Posted on by Oran

From the cold-hard concrete streets of New York’s Lower East Side in the early 80’s to present day, Cro-Mags founder, Harley Flanagan has survived more than most and continues to live to tell the tales. 

©Fernando Godoy 2020

With the first studio album to emerge since 2000’s ‘Revenge’ with Harley’s name proudly sitting beneath the Cro-Mags banner, Overdrive caught up with the now Jujitsu teacher and Cro-Mags lead vocalist/bassist; to look at where his life has taken him…

Born in 1967, Harley Flanagan has lived a  somewhat miraculous life. Cutting his teeth as the drummer for old-school NY Punk Rockers, Stimulators (at the tender age of 12), Flanagan was also one of the founding personalities of the infamous New York Hardcore scene in the early ’80s and is without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most important figures in bridging the gap between the past, present and future of the now, global ‘hardcore‘ scene. He is the very embodiment of the truest form of what artistic freedom is, was and hopefully will continue to be.

From broken bones, squat life, street brawls that would make you wince in horror, and an almost barefoot existence between the North American coasts, Harley has seen the gutter’s very own gutter and has climbed back from the darkest corners of hell as a stronger person; both physically and mentally.

Sitting in his NY residence during the current global-pandemic, we kick things off with the latest on the new album ‘In The Beginning‘…

OD – Okay, there’s a lot to talk about here in such a short time so let’s just start with this new album which is aptly titled ‘In the Beginning’. I get the sense that you’ve gone back to where it all began and worked your way from there to present day (figuratively speaking). Would that be a good assumption?

HARLEY –  Very much so. There’s also a little more to the concept. If you see the cover artwork (see below) the front cover is the landscape of what the Lower East Side looked like when I was growing up. No heating, no power, no cops, hardly any working street lights – nothing!

Then on the back cover, is a recent picture of me looking at that very same location looking down on it all and it was kind of a statement of where I came from, what I endured along the way and where I am now. That ties in with when I was in the process of writing the album. It got me thinking about what I really enjoyed about the previous albums that I’ve released. What were the qualities that really stood out for me on each of those records?

In hindsight, there are always small things that every band picks out like: ” I wish I changed that riff, or that song should have been shorter, or I should have used these lyrics instead” so, I had all of that information to sit and ponder. This album is a lot of things that are based on my past career but musically refined to reflect my current state of mind and my journey to where I am now.

And the lyrics are just 100% me diving right into my soul and expressing how I feel about certain things.

©Fernando Godoy 2020

OD – Did you have any anxious feelings as to how this album would turn out and how it will be received?

HARLEY –  I can’t fucking wait for this to come out! [Laughing] I’ve been foaming at the mouth for it to come out. Even when the videos are about to drop, I’m antsy-as-fuck [Laughing] and just can’t wait for it all to be finally available to the public. It’s well overdue because I was recording this album over a year ago.

OD – What has taken so long to put it out?

HARLEY – Well, Victory Records got sold to Concord Music and Tony Brummel (CEO of Victory Records) basically started a new label (Mission Two Entertainment) and this put thigs back a little bit with regards to the timeline of releasing the album. That’s why we wound up putting out additional singles because I just wanted to get something out there. And now we have this fucking Pandemic happening and that was a direct catalyst for us putting out ‘The Final Test‘ [see below] because I knew people would be stuck in their houses and it would be something new for them to enjoy.

I felt like it was the least I could do during this shit time. Musicians/artists or whatever kind of creative person you may happen to be, this is when we’re needed the most. So, I knew that people were bummed out and I just figured, the least I can do it give them a free track to enjoy and say: “Hey guys, here’s something to expect of the new album” and the feedback was great.

OD – Of course, Cro-Mags (see below) also streamed one of the first quarantine shows when all of this kicked off…

HARLEY – Yes, we were just so pissed off with the situation, we just said: “Fuck it” let’s do this fucking show and put 100% into it, even though nobody is gonna be there in person“. It was crazy because I think something like 200k people tuned into that online show.

