It was nowhere near show time, and it was readily apparent that trouble was brewing. An Instagram post made by Harley Flanagan, founder of Cro-Mags, inarguably the forefathers of American hardcore, suggested that he had just entered the stinky ole brown eye of cultural division in the United States of America, landing smack dab in a gas station where chicken livers and confederate flags are such hot pieces of redneck commerce that they often receive top billing. It’s not every day that New Yorkers get slapped in the face with racism at the retail level, one as unapologetic and greasy as the fowl organ fare these joints are frying up in the back. Most of us lingering anywhere near the hemorrhoidal itch of the South are, at times, callused to these passive-aggressive tokens of imbecility, but not this multi-racial band from the East coast. If there was an underlying sentiment oozing from Flanagan’s fingertips it was, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Sheeeeiiiit! Conflict was in the air. I could smell it. One wrong move from the chaw-spitting locals and Flannagan, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, would surely snap one of their limbs—a leg perhaps—and have them crying for their mommy in a puddle of urine and axle grease. I just knew by the time they got to Evansville, Indiana to play their show at StageTwo, that bald bastard would be carrying around some hillbilly’s foot on a keychain. The only possible redemption surging from this southern cesspool serving up chitlins to the average fowl-eating fascist, at least judging from the photos Flanagan included in the post, was a Ramones and Led Zeppelin flag flying next to a couple of dreamcatchers near the cash register. Perhaps it was a sign that America’s divisiveness was beginning to narrow, and Flanagan and crew would arrive to their show without incident. It was maybe even just about as promising an omen this nation has seen in a while suggesting that we, as a collective people, might just get along in the end. Sure, the specter of unlicensed band merch wasn’t exactly the hallmark of equality, but it was a start.
Cro-Mags, I was certain, could handle themselves. I, on the other hand, had problems of my own. At the same time Flanagan was staring down a line of ethnocentric wares in one of Tennessee’s seediest pump and dumps, I was in the middle of a pre-show meeting with my photographer and partner, Holly, making sure that she had everything she needed to properly shoot the band’s performance later that night. The conversation, as many of them tend to happen, entailed one of my incessant, borderline lunatic ramblings of logistics and how we needed to enter a transcendental mindset where hack jobs be damned! Meanwhile, Netflix was passively playing in the background. I have a theory that Holly likes to keep some form of noise on at all times just to tune me out during the paranoid madness that rendezvouses at the 11th hour. It’s when I’m most inclined to rag anyone’s nerves—even those who love me. Running interference this time around was YOU—the series about an obsessive bookselling serial killer doing his best to carve out, and quite literally, some semblance of an American family. I wouldn’t even mention such an unimportant detail of what happens in the hours prior to attending a show for the purpose of penning a few words, if not for looking up at one point during our discussion and seeing the lengthy member of a corpse dangling on the goddamned TV.
“What the fu…”
The dead dick quickly caught my attention, not because of the sheer size of it under morgue-frigid conditions, but because it wasn’t at all realistic. “That’s not what a dead dick looks like,” I declared. My spontaneous revelation about the continuity of the corpse cock was welcomed with utter disregard. Holly didn’t bat an eye. It seems not even my dark knowledge of human anatomy could detour her focus of the business at hand. What would, however, I would later find out, is her pre-teen and his borderline criminal aversion to doing homework. Although we were scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. to ride to the venue together—after I, of course, got myself into the appropriate mindset to mingle with a few IPAs and a pull or two of Blue Dream—a missing science assignment would test the permanence of our professionalism. “You’re going to have to go without me,” she texted at 7:30, knowing damn well that such a short notice change of plans, one quite possibly leaving me without a photographer, could cause me to suffer an aneurysm and leave me for dead. “I’ll meet you there, later, though,” read a second text, giving me at least some reassurance that I wouldn’t have to resort to shooting the damn thing with my iPhone.
Having no other choice but to suck it up and go it alone, for a while anyway, I summoned an Uber and made my way, ever-so-anxiously, to the venue without a lensman. No way I was risking the chance of missing a second of the Cro-Mags. This show, for me, was an important one.
Scan the archives of punk rock history and Harley Flanagan, now 56, is there. He’s fucking everywhere.
