AB edition interview
By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, pre-Giuliani, pre-The Disney Store opening in Times Square, is easy to mythologize. It’s a city where Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle can wish for a rain to wipe the scum off the streets as easily as it is for Woody Allen to worry in Annie Hall (1977) that “the rest of the country looks down upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.” The skinhead subculture can be composed of devotees of black ska and reggae, or it can be neo-Nazis. Hardcore bands can be muscle-bound, martial arts practicing, straightedge vegan Hare Krishnas.
The latter adjectives, and probably a few more, apply to John ‘Bloodclot’ Joseph McGowan and the legendary hardcore outfit he fronted. Like the city that spawned them, the Cro-Mags are marked by a overabundance of stuff: over 20 musicians that could be called members, whole albums that the current line-up disavows (2000’s Revenge has nothing to do with the band as it stands), a knife attack, songs written by former members picked up and reworked by current members, dozens of aligned and associated acts. It all devolves into round after round of he-said-he-said stretching back to when those involved were children.
“I grew up in foster homes pretty much, come from a broken home and spent my childhood in a very bad foster home, orphanages, group homes, boys homes, went on to the streets in the ‘70s and got locked up. I did close to two years in lock-up,” says McGowan from his New York home. He joined the Navy fresh out of lock-up, but went AWOL after meeting the Bad Brains.
“I was AWOL for a long time, almost 15 years, even while being on MTV. I had a lot of stuff I was working through … After meeting the Bad Brains and the hardcore scene I decided that this was my real family, so I split.”
The Bad Brains were an anomaly even in New York: a former jazz-fusion group that had embraced not only Rastafarianism but Napoleon Hill’s 1937 self-help book Think and Grow Rich and its concept of P.M.A. (positive mental attitude).
“They were surrounded by people who were in to metaphysics, very aware people (…) The scene has gone through very many changes over the years but in the early days there were very revolutionary people involved in the scene and I was just soaking it up like a sponge. I was reading books and meditating and doing yoga. In ’92 I even lived as a monk.”
This isn’t what people think of when they think of punk, and even less when they think of hardcore, but it really should be. The scene was diverse enough to accommodate dreadlocked rastas alongside shaven-headed Krishnas, but not everybody was welcome. There was an undercurrent of homophobia in the New York Hardcore (NYHC) scene that has since dissipated, present in Bad Brains songs like “Don’t Blow Bubbles.” The charming original title for former NYHC-ers the Beastie Boys 1986 debut was Don’t Be a Faggot, which changed to License to Ill after the label refused to released it. This also resides in the original artwork for Cro-Mags standout debut Age of Quarrel (1986). Inside a mushroom cloud scenes appear of everything wrong with the world from a Krishna perspective: the slaughter of animals, dog fighting, drug abuse, abortion and two men arm-in-arm. The bands no longer hold those views; all have since apologized and embraced more nuanced interpretations of their spiritual philosophies.
It may be easy for some to dismiss Cro-Mags from a 21st century perspective, but they were doing something that many do when treated like the lowest scum possible. They had all been brutalized to the point of becoming brutes themselves, an attitude that profoundly altered the music. Subsequently, Age of Quarrel isn’t essential for anybody looking to understand NYHC. Its rough edges make it an even more authentic document of a city that was in perpetual war against itself.
As McGowan says, “A lot of the punk rock clubs were in bad neighbourhoods. We’d be hanging and you’d get into stuff. We started out fighting everybody else because of the way we lived and the knuckleheads came into the scene and started fights at shows with each other.”
The album’s title is a translation of the Sanskrit term Kali Yuga, the name for the current age of the universe, the dark times when morality is in decline. The Cro-Mags were living in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, squatting in burnt-out buildings, consumed by acrimony and in-fighting. The evidence that the world was fucked was all around them and is clearly conveyed on record. Vocally, McGowan had a new delivery since plagiarized by many; varying between a hoarse, direct shout and a tormented yowl. The music is undeniably hardcore punk rock, but it is shot through with a muscularity imported from thrash metal. Subsequent albums would dial up the aforementioned genre’s influence, though McGowan considers the band to be purely hardcore.
Lyrically it’s bleak, split between personal betrayal and the over-arching awfulness of the world itself. The language is as ugly as the subject matter, all awkward rhymes (“You’ve seen the proof/This ain’t no spoof”) and cliché (“You’d better face those facts/It’s the blind leading the blind/And there ain’t no turning back”).
