By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
We should start 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, 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 least mildly appalling act of deception (Joseph is not disabled physically or mentally, 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 '70s 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 this, and is understandably proud. Regarding the retarded-Santa ploy, he is understandably regretful, but not for the reasons you'd expect.
"I think it's fuckin'—it's ingenious!" he crows jovially, holding court in a vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side, a 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.' " Evolution walks us through Joseph's thought process: "Even better, what if this particular Santa was not only crippled, but retarded as well? This would be FUCKIN' HUUUUGE!!!" And it was. But for three years or so, Joseph now laments that 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 John still reveres and follows. John says every dime of retard-Santa's $3,000 bounty was turned over to his superiors, who insisted that they'd use it help people, win converts, feed the poor, etc. Evidently they didn't. And amid widespread rumors of financial malfeasance and sexual assault, 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 regrets.
"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. I believed everything these dudes were tellin' me. And I didn't question a lot of the stuff I saw goin' on—this, that, people bein' accused of molestation, you just block it out. They always had an excuse, you know? They're fuckin' master manipulators, dude. You know?"
As Evolution attests, Joseph's 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. He was a hustler, but he insists he was a hustler by necessity. Edmund Burke provides Evolution's epigraph: "He who wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper." In his life, Joseph's 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 that 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 horrible revelations: First, that two older boys also fostered by that family sexually abused him. "When I came to the part about sexual abuse, I didn't wanna put it in," he says now. "Because it's embarrassing. People think: 'You're a kid. What somebody does to you as a kid is not your fault.' But it's just an embarrassing thing."
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 still lives in Queens, 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. Let's put it that way. Very upsetting. I mean, I've cried and cried and laughed. A lot of things I didn't know—the different abuse things, I had no idea."
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."
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.
"This is not a book about Cro-Mag beef," Joseph says. "But it definitely is telling the real story . . . I'll let you tell your lies for fuckin' 10 years or whatever, but eventually the real story comes out about why I quit the band. 'Cause, like I said, I wanted to keep it a positive book—I don't need to slant the story, 'cause the story's the story. People can take what they want from it, but I told the events actually, cent for cent, the way every fuckin' thing happened to the T. 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 that's in there: 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 he's quoted, in a Spin article that year on the Krishna influence in hardcore, 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?' I'm not a street thug; I don't give a fuck about your so-called 'street rules'—honor among thieves, don't go to the cops. The cops, to me, were a tool to get this douchebag to stop calling my mother. And I did." Mayhew adds that the cops never acted all that concerned about the Navy thing; Joseph turned himself in on his own.
As for Flanagan, he stresses his desire to avoid feeding these arguments at all: "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 that 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, whether it was kids coming from an abusive family, an abusive environment, or kids who just needed to get away and find themselves, some people who were fuckin' around with drugs, some people who were tryin' to get away from families on drugs—whatever it was."
On that point, Joseph agrees: "That's why all the Cro-Mags songs—when we were writin' that album, we were livin' in the squats over there. There wasn't no, like, run to the ATM or run to fuckin' Western Union and get a moneygram from Mommy and fuckin' Daddy. 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 walk-up 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," he 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. And it led to whatever hardcore is now, which is a bunch of bands that imitate rap groups, and they call themselves gangsters, and they kick the shit out of everybody."
Convinced that I intended 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, canceling a Voice photo shoot and rescinding passes for me and a photographer to see his new band, Bloodclot, play the next day at the Black N Blue Bowl, an annual all-day hardcore extravaganza held this year at Studio B in Brooklyn. He suggests that the Voice run a photo of Harley instead. "So 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 ten years ago when I wouldn't have been so forgiving."
All 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 himself about his history in the New York punk scene; Mayhew works in film and TV, 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. With his writing partner, Priscilla Sommer, he's working on several screenplays; he's also preparing a health-oriented book spun off his longtime vegetarian lifestyle and workout regimen: "The brother book to Skinny Bitch," he says. "Told in my style. Comedy. Like I said, I don't preach to people. I just make people laugh about shit."
His Hare Krishna faith is still paramount as well—he now helps run a temple on St. Marks Place. "We keep it the real way," he says. "There's none of these bogus gurus." (Put simply, Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, in 1966; convinced of widespread corruption there, Joseph is now part of the ISKCON Revival Movement, seeking a return to the original principles of Prabhupada, who died in 1977.) His new temple's president, Brahmabhuta Das, is grateful for the help, both conventional—Joseph's 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. "So we didn't have that problem anymore."
The day after Joseph blows up and rescinds my tickets to the Black N Blue Bowl, I head over to Studio B anyway, hoping to buy a ticket at the door. 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 gentleman thrashing about, ramming themselves into parked cars on one side of the street, 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 alike so lovingly describe and evoke. It's the sort of thing your terrified mother pictured the first time you told her you were moving to New York. Except in 2008, it ends with a bizarre, ironic flourish: About a dozen Studio B bouncers scramble out to break the brawl up, all wearing promo T-shirts for imminent ultra-violent video-game juggernaut Grand Theft Auto IV. (Playing off the game's invented universe of Liberty City, the shirts all advertise Liberty City hardcore: LCHC.) At this point, a woman emerges from the club itself and announces that 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 wander by, warily. And all the while, John "Bloodclot" Joseph is somewhere inside, the quarrel following him wherever he goes.