From the time he was barely old enough to wipe his own ass, Flanagan was rubbing elbows with the elite of New York’s wild and weird. Look, there he is with Andy Warhol and Joe Strummer. Wait, there he is now with Debbie Harry. Flanagan almost ensured his place in the well-chronicled narrative of New York punk, a scene many of us only got to witness thanks to shutterbug documentarians like Bob Gruen, just by refusing to leave. In a lot of ways, his story of hanging out in popular NYC haunts from CBGB’s to Max’s Kansas City at 12-years-old playing drums for his band The Stimulators reads like the script for Forrest Gump. As outsiders, we’re all just that sweet, old lady sitting on the park bench, listening intently, yet skeptical of whether he actually shook hands with President Kennedy or if he’s just making that shit up.
Yet, in Flanagan’s case, it’s all real, every last tale. He was fucking there. Although he’ll be the first to tell you that it all seems like a dream. Albeit one where some of his heroes were there to guide the way. “Not only did [The Clash] play some of the best live shows I ever saw but it’s the reason why I always try to give a moment to every fan I meet,” Flanagan told High Times. “Because I know how much it means to be a young fan and to meet somebody that matters to you. And that is the difference between them treating you with respect, like a human or them being a total rockstar asshole and fucking you off. [The Clash] were so good to me, and I always try to pay that forward. It meant a lot, they were really cool guys, and I will always respect them.”
Yep, there from the days when the first generation of New York punk was captured in black and white, making the transition to the color snapshots of the 80s and 90s, showing up alongside legends such as Henry Rollins, Jeff Hanneman, and halle-fucking-lujah, God himself—Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead. Perhaps part of Flanagan’s longevity over the course of rock ‘n roll history can be credited, at least in part, to his ability to concede to the trumpets when they start to roar. “One time I asked Lemmy how he keeps going with the amount of bullshit you have to eat in this business,” Flanagan recalls. “His response was ‘would you rather be slicing bacon for a living?’ which I remember all the time when I’m not feeling it. The kicker is that he knew I was a vegetarian as well, so it was like ‘would you rather be doing something you really hate to survive?’”
Forgive me if I remember this wrong.
The first time I saw anything about Flanagan and Cro-Mags I think I had just hit puberty. As a young turd growing up in one of those diminutive chicken liver-slinging towns of Southern Indiana, I, like most snot-nose adolescents just learning to jerk off, was still listening to stuff like AC-DC, Hank Williams Jr. and Quiet Riot. Wait, Hank? Yep, even us young metalheads had a little shitkicker in us! We didn’t have any real record stores nearby, so if K-Mart didn’t carry an album in their limited music department, I didn’t have it in my collection. I did, however, regularly loiter in the magazine aisle at my local grocery store, flipping through the latest issues of Hit Parader, Circus, and every other now-defunct music publication trying to find new, up-and-coming bands to devour. In the back pages of one, amidst the typical features on the Motley’s and Ozzie’s, that’s where I first spotted Flanagan. I’d never seen anything like him. Branded with a massive tattoo of a gnarly, fire-breathing Devil across the whole of his chest, his head shaved, scowling like a methed-out madman in front of his less-intimidating bandmates, Flanagan looked like Charles Manson’s younger, meaner brother who had just killed 40 people busting out of a mental institution to start a band. He wasn’t the typical malnourished rockstar that regularly appeared in those pages—scrawny with no muscle definition whatsoever, yet posing like they could whup some serious ass. This dude seemed fit and legitimately unhinged enough to back it up. While the rest of those spandex-wearing wusses were busy cleaning out their parent’s retirement savings trying to make it with their shitty band, Flanagan’s attitude resonated a certain gutter authenticity—starving yet always wired up enough to take it on—whatever that may be. “Holy shit,” I said to a friend of mine who was with me at the time. “Look at this dude.”
The band’s inclusion, if memory serves me correctly, was more or less a blurb about the rise of New York hardcore, and there was no more fitting of a poster child for the movement than Flanagan, I was sure of it. I had no idea what hardcore was at the time. I’d never even heard of Cro-Mags or any other band for that matter, where the buzz-cut, military-style coiffure was part of the official garb. I’m not saying they started bald club, but Cro-Mags was the first band in my purview where they skinned it on back. All the dudes in Metallica, the heaviest, angriest band I had found (and unapologetically worshiped), had unkempt pompadours nearly down to their ass, and to me, a pastoral pipsqueak from Indiana with maybe three pubes swinging from his nuts, they seemed like the kind of guys you’d want in your corner if the shit hit the fan. But the hyperbole of their winces and clenched fisted posture paled in comparison to the probity of Flanagan’s grit and machismo.
