s a look into the wild world of Agnostic Front way back in the 1980s, and how Miret saved his blood brother, and former AF drummer, Raymond ‘Raybeez’ Barbieri, from suicide.
As much as we acted like we didn’t give a fuck, we cared about our music and still do. I can honestly say we weren’t influenced by anybody. We liked quick, raw aggressive music, but we couldn’t play anyone else’s stuff because we weren’t technically good enough. We couldn’t even play Sex Pistols or The Clash songs at that time, so we didn’t try. If Agnostic Front had been from Kansas, we never would have sounded the way we did. New York City was edgy and dangerous, and is one of the ingredients in our music that you could clearly hear—that crazy, violent element that we loved and couldn’t find anywhere else.
My vocal and performance style came from all over the place. My favorite early hardcore band was SS Decontrol. David “Spring” Springa was one of the best front men anywhere. He knew how to control an audience and came across as intimidating without appearing unhinged. Throw that in with the wild ranting of Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye and my innate desire to purge the torment from the pit of my soul—the ultimate primal scream therapy onstage.
My stage look was a different matter—a combination of NYC and England. When I say England, I’m talking about The Who. On the surface it doesn’t seem like Agnostic Front has anything in common with The Who. I was fascinated by their vocalist, Roger Daltrey, especially the way he swung his mic high above his head like a lasso. I stole that move and it worked for me for years. Sure I sometimes clocked myself or someone else with the mic, but it was worth it—until I almost broke Kabula’s jaw.
We were playing in Flint, Michigan, and I swung the mic at an angle that was a little too steep. It swooped down and pegged Kabula in the mouth. He stopped playing for a second and reached down to pick up his tooth. As if it were the most normal thing in the world, he put his tooth in his pocket, to be reinserted later. Blood streaming from his mouth, he started playing again. After that, I never swung the mic onstage again. But I accidentally passed the torch. As soon as I stopped doing the Roger Daltrey, Freddy began swinging the mic.
I got my stage energy from the earlier vocalists in Agnostic Front, including John Watson. He was a phenomenal screamer. He just spent too much of the band’s short sets in the crowd slamming. I wanted to perform with Watson’s primitive crazed energy and also jump in the pit, but I timed it so that I could get back onstage to sing. I even borrowed a little bit from Keith Burkhardt, who used to hold the mic to his bare chest while he was screaming at the top of his lungs. I sometimes pressed the mic against my chest and thrust my chest forward while I shouted. I might have looked like I was suffering seizures onstage, but the crowd loved it.
We practiced a lot of the songs I wrote for Victim In Pain, but Raybeez wasn’t getting it. He was barely a drummer to begin with. At first, that didn’t matter because he was our friend, but when the songs demanded more difficult drum parts, it affected the music. I couldn’t get it moving the way I wanted to because he couldn’t click with the rest of us. That wasn’t even the biggest problem. He was so hooked on angel dust that he didn’t care about anything else. He didn’t want to play better. When he sat behind the drums he was so dusted that he couldn’t keep time. There was no way we were going to move forward like that so I decided to speak with him about it.
“Hey, man. You’re fucking up,” I said. “You’re fucking wasted all the time, and you’re not even trying anymore. Don’t you want to do this?”
He didn’t say anything. He sniffed, stared at me and walked away. I didn’t need to say anything else. He knew he couldn’t do what he needed to do to stay in the band. He took it hard. I could tell he was depressed, but he didn’t stop getting high. He was more dusted than ever. A few days after we let him go, I saw him pick up a gun and head towards the East River. I followed him because I knew he was out of his mind, and he was either going to try to kill himself or someone else. I didn’t think he’d try to do something to me.
I caught up with him standing by the river and he told me he was going to kill himself. He pointed the gun at me, then brought it up to his head. He was shaking, sweating and crying. I was probably on speed or dust. I didn’t like where things were going. They could get tragic with a twitch of his trigger finger.
“You know we’re still brothers,” I said. “You know that.”
“Yeah, so what? I don’t care.”
”But I do care. A lot of people care about you. You crack us up, man. We love you.”
“I’m not so funny now, am I?” he slurred.
“C’mon, man,” I implored. “You don’t want to do this. So what if you’re not in the band? There are so many other things you can do.”
“You’re alive, man. You’re a character. You’ve got more personality that most singers. I know you’re hurting, but we can’t talk or work anything out if you pull the trigger.”
He didn’t say anything, so I continued. “Put down the gun and we can figure something out.”
“What do you mean about me being a singer?”
“Put the gun down and we can talk about it.”
To my surprise, he dropped the gun and I picked it up.