Hardcore was in part a counterpoint to the arty no-wave scene, so the lack of lyrical refinement is to be expected and even has grown to be indicative of cultural troupes within the city that many associate with a straight-talking, no-bullshit ethos. To this day, it could be mistaken as simplistic, as betrayal comes up multiple times, but betrayal by whom? What happened exactly? Fans would have to wait until Joseph published his harrowing autobiography, The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, for the inside track to a life hard lived, mired by violence and acrimony.
Today paints a different story: McGowan is touring, writing (he has a vegan manifesto, Meat is for Pussies, out and a self-help book on the way) and competes in triathlons. He’s happy and healthy when band mates like Harley Flanagan seem to be anything but. His own transformation, which he is happy to credit entirely to meeting the Bad Brains, mirrors New York’s own. It’s fashionable to be nostalgic for a time when Times Square was an open-air drug market and public bathroom, a time when The Warriors (1979) could have been presented as a documentary. It’s equally fashionable to rip on people who have chosen veganism and exercise over Cheetos and Xbox. That said, it gets old fast, but there’s a bad part of all of us that can’t help being attracted to all that filth and grime and despair. It still drives people to New York after 30 years of Broken Windows policing and spiraling rent prices and it means that, despite its faults, NYHC still sounds more like the sounds of living, breathing, bruised and bloody human beings than anything that has followed.
Watch Cro-Mags at the Republik in Calgary on Saturday, February 21 with the Chain and Savage Streets.
BC edition interview
By Jason Kolins
VANCOUVER — Like thousands of other kids, their musical lives would be changed forever after seeing one band’s video on MTV or MuchMusic’s Power Hour in the ‘80s. Growing up as a 13-year-old longhaired skateboarding thrasher into speed metal, this writer can attest to that transitional moment.
That band was New York City’s Cro-Mags, and the video was for the song “We Gotta Know,” from their 1986 debut album The Age Of Quarrel. For many, this was their first impression of a hardcore band, and it was immediately obvious that they were something different. The music was heavy, metallic at times, but stripped down, fast and ferocious with a massive energy. The singer and bass player had shaved heads and were covered in tattoos, jumping around like mad men onstage, while the sea of punks and skinheads slam danced and stage dived crazily.
The singer, at the end of the video does a full front flip off of the stage monitor into the audience. This was aggression in its purest form. It was too metal to be punk, and vice versa, but it had all of the best elements of both. This was hardcore and the Cro-Mags had arrived, turning a whole new generation onto it.
Twenty-nine years later, John “Bloodclot” Joseph, the band’s vocalist, is still touring sporadically, playing the legendary record that many still call the best hardcore album ever. Working with The Age Of Quarrel drummer Mackie Jayson(known for work with Bad Brains), bass player Greg Setari (Sick of It All, Agnostic Front) and guitar player A.J. Novello (Leeway, Both Worlds.)
“It’s a good thing if your music stands the test of time,” says the fifty-two year old vocalist, writer and triathlete. “I think that video, and the whole album The Age Of Quarrel, just the way the lyrics were written, and what it stood for [is] kind of a timeless record, and I still enjoy going out there and playing it.
“We wrote what we were going through, what I was dealing with,” explains the front man, “the Cro-Mags were from the streets, so I had to relate my experiences in the music, and I think that’s what you have to do as an artist. Put your life experiences into the music and it makes it powerful you know?”
Acknowledged as being pioneers in bringing metal into their hardcore sound, as well as being a major influence on bands that would follow worldwide. “Yeah, I mean it wasn’t like it was something we did consciously,” says Joseph. “We just got in the room, and we loved Motörhead, we loved Black Sabbath, we loved the Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols, The Clash and everything else. That’s just what our influences were, and the Cro-Mags is what came out of it.
The audience has certainly moved beyond the original generation of fans. “Still after almost 30 years, the love and respect for the band is undeniable,” says Joseph. “I’ve been noticing too, that it’s so great to see the dudes that are in their forties and fifties that were on the scene in the eighties bringing their teenage kids to the show. It’s such a great thing, that you get down with the next generation of kids, and we play for everybody. I’ve heard dudes say, ‘that’s the first time I got out in the pit in 25 years man!’” exclaims Joseph. “We definitely give it our all every show and are looking forward to people coming out and singing along.”
This event will be the first Cro-Mags show with John “Bloodclot.” Joseph hasn’t been in Vancouver since the 1986 New York Theatre gig, which is still talked about as legendary. “We keep the message going, and it’s fun to travel and get out there and play to people that are in it for the right reasons,” says Joseph. “I just feel like when you come with the positivity, that the energy comes across in the music and everything, and that is what we try to do.
The Cro-Mags perform the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver February 20.AB, Alberta, BC, British Columbia, Cro-Mags, Republik, Rickshaw Theatre