Biting Off Thumbs In The Age Of Quarrel With The Cro-Mags
A homeless child prodigy and family friend of Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, at a young age Harley Flanagan became close to many stars of the early punk rock scene such as Joe Strummer of The Clash and was taught to play bass by members of Bad Brains. He went on to start the notorious hardcore band Cro-Mags. In the excerpt from his autobiography ‘Hard-Core’, Harley Flanagan tells the stories behind the songs on the Cro-Mags’ album ‘Age Of Quarrel’, the 1986 record that defined NYHC.
The title The Age of Quarrel comes from Bhagavad Gita. This age we’re living in is referred to as “the iron age of quarrel and hypocrisy.” It’s the final age of the four ages, before the annihilation of the universes.
One day, I was going in to record the album, and I was coming from a matinee at CBs where there had been a major brawl, and my friend Bags had bitten this dude’s thumb off! He looked up at me, with blood all over his face, and screamed, “Harley! Get me out of here!!” I’m like, “Oh great, everybody knows my name, and I’m attached to this mess.” So I grabbed the asshole and started running down the street.
He was pulling pieces of fuckin’ skin out of his teeth. He literally bit the dude’s thumb off in a fight, and spat it in the drainage pipe on the side of the street right in front of CBs, so that shit was gone. It wasn’t even a sew-it-on type job.
We were running and I got him into the 2nd Street apartment of Robbie CryptCrash and his then-wife, Michelle. I ran him in there, and I said, “Do not let this fucking asshole out of your sight! Do not let him outside, the cops are everywhere.” You can’t miss the motherfucker — he’s got a scorpion tattoo all the way up his neck to his ear, on his back he had a big skull made out of naked bitches, on his arm he had “Worship Shit” tattooed backwards, and on his chest he had “I Eat Pussy” tattooed. The guy was a fuckin’ mess. I think he got out of jail just prior to that. He was drunk, and the guy he fucked up started trying to gouge his eyes, so the thumb came off.
Harley and friends by Bruce Rhodes, 1983
When you’re fighting, shit happens; I almost bit a guy’s finger off once. Fortunately for the guy, I have a missing tooth on that side of my mouth, so his thumb slipped into the missing spot, and I just kind of gnawed all the meat around the bone off. But like I was saying about my friend, I was like, “Don’t let this motherfucker out of the house.” He was being so belligerent. With what just happened, I knew the cops were looking for him all over the neighborhood. So I left him there and I went from that back to the studio to finish recording.
It was just another day in my fucking life. Of course, they were not able to keep his out-of-his-mind ass restrained, because everybody was so afraid of him except for me and a few of my friends.
He went back out on the street, got caught, and went to jail for a considerable amount of time. This kind of shit made the lyrics on The Age of Quarrel raw, real reality. “We Gotta Know” had some of the first lyrics that John contributed, those and “Face the Facts”: “Strugglin’ in the streets just trying to survive/Searchin’ for the truth is just keepin’ us alive” — that’s pretty much where John and me were at that point. He was just beginning his spiritual quest. You’ve got young people that are confused, making mistakes and looking for the truth, looking for answers. The lyrics are powerful. “We Gotta Know” was written when we were practicing at Westbeth, a big tenement and artist complex on the Westside highway where a lot of our friends lived, including the Ice Men, Front Line, and Gabby Abularach, who years later would play on Alpha Omega.
It came together like this: the Bad Brains had not played the song “I Against I” in years; this was before it was on their I Against I album. But my friend Dave Hahn, their old manager, had a copy of it on tape. When I’d go to his house, I’d listen to it, and I still remembered the song. But I didn’t remember it well enough to cover it, which I wanted to do. So I wanted to write a song that was as nasty and vicious. At the time, Mackie and the Bad Brains had been turning me on to a lot of fusion shit, and I had started picking up on a lot of it on my own, whether it was Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Weather Report. A lot of it had big open chords with crazy drum fills over them. Though some of the parts sounded really complicated, sometimes they’d actually be very simple.
The intro to “We Gotta Know” was my dumbed-down version of a fusion idea: holding a few big notes, and filling up that space with those big drum fills. But if you really listen to the main chunk of the song, it’s inspired by the end part of “I Against I” that Doc does the lead over.
The guys were on a piss break during practice, everybody was out of the room. It was like a maze in there — Westbeth is a huge building with rehearsal studios, recording studios, and art studios — so it took a while. By the time they came back, I was like, “Yo, check this out guys.” I played the opening chords to Mackie, and I said, “Do some crazy shit over this; just fill it up.” Mackie always had a funky bounce to his playing, so that on top of my chords made for an inspired attack or groove. That was one of our most famous songs, and it came together in five minutes! And even back then, we had parts with double kick drums, which had never been done ever on a Hardcore record at that point.
“World Peace” was one of the first songs me and Parris collaborated on. He came up with most of the riffs and we arranged it together. It was a Cro-Mags version of a Motörhead-type song; we just repeated all the parts twice, and had the breakdown at the end. It was probably the fifth or sixth set of lyrics I ever wrote.