Then Raybeez pulled out a box cutter. At first, I was worried he was going to slit his wrists.
“Nooooo!” I screamed.
“Blood brothers!” he shouted, and I understood.
He cut his palm, handed me the blade and I cut my hand. Then we shook. We were blood brothers for life.
At first, Ray was laughing, then he started sobbing and wouldn’t stop. It was a total release of desperation, depression and drugs. You could almost see angel dust leaving his body through his tears.
I got him back home and he was quiet. He seemed okay for the time being. I told him we had to move forward without him, but I promised I would help him form another band. He always had a tinge of resentment about being kicked out of Agnostic Front, but our friendship was stronger than his hurt feelings. And I was honest. I told him straight-up that he had great charisma and would be a better front man than a drummer, which was the truth. I proved it when we formed the band that became Warzone.
I got my cousin Sebastian “Tito” Perez to play guitar, I played bass and our friend Tommy Rat was the first singer. Raybeez started out as the drummer because that’s all he felt comfortable doing. It was cool because even if he couldn’t drum for shit, he could do what made him happy at the start of Warzone. No matter how bad he played he wouldn’t be fucking up Agnostic Front.
We wanted to call the group the Rat Poison Band, but Tommy was gunning for Warzone. As a compromise we switched to Verbal Assault. We did a show with that name, but Tommy was so persistent that they eventually called themselves Warzone. It was a good name for a hardcore group. By then I was out of the band. For a minute, I was playing in Agnostic Front, the Psychos and Verbal Assault, so I got to see a lot of Ray. He seemed less depressed and enjoyed working on the new music. I had fun, but I left Verbal Assault before they got off the ground because I was stretching myself too thin again. Then Tommy Rat decided he didn’t want to be in the band, so Raybeez started singing, which was the best thing that could have happened. He was a great front man, just like I told him he would be, and he kept the band going. They did six albums and a few EPs before he died on September 11, 1997. At the same time Warzone was starting up, Agnostic Front moved forward with Dave Jones on drums. He was a kid from New Jersey who had been with the well-respected Mental Abuse. People gave us shit because everyone loved Raybeez. We loved him, too, but we would have broken up if we had tried to make Victim In Pain with him on drums and drugs. There was enough insanity between the four of us who weren’t constantly dusted.
Anything could happen at a show. When we were on a bill, we owned the dancefloor before we played and then we owned the stage. No one dared infiltrate our space. We had fun stomping around, wherever we were. Just because we controlled the place didn’t mean we didn’t accidentally hurt each other. One of the last shows we played with Todd Youth was at CBGB on October 29, 1983. Death Before Dishonor was opening for us, and during their set Vinnie wanted to jump up on the stage. Big Robb, the singer from Bitter Uproar, gave him a push to help him get up there, and Vinnie flew over the crowd and smacked his head on the side stage monitor. He was bleeding so badly that we couldn’t see the wound. He was covered in blood. He went backstage. His skull was exposed. Doug Holland from Kraut saw him and threw up. We took Vinnie out, threw him in the van and drove him to the hospital. Vinnie was telling jokes the whole time.
“Hang in there, man. You’re gonna be all right. It’s not too bad,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as him.
Vinnie went straight into the emergency room. Doctors cauterized the wound and used four staples and 86 stitches to close the gash. After they finished, I was sitting with him, and when he opened his eyes he was still dazed. He looked at me for a second like he was having trouble focusing.
“What are you doing?” he said as clearly and quickly as he spoke after he finished a cup of hot black coffee. “We’ve got to do a show.”
“No, we’re canceling. We’re not gonna play.”
“What do you mean? You go back and do the show. I’ll be all right.”
I went back and we played. It was the only time we played as a three-piece with no guitar. It was Todd Youth, Dave Jones and me. The show was sold out. The house was packed and it was crazy. “The show must go on.”
We could have done Victim In Pain with Todd Youth on bass. But right before we recorded it he was invited to join another band, which didn’t work out, but then he ended up in Murphy’s Law and Warzone. We replaced Todd with Rob Kabula, who had been in Cause For Alarm. Rob only wrote one song for Victim In Pain, “Remind Them,” but he quickly became an important member of the band. He was great to hang out with because he was as out of his mind as Raybeez was.
With Victim In Pain, Don Fury started experimenting more with the recording. He had a lot more gear and had learned some production tricks. And he did it for free. It wasn’t exactly a charitable move. He had a band called Balls and he wanted to make a high-quality recording. On March 3, 1984, we did a show at CBGB with Skinhead Youth, Death Before Dishonor and Balls, and all the money raised was used to record Victim In Pain. The following week we rented a 16-track recorder for one week. Don started recording, and three days later, when we were done, he used the machine to record his own band for the rest of the week. We didn’t know from 8 tracks or 16 tracks. We wanted to do another record and this seemed like the best way.
