If you happen to be in an Upper Manhattan park and see someone running while frenetically playing bass guitar, your mind isn’t playing tricks on you. It’s just Harley Flanagan, 55, cofounder of the seminal New York hardcore band the Cro-Mags.
“I’m in motherfucking beast mode,” Flanagan tells the Voice. He begins a tour on May 18 in Philadelphia; moves on to the Melrose Ballroom, in Queens, the following night; and then hits eight more U.S. dates before a stretch in Europe that will keep the New Yorker and his bandmates (Dominic Dibenedetto, Hector Guzman, Gary Sullivan) busy through July. In other words, “beast mode” is necessary just to keep up. And Flanagan is up for the challenge. “I’m in the park jogging and playing bass, because I can’t just practice. I gotta practice while I’m running because I gotta be running around the stage.”
Flanagan isn’t complaining about the work involved in preparing for a tour that’s not for the faint of heart, because given the fact that the band hasn’t been able to play live (outside of a 2020 livestreamed show) in nearly three years, there’s a lot of pent-up energy to be released—or unleashed—once they hit the road. So the Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt is preparing accordingly—at the Gracie Academy, in the gym, at home, and yes, in the park.
“Anybody who’s ever seen me play or seen the Cro-Mags, it’s a very physical performance,” Flanagan explains. “You have to be in really good shape to do this, especially to do it every night, because I’m not just training to do one show and then that’s it. I’m gonna be playing 40-something shows in 40-something days. I’m only gonna have two or three days off. And I’m gonna be playing an hour set, or close to it, every night, and you have to have really good cardio to sing at that intensity. I can’t even call it singing—it’s more like primal screaming at that intense level for that long while you’re running around and playing an instrument. So it really does take a lot, physically, to do it. But the good thing is, I train Jiu-Jitsu, I train Muay Thai, and I work out like five, six days a week. So even though I am 55 years old, I hate to say it, but I’m in better shape than most people 25 years old. And I hate to say it for them, not for me.” Flanagan laughs—for all the stress and nerves that go along with prepping for a world tour after the madness of the past couple of years, he’s in a good place, a place many thought he would never get to.
Surrounded on the Lower East Side by drugs, violence, and every bad thing you want a child to be shielded from while growing up, Flanagan saw too much too soon. Daily fights while dodging drug dealers were a rite of passage he was forced to embrace before he was thrust into the middle of the music world as a 12-year-old drummer for the Stimulators, a group formed by his aunt Denise Mercedes. By 1983, the band had run its course, and Flanagan, now 16 and fully embedded in the punk scene, went on to be involved in several projects that ultimately mutated into the Cro-Mags.
“I just took the word Cro-Magnon and abbreviated it,” says Flanagan of the origins of the band’s name. “It’s kinda cool if you think about it, because Cro-Magnon man was the first, I believe, of prehistoric man to not just do cave art, but they were also the first to start waging war against other tribes. So they actually started killing off their rivals. If you think about Cro-Magnon man, it’s basically a primitive reflection of where we’re at. We haven’t evolved that much. Our weapons have just gotten better, our art has changed a little bit, but we’re still pretty much the same primitive motherfuckers that only evolved to that place.”
Flanagan’s musical evolution showed through in the seminal lineup of the Cro-Mags (Flanagan, Parris Mayhew, John Joseph, Doug Holland, Mackie Jayson), which produced the 1986 album The Age of Quarrel and basically created a genre of music that was uniquely centered in the Big Apple—New York Hardcore. Mixing punk influences with what would come to commonly be known as thrash metal, musically what separated the “NYHC” bands like the Cro-Mags from their counterparts around the country was the reality that, much like gangsta rap on the West Coast, the New York practitioners of hardcore were living and breathing what they were singing (or screaming) about. On the LES, that wasn’t pretty, but it was real, and it ultimately made for wild scenes that prompted some clubs to ban hardcore shows.
But it saved a young man who was riding off the rails whenever he wasn’t onstage. “It was the only release I had for a very angry, frustrated, violent, aggressive kid with no outlets,” says Flanagan. “So I had to channel all of that shit. If I didn’t have music, I would have been an arch-criminal. I would have probably been in jail for multiple murders and God knows what else. But thank God the planets aligned in a way where I was able to use my creativity as an outlet, and I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that were able to encourage that.”
There would be a lot more darkness before light, though. Infighting between band members over everything from writing credits and finances to record label squabbles and the ownership of the band’s name led to a revolving door of players, lawsuits, and even a 2012 brawl that saw Flanagan stabbed and arrested after being jumped at Webster Hall. Flanagan got his own licks in, leading to charges of felony assault and criminal possession of a weapon, along with a brief stay at Rikers Island before those charges were dropped.
In 2019, Flanagan won the rights to use the Cro-Mags name, while Joseph and Jayson were allowed to use the name Cro-Mags JM on tour. It wasn’t clean and pretty, but nothing in the music business is. Meanwhile, Flanagan’s personal life continued to spiral out of control into the mid-’90s, thanks to drugs and violence, until an ex-girlfriend called with the news that she was having a baby she thought might be his. And that she had contracted AIDS. Flanagan went on a testing spree over the next several months, took care of the baby that wasn’t his for several years after rescuing her from a crack house (the two are still in touch), and in 1996, discovered Jiu-Jitsu. All of that combined—along with the arrival of his sons Harley (now 19) and Jonah (now 17) and his marriage to Laura, in 2015—saved him. (Laura Lee Flanagan is now his business manager and lawyer.)
