By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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 down to New York City, and who provides one of Evolution's back-cover blurbs, along with Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and Super Size Me star Morgan Spurlock. "There was blood everywhere, and people were being dragged out unconscious. At the old Ritz, it was the first time I'd ever seen people stage-diving off the balcony—I guess they invented a new thing, balcony-diving, where people with their engineer boots, with spurs, would dive off the balcony and land on the heads of people underneath them. It was, you know, pretty terrifying."
Perhaps mercifully, Joseph's mother never saw the Cro-Mags live. "He would never let me come and hear him," she says, laughing. "He gave me a video that came out years ago. It was funny, but it was shocking, the type of music—diving off the stage, and the screamin' and the bangin' and the slammin'. It's not my choice of music. I told him a lot of times, 'I'd like to go'—'Mom, you don't wanna come here.' He wouldn't let me."
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, that his book is not just about the Cro-Mags—and indeed, for the first two-thirds of Evolution, he barely mentions them at all, and all told spends nearly as much time talking about Bad Brains. (Measured by intensity-per-admirer, Bad Brains are quite possibly the most devoutly revered rock band in American history. Justifiably.) His point is that the Cro-Mags didn't make him, didn't define him. And in that regard, his book is convincing: John 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.
In the late '70s, when John initially ventured onto the Lower East Side, a friend gave him a cautionary geography lesson: When you're heading east and you hit Avenue A, turn around. Specifically: "If you came to 'A' you was adventurous, 'B' you was bold, 'C' you was crazy, and 'D' you was dead, maricón." Evolution revels in this stuff, the epic blight and brutality of '70s/'80s New York City, the subways wet with graffiti, the streets wet with blood. Where 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 like Escape From New York, Death Wish, The Warriors.
He loved it, of course. "It's such a magical time in New York City's history," Joseph says. "And that's what I set out to do, is capture that vibe of how renegade the shit used to be." Moreover, he plainly prefers it to the safe, sanitized, soulless, gentrified, post-Giuliani Disneyland we've got now. Evolution's biggest writerly flourish spins off Joseph's horror at watching a tour bus trawling through his beloved LES; in response, he daydreams about his own venture, the "Cro-Mags Caravan Tour Bus From Hell," exposing aghast tourists to a flurry of hypodermic needles, bathhouse brawls, serial killers, enormous rats that steal your pizza slices in the dead of night, and grotesque characters from Mr. Belt Guy (who sells belts he steals from corpses at the morgue) to Kevin Carpet (who rolls himself up in a carpet and pays women to walk on him while he masturbates).
It's worth noting that not everyone regarded the city back then as a glorious, irredeemable hellhole that represented the pinnacle of righteous badassery. "Naw, I'm from D.C.," e-mails Darryl Jenifer of Bad Brains, who relocated to the LES around 1979. "New York was like a big, dirty racing city of all types, I could blend in better. D.C. was a very violent and covert city—cats would rob their own moms. I felt safe in the Lower East Side. I actually thought St. Marks was uptown."
Nonetheless, any longtime resident will tell you that New York in 2008 is . . . different—along with a few other pejoratives, usually. Joseph sees a single positive aspect to the way things are now. "It's one thing: My moms can walk around the street safely or whatever," he says. "But I look at it like, 'Yo, I went through all that stuff, and I came out the other side.' "
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, Harley Flanagan on bass, Kevin "Parris" Mayhew and Doug Holland on guitar, 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 combination of the band's nucleus (Joseph, Flanagan, and Mayhew) were speaking to each other at the time, all of them failing to recapture Quarrel's glory or influence. The guys argue about everything: who started the band, who's 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 his two bandmates: Both Flanagan and Mayhew started websites with their own versions of the band's history, at cromags.com and cro-mags.com, respectively.