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Excerpted from the book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, published by It Books and available May 14
New York is a music mecca—the Brill Building, Broadway, street performers, subway buskers, the Metropolitan opera—but it’s not known for its abundance of successful metal bands.
Sure, the city has produced some heralded heavy luminaries, including KISS, Anthrax, and Helmet. But for a volatile period from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, a batch of passionate, aggressive, and sometimes violent bands terrorized the Lower East Side, even turning legendary new wave/punk club CBGB into a metal mainstay on weekend afternoons in the ’80s. The phenom was all the more surprising because back in the day, if a New York punk fan lined up for a Slayer show, or a headbanger dared enter the moshpit at a GBH gig, fists were likely to fly. Never mind the sonic similarities between the Sex Pistols and Anthrax—the cultural divide between metal and punk was too great for any band to breach at the time. Then a few bands brave enough to merge the two styles finally surfaced. In keeping with the city’s gritty rep, they often featured thuggish musicians who were equally adept at swinging a beer bottle as slinging a guitar.
Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, and S.O.D., which featured Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian and drummer Charlie Benante, were among the city’s first bands to combine metal and hardcore, creating the crossover genre. Later, Biohazard and Carnivore (featuring volatile young singer Peter Steele, who later found more mainstream success with the doom-gloom Type O Negative), made the scene more visible.
In an effort to cash in on the emerging crossover bands, which also included non–New York groups like D.R.I., Corrosion of Conformity, and Suicidal Tendencies, promoters booked them on the same bill as established metal acts like Megadeth and Slayer—with sometimes dubious results. What was most surprising about the crossover scene was the intense violence that followed New York bands, who were as unrelenting and tough as the city that bred them.
Unlike many metal musicians, who craved the spotlight and perks of fame, crossover bands tended to act out their troubled personal lives both onstage and off. In LA, metal bands handed out flyers and chased women; New York bands looked for fights and chased each other, often with lethal weapons. Sometimes fights were between the band members—including the on-and-off friction between Cro-Mags’ founding bassist, Harley Flanagan (who last left the band in 2002), and vocalist John Joseph, which erupted in stabbing and biting at Webster Hall in July 2012.
ROGER MIRET (Agnostic Front): In the mid-’80s, there wasn’t much difference between metal and hardcore scenes. Everyone dressed in black, everyone was walking out of step with society, because whether you were a punk rocker, a skinhead, a hardcore kid, or a metal dude, you didn’t fit in. You were a weirdo, and nobody’s mother wanted their kids hanging out with you.
PETER STEELE: (Type O Negative, Carnivore): [Carnivore’s second album, 1987’s] Retaliation was extremely influenced by my discovery of hardcore music at CBGB in ’85 and ’86. What I strived to do was create an album that was half Black Sabbath and half Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, Sheer Terror, Black Flag, stuff like that. I loved the heaviness, the slowness, the dirge of Sabbath. But at the same time, going to CBGB on Sundays for the matinee, there was so much unbelievable energy in there. It didn’t even matter if bands were not in tune.
MIRET: All these bands like Anthrax and Metallica would come and see us at CBGB. It was like the welcoming home of all these bands, and I think meeting each other and seeing each other’s bands really cemented the crossover scene.
EVAN SEINFELD (Biohazard, Spyderz): I went down with Carnivore to the rehearsal studio to see Agnostic Front. They all had shaved heads, tattoos, and were more punk than Carnivore, but they were starting to play a metal style. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have all of these styles in one band?”
DAVE GROHL (Foo Fighters, Nirvana): In the mid-’80s, bands like Cro-Mags, C.O.C. [Corrosion of Conformity], and D.R.I. [Dirty Rotten Imbeciles] went from being strictly hardcore to adding more metal riffs and getting even heavier. That crossover period of music really allowed both hardcore and underground metal to grow because everyone was feeding off each other’s ideas and sharing each other’s audience.
SCOTT IAN (Anthrax, S.O.D.): I used to go to the CBGB hardcore matinees and that got me totally into Agnostic Front, C.O.C., and D.R.I. You’d have all these hardcore and metal kids coming together to see these bands and there were definitely fights, but at the same time you felt this sense of community.
HARLEY FLANAGAN (Cro-Mags): If it were not for Venom and Motörhead, the Cro-Mags would not have sounded the way we did. I was hanging out with violent skinheads with crazy pentagrams and swastikas tattooed all over them, listening to Venom and Discharge, huffing glue, trying to invoke demons.
VIOLENCE IN ’80s NYC
The progenitors of crossover formed during the conservative Reagan administration and its ensuing “Me Era” of decadence. Most were white, working- class, and saw little hope for a better future. In the Lower East Side’s crossover scene, this meant a particularly violent strain of nihilism—a curb-stomping, stab-happy wasteland where fists were currency.
MIKE DEAN (Corrosion of Conformity): Agnostic Front always had an aura of violence. It gets good marks on the authenticity level. They’re not pretending to be anything they weren’t.
