By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
We should begin with the time John "Bloodclot" Joseph dressed up as a retarded, wheelchair-bound Santa Claus and scammed horrified Staten Island shopping-mall patrons on behalf of the Hare Krishnas. In his memoir, The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, Joseph claims to have made $3,000 in just one week this way, with mortified mothers flinging $10 bills at him if he'd just go away, while distraught, teary-eyed children demanded to know what was wrong with Santa.
Lots of things were wrong with Santa. This colossal, at best mildly appalling act of deception (Joseph does not have a physical or mental disability, and Evolution makes clear that — at least onstage with his beloved New York hardcore band, the Cro-Mags — he was thoroughly intolerant of jolliness) is probably not the moral low point of his life. His riveting autobiography is a profoundly seedy affair: boyhood abuse while in foster care, a drug- and violence-addled adolescence on the streets of apocalyptic Seventies New York, 15 years or so AWOL from the Navy, myriad Hare Krishna-related improprieties, a brief but vivid stint fronting quite possibly the most physically terrifying band in New York City history, and, just for the hell of it, on page 377, crack addiction. Joseph has survived all of this and is understandably proud. Regarding the retarded-Santa ploy, he is regretful, but not for reasons you'd expect.
"I think it's fuckin' — it's ingenious!" crows the blunt, 45-year-old, generously tattooed human bulldozer currently training for a triathlon. "I put a disclaimer in the Hare Krishna chapter: 'Some of you might be offended by what you're about to read, and some of you will see the sheer genius in it.'" But for about three years, Joseph now laments, he was in thrall to what he condemns as the cultish underbelly of the Hare Krishna movement, rogue con men who perverted the benevolent religion exemplified in the West by Indian guru Srila Prabhupada, whom Joseph still reveres and follows. He says every dime of retard-Santa's $3,000 bounty was turned over to his superiors, who insisted they would use it to help people, win converts, feed the poor, etc. Evidently they didn't. Joseph eventually broke with the group, but not before surrendering a great deal of his own time and a great deal of other people's money.
This, more than 20 years later, is what Joseph rues. "I regret I got the wool pulled over my eyes," he says. "It's like I said in the book — I forgot the first rule of punk rock: Question authority."
As Evolution attests, Joseph has had a tough and occasionally outright brutal life — terrible things have been done to him, and he's done a few untoward things himself just to scrape by. And in his life, Joseph has found plenty of antagonists: foster parents, fellow street thugs, amoral Krishna leaders, his Cro-Mags bandmates, and, eventually, me. Because nothing makes a hustler angrier than the feeling he's been hustled.
"I don't know what rat-infested, smallpox-infected cargo ship these two parasitic pieces of shit came over on, but what I do know is that it should have sunk to the bottom of the ocean before they had their intestines eaten by sharks."
That's Joseph on the second, and most damaging, set of foster parents (Italian, you see) assigned to him and his two brothers, Eugene (older) and Frank (younger). From the onset, Evolution minces people, not words; the story it tells is both mesmerizing and thoroughly unpleasant. Joseph's tale is bookended by two horrid revelations: First, two older boys also fostered by that family sexually abused him.
Joseph doesn't linger on the lurid details, but the effect is still deeply disturbing — especially, of course, for his family. His mother, Marie, who lives in Queens, New York, hasn't finished the book yet. "To be honest with you, I've been reading it, and I put it down, and then I go back to it," she says. "It's very upsetting. "
As for Joseph's decision to open up to such a severe degree, it was, oddly enough, the world's most famous writing instructor who eventually pushed him to a crucial breakthrough: Screenwriting guru Robert McKee told him it's not the abuse that makes your story interesting, but what you do as a result of that abuse. In Joseph's case: "I became very violent as a teenager, runnin' around on the streets," he says. "I wouldn't let anybody do anything to me. If I found out somebody did something to my brother or my friends, I wouldn't think twice about cracking you with a two-by-four or a bottle or whatever."
This is not the sort of guy to hold back. (Evolution ends with the equally horrid revelation that his mother was raped repeatedly by her then-husband, resulting in the pregnancies that produced both John and his younger brother.) But not holding back has been John Joseph's calling card since 1986, the year the Cro-Mags unveiled their majestically vicious debut album, The Age of Quarrel. The famously volatile bandmates can agree on little else these days but Quarrel's greatness, its then-visionary mix of hardcore and metal now credited with inspiring a thousand harder-, faster-, and tougher-than-thou acolytes. Joseph barked maniacally through classics such as "World Peace" (not gonna happen), "Street Justice" (indeed), "Show You No Mercy" (he doesn't), "Do unto Others" (he does), and "We Gotta Know" (he doesn't yet, but he will).
