Harley Flanagan – Hardcore: Life Of My Own (Feral House)


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In recent years there’s been a consistent stream of books, movies, and TV shows covering the vibrant New York music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, and just as many about the crime and violence happening on those same gritty streets. People usually get it all wrong <cough> Vinyl <cough>, but Harley Flanagan’s autobiography, Hardcore: Life Of My Own, gets it all too right. While I personally find his bands (Cro-Mags, Stimulators and Harley’s War) more historically important than enjoyable, Flanagan was one of the few New Yorkers who were neck deep in music and the street life, and his book recalls both in vivid, and often frightening, detail – like it really was, and not romanticized. Born to an alcoholic, but nurturing, mother and a criminal/addict father who left the family early on, Harley’s life was insane, pretty much from the start. While most kids were playing ball with friends, he was seeing shows at Max’s Kansas City at six (his mother worked there), publishing a book of poems at nine with a forward by family-friend Allen Ginsburg, living a nomadic life in Europe with his mother, and drumming in a Danish punk band at age ten. Things only got crazier from there, as Flanagan – now a skinhead – and his mother moved back to Alphabet City when it was a modern-day wild west of drugs, gangs, fights and general lawlessness. With constant pressure from locals who didn’t like the “crazy-looking” punks invading their neighborhood, he dropped out of school at fourteen and hit the streets, where his life was a daily routine of drugs, alcohol, beat-downs, and crime as he struggled to simply stay alive amidst a minefield of gangs, rival punks, and even a shotgun-wielding hitman in a pig mask out to collect a bounty on him. It was an ugly life, and Flanagan was a vicious street rat with no redeeming qualities other than the fact he could play an instrument, though I have no idea how he found time to practice and write with all the chaos around him. As bad as things get for him, and they get god-awful, you simply cannot turn away from the hundreds of pages of fascinating stories that simply no longer exist in modern New York (which is probably for the best, though people like to wax poetic about the old days). Harley writes about squatting in an abandoned San Francisco brewery, living with a pair of brutally violent satanic Nazi skinheads (!) in Canada, and his career in music, of course. While the entire book has tremendous visceral impact, the part I keep thinking of is a chapter on the 1990s where he tells readers he left out a lot of detail because he doesn’t want his kids reading it. In a book where he cops to about fifty crimes, freely uses the word “fag”, recounts separate incidents when he punched a girl in the face, and performed at a  Nazi skinhead concert (to be fair he didn’t know what it was until he got there – though he still played), the notion that there’s stuff so bad he doesn’t want his kids reading it is kinda strange, and potentially frightening. Thankfully, the book has a happy ending, with Flanagan, now 49 and a parent of two, putting his wild days behind him and finding a new career teaching Jiu-Jitsu to children (including Anthony Bourdain’s – he returns the favor by writing the forward). Throughout the book he often says “I could probably write a whole book just on this part of my life”, and based on what I’ve read, I 100% believe him. In fact, I want him to! I also want a “where are they now” section dedicated to all the crazy characters he ran with over the years. Don’t be surprised if Hardcore: A Life Of My Own is turned into a film or TV series somewhere down the road. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t. Simply fascinating stuff.
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