OD – You’re one of the very few artists that actually has a very detailed and vast public history online, in fanzines, documentaries etc, it’s out there for all to see. Was this one of the reasons why you felt the urge to write your book. Does that bother you at all?

HARLEY – Well, everybody’s’ life has been documented since they were born. If you go through family scrapbooks etc. For me, it’s not really about me and my journey it’s more about the fascinating people that I was hanging out with along the way. I was lucky enough or cursed (in some situations) that I was part of some really ground-breaking events and had the pleasure of knowing some very interesting people.

Between Joe Strummer (The Clash) and Andy Warhol (see below) and all these other weirdos [Laughing], my life has been very out of the ordinary. I mean, I was playing drums in CBGB’s when I was 12-years-old. Who’s NOT gonna take a picture of that?

I bet a lot of people have pictures of themselves in CBGB’s but not with Joe Strummer and Andy Warhol [Laughing]. What people don’t realist is as great as all of that was, there was a lot of downsides too. That’s partly why I’m so fucked-up as I am and are the reasons why I’ve suffered from post-traumatic stress.

Yeah, it’s cool meeting all of these famous rockstars but it’s also not cool to be in a room when you’re 12-years old and people are high on heroin and are getting a blow-job under the table, you know? So, there are a lot of things that may seem very cool to be around all fo that type of stuff, but I guarantee you that you wouldn’t want to subject your fucking children to stuff like that.

I shouldn’t have been getting high and having sex before I reached puberty. Let’s get real here…I shouldn’t have been in street fights before I had hair on my balls. I shouldn’t have been in a position of protecting my Mother from attempted rape [s]. I shouldn’t have been exposed to seeing my Mothers face betting beaten in by a fucking Hells Angel. I shouldn’t have been exposed to a lot of things that I was around. I was just a kid!

As much as I love my Mother…I really do, but she was probably the most irresponsible parent to ever walk the earth! What parent is going to let their 12-year-old son go off on tour with two adult strangers? With no cell phone or any kind of contact! We didn’t have a telephone when I was a kid. She was like: “Yeah…yeah, go have fun, I’ll see you when you get back!

It was an interesting ride, I wouldn’t change any of it but I also wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. It made for a good book and to be honest so much stuff has happened since the book was released (2016) I’ve been writing the whole time and my publisher was asking me about doing a second book.

OD – And are you considering that?

HARLEY – Honestly, the idea of writing two books about myself seems a little ridiculous. Quite literally, when that book ended, I hadn’t even resolved the issues with Cro-Mags and so much has happened since then. Lots of really important, defining things that have changed the course of my life. I’ll most likely just add it on to the original book and re-release it. Who knows? There was a lot of unfinished business when “Hard Core…” was released.

This is all about closure for me. I finally realised at the end of the book but I hadn’t really gotten it yet. Now, I can finally say: “You know what? Life is fucking good!” So, I think people need to know that there is hope at the end of the ‘shit-tunnel‘ [sic] and you can peel off your shit-covered clothes and take another shot at life.

When most people die, there’s usually a lot of really unsettled shit that needs to be sorted and I guess the important thing is that you address things head-on and try to resolve things to the best of one’s ability; while we’re still about to do so. That way, we can live out our lives with a clear conscious and have a peaceful death.

OD – In the book, you mentioned that you felt very let down with the NYHC scene after the Webster Hall incident (Backstage fight at Webster Hall, during the CBGB Festival, July 6th 2012). Do you still feel that way as it will be 8 years this July since that happened?

HARLEY – All of my “so-called” friends turned their backs on me when that shit went down. If anything I’ve finally come to terms with the whole outcome of that incident. To be honest, but I feel totally let down and disgusted which what New York Hard Core (NYHC) turned into to.

I’m completely let down and disgusted with my old friends. I think they’re a bunch of sell-out, clout-chasing fucks, who would rather ‘run with the pack‘ than be loyal to…[Pause] I was the first person some of these motherfuckers even met because I was around before all of them. I’m really disappointed with all of them but at the same time, it’s very liberating because people spend their whole lives thinking that their social group is their reality. They spend their whole lives trying to fit into specific groups and scenes and really at the end of the day, most of its just total bullshit.

