It's hard to think of some people as living, breathing humans. Who they are – what they've done and what they represent – can make it seem like they operate on a Whole Other Plane.
Harley Flanagan is one such figure. He didn't "get into" hardcore like the rest of us – he was (is) one of its supreme deities. If there's an altar to an old New York, it's got a special place reserved for Harley's icon. At 9, Flanagan published a book of poetry, introduction courtesy of Allen Ginsberg. At 12, his aunt Denise recruited him to drum for a new band called the Stimulators, the band often hailed as the chain linking late-'70s punk rock and New York hardcore. There are photos of Harley as a child with Debbie Harry, Joe Strummer and Andy Warhol. But his legendary status was cemented with the formation of the Cro-Mags, indisputably one of the most influential hardcore bands of all time.
The story of the Cro-Mags has always been a little unclear, shrouded by the fog that comes with time and decades-old disputes. But it's indisputable that at the root is a pack of teenage boys roaming the streets of the Lower East Side in 1980. At this point, there was no precedent for what a hardcore band should look or sound or act like – they were making it up as they went along.
Countless members cycled through even before their first show in 1984; the lineup changed a few more times, until, finally, their debut: 1986's groundbreaking Age of Quarrel. Parris Mayhew on guitar, Mackie Jayson on drums, Flanagan on bass and John Joseph singing. Each young, volatile and dangerous in their own right: On the Cro-Mags' website (a page rather lost to time), Mayhew writes, "Obviously God didn't bring these guys together to be friends, it was to make hardcore music."
From the get-go, the Cro-Mags' name – in music and in ever-changing versions of the band (think Flag and Black Flag, times 1,000) – has been synonymous with conflict. Almost any musical feud you can name pales in comparison to the clash of the titans that is John Joseph vs. Harley Flanagan. The tumult hasn't melted away with time: In 2012, after a confrontation with Joseph, Flanagan was arrested for allegedly stabbing two new Mags at Webster Hall.
Flanagan spent six days at Rikers Island, then stayed out of the public eye for a few years. But 2016 was bookended by the release of an excellent record, the boldly named Cro-Mags – songs written at Rikers about the incident are front and center – and a memoir published by the incredible Feral House imprint, Hard-Core: Life of My Own.
Harley Flanagan in 2017 seems like he wants to be seen as a person, not as some legend. He's got a wife and sons, a day job teaching kids jiu-jitsu at New York's Renzo Gracie Academy. The tough-guy attitude that comes out in jiu-jitsu and playing shows isn't really Flanagan's way of life – off-stage, you get the sense he's mellowed out a bit. He's dismissive of the Joseph-fronted band he calls the "Faux-Mags," but says he's extended the olive branch "more times than he can count."
To this day, Flanagan knows the Cro-Mags are bigger than himself, bigger than the sum of its members' beefs: "The message of struggle and survival, even if you haven't lived like I have – everyone can relate to that in their own way." It's the life of the Cro-Mags: Do what you want and how you want it, feel it's right and go out and do it.