Only a few artists in any generation are able to live the kind of singular cultural life that musician and artist Harley Flanagan has.
At the age of nine, in 1976, Flanagan published a book, Stories & Illustrations by Harley, that began with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg. By 12, he was playing drums in the early New York punk band The Stimulators while living with his mother in a Lower East Side apartment building that included such famous tenants as Ginsberg and a young Richard Prince. By 14, Flanagan had already left that apartment to strike out on his own. Shortly thereafter, he founded the Cro-Mags, a seminal band within the history of New York punk and hardcore music, which is known as much for its members’ violent temperaments as for their music (an influential fusion of hardcore and metal). Another notable aspect of the group was Flanagan and singer John Joseph’s adoption of the Hare Krishna belief system, a somewhat paradoxical choice given their penchant for rage.
Now 49, married, and no longer in the Cro-Mags (Joseph and Flanagan’s relationship has soured, while the Cro-Mags have gone through many line-up fluctuations. Flanagan was in the band from 1981 to 1993, and then again from 1999 to 2002, though he still makes music, most recently under his own name), Flanagan is currently a black-belt instructor of Brazilian jujitsu at the Renzo Gracie Academy on West 30th Street, where he teaches six days a week, and has penned a visceral new memoir, titled Hard-Core: Life of My Own (Feral House, 448 pp.), that describes his unusual life and career in great—and often brutal—detail.
Although Flanagan is considerably more settled down than he was in his Cro-Mags days, his more recent life is not completely devoid of controversy. In 2012, he was arrested and charged with the offense of stabbing two current members of the Cro-Mags at their concert at Webster Hall in Manhattan. Charges of felony assault were eventually dropped a few months later.
A few weeks ago, I met Flanagan one evening at Renzo Gracie. As I waited for him to change into his street clothing, I hung out in the basement of the academy and watched students do warm-ups in the well-lit, white-walled, blue-matted space. Shortly after, we settled down at a nearby juice bar, where Flanagan ordered a Peanut-Butter Blast smoothie, and we chatted about his book, hardcore music, and the Lower East Side of the late 1970s and early ’80s, where a rare intersection of art, music, and carnage was at its peak.
Early on in his life, Flanagan and his mother (who passed last year) lived a roving bohemian lifestyle that saw them traversing through Europe before finally moving to the Lower East Side. “The white people that were living down then were pretty much all freaks,” Flanagan said. “They were either artists, musicians, writers, freaks, drug addicts, or gay. If you were a punk rocker you were getting jumped, if you were any kind of a freak, you know.” Flanagan spends a good deal of the book chronicling his coming-of-age in this environment, which included quite a bit of drug use and violence, as well as innovation, both musically and culturally—he was, for instance, one of the first American skinheads, a culture with a complex history and pronounced Jamaican influence that was later adapted by a range of Brits for a range of reasons. That trailblazing streak reached its climax in his work with the Cro-Mags.
The Cro-Mags were pioneers of New York hardcore music, which has proven to be a remarkably durable form of American folk art for over three decades, sustained by youth energy and somewhat rigid musical parameters. When I said as much to Flanagan, he quickly countered with a laugh. “I don’t even think it is folk art anymore,” he said. “I think it’s more like Yu-Gi-Oh”—a popular anime card game—“mixed with some corny new bullshit.” But then he struck a more positive note. “Young kids,” he said, “they need to experience all these different things, and it’s beautiful that the music and the art form and all the stuff that was created back then—you know, the flyer art, the fanzines—all that stuff was cool, and it’s nice to see that new generations are still finding it interesting. People still give a fuck, which is pretty impressive and crazy.”
Indeed, the aesthetics of punk and hardcore remain influential within contemporary art. Its influence can be seen in the work of Raymond Pettibon (the brother of Black Flag cofounder Greg Ginn) and his imitators, the Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front performances within Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, or simply by taking one lap around the annual New York Art Book Fair. This is not even to mention the recent Ramones show at the Queens Museum, which Flanagan told me he declined to attend.
“I don’t wanna go see friends of mine that are dead,” he said. “I don’t wanna go see their clothes on display in a museum. To me that’s like, not only does it make me sad, but I just think there’s something perverse in it. I myself don’t want to have my T-shirts and jackets and shit like that in a museum when I’m dead.”
Even so, Flanagan has been a part of multiple New York communities whose work and reputations will likely only continue to become more institutionalized as the decades pass. And rightly so. A photo of a pre-teen Flanagan sandwiched between Joe Strummer from The Clash and Andy Warhol captures a moment in time that probably belongs in a museum. “Someone said, ‘Hey kid, turn around,’ and that’s when all these cameras went off and they caught that picture,” Flanagan said. “Honestly, I was there to see The Clash. I didn’t give a fuck that Warhol was even there. But my mom actually knew him, she was in one of his films called Dirt that was actually never released, and I have a couple of stills from it that she’s in. She was more a part of the poetry scene, that, you know, again crossed over into the art world.”
Speaking to the broader sprit of the era, Flanagan told me that he was most concerned with “making a book that was good enough for people to use as a reference point for Lower East Side history. Not just about hardcore music, not just about me, but about what New York was really like back in those days.” It’s a story of the neighborhood as told from the perspective of someone who slipped in and out of the many communities that co-existed—sometimes uneasily—together in pre-Giuliani New York. Reading it, it is easy to see how a movie version of the book could play out. It would be a very violent movie.
“Anthony Bourdain seems convinced that there’s going to be a movie,” Flanagan said, when I asked him about the possibility of his life story going to the silver screen. “That was never the thought behind it when I was writing it. I literally just wanted to get it all on paper before, god forbid, anything happened to me and someone else told my story completely wrong.
“Do I think it could be a movie? Yeah, I think it could be a pretty cool movie,” he continued. “Do I want to see it if it becomes a movie? No, but I’ll be happy if it does.”