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.
"So here's the thing," Mayhew responds. "I did file a harassment complaint against John — I never denied that from the beginning. I did it to get a pest off my back. Now, of course, all these hardcore tough guys from the scene are throwing around the word rat. I'm like, 'What is this, an episode of Baretta?'" Mayhew adds that the cops never acted concerned about the Navy thing; Joseph turned himself in on his own.
As for Flanagan, he stresses a desire to avoid feeding these arguments: "Brothers fight. They'll always be my brothers." (Like Mayhew, he says he hasn't read Joseph's book — both regard it skeptically.) He's concerned the acrimony is overshadowing what the Cro-Mags accomplished and what the New York hardcore scene meant to all of them. "The hardcore scene was one place where it was come-as-you-are. We all fit in. We were all rejects in some way from somewhere else."
On that point, Joseph agrees: "Me and Harley got our fallouts, whatever, but we did live this shit. I can't take that away from him, and he's an incredible musician."
But Mayhew is often unfairly removed from that equation, by dint of his living with his mother on East End Avenue — "the only walkup on East End Avenue," he clarifies — at the time. To him, the overemphasis on a sordid, violent upbringing and lifestyle is another, less attractive part of his band's contribution to hardcore.
"Suddenly it became cooler to be tough than it was to be smart," Mayhew says. "And in that moment, the scene died ... when beating up some kid and taking his boots and covering yourself with tattoos became more important than writing songs, than doing something creative and cool. I remember going to hardcore shows and everybody just having a great time and everybody knowing each other. And, like, overnight, when the Cro-Mags happened, all of a sudden there were gangs of skinheads and there were no girls anymore, and people were getting their heads kicked in."
Convinced that I intend to write a story entirely about "Cro-Mag beef," Joseph angrily cuts off all contact with me when he learns I've spoken to Mayhew and Flanagan. "Your angle is obvious: shit-slinging and trash-talking," he e-mails. "That's mighty big of you. I don't respect you as a journalist, much less a person, as I feel you deceived me over this whole thing. Lucky for you this wasn't done to me 10 years ago, when I wouldn't have been so forgiving."
All of that aside, the Cro-Mags are largely unconcerned with the Cro-Mags these days. Flanagan has kids and another band and is considering writing something about his history in the New York punk scene. Mayhew works in film and television as a Steadicam operator and occasional director. (Fun fact: He did Onyx's video for "Slam.") Joseph, too, sees his future elsewhere, with Evolution as the latest evidence of a burgeoning writing career.
His Hare Krishna faith is still paramount as well — he now helps run a temple on St. Mark's Place, in New York's East Village. "We keep it the real way," he says. "There's none of these bogus gurus." His new temple's president, Brahmabhuta Das, is grateful for the help, both conventional — Joseph has put in a lot of money and construction time, in addition to handling dessert at the temple's Sunday feasts — and unconventional. "My wife and I were doing this out of our apartment on 10th Street, and we were having problems with some thugs from the other group, so he kind of came to our rescue — gave us protection," Das says.
The day after Joseph blows up, I head over to see his new band, Bloodclot, play in Brooklyn at Studio B (the sister club to Miami's Studio A). Unfortunately the first thing I see is a long, stationary line of irritated would-be patrons who won't be getting in either. The second thing I see is a thunderous fistfight in the street — two enraged men thrashing about, ramming themselves into parked cars on one side of the street and then the other. Something about the whooping nonchalance of the crowd gathered around them suggests this is neither the first nor the last fight on the card today.
Studio B is in a relatively remote, desolate part of Greenpoint — old warehouses and industrial blight — and for a second the scene feels like the vicious, ugly, cutthroat New York City of old, the killing zone that Joseph's music and literature so lovingly describe and evoke. Except in 2008, it ends with a bizarre, ironic flourish: About a dozen Studio B bouncers — all wearing promo T-shirts for ultraviolent videogame juggernaut Grand Theft Auto IV — scramble out to break up the brawl. At this point, a woman emerges from the club and announces the show is sold out, prompting profanity-laced shouting matches with several pissed-off folks in line. The crowd is ordered to disperse, though it seems in no mood to do so. A few cops warily wander by. And all the while, John "Bloodclot" Joseph is somewhere inside, the quarrel following him wherever he goes.