HARD-CORE: LIFE OF MY OWN
AN INTERVIEW WITH HARLEY FLANAGAN
Hardcore Punk and Metal crossover artist and controversial NYC mainstay Harley Flanagan (founder of one of the most influential, cult-followed bands in hard music — Cro Mags) has recently brought out a book. It details his nomadic childhood to his role in Punk Rock and hardcore history; Harley’s life couldn’t have been survived by anyone but him. His memoir of his journey from a 10-year-old drummer at CBGB’s to a respected Brazilian Jujitsu teacher with the Renzo Gracie Academy is detailed in often quite graphic detail. I was intrigued to have the opportunity to discuss the life and times of the legend himself and what actually motivated him to chronicle his life story in narrative form. The decision to write a book wasn’t a spontaneous one. Harley indicated to me that he had actually begun to start the process quite a few years ago. He thought that it would be better if he attended to it personally and obviously more accurately than someone else take on the task instead. It would be a lasting legacy “if anything happened to me.” He had also thought that it was important to capture those memories because in hindsight, “at the time that I started writing I was fucking up real bad; I was doing a lot of drugs and was basically completely out of my mind.” He starting writing and documenting events as he was actually living them. Harley also thought it would be better as a lot of actual Rock heroes didn’t have that opportunity to tell their own story and died too young.
A writer or journalist writing about somebody can only look at it from the outside and don’t really know the experiences. They were not living it and despite doing so many interviews in their research, they are never really going to get it right or totally accurate. Harley did live a very crazy life and, as the book explains, actually met individuals who changed history.He thought that as he had made some impact in music “even if it’s only on a Wikipedia page” that somebody else would be telling his story if and when “I eventually kick the bucket”
Given that Harley had already alluded to substance abuse in those early days I questioned his research process for the book. Obviously that would have had a significant impact on any memory recollection of particular events and happenings. Did he have to sound out a lot of different sources to assist with the gathering of information? I was quite surprised by his response: “actually I have amazingly good memory; it’s actually quite frightening. I think about what I would have been like had I not done as many drugs.” Harley went on to tell me that he actually could remember even tiny details of those old days. Research, however, was required in some aspects in that he still had to check actual dates and places from friends and family members.
“You really can’t begin to comprehend what New York was like back then. You have to go back watch old movies and shit to get a feel for it.”
For actual shows he reached out to people who had attended, to cross check and be factually accurate. There is one story from the recent book signing that Harley was very keen to share with me. Harley took time to detail a particular incident for me, the conclusion of which was that a former hitman who had caused Harley to “go out of town for a while” had attended the book signing and actually introduced himself before requesting that Harley sign his copy of the book. The book signings had also helped Harley to catch up with people that he had not seen from his school days in addition to these “other types of characters.” I found it surprising that Harley was able to find an amusing slant and angle on even the scariest of life stories. His ability to laugh at some of the particular trials and tribulations that he had encountered along his personal life road was illuminating.
Harley said the positive feedback from people he had grown up with on his accurate portrayal of the lives and times of the period gave him more personal satisfaction than anything in the book pertaining to his band or the music scene. That he got the small details exactly correct. “You really can’t begin to comprehend what New York was like back then. You have to go back watch old movies and shit to get a feel for it”
I asked Harley about his personal process for writing the book .I assumed that it would be very different from the type of writing required to create an album, for example. He surprised me by responding that they were actually quite similar. “To me it really actually wasn’t because I was writing from my experiences. The only difference is that with an album… I wasn’t so much trying to rhyme but you are trying to work within a pattern. With an album there is only so many words that you can work in before the beat changes. I am just telling my story.” Basically in both scenarios I think that Harley was just trying to emphasize that there was a sense of realness to what he was doing.
“The only thing that is really satisfying for me is playing this kind of music.”
I wondered if during the creative process of revisiting old times and quite often painful recollections what effect it had on Harley. I wondered if it was a therapeutic or traumatic experience for him to do that. Harley was dismissive of any traumatic effect. “Man, what the fuck is traumatic? It was my life. Some of it was definitely therapeutic.” He elaborated by stating that he had lost his mother toward the end of writing the book. Harley stated that when he had started the writing process that he had no preconception of how it would end. He was just sharing his experiences and documenting his life. There had been a lot of upheaval in his life from his mum dying to him getting married. The book then took on a new focus and it became a personal form of closure.
Considering that music had been such a large part of his life I wondered how Harley himself would now view his musical progression from those first early bands. “I have just become a better player; I still write the same kind of music in terms of stuff that makes me feel good. I have done a lot of really different kinds of shit but the only thing that is really satisfying for me is playing this kind of music”
I wondered if writing this book had stimulated Harley to perhaps move into an alternative or secondary career. I was reassured as a long-standing fan by his response, “It’s not that I am giving up music; I play every day. I am always playing my bass and my guitars. I practice with my band at least once a week.” He disclosed that he was not trying to become an author and was not planning on a followup. “This was just something that I needed to do.” He explained that the book had evolved through a couple of different processes and he actually ended up marrying the editor who had assisted him on the book. She had refined his writing and molded it into what it finally became. However, it had remained true to what it had actually started out as a personal journey.
Authors use different mediums and formats to promote their books. Knowing that Harley had earlier referenced a book tour I asked how and in what format that would be operating as. Would he, for example, be reading excerpts at different dates before a live audience? Harley responded, “I have only done one date so far, and I will be honest: I have no intention of going out and reading parts of the book. I don’t fckin read to adults — adults can read their own books!” He went on laughing that, “I would not read this book to anybody that was not an adult because it’s fcked up.” They instead would follow a format of him signing books, posing for photos, and chatting to people.
Unfortunately my time with Harley was then up — I thanked him for his music over the years. Since the chat I have managed to get a copy of Harley’s book — for both fans and even people who don’t know the man through his music I can thoroughly recommend this book. Musician autobiographies are my favourite reading material; this one is up there among the best I have read.