“I knew I had issues and I tried to address them,” Flanagan recalls. “I started seeing a therapist for a while just to try to get a grip on myself. I have PTSD like a motherfucker just from life, and because of that, it can trigger rage issues. A long time ago, I just really made a decision that for the people I love and for myself, I have to improve. What other point is there to it, in being alive? You’re supposed to try to advance yourself, otherwise, you’re just breathing and taking up space.”
Through it all—the good, the bad, and the very ugly—there’s been the music. And while many of his peers, from punk through post-punk and hardcore, have decided to play it safe by running through the hits onstage in karaoke fashion, or have gone in a completely different musical direction, Flanagan has kept the intensity and grit of his music intact while still evolving—all in evidence on the Cro-Mags’ last two releases, the EP 2020 and the full-length In the Beginning. Musically and lyrically, 2020, in particular, hit hard, as Flanagan addressed a year that included the Covid-19 pandemic and times of civil unrest through aptly titled songs such as “Age of Quarantine,” “Chaos in the Streets,” and “Violence and Destruction.”
“I still enjoy the creative process and I’m not one of these artists who, God bless the Ramones, I love them, but there are a lot of bands who have a sound and that’s how it stays from the beginning to the end,” he says. “I have a sound that’s pretty consistent, but I take pride in the fact that I do different shit on every record. I’m always trying to up my game, I’m always trying to bring something. For me, the trick is, I try to give people what they want and expect and something that they completely don’t expect. And as long as I’m always doing that, then I feel like I’m doing my job.”
So, no album of acoustic love songs anytime soon?
“What’s a love song?” Flanagan asks. “You might love kicking someone’s ass. [Laughs] I got songs about kicking ass. But I think my music is as passionate as it possibly can get. I think we were the first emo band because we were very emotional.” Another fit of laughing from someone who is still the Hardcore King of NYC. He won’t claim that crown for himself or boast about such a mythical status among his fans, but New York City will always be his home and his muse.
“New York is so much a part of my music,” Flanagan says. “I don’t think this music could have happened if I had grown up anywhere else. I think a lot of the intensity, a lot of the drive … New York has a certain frenetic energy. You could go to some other big cities and feel a similar energy, but New York, especially the New York that I grew up in, it’s a unique animal and it definitely helped forge me and what I do. Even at its tamest, this city is still intense, and I think it’s overwhelming to anybody who isn’t from here. And that’s why it’s so difficult for people who are from here to really leave.”
Flanagan never left. He’s moved uptown, though, far enough away from a place that still can haunt him.
“To be honest, I really try to avoid the area,” he says of the LES. “I do go down there, but I only go for reasons. I was down there visiting an old neighbor of mine not that long ago, and just being on my old block really kind of freaks me out because it’s a very safe block now. There’s a playground and all these yuppies and their kids and everything else, but I still walk down that street, and I still feel the same anxiety that I felt back in the ’80s when I’m there. I still feel like anything can pop off at any time just because I’ve had so many experiences in every part of the Lower East Side that were pretty intense. There’s not a block down there that I haven’t seen some sort of a violent incident or something go down, so I walk around down there and I immediately get uncomfortable.”
It’s understandable, but there’s a lot more good than bad in the life of someone who is a living, breathing example of a survivor. Flanagan has a band lineup he loves, he’s about to hit the road, a documentary film on his life is being directed by Citizen Ashe’s Rex Miller, he’s still getting choked and punched (by choice) in Jiu-Jitsu class, and his family is right by his side. He made it. He isn’t even opposed to mending fences with his old bandmates. Yes, even after all they’ve been through.
“I just feel like all of us kinda got the shitty end of the stick. I feel like we got robbed as a band and as individuals, and I don’t really think that that’s fair,” explains Flanagan. “I think we were all very young, we were all very naive, and that had a lot to do with us not just falling apart as a band and as friends but in turning on each other. When desperate people who don’t have a lot get put in a position where they feel like they have nothing, they’ll start fighting over crumbs and they’ll start stealing from each other, they’ll start accusing each other.
“I’m not trying to go backward,” he continues. “In a perfect situation, I would want all the Cro-Mags records that were ever created to all be on the same label if possible, and all have the same home. And I would say, fuck who wrote what, everybody who played on these records should just get paid for playing on the record. Mackie didn’t ever write a song, he only played drums on one record, but he should get paid for each one of those record sales, just like John should, just like Parris and Doug. The people who played on them should get an equal cut of what those records sell for and just call it a day. And if there was ever a chance to do a one-off, one-time-only Age of Quarrel festival, I would be happy to do something like that just to say, ‘You know what man, I don’t really hate any of you guys, I really don’t.’”
Who said a Cro-Mag couldn’t evolve? ❖
Thomas Gerbasi is an award-winning boxing writer who has still found time to write about less violent pursuits, such as roller derby and music, for publications such as The Daily Beast, KO63 Music on Medium, and Rolling Stone Australia.