He was the real deal.
My best assessment of all this hardcore business was that it meant actually having the cojones to back up whatever piss and vinegar was being sprayed from the stage. Don’t write a check your lyrics can’t cash. Are you going to bark all day little doggy or are you going to dive headfirst into the pit and take an elbow to the jaw? Not just anyone could take the plunge from passivity to pandemonium and make it out alive. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the life that manifested this genre. Maybe that’s how this seemingly deranged skinhead managed to slip through the editorial gatekeepers of a music rag typically catering to glam and hard rock, and his mug, all intense, gnashing teeth, a man who’d inevitably eat your grandmother if she got too close—soul, colostomy bag and all—came to be burned into my impressionable, idiot brain. The Bon Jovi’s and whatever other ineffectual cock rock crooners of the time were forever doomed, in my opinion, and their pouty-lip regime was about to die. It was good riddance as far as I was concerned.
In the following weeks, I made every attempt to get The Age of Quarrel, the band’s debut record, but, as you might have guessed, it was not to be found among K-Mart’s stock. None of my friends owned it either or even knew who the fuck Cro-Mags were, so getting my hands on a shoddy reproduction proved a daunting task. I even tried to convince my mom, who had totally bought in to the scripture according to the PMRC’s satanic panic suicidal revival, to drive me to the nearest city to see if it could be procured from a real record store, but she was hellbent on offering no further contributions to my life of degeneracy. It wasn’t until a few years later (yes, years) that I ran into this guy, all decked out in black wearing a leather jacket with Ed Gein painted on one sleeve and Joey Ramone on the other, who happened to have a copy in his extensive tape collection. “Play this one, play this one,” I demanded. “Oh man, Cro-Mags is a scary band,” he replied.
That’s precisely what I wanted to hear.
From note one, Cro-Mags was the antithesis of what I had come to know as rock ‘n roll, far different than what those heavy drinking, down-picking, chunk-chunkers from the Bay Area were putting out. And the lyrics were more personal, too, like an intimate warning scrawled on the shithouse walls of a sleazy dive bar, letting all of those with piss on their zippers know that they’d better not fuck around. “What does it take to prove you were a fake. I thought so anyway. Won’t show you no mercy today!” Coming from a podunk town where I never fit in, made to feel, oftentimes, as though there was something wrong with me for not subscribing to the livestock-porking life of small-town America, this was deliverance. Not only was the band staffed with an apparent ruffian, a dude who looked a hell of a lot like I felt, but the overall message, in my eyes at least, was one of strength, not taking shit from the feeble hierarchy of imperialistic pecker weeds, never bowing down, and always fighting back, win or lose. Show no mercy at all!
Flannagan, long ago, infiltrated the systemics of a drug-addled rock ‘n roll lineage—one that often claimed to be influenced by punk—respectfully punching his idols in the throat, if for no other reason than to prove it wasn’t enough to get mad for the sake of politics, but you also needed to pick up a tire iron on occasion to get your point across. Cro-Mags was one of the first bands, alongside maybe Black Flag, to inspire a cult of young born-losers to cut their hair, get off the couch and fight—for something, anything that wasn’t complacence. Those who bought in became dangerous to the sheep-lapping from the societal trough. Anyone who didn’t show the kid any respect back in the day would meet the ire of the man—and they’d lose, real fucking bad.
Fast forward to now and all the pseudo tough guys to emerge from Flanagan’s influence in the realm of hardcore and heavy music, many now with beer guts, all bloated relics of a philosophy they were never strong enough to uphold, got squishy. But Flanagan is still hard as nails. He just keeps getting better with age. If you’ve ever found yourself asking why this man is still around, duking it out onstage night after night, it’s because the true primogenitor remains the steeple of his church. And while Flanagan may have partaken in the same narco-lunacy that downed many hags of heavy metal in his formative years, all this iconic monstrosity leans on now for levity is the casual beer and cannabis.