“Show You No Mercy” is another song about LES street fighting. John wrote most of the lyrics to that one. In that song are lines that referred to people and situations that were happening at the time. “Show you no mercy at all/Gonna kick you when you’re taking your fall” had a lot to do with that fight that took place in front of CBs.
Cro-Mags play live in the 1986 film, The Beat.
“Malfunction” I always felt was like a peek into John’s psyche. He says in the chorus, “I’m tryin’ and I’m lyin’ but I just can’t get through to you.” But that’s him — he tries, and if that doesn’t work, he lies! It’s such a Freudian slip. It’s such a great song; it’s one of the first metal-style songs from a Hardcore band. It has a bit of a “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” influence in that particular part of the song.
“Street Justice”: “If it really doesn’t matter why do you care?/Don’t turn around if it’s not your affair.” One night on Avenue A, Eric Casanova beat on Matt from this band called Hellbent. I think it was over a girl. Either way, Eric was real drunk. At some point in the night, he had ripped his pants all the way in half from like right under the belt loop in the back to right under the zipper in the front. While he was beating Matt’s ass, he ripped the last shred of material holding his pants together. So Matt started running, and Eric was chasing him up 8th Street toward 1st Avenue. His pants were ripped in half, so they balled up around both his ankles! He had on long johns, his combat boots, and his suspenders that were on his jeans, dragging behind him leaving sparks as he ran. He looked like a fucking maniac. He was chasing after Matt, who begged him to stop. Jimmy and me were tagging along, just to keep an eye on Eric, ’cause he was so shitfaced.
As we got around the corner, a group of college-type yuppies were standing there. They didn’t know what the fuck was going on, but they saw Eric chasing Matt. So one of them said, “Hey dudes, don’t fight…” — all like trying to intervene. Eric turned around and cracked that guy in the face, at which point the guy’s friends had no idea what was going on. Matt kept running, and Eric kept beating up this guy. Jimmy and me came running up. I grabbed a milk crate from in front of the store and started beating those people with it. Jimmy knocked some dude down the stairs into the basement of the store, and started kicking him as he was trying to come back up. So in a matter of seconds, me and Jimmy are fucking up like five people!
Cro-Mags live in Germany
Eric fucked up the one guy, and Matt got away. All of a sudden, the cops pulled up. I ran, and Jimmy ran around the corner and dove under a parked car. They drove right past him, while other cops were coming on foot. They ran past him, and I got away. Needless to say, Eric got popped. I saw them pulling away with his drunk ass in the car, in his fuckin’ long johns and combat boots! The shit was fucked up, but it was hysterical. So that’s where that line “Don’t turn around if it’s not your affair” comes from.
The line “Overpower ‑Overcome” came from one fight we got into at a party in Canada. Bruno, after he kicked the shit out of a dude, picked the dude up over his head, and yelled, “Overpower! Overcome!” before he threw the dude down the stairs. “Survival of the Streets” included memories of living in C‑Squat. Two lines in particular: “Wake up with the gun on my head” and “If the beast pulls the trigger, I’ll wind up dead.” The lyrics were real; it wasn’t made up. That’s how we were living.
We woke up one morning, and the first thing we saw was the cops kicking in our door and throwing guns to our heads! They were looking for a dude who was wanted for multiple murders, who had been staying in the building on and off. We’d just woken up, and we were getting ready to light up a spliff of Hawaiian purple bud. Louie, the singer from Antidote, was there too, and he threw the joint out the window in a panic. Once the cops realized we weren’t who they were looking for, they were like, “Don’t worry. If you see this guy, let us know.”
Sure enough, a few days later, I was lying there, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw something glimmer through the window. I backed up, and said, “Who the fuck’s out there?!” I backed up and I picked up a stick. I saw this shape come into the window, and it was the guy they were looking for. Turns out I knew the kid from the neighborhood. The glimmering/shining thing turned out to be scissors in his hand. In a lot of the songs, the messages are the same: the “don’t fuck with me” outlook on life. Like “It’s the Limit”: “Why you messing around with me/Pushin’ me around/Values changing, But I can’t get caught in it today/We won’t lose with what we’ve got/’Cause we’ll just sit and watch it all rot.” Then “Seekers of the Truth” was more of a metal song than it was a Hardcore song. We never intentionally tried to write anything metal or Hardcore. We just tried to write songs that we liked and were up to a certain standard.
A lot of the lyrics had undertones of spiritual knowledge, because the materialistic aspects of life are all going to crumble, and then we’re going to be left with nothing. “As this age progresses, and gets more and more degraded…” wasn’t just inspired by our street experiences, but also from reading the Bhagavad Gita.
The lyrics in “Hard Times” speak for themselves. It gets redundant to keep writing about that shit, but at that point in life, that’s how me, Eric and John were living. Again, that was the difference between Hardcore and metal; we wrote about real-life experiences. More or less, the whole album’s about the same goddamn thing! But the line “Cro-Mag, Skinhead, Breakout, Now” had particular meaning to me, ’cause I was a Cro-Mag evolving. I was a Skinhead and I knew it was time to break out of the life I was living.
Hard-Core is out now! Check out the ‘Age of Quarrel’ demos below.
Cro-Mags’ fearless leader Harley Flanagan looks back on a life of hardcore and hard drugs – and how he’s managed to survive
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