MIRET: When we did the United Blood EP [in 1983], everyone was doing acid and angel dust. But we didn’t have any money, so we used to rob the drug dealers. Me and [drummer Raymond] Raybeez [Barbieri] had big meat hooks and one of us had a gun and we’d sneak up and rob the dealers with machine guns because they had the best angel dust. When you put a meat hook to somebody’s throat, they forget they’re holding a machine gun. It’s funny because I remember playing shows and these same drug dealers dancing to the band after we robbed them because they liked the music and they didn’t know it was us.
FLANAGAN: On Avenue A there was a private club called A7 and that’s where we all hung out and played. There were so many nights of madness. Imagine a small room full of insane people who have angel dust, bags of glue, and 40-ounce bottles of alcohol. Shit was nuts. I was always drinkin’ because, to me, having a 40-ounce bottle in your hand meant that not only did you have a buzz on, but you were armed. If anybody fucking said shit, you could just smack them in the head with the bottle.
JOHN JOSEPH (Cro-Mags): The vibe in Tompkins Square Park [was one of] drugs and guns. It became a daily occurrence to find people either overdosed or murdered, but everyone took it in stride.
FLANAGAN: We were street punks, selling weed on the Lower East Side. And when we weren’t working on the band, we’d shoplift our breakfast and worry about lunch and dinner later. Sometimes, friends who worked at restaurants would feed us out the back door. Otherwise, we wouldn’t eat. So there was a certain realness to our music that didn’t come from practicing in your parents’ garage and shit. We didn’t have garages. We lived in squats with no electricity and we toured with a pocket full of quarters.
JOSEPH: We didn’t sing about hypothetical stuff. When we sang about being on the streets and fighting Puerto Ricans and having guns pointed to our heads, it wasn’t some fantasy bullshit like with all these other bands. They sing about being on the street, but we were actually living this shit. I was raised on the streets when it was really fucking dangerous. It was cool because we had the spiritual message of looking for meaning in life, but at the same time we were unlike other bands who delivered their message with a flower. Cro-Mags delivered it with a baseball bat.
FLANAGAN: John came on all spiritual, but there were times when I’d be fucking up people, and he’d be going through their pockets saying, “Give up your shit or my man’s gonna fuck you up.” When John first got into the Krishna consciousness, people on the scene totally made fun of him. One time at one of our illegal basement crash pads, Apt. X on Norfolk Street, everybody was high on angel dust and they burned all his books and pamphlets and he threw a fit and threatened to kick everyone’s ass. And everyone’s giggling. But me and some of our roadies wound up kicking the piss out of a few people and putting them really close to death.
MIRET: There was a gang called the Hitmen on the Lower East Side and they didn’t like the punks so they would try to stab us, many times. I used to work the door at the 87 Club [87 Ludlow] and suddenly I’d see a knife coming through and I’d have to close the door. I was trying to stop one fight between these Latin gangs and I got stabbed in the hand. I spoke Spanish, I’m from Cuba. I was the only guy that could actually talk to these damn people. They’re from my neighborhood! They just didn’t care.
BILLY GRAZIADEI (Biohazard): We played a show at the Marquee, and these dudes ran up to one of our boys and stuck this huge Rambo hunting knife into his abdomen and sliced him up the center and left him there, saying, “Payback, motherfucker.” That seemed to be a common thing. Your boys jumped me, my boys are gonna jump you. Next time you come back with bats, then knives. It just escalated.
FLANAGAN: There was nothing fake about our attitude or our lyrics. We used to surf on the hoods of cars, tripping our faces off. We used to get in fights all the time. But honestly, John was just a little bit less fucked up than everybody else. John just didn’t get in fights. He’s good at putting on a big show. Like, “What? Yo! I’ll fuck you up.” He does that ghetto-ass bullshit—talks a lot of shit and everyone panics and nobody wants to be the one to step up. But I don’t remember him being in more than a couple fights in the 30 years I’ve known him. I remember my high score, though: I put 19 motherfuckers in ICU in one night. I was a fuckin’ hooligan.
JOSEPH: One time me and Harley went to see the Bad Brains at L’amour [Bay Ridge, Brooklyn] and all these metal dudes were there and one of them punched Harley. Me and Harley fucking fought literally 80 of these dudes and fucked them up.
STEELE: [I was in Rikers Island jail] about 30 days. In the past, I had done a day here or there for stupid stuff like fighting or pissing on the sidewalk. But this was a rude awakening—23 charges against me, one of which was attempted murder. When you’re kicking the shit out of somebody, you really have to make sure not to say, “I’m going to fuckin’ kill you!” because that implies intent. I’m 6-foot-6, I weigh 260 pounds. To be white in jail and to have long black hair and fangs is not an advantage.
GRAZIADEI: New York shows were crazy because we were pretty solid in Brooklyn, but we played a lot in Manhattan. So a lot of DMS [gang] guys would come out. There was another crew in Brooklyn called BYB. It seemed like whenever we played, that was the meeting point for all the different gangs in the hardcore scene to have beef. A lot of kids used to hold razor blades in their knuckles and then when they were dancing they would just start slashing people. I’d see all these kids leave the pit with slices down their back.
