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Lower East Side & The Rise of NY Hardcore -- Harley Flanagan's Take

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What does it mean to be created by a neighborhood? What if the neighborhood that created you vanishes? And more intriguing, if the vanishing had something to do with your being there in the first place? What does that story look like?

We're talking about the Lower East Side -- and in a word, hardcore -- the place where the beats, then the hippies, then the punks, and finally what emerged in the early '80s as 'New York Hardcore', lived and died.

Harley Flanagan, founder of the Cro-Mags, was in the center of it all. Currently finishing his autobiography, Life of My Own Harley sat down with New York Natives to discuss a place and a time that left an indelible mark on music and on NYC.

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Before there was an East Village, before Grunge, before Greenday and even Lady Gaga's East Village hit-parade, New York hardcore reverberated with a generation of kids and was appropriated by too many genres, in too many countries, to count.

"No Rules," that's how Harley describes it; that was true of the music and the LES in decades past. The violence was rampant and permeated the lives of everyone living there. Harley Flanagan was the drummer for The Stimulators in 1980, when he was just 12 years old. At the age of nine, he published a book of poetry with a forward written by family friend, Allen Ginsberg.

Harley and his mother moved into Allen Ginsburg and Richard Hell's building on 12th Street and Avenue A during his childhood. Allen was a good family friend who used to try to teach him how to meditate as a fierce young kid. As Harley shares in his forthcoming book:

"I remember one night when I was a little kid lying there [in my bed], hearing some chick down the street getting raped, and just knowing there was really nothing I could do. It was like a helpless feeling. You knew if the cops got called it wouldn't matter because they probably wouldn't show up, and if they did, it would be too late. But we didn't have a phone either way. Years later me and some friends of mine caught three guys trying to rape some chick in Tompkins Square Park; we caught one of them, we beat him till he stopped moving... back then there was such a thing as street justice."
-- in his own words

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NYN: Was there anybody else living down there when the hardcore scene started to gather? There were a lot of kids from Brooklyn and Queens.

HF: Almost all of those kids were from elsewhere, except for a few of us. But all of that shit was crazy back then, that whole area. As far as the scene, like punk and hardcore kids -- we had a couple of crash pads and apartments like Apt X on Norfolk Street -- a totally illegal basement apartment. A couple people had apartments that we all crashed at and a few squats, but for the most part the only people who really lived in the area besides the locals Puerto Ricans, the gangs drug trafficking, the families that had been there for generations and a few old school punk rockers /artists... the ones who had sort of gotten their shit together like Richard Hell and the Ramones; who had all been around so long they had already been through the grungy scum-bag period in the '70s and started to move beyond that... in the early '80s when the hardcore scene started to happen...

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NYN: It got weird though. It changed pretty rapidly from 1985.

HF: There was a certain level of freedom there and I don't know if kids have access to the kind of adventure that we had -- it was before the Internet so it was a totally different world. People were still creating stuff -- people weren't all about a phone in the palm of their hand walking down the street. Even people I know who come here [now], they know it's tame, they know it's soft.

NYN: Yet all that made the New York hardcore scene possible.

HF: Fuck the hardcore scene -- it made EVERYTHING possible here! It's the reason so many classic movies are filmed about New York; it's everything cool about New York that anyone has ever seen in a movie. It's the reason people love Al Pacino and Robert DiNiro -- all the classic New York characters and the elements that drive people to come here; like the graffiti, the grittiness and places, like for us, places like CBGBs and the squats on Avenue A.

My family was there when the first adventurous freaks moved down there -- the Allen Ginsburgs, and the Richard Hells and all those people in that time period, when it really was sketchy. I have a lot of memories of violence and memories of drugs and memories of things that were very unpleasant, but at the same time there was also a certain level of freedom. And that's why people came here, because they knew ... the Dead Boys -- legendary punk band from Ohio -- they came here because you couldn't be them in Ohio. That's why the fucking Ramones came to Manhattan from Queens; because you couldn't be them in Queens.

You ain't gonna get a movie like Taxi Driver no more, or you ain't gonna get scum-bag shit like Panic in Needle Park or 80 Blocks from Tiffany's.

Sneak preview from the book Life of My Own, by Harley Flanagan:

Back then -- from like the late '70s to early 80's -- there were so many clubs, and there was always something going on. Like I said, we had Max's Kansas City, which was one of the first places I started hanging out. It had been there since '60s, and when I first started going there, it was run by Tommy Dean, and this guy, Peter Crowley, booked the shows there. Max's saw the beginning of hardcore, but closed in 1981. I saw a lot of great shows there, everyone used to gig there -- Bob Marley even played there, opening up for fucking Bruce Springsteen! But yeah, all the punk bands used to play there when I was a kid.

Sid Vicious used to gig there a lot after the Sex Pistols fell apart. All the freaks hung there.
We had CBGB's, and the Mudd Club over on White Street. Me and my friends all fucking hated the Mudd Club. We also had a little spot, TR3, way down on West Broadway, that was doing gigs for a little while. My mom worked there as a bartender for a minute, and I saw some great shows there. The Stimulators played there with the Bad Brains, and I saw D.O.A. play there as a three-piece -- it was just Joe Shithead, Chuck Biscuits, and Randy Rampage. I think it was their first U.S. tour. The Rock Lounge was another place that was jumping -- near TR3 and the Mudd Club, down by Canal Street. The Stimulators played there a few times, and I saw Suicide there, as well as the Plasmatics and a lot of other bands. It eventually changed its name to the Reggae Lounge. There were other places that had punk and hardcore gigs from time to time, like the Peppermint Lounge up on West 45th Street, which was a pretty famous club back in the late '50s and '60s. It was the first rock n' roll night club in New York City, and also was where go-go dancing originated in the early '60s. I remember meeting Billy Idol there when he was still in Generation X -- or "Gen X," as they were called by then. That was actually the first place that I played after I left the Stimulators with the Cro-Mags -- with me on bass, Dave Hahn from the Mad on drums, Dave Stein from Even Worse on guitar, and John Berry from the Beastie Boys on vocals. We did the gig under a fake name, Disco Smoothie, opening up for the Stimulators. I saw some great shows there -- Black Flag did a great show there with Henry Rollins. I even saw the fucking Anti Nowhere League play there, but that place didn't last too long -- as far as hardcore and punk gigs. One of the places that had big shows from time to time was Club 57 at Irving Plaza, which was a Polish Community Center at Irving Place and 14th Street. That place was like a big deal to play -- the Stimulators played there with the Cramps in like 1980. That was the first time I met Henry Rollins, and he bought a Stimulators "Loud Fast Rules" 45 from us at the merch table. He still has it! We also played there with the Circle Jerks and the Necros. We even played there on my birthday, it was billed as "Harley's Birthday Bash," and Joey Ramone's brother's band, the Rattlers, played as well as a bunch of other bands. Joey came up and sang happy birthday to me. There were a lot of little places on and off throughout the years, like Trax, One Under, and Bottony Rocks. Stimulators played at most of these places -- we played every fucking-where.

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All photos used with permission from Harley Flanagan.

The full story and interview may be found at nynatives.com