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Anyone wondering about the punk rock credentials of one Harley Francis Flanagan should consider this: on the day that the bassist and mainstay with the Cro-Mags turned 14, Joey Ramone sang him Happy Birthday. Even before that, the young New Yorker ran the city streets, taking in clubs from CBGB to Max’s Kansas City, fraternising with faces from the city’s punk and art scene such as Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol, and the young Beastie Boys.
But the kid was trouble. Violent and mean, drunk and drugged, in 1981 Harley formed the Cro-Mags and helped to shape the sound of New York punk to come. Its name was hardcore, a reductive and souped-up piece of street thuggery that made the Ramones sound like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In a tough city, its followers were the toughest of all; shows were often violent and testosterone-packed affairs. But much of the music was good, and, beneath the hoopla, the fraternity was united and strong.
Now 53, Harley Flanagan is today a married man, a father, and a black belt in jiu-jitsu, in which he teaches classes at a martial arts studio in Midtown Manhattan, several miles from his home at the top of island. He’s also found the time to bring together the latest incarnation of the Cro-Mags for the band’s forthcoming album, the dependably energising In The Beginning.
Speaking of beginnings, Kerrang! spoke to Harley Flanagan about his turbulent life. We asked him to take it from the top…
Please tell us about the New York of your childhood.
“It was really intense, man. It’s almost like a dream. I loved it, but at the same time I had to get to a certain place to love it because it was really dangerous. It wasn’t until I took ownership of that and I became really dangerous that it became my playground. I lived down in the East Village, which was kind of scary. I was one of the only white kids down there, and I remember seeing people attacking my aunt and I saw people trying to rob my mom. My mother’s boyfriend got shot in the face by a zip gun for no reason other than he was white and walking down our block. They didn’t even try to take his money. So it was always sketchy. There was a lot of violence. I was out there huffing glue and getting into fights and all that shit. At the age of 14 or 15 I was very much living my life like something out of A Clockwork Orange. I was taking acid and seeing how many fights I could get into in any one night. It was almost the opposite of the '60s experience. I was taking acid and going hunting. I took shit to a whole different level.”
Is it true that you took crystal meth with Lemmy and LSD with Adam Yauch, from the Beastie Boys?
“For sure, yeah. The first time I did crystal meth was with [Motörhead drummer] Philthy Phil [Taylor] and Lemmy, and the first time I took LSD was with Adam Yauch, and we went to see A Clockwork Orange. I was 12. Neither the Beastie Boys or the Cro-Mags existed yet; we were just kids. And I remember we divvied up the acid and the girls from the band that would become Luscious Jackson, who were also with us, were, like, ‘Oh man, Harley’s gonna eat acid? I don’t think I want to be here for this.’ So some of them didn’t go with us. I was a little bit wild.”
How did punk rock enter your life?
“Well my mom went to London and she came back with a stack of records. My mom was always into music and she went into a record store and said, ‘What’s cool and current that the kids are listening to?’ because she wanted to get some new records for her son. So she picked up Never Mind The Bollocks [by the Sex Pistols], she picked up the first album from The Damned, and a whole bunch of Stiff Records seven inches… and that just blew the doors off everything. I was in my first punk band that year. I was the kid that was out there. That’s why you see pictures of me with Andy Warhol and The Clash and Blondie and everybody, you know. Once I got accepted I became the mascot of the scene. All the clubs let me in. I would show up at the door with 10 underage people – with the Beastie Boys and all these underage girls – and the door staff would be, like, ‘Hey Harley, are they with you?’ And they’d let us all in. My life was not normal, it never was.”
Well you were in the right city for taking a walk on the wild side.
“Right? You know, I never really knew my dad because he was in jail. My mom was wild; she’d been a hippy back in the day and she was a stripper when I was growing up. I remember being at clubs with her when she was working. It wasn’t exactly normality. I mean, I was in London for that punk scene, too. I went to the 100 Club [on Oxford Street] when I was over in England with my mother. I remember being in the club with Rat Scabies [former drummer with The Damned] and all his roadies huddled around me in the corner trying to hide me from the bouncers because I was so fucking young. They snuck me in through the back. I had all these punks in the corner hiding me. So that was my first exposure to punks in London. You cannot separate the history of punk rock and my life. The two go together.”
Tell us about being a ‘face’ at CBGB, New York’s most historic punk club?