MIRET: The Lower East Side was our city, our town. Whatever we did went. And cops didn’t care. One time I did something horrible—which I won’t go into—but I walked into a police precinct afterward and told them I did it. I told them where I did it and when I did it. They just told me to leave.
This probably won’t shock you, but in the New York City of the ’80s it wasn’t just Wall Street dickbags who were cutting lines of coke on marble tables in corporate conference rooms. It and other drugs like angel dust were also being snorted, smoked, or mainlined in the dingy, graffiti-fucked bathrooms and backstages of many a hardcore, metal, or crossover haunt.
SEINFELD: I was really into coke. I used to smoke crack before it was known that crack was a bad thing to do—like it hadn’t hit the news yet. The vibe was, “Hey, there’s this new thing! It’s like freebase, but it’s $5.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s great, I got $20. Let’s go.”
JOHNNY KELLY (Type O Negative): We’d come offstage and the three of [Kelly’s bandmates] would run like fucking O.J. [Simpson] in Hertz commercials. They would sprint to the back lounge, and all you heard was them bitching at each other, “Hurry up, hurry up,” and you’d hear the card cutting up the coke.
STEELE: I was in Kings County Hospital suffering from drug-induced psychosis, and it was actually my own family that got me put away. I had typical paranoia. I thought there were cameras in the light switches and showerheads.
MIRET: We were doing acid the whole first tour and then we’d go into a military recruiting center and try to join: Army, Navy, whatever. We never got called on it, either. I think the recruiting people thought it was entertaining and knew we were crazy. When we were on the road, we’d just pull over randomly and shoot guns at the farm animals on the highways or shoot at a train as it went by.
GRAZIADEI: We’d score heroin at night after work and party, drink beer, and cause trouble. And then the next morning you’d snort meth and go to work all day. You’d do that three or four days in a row.
JOSEPH: Every five minutes I’d run to the bathroom and sniff up boulder-sized rocks without even taking the time to chop them up. I had big chunks of coke caked all over my nose and my clothes were soaked because I was sweating like a madman. My heart was racing and had white foam all over my mouth like a rabid dog. I sniffed well over an eighth by myself.
GRAZIADEI: Our judgment was clouded because of our lifestyles. Evan was still doing tons of coke, but then he had a heart attack [on May 31, 1988]. He thought he was gonna die. They rushed him to the hospital. After that, he went through rehab and straightened out. As soon as he was clean and sober he jumped deep into the other vices of life and got heavily into sex.
This is pretty self-explanatory. Just be thankful we didn’t include the part about Evan Seinfeld’s “humiliating” post-coitus move he calls “the dick fold.”
SEINFELD: I was always obsessed with pussy and girls.
IAN: [Onetime Anthrax tour-mates] Public Enemy had never gotten groupies before, and our crew guys would always have chicks on the bus getting naked. Flava Flav was out of his fucking mind for that. He couldn’t get on our bus fast enough to see what was going on because that didn’t happen on Public Enemy’s bus.
GRAZIADEI: Evan had “The Book.” Really, it was Biohazard’s book, but he likes to take credit for it. The way it started was we’d get a girl to consensually show us her tits and we’d take a picture of her. At first, there were 10 Polaroids on the table. And then somebody decided to put them into a photo album. The album gets bigger and bigger, and it progresses from, “Oh, shit, this girl showed her ass” to, “Oh, shit, this girl showed her landing strip for her Brazilian wax.” It turned into a full-on porno book. There were volumes and volumes of these things.
SEINFELD: I heard that Gene Simmons had a photo album of naked girls and I thought that was the coolest fucking thing ever. I thought, “This guy is documenting his role as a super-pimp.” So my friend Drew Stone says, “You should take it a step further and take pictures of chicks sucking your dick.” I said, “That’s really funny, but how are we going to get them developed?” He goes, “We won’t, we’ll get a Polaroid.” So we got the camera and one day I said to Drew, “When I get her back in the bus just come in with the Polaroid and I’ll ask if she minds taking a picture.” A lot of girls were into it, posing with my cock, and it became really funny. Then Billy and I hosted MTV’s Headbangers Ball and we had to interview all the bands who we were on this festival tour with, including KISS and Ozzy Osbourne. After the interview, Gene says to me, “So, I heard you have a book.” I was floored. I said, “I have a book, Gene. Actually, you inspired my book because I heard about your book.” So Gene, who’s in KISS makeup, in his full demon outfit, reaches into his shirt, under his wing, and pulls out a photo album. I’m looking at this book, and there’s hundreds of pictures of naked girls. He goes, “This is just one volume from the last tour, but there’s hundreds of volumes.” I was impressed. Then he says, “So, can I see your book?” I felt it was like a meeting of the minds, and I sent one of the guys from my crew to get it. So he brings it back and Gene opens the book. It has facial cum shots and girls with my dick stretching their mouth. Gene’s face was somewhere between shock, disbelief, envy, and disgust all at the same time. I’m thinking to myself, “I’m on to something here.”