Why you should care
Because music has charms to soothe a savage beast.
The image featuring one Mr. Harley Flanagan is stark, unforgettable and, after appearing in the New York Daily News, etched in collective memory. It wasn’t at all remarkable that the then-45-year-old musician of note would be featured, but the story behind that viral image certainly was. Today, just over two years later, it’s hard to fathom how Flanagan’s jagged past has smoothed into a solo record and a memoir coming out in 2015, on top of a permanent gig as a black belt instructor at Renzo Gracie’s Brazilian jiujitsu academy.
Even without the large point type, New Yorkers might remember the paper’s July 2012 image of Flanagan tied to a chair with orange straps, being carried out of a venue, his face contorted in rage as his head tilted into whatever he was saying and whomever he was saying it to. All that was known at the time was that, along with Flanagan, two others had been stabbed at a hardcore show, and everybody was in the hospital. Later, Flanagan would be shipped off to Rikers Island, charged with doing the stabbing.
Touring anarchist festivals in a punk band at age 10. Playing drums in New York hardcore clubs at age 12.
If you saw other photos from this same series, you’d have also seen Flanagan giving the finger from his strapped-down hands, pinned at his waist. Five months later he beat the charges, but along the way he almost lost a leg to a serious staph infection, and definitely lost his common-law wife and daily access to his two sons. But what he didn’t lose is what he’s had since just about forever: art and a willingness to make it. Flanagan’s iconic status in the New York hardcore (NYHC) scene was cemented with his seminal band, the Cro-Mags, but his punk odyssey started much, much earlier.
“I started playing music when I was about 7 years old,” Flanagan said from his spot in New York. “I was in the school band when I lived in Denmark, and I started playing music on the streets with other kids from school.”
He bounced around with his hippie mom after his dad was thrown in jail, and penned a book of short stories and illustrations at age 9, for which noted poet and family friend Allen Ginsberg wrote the forward. For a time the family lived in Morocco, and when they landed back in Copenhagen, Flanagan joined a punk band on drums. His bandmates were two French guys in their 20s, and as Little Big Boss they headed off on a tour of anarchist festivals. The year was 1977 and Flanagan was 10 years old.
Two years later, Flanagan and his mom decamped to New York’s Lower East Side for good. This was when the neighborhood looked like a battle-torn West Side Story. “The fact that I had to street fight every day would have surprised no one who lived there then,” said Flanagan. “You were going to fight or you were going to get robbed, and you might just get beaten and then robbed.”
His aunt, Denise Mercedes, a guitarist, gave him a welcome respite from the beating and getting beaten by pulling him deeper into music and her band, early punk stalwarts The Stimulators. He became the band’s drummer at age 12. Flanagan began hanging out with Andy Warhol and Joe Strummer from The Clash, while living in the same building with punk legend Richard Hell and writers Luc Sante and Ginsberg.
And then the rock ending to the rock beginning …
“It was crazy seeing this little kid behind the drum kit at clubs that wouldn’t even let kids his age in the door,” said scenester and fan Pete Guy. “But what distinguished Harley is that there was no real learning curve for him, it seemed like. He could always play his ass off.”
Which is precisely what he did, throughout the late ’70s. Along with everything else: drugs, fighting, stealing, robbing. And then, in perhaps the weirdest of weird turns, Flanagan dove into Krishna consciousness in the ’80s. It was just enough space and time for him to form what now stands as his defining legacy: the Krishna-influenced hardcore-heavy metal hybrid band the Cro-Mags.
Sounding like all of the bad old days on the Lower East Side distilled into music, the Cro-Mags hit in 1986 with their first album, The Age of Quarrel. The band crossed over into straight metal like few had done before. They opened at stadiums for big-name bands like Motörhead, King Diamond, Slayer and Iron Maiden, the whole bit.
And then the rock ending to the rock beginning: multiple disagreements and multiple dissolutions. Members quitting, members coming back, and in 2008 the band reformed around singer John Joseph — minus band founder Flanagan, the move sowed the seeds for the conflict that burst forth at the 2012 stabbing. By then Flanagan had already immersed himself in musical side projects, an obsessive interest in martial arts and fatherhood. All of which figured into his successful defense in the case.
But not everyone is convinced that a concentrated Lower East Side sensibility has simply evolved into something kinder and gentler. Criminal defense lawyer Marc Fernich wrote about Flanagan and other NYHC kids on his blog:
Behind the pacifist facade lurks the same antisocial menace.
— Marc Fernich
“The erstwhile hoodlums insist they’ve turned over a new leaf. They say they’ve embraced veganism, yoga and Hare Krishna. Once degenerate, cretinous and inarticulate, they now write memoirs, deliver spoken word performances, give rock ’n’ roll walking tours and practice martial arts. Don’t buy the touchy-feely, new-age routine. … Behind the pacifist facade lurks the same antisocial menace — the same snarling, vicious animal that belongs in a cage.”
“Well, he’s got some of that right,” Flanagan says with a laugh. “I have just finished my memoir. But I’m not giving any walking tours. That’s John Joseph.
“But you know, I did a lot of foul shit when I was younger. I was homeless a lot of the time. My father was homeless, too. In fact he died when he got burned up by a fire he had lit to keep warm. I’ve been on my own since I was 15, so I needed something to give me faith and get me through it all. Music had done that, being a vegetarian had, Krishna, too. But jiujitsu saved my life, and my kids, too, in ways that I haven’t really realized yet.”
And when he sends over a few chapters of his autobiography and a few cuts from the recording he’s working to finish, one of his past lyrics rings clearer and truer than ever before: “The answers you say they’re outta reach / But first you gotta learn and then only can you teach.”
“I’m trying, my man,” he says. “And it’s trying. But it’s never not been.”