Since we were used to recording live, we mic’d up the amps and plowed through the songs just like we had done for United Blood. Vinnie was mic’d in three different places. One was on the speaker cabinet, another was five feet away and the third was ten feet away, to capture the full range of his sound.
Two songs, “Fascist Attitudes” and “With Time (For Amy),” were recorded differently. We tracked the guitar separately and I sang in the engineering room, where the 16-track machine was. Don mic’d and recorded Dave’s drums separately in his own little room. The bass cabinet was mic’d, and Rob played through a distortion box. There were no overdubs except for the lead in “Power” and the infamous “Stigma!” yell that became a staple of every show and album afterwards.
The album wasn’t slick. Everything but those two tracks was live and raw, and there was no opportunity to do overdubs. We did a few takes of the songs. Some stuff is a little out of tune, but that gives the album character. A lot of critics have said that the record marked a revolutionary point for New York hardcore. On the 25th anniversary of the record, The Village Voice did a cover story about the making of the album. When we recorded it, we never could have imagined we’d still be around 25 years later. We released Victim In Pain through Rat Cage Records, which also released music by the Beastie Boys (their debut punk EP and their reggae dub record), The Young and the Useless, Neos, Virus, Heart Attack and Rattus. Rat Cage was the information hub for hardcore. Musicians were always there flipping through the vinyl. That’s where you found out about new bands and shows.
The label was run by Dave Parsons. He was a cross-dresser, which we thought was funny. When we mastered Victim In Pain at Frankford Wayne, Dave showed up wearing a dress and freaked the shit out of the engineer. We didn’t have any problem with that. Anything goes in New York. Plus, Dave was cool. He designed the Bad Brains logo with lightning on Capitol Hill. So what if he liked to wear silky panties and a bra? To each his own.
For Victim In Pain, there was a shady distribution deal with a record company owner named John Loder in England. He was fascinated by our popularity across the ocean and in the U.S. without any support from radio or a record label. He was wary of putting out our record through one of the more prestigious labels he worked with because people didn’t know a lot about us. He wanted to hedge his bets in case we turned out to be the fascist band Maximumrocknroll accused us of being. John financed the record through Rat Cage and put it out—and we never saw a penny. We just got a bunch of records, which eventually got warped in our van while we were touring. But people started catching on to us and Combat Core offered us a deal for our next album.
Maybe John was right to look for alternate distribution for Victim In Pain. There was a lot of controversy surrounding that album. We had a well-earned reputation for getting into fights and not taking any shit. We liked to push buttons a little bit, too. We knew damn well that people were calling us bullshit names like AgNazi Front, and we flipped the middle finger at anyone who criticized us for using a 1941 photo from the Holocaust for the cover art of the album. We didn’t just use the shot for the sake of rebellion. We had political and artistic reasons.
The picture was called “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” It depicted a member of the Einsatzgruppe D, a Nazi SS death squad, about to shoot a Jew who was kneeling on the ground next to a pit full of dead bodies. Originally, it was in the personal photo album of an Einsatzgruppen soldier. I saw it in a book about World War II. To use that picture for album art was very fucking controversial, but at the same time it was exactly what we wanted.
Throughout history, mankind has been brutal and acted without remorse in the most hideous situations imaginable. People need to remember how horrific the Holocaust was. When I first saw the photo, I was mesmerized. It made me feel queasy, but the image was so strong I couldn’t look away—kind of like that shot from the Vietnam War of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan holding a gun to the head of a Viet Cong prisoner. When I spotted “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa,” I looked at the guy’s face and saw his eyes. I thought, Man, this needs to be publicized in order to prevent history from repeating itself.
We were always interested in political commentary that went beyond Fuck Society, Fuck Authority, Fuck Reagan. This was a super-intense image that needed to be seen. Of course, people who hated us said we were skinhead Nazis, but they were going to find a way to do that anyway. Nobody outside of our friends understood us, and maybe that’s why we stuck together and had such a big chip on our collective shoulder.
I hung out at Rat Cage a lot, and was there when Victim In Pain came out. I always buy my records on the day they’re released for good luck. A few weeks later, a Hasidic Jew saw our album sitting in the window and came into the store. He was with his son, and he picked up the record. Dave and I were sitting behind the counter wondering what was going to happen next.
“You know what this is?” he asked.
We both nodded.
“This is very important for everyone to see,” he continued. “There are people that want to erase this from history and pretend it didn’t happen. I’m glad this is here to show people what happened.”