©Fernando Godoy 2020

So, I’ve got to really thank all of those motherfuckers for turning their backs on me because if anything, they made me grow up.

And at the end of the day, I really have people who matter in my life and when all of that shit went down in Webster Hall… when all of the fake friends were stripped away, you can see straight away who has got your back and that’s when you’re really at your strongest.

When you’re surrounded by a very strong support system of friends… the people who REALLY give a fuck, who REALLY love you and care about you..that’s the real life-lesson. That’s what got me through that period in my life.

OD – I can’t imagine what was going through your mind when all of that kicked off and the fallout afterwards.

HARLEY – You have to know also during that time the mother of my kids left me, she was fucking someone else and it just felt like my whole life was falling to pieces. I was at a place where I finally felt like my life was good and then it just shit the bed worse than when I was even homeless on the streets because I didn’t have children to worry about.

To be honest, the only thing that kept me going was to not let my kids down. I didn’t want them to see me fail and have to live with everything that people were saying about me and for them [his kids] thinking it was true.

I just kept it together as best I could and started to re-build my life one day at a time, never losing focus. There were days where I just didn’t know how I could take any more but I just knew that I was never going to give up. Never.

I was determined to never beat myself up with booze and drugs ever again out of depression. I’m not going to go on a killing spree because then there’s no turning back and I’m not going to top myself because nothing would get fixed.

If you had of told me that it was going to take 8 years for me to get back on my feet again I would have said: “There’s no fucking way I can do that!” That’s a pretty long fucking time but I’ll tell you this for nothing, when you get through that hell, I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my entire life. I don’t think there’s anything that can break me going forward. death is the only thing that’s going to stop me and I intend to meet that gracefully.

If you are lucky enough to be at peace with yourself when it’s your time to go, then death is a lot more peaceful. It’s just a transition to another place. If you’re still unsettled, those are the people that have a difficult transition.

It was at this point that a very small group of friends, the Renzo Gracie Academy and my wife (who wasn’t my wife then) Laura came into my life. She believed in me when nobody else did and when I was starting to doubt myself, they all pulled me back.

OD – We recently learned that Cro-Mags will be in Ireland next June as part of a Summer run of dates (Limerick 24th, Dublin 25th and Belfast 26th – Tickets on sale NOW), this will make it a total of 41 years since you were last in the country. Does it feel like you’re coming full circle with things now; in light of visiting places from your past etc.?

HARLEY – Yes, totally! I can’t fucking wait to get back to Ireland especially. It will be something like 41 years by the time I get there. Do you know my first interaction with skinheads was in Ireland? They were a gang called the ‘Black Catholics‘ from Dublin, they were pretty well known back in the day.

We played some venue in Dublin, I can’t remember the name of the club. It was a life-changing moment for me. You gotta remember, I was living on the Lower East Side in New York and that place was pretty fucking crazy. Then I travelled over to Ireland, and this was back in 1980, I was with Stimulators at the time and I was only 13 years old at this stage.

But, yeah it was two different extremes and with the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and the tension between the Republic and the North troubles in full swing, I actually felt more threatened back in my old neighbourhood than I did in Ireland at the time [Laughing].

There was check-points everywhere, tanks, army guys, guns etc.. There were all kinds of crazy shit happening. I was in a few riots and fights when I was over there. I was involved in a few fights because of the Skinheads that I was hanging out with, but compared to back in NY, people didn’t have access to handguns as they did at home and for me, that was less intimidating. Someone pulls a gun on you in a fight and it’s fucking game-over instantly.

The intensity of the crime and the ghetto in New York was on another level back then and also where I lived, there was not a lot of white people. It was a really different experience for me to be in a predominantly white environment where there were some really hard fucking guys that could break you in half. I was used to seeing white dudes getting jumped or mugged all the time a lot of ethnic gangs.