“It was wild, man. I remember seeing the Dead Boys there. Back then you’d get a lot of people at the shows because they were just there, they weren’t punks, so you had all these normal people there. And [Dead Boys singer] Stiv Bators comes out and he pulls out a jar of bugs and unscrews it and douses the crowd with what everyone assumes is cockroaches. Actually they were crickets, but we didn’t know that; he’d got them from a pet store. And he just douses the crowd with these things, and you’ve got all these yuppies and these chicks and all these people just diving around the place with all these crickets all over them. I was laughing hysterically watching all these people freaking out. And for months afterwards you could hear these crickets whenever you went to CBGB.”
In the Cro-Mags you helped define the hardcore sound. Is it fair to describe that genre as the delinquent offspring of punk rock?
“That’s absolutely fair. I couldn’t agree with you more. At the time that hardcore began, the mainstream press had pretty much decided that punk rock was over. The fad was over. There had been record labels that were signing punk bands – and that was a hot minute there - but as soon as the Sid and Nancy shit [in which former Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious was charged with the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen, at New York’s Chelsea Hotel] happened that was suddenly over. And it was kind of like the end. But for a lot of us that wasn’t the end; and for a lot of others it was the beginning. So that’s pretty much what hardcore was; it was the punks that were not fucking done. It was the kids that were still loving it. It was hardcore punk rock. And as the music got harder, and the dancing went from pogoing to slam-dancing and stagediving, the audience got younger and it tended toward a more male demographic. I don’t want to say it was dumb or silly, but it was that kind of thing. There were more chicks involved in the punk rock scene than were there in the hardcore scene. Whatever, it was cool, it was fun.”
How did the hardcore scene change?
“It got more violent, you know. Back in the day, punks used to get jumped a lot. By the time I was coming of age, that wasn’t gonna happen. If you tried to jump me, you got fucked up. And then we started turning into the predators. We just got tired of being prey.”
You’ve said that you became a menace to society. How did you pull yourself out of that mindset?
“I’ve just lived long enough. I don’t think I would have survived my life had I not taken on that exoskeleton I had; I almost had to bathe in the blood in order to not be squeamish. For a lot of my youth I spent years fucked up on drugs and alcohol and I think a lot of that was me self-medicating to deal with the post-traumatic stress of it all. I didn’t even know I had PTSD until a friend of mine, a Navy Seal, said, ‘Dude, you have PTSD like a motherfucker, there’s no question in my mind.’ And it wasn’t until I really started to think about it that I realised that a lot of my life was me reacting to things based on that. I don’t necessarily think I would have been such a violent or angry person for so much of my youth had I not been through a lot of the experiences that I went through. I don’t think that’s who I am at my core. That was the post-traumatic stress that was causing me to react a certain way. Now, that being said, had I not had that ability to react in that kind of a way, I might not have survived my youth. Had I not been willing to take things to 11 when other people wanted to take them to 10, I might not have made it. Now, how did I pull myself out? I stayed alive long enough. I also didn’t want my kids to go through the things that I went through. I’ve also been fortunate enough to find my way to jiu-jitsu and have been doing that for more than 20 years, which has levelled me out a little bit. But life is crazy, you know. My son’s friend got killed in a drive-by the other day, so that shit is still out there.”
The Cro-Mags are back with their first album for two decades. It’s been quite a while, Harley.
“I will always be playing music, whether I get paid or not. If you look around the room I’m sitting in, there are two basses and an acoustic guitar in here, plus a piano. Music to me is like breathing. If you took that away from me I would be very empty. It’s a compulsion for me. I could literally pick up an instrument any time of night or day and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to write a song,’ and I’ll just do it. It’s not like I need something to spark my inspiration because it’s always there. If I want to write a song right fucking now, give me 10 minutes and it’s done. I’ve written 65 things over the course of this quarantine, and I’ve been in the studio over the past three weeks recording the next album. As for returning with the Cro-Mags, let me tell you, this is long overdue.”
Harley Flanagan in 2020. What is your philosophy on life?
“I’ve learned how to appreciate things so much. The struggles in life that I’ve been through are reflected on this new album. I’ve really learned to value life and on this record I want to encourage people to keep fighting. I went through fucking hell in my life, but I’m in a better place right now than I’ve ever been. So if I have a message for anybody it’s that no matter how hard life is at any given moment, just keep fighting because once you get to the other side of that struggle you’ll have a whole new life. You don’t know what the future holds.”
Cro-Mags' new album is out now via Arising Empire.
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