By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
That last tune gave the Mags a bit more depth, a desperate quest for spiritual fulfillment — "I know there must be more than the struggle and strife" — in keeping with Joseph's longstanding devotion to the Hare Krishnas. It's an odd but intense spiritual transformation that Evolution draws out gradually: a vague sense of a void in his life, filled by a deep admiration for the devout wisdom of Washington, D.C. Rastafarian hardcore legends Bad Brains (whom Joseph roadied for and clearly idolized), then bolstered by friends active in the Krishna movement, and finally sealed after Joseph devoured literature authored by Prabhupada himself. (Sample title: The Science of Self-Realization.)
As discordant a cultural mix as it seems, New York hardcore had a pronounced Krishna subculture — dubbed "Krishna-core" by some — exemplified by the Cro-Mags (bassist/singer Harley Flanagan also showed interest) and Ray Cappo, frontman for Youth of Today and Shelter.
That Joseph could walk the spiritual talk while fronting a hardcore band of pulverizing velocity and menace only lent the Cro-Mags more power. He was not a great singer, but by all accounts he was a fantastic, titanic, mortifying presence, beating marauding crowds into oblivion with both fists — a natural disaster with a microphone and a terrible, terrible, terrible attitude. What the Cro-Mags did, specifically, was scare the living shit out of everybody.
"Oh, yeah — musically and as people," agrees Sam McPheeters, an Albany transplant to the New York hardcore scene who fronted his own highly regarded band, Born Against, in the early Nineties. He's eager to talk about Quarrel — "One of the best records ever recorded" — in terms of both its sonic innovation and its almost ludicrous powers of intimidation, from the mushroom cloud on the front cover to the menacing group portrait on the back. "It took a genre that's really just full of cheesiness and did something kind of amazing with it," he says.
Cro-Mags shows were legendarily bloody affairs. "I remember seeing them at a Rock Hotel show, and it was like a level of mosh-pit violence I'd never experienced before," recalls Moby, who famously got his start in a Connecticut hardcore band called the Vatican Commandos before making his way to New York City. "At the old Ritz, it was the first time I'd ever seen people stage-diving off the balcony.... It was, you know, pretty terrifying."
On the page, Joseph revels in that terror, that violence. But the tone is set long before the musical phase of his life even begins. Talking with me, he insists — politely but firmly at first, much more angrily a short while later — his book is not just about the Cro-Mags. Indeed, for the first two-thirds of Evolution, he barely mentions them, and all told spends nearly as much time discussing Bad Brains. His point is that the Cro-Mags didn't make him, didn't define him. And in that regard, his book is convincing: Joseph is only the second-most compelling character in it. Vivid as he is, he can't compete with the specter of New York City itself.
Evolution revels in the epic blight and brutality of Seventies/Eighties New York — the subways wet with graffiti, the streets wet with blood. Every stranger on the sidewalk would just as soon kill you as look at you. It's an almost gleefully grim worldview, an urban wasteland recognizable from cartoonishly violent anti-tourism movies such as Escape from New York, Death Wish, and The Warriors.
That mentality — reveling in the squalor and taking great pride in surviving it — came to define the bands (Agnostic Front, Youth of Today, Sick of It All) that came to define New York hardcore. The Cro-Mags belong in that pantheon. But these days, you won't catch them in the same room together.
The Age of Quarrel was the first and last instance of the band's "classic" lineup: Joseph on vocals, Flanagan on bass, Kevin "Parris" Mayhew and Doug Holland on guitar, and Mackie Jayson on drums. From that point on came a fractious descent into acrimony, with four follow-up albums — from 1989's Best Wishes to 2000's Revenge — cut with whatever members of the band's nucleus (Joseph, Flanagan, and Mayhew) were speaking to each other. All of the followups failed to recapture Quarrel's glory or influence.
The guys argue about everything: who started the band, who is responsible for their sound and attendant success, who wrote what songs, whether Joseph quit or was fired post-Quarrel. Joseph intends for the Cro-Mags section of Evolution to clear the air — and his name — after years of what he sees as an Internet assault by two bandmates: Both Flanagan and Mayhew started websites with their own versions of the group's history, at cromags.com and cro-mags.com, respectively.
"This is not a book about Cro-Mag beef. But it definitely is telling the real story," Joseph says. "No exaggeration, no bullshit, no embellishments, no nuttin'. What's in there is the truth."
To avoid a prolonged he-said/she-said battle, let's focus on one thing in the book: Joseph says that in 1995, his bandmates ratted him out to the cops, trumping up intimidation charges that he vehemently denies, which they knew would also trigger an inquiry from the Navy, from whom Joseph was still technically AWOL. So he turned himself in to the Navy, which explains why a Spin article that year about the Krishna influence in hardcore quotes Joseph from military prison, where he spent a few months.