We weren’t the hooligans of the neighbourhood, we were the victims if anything and that gave me a lot of hope because it got me thinking: “Fuck this shit, there are some really hard white dudes out there and I’m one of them!” That’s when I was introduced to the “Skinhead Culture” and I brought that back to New York and there was no turning back.

I was like: “Fuck you man, if you come near me, I’ll fucking kill you!

OD – That explains your infamous pool balls in the sock weapon, then?

HARLEY – [Laughing], Yeah, that was kind of my own invention. I was in a bar somewhere in Belfast and a fight broke out and the next thing, pool balls were flying around the place and people’s heads were getting cracked open with pool sticks and that left a big impression on me [Laughing]. I mean, that was just hard-as-fuck!

OD – Most people come back from Ireland filled to the gills with history, folk music, Guinness etc and Harley Flanagan return’s back to New York with pool balls in a sock weapon! [Laughing]

HARLEY – [Laughing] Aww, man, it was just a fucking insane time to be in that country [Ireland]. That reminds me when I was over there, I was drumming with Stimulators and we were doing some promo stuff for pirate radio stations but it was like this crazy underground super-secret operation. I didn’t realise how fucking serious that was at the time.

There were some radio stations that in order to get to, secret wall panels had to be slid open to access or like, under the pool table in a secret hatch that brought you underground. It was fucking crazy. It was very rough, dangerous and illegal to be running a pirate radio station.

You gotta remember, this was back in the era of Bobby Sands (Robert Gerard Sands was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on hunger strike while imprisoned at HM Prison Maze in Northern Ireland.) It was no joke. I really became very proud of the small bit of Irish heritage that I have. These people had been through some very difficult and tough times. Much more than people from around the world realise.

They don’t give up and I’m fucking proud to be part Irish.

OD – Will you be going out on the road with Rocky [George – ex Suicidal Tendencies / Samsara], Gabby (Abularach), and Garry [“GmanSullivan]?

HARLEY – I want to say it’s gonna be with Rocky, Gabby and Gary but right now, I don’t know what’s happening due to this fucking pandemic! Gabby is in Guatemala right now and I don’t know how long this shut-down is going to be going on for or what the implications will be for travelling from that country in the months ahead.

Also, Gary lives in Germany so, yeah, the plan is to get out on the road with Rocky, Gabby and Gary but we’ll just have to see what happens with all of this COVID shit.

OD – Personally, what would you consider to be the most moment in your career?

HARLEY – Okay, I’ll say that would be coming back after all of these years. And that’s not just with Cro-Mags, I’m referring to that show in Newark with The Misfits (May 19th 2018).

That was such an important show for me. Glen (Danzig) wrote to me personally, asking: “Hey Harley, if you’d like to come and hang with the Misfits?” I mean, what could be more fitting than that? Then getting up on stage in front of 30k people! I invited Robert Kampf (Founder of Century Media) to the show and that’s how I got the record deals that were offered to me. Then getting to open up for the Misfits and having my wife and sons there, just made things so much more incredible.

Winning over that crowd and having my son up on stage singing back-up vocals almost brings tears to my eyes right now. To have known those guys [Misfits] and then to be invited on that bill, knowing them all my life… they are like family to me and then to have MY family up on that stage also…[Pause] it’s something I’ll never forget.

OD – Can you play us out with a video of your choice and tell us why you chose it?

HARLEY – I’m gonna pick two videos that I would like to pick. Obviously, I’m gonna pick the latest Cro-Mags track ‘From the Gave‘ featuring Motorhead’s very own Phil Campbell (see below) but I’m also gonna send you a video of me playing bass with my cellist Carlos ‘Lamont’ Cooper, who played on the song ‘Between Wars‘ playing in Penn Station in New York; before all of this Coronavirus stuff kicked off.

I was on my way to work and I happened to have my bass with me and he was just sitting there playing a track and I sat down and we just jammed out that track.

The new Cro-Mags album ‘In the Beginning‘ is out on June 19th via Arising Empire and Mission Two Entertainment. You can pre-order your copy here.

© Laura Flanagan 2020


Oran O’Beirne

www.overdrive.ie 2020