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).