“I don’t drink it every day,” he told me, when asked how he can still enjoy brew and maintain his chiseled physique. “But [cannabis] helps me medicinally and also helps me a little with my head, but I find that smoking fucks my lungs up, so I do take breaks,” he added. “I think the plant itself is amazing. It has so many benefits and can be used in so many ways. I’m glad it is being explored more and more. And I’m glad that people are starting to recognize its value as more than just some stoner hippie drug. I do think too much of anything is not a good thing. But I am definitely a fan. I used to grow. It’s a beautiful plant. It should be respected not demonized.”
At the show…
“Look out!” I shouted, as some scrawny dude came flying at us from the mosh pit over to where we were standing on an upper tier of the venue, knocking Holly, who was too busy adjusting the settings on her camera to see it coming, right to the floor. I saw the impending collision just seconds before impact but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Given the modest task of holding Holly’s beer (so she could fool with the camera) and two of my own, well, my hands were too full to shield her much from the body hurtling at full speed. Not without the two of us wearing enough beer to end up hyperthermal before the end of the night. Not that it mattered in the end. Smaaaaack! As the three soft boys in front of us went down on top of her like a sack of potatoes, so did their beer. Although my photographer had finally arrived it appeared that more trouble was in the wings. The camera was now covered in brew, the lens smudged, maybe even scratched and Cro-Mags were up next. A weaker journalist would have packed it up, sent a scathing message to his editor telling him to ‘fuck the fuck off’ and never spoke of this night again. However, what’s that they say? The show must go on. Shit, and we needed more beer too!
By the time Cro-Mags came out, it appeared as though the stars of rock journalism had finally aligned—if you believe in all that hippie-dippy, cosmotheistic crap. All I know is the man-made camera was finally in working order and my photographer, the trooper that she is, presumably sans concussion yet reeking of overpriced beer, was in the thick of the performance and on a quest to document whatever hairy hell may come. I couldn’t be bothered with logistics anymore, my job would come later. It was out of my hands now—I’d already given it up to whatever snaggletoothed goblin was haunting me from within the ether. Let that bastard sort it out.
The rebellion of my teen years, however, had been unleashed, left to swim in a nostalgic sea of testosterone with that new brute smell. Although I’d been steeped in societal contempt from a young age, Flanagan’s presence suggested that I hadn’t throttled the system hard enough in a long time and, well, that was something that needed to change. I thought about that as I watched him from the sidelines owning the stage, belting out with more conviction than any howling stripling twice his junior. Fuck the new heavy, the glam, modern hardcore and every other genre moving in the direction of the American pussification. It was nights like these, those reminiscent of a day less sensitive, when we on occasion got our noses broken by our friends and laughed about it, that we must ask ourselves: Why can’t we take it back to when we frothed at the mouth like animals? Or was it too late for such sentimentalities? Was this gritting state of ruminatiation everyone’s swan song at this point in time, no matter how heavy the cross they bear?
Cro-Mags mowed through their hour-long set, complete with fan favorites “Hard Times” and “Apocalypse Now”, as though their pre-show ritual included gnawing on an electric fence before bitch slapping it with their wieners. As an official representative of an aging punk culture, one left with only a series of faded tattoos and a certain look in our eyes that tells the tale of the so-called born-losers, those who’ve seen some shit and resolved a long time ago to taking no more, this show was perhaps one of the most monumental I had witnessed in many years. My generation, some fallen to the sag as the decades wane while others discover a rebirth in the second act, is one consisting of diehard fans, and its devotion is worn on our sleeves. We had come up when music was the presence of power, and now we, the same as Flanagan, were proof that not only was old man strength real, but we were going to need it too. Sure, it’s like Flanagan said from the stage in the middle of the show that night, perhaps getting honest with the crowd as penance for a young life gone, at times, unpleasantly awry. We can’t change the past, the violence, our despicable acts, but we can lead today better than the last, and do it with kindness and love. “Life is amazing. It’s absolutely great. I would’ve never guessed I would be alive this long, never mind that I would be living my best life, married to an amazing woman, two grown sons, a killer band, and I’m feeling great,” Flanagan told me. “What else can I possibly want? Life is great. I’m living the dream and enjoying the ride. And whether I’m playing in front of a few hundred people, 50 people or 100,000 or I’m training or whatever else it is I’m doing, I’m loving every minute of it and giving it my all every single time. That’s how I live my life.”