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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 that 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. That was how it was on the streets. There was stuff I couldn't put in the book, 'cause, y'know."
This is not the sort of guy to hold back. (Evolution ends with the equally horrible 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 band—when Joseph learns I've talked to some of his former bandmates, he stops talking to me—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 like "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 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.)
"The spiritual revolution is the real revolution," John says now. "As far as I'm concerned, you're not gonna beat these people that have tanks and fuckin', you know—the real revolution is a revolution in consciousness. That's what Prabhupada talked about."
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. Ray—who now goes by Raghunath Cappo, and teaches yoga full-time upstate—describes an initial spiritual curiosity that mirrors Joseph's. "I always had the desire to understand deeper spiritual truths," he writes in an e-mail. "With the success of my band, and the emptiness material success brings, my strong interest in yoga, and my loving father's tragic death, it led me to pack my bags, quit the band at its height, and head for India for a simpler life and discover yoga beyond the asanas (physical exercises). I'm indebted to John and Harley for turning me on to Krishna and Srila Prabhupada. I have spent time in a lot of yoga ashrams, but nobody, and I mean nobody, explained yoga like Srila Prabhupada did. He was lucid, authoritative, and authentic. He walked his talk."
That Joseph, too, could walk the 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. "Who the fuck is a fantastic singer in punk? Billy Idol?" notes Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer. "People need to remember that punk rock is an expression of the heart and spirit—virtuosity is the last thing. Doin' your thing within your own capability is the name of the punk game. If you want a great rock singer, go listen to Queen."
The Cro-Mags, to their enduring credit, did their thing within their own capability. What they 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 '90s. 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. "It's a little bit like when you're a kid and you're into the really violent scenes in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It's so over-the-top and cartoony and insane that it's hard not to appreciate it."