While one might not see a connection between the venerable New York City institutions of tabloid journalism and hardcore punk, Harley Flanagan begins his 2016 autobiography, Hard-Core: Life on My Own, with an episode that dragged NYHC feuding onto the city’s gossip pages. Flanagan was charged with what has been described as “a biting and stabbing rampage” backstage at the CBGB Festival on July 6, 2012. The catalyst for the incident involved the current lineup of the seminal hardcore group he’d founded, the Cro-Mags. It may seem an odd place to begin a story of redemption from near-feral youth, violence, and drug abuse, but addressing the assault head-on is characteristic of the frankness that Flanagan displays throughout his story.
The heftiness of the book—it weighs in at 444 pages—indicates the level of detail contained within Hard-Core. While this may seem self-indulgent on its face, it becomes apparent that virtually everything about the author’s life story is unorthodox and therefore warrants this level of world-building. By the time he was eleven years old, Flanagan had traveled across Europe with his bohemian mother, hitchhiking and spending time in hippie enclaves before settling into an apartment on New York’s Lower East Side and playing drums in a punk band. Aspects of this rather anarchic childhood seem too wild to believe, even when measured beside the most lenient varieties of parenting, but the events in Flanagan’s young life are supported by photographs, interviews, and news articles. By the time he leaves his mother’s home to live in a series of punk rock squats, it feels less like a break with his family and more like a transition to what bohemian life had become by the close of the seventies.
Throughout his story, Flanagan is portrayed as a person constantly seeking an outlet for his energy. His youthful knack for music is channeled into the emerging punk rock scene. Among the numerous photos included in the book, many show a manic, baby-faced Flanagan furiously keeping beat for the band. Though it provided a much-needed conduit for his creativity, this jagged-edged, aggressive new form of counterculture would normalize violence and drug use in a way that would haunt the author throughout his life. Flanagan pulls no punches when he describes the street brawls he would participate in as well as his use of alcohol, inhalants, psychedelics, and various other forms of recreational drugs.
The chapters of the book dealing with the Cro-Mags are tight with tension. A powder keg of personalities and talents, the band helped set the template for the ultra-aggressive New York Hardcore scene. The band’s uniform of bare chests and shaved heads alongside their antagonistic stage posturing would become as recognizable as the hardcore-metal hybrid sound they pioneered. Flanagan’s involvement with Krishna Consciousness influenced the band’s output and spawned a similarly hybridized “Krishnacore” movement that blended the violence of hardcore with elements of transcendental spirituality. A picture is created of a band struggling to stay together through financial hardship and interpersonal strife while the scene around them becomes ever more brutal.
The collapse of the Cro-Mags is portrayed as inevitable. When ownership of the band’s name became a source of contention, Flanagan’s self-destructive behavior escalated, resulting in years of nomadic living and drug abuse. The author ultimately finds a source of discipline in martial arts training. Through training with the world-famous Gracie family, Jiu-Jitsu becomes a way for Flanagan to tame his aggression. The birth of his two sons further grounds the author, when fatherhood brings a welcome level of responsibility to his life. It is during this period of self-discovery and increased stability that the CBGB Festival incident takes place. The details as recounted in Hard-Core paint the assault as an act of self-defense against bandmates intent on cowardly revenge. Less than six months after the fight took place, the assault charges against Flanagan were dropped. Rather than ending on this rather lurid note, the author closes his book with a message of hope. Flanagan discusses the death of his mother, whose freethinking, unorthodox lifestyle helped shape his personality. As he attends her funeral, he focuses on the beautiful aspects of their relationship. This alludes to his hope of maintaining a connection to his sons, even though they do not live with him.
There is a combined attitude of humility and perspective that runs through Flanagan’s memoir and prevents it from getting mired in gossip. Those who approach the book seeking tales of outrageous punk behavior certainly won’t leave disappointed, but there’s a sense that the author wants to leave the conflict of his younger years behind him. In a sense, Hard-Core reads as an attempt to close the book on Flanagan’s history with the Cro-Mags, to move forward with the next phase of his life. It’s a story of survival, upheaval, and creative expression set against the iconic backdrop of seedy New York that speaks to the possibility of personal transformation.
Article by: Tenebrous Kate
Author: Harley Flanagan
Publisher: Feral House (United States)
Publication Date: September 2016
File Under: Music/Memoirs