Apparently, if you are lucky enough to attain a certain age, things that existed in your youth come to appear absurd in the cold light of the present. Such is the case with me, and the phenomenon of skinheads in the Boston hardcore “scene.” It sounds strange to say, but in the mid 80’s, for those of us of a certain temperament, skinheads were a problem, like a real personal safety-style problem. Back in those days in Boston (and New York and D.C.) there was a very real danger of getting your ass kicked by skinheads for myriad offenses, things like having “stupid hair.”
Picture this scene: It’s a coldish autumn weekend evening in 1986 and the usual gaggle of 20 or so teenagers are hanging out on the regal limestone steps of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. Copley Square was where the Goths, the kids who loved the Cure and Bauhaus or Siouxsie and the Banshees and that exclusively wore black, hung out. Skinheads and the more “hardcore” punks, the ones that were into harder music and more prone to violence, tended to congregate in Kenmore and Harvard Squares.
Suddenly, like in a barnyard when a dog barks, a ripple of anxiety passes through the crowd. A group of skinheads is approaching and somehow everybody knows. 5 or 7 of them come striding onto the steps wearing menace on their faces. Their bald pates signal trouble. They are the foxes in the henhouse. Before the skins have even arrived, most of the Goth boys have run away. Only a couple of them stand fast. A big skinhead, a real dumb looking motherfucker, maybe he’s new to the group and has something to prove, looms over a little Robert Smith wannabe-kid. He demands mini-Robert remove his Doc Martin boots. Taking somebody’s boots was a thing back then. Apparently Goth kids didn’t deserve to wear Doc Martens.
The Goth kid is drunk and as such, has some bottle; he tells the skinhead to fuck off.
The skinhead kicks him, hard, multiple times. But the Robert Smith-wannabe is tougher than he looks. He spits at the skinhead, which only serves to piss him off. He resorts to punching Robert Smith in the face. Robert Smith’s friend jumps on the skinhead’s back. That’s when the rest of the skinheads join in to help handle the friend. Both kids, mini-Robert and his friend, are quickly beaten into submission; despite the fact that combined they are half the size/weight of the one original guy. The Goths are just little kids! A couple of the skinheads hold down Robert Smith while meathead skin takes off his boots.
“That’ll teach you, fucking pussy! Anyone ever tell you, you got stupid hair?” he says as they march off, the kids’ boots in his hands.
This was a real thing I saw happen. It used to be that these tough guys – skinheads – had no better battles to fight. It was incumbent upon them to relieve undeserving “new wave faggots” of their boots. It’s incredible to imagine. These people choose to be angry with kids that liked “pussy music” above all else and to inflict violence upon them for this transgression.
To be fair, I don’t think “new wave faggots” were these meatheads only targets. I’m sure all sorts of minorities, blacks and homosexuals in particular, also got these creeps attention. Still my point stands. Back in the 80’s, skinheads were a scourge.
Skinhead-ism was a distinct subculture/off-shoot of hardcore music. There were/are many different flavors of skinhead, including straight-edge, ska and white power, but the “movement” (such as it was – it feels generous to call it a movement) was mostly about music – for the most part crappy, simple, chant-along-chorus hardcore – fighting, and regional pride. Basically, it was a way for young, aggressive men to get their rocks off fighting and to look intimidating while doing it.
All of this was at the top of my mind recently as I read Harley Flanagan’s autobiography, “Hard-core: Life of My Own.”
My summary is thus: for a book written by a non-writer, it’s pretty good, surprisingly so.
The Cro-Mags, the New York based band Harley was the leader of and bass player for, was the pinnacle of skinhead musicality. They were musically the best of the skinhead bands – they released a 1986 album called “Age of Quarrel” that was an important sonic evolution for hardcore music – but frankly, what made this book appealing to me, was that Harley is a well known psychopath.
Harley’s the real deal. He grew up on the Lower East Side, the well-established birthplace of punk and lived there as the neighborhood evolved from straight up ghetto – Harley lived in a squat (an abandoned building taken over by derelicts) on Avenue C and took winter showers in the run-off from a fire hydrant – into a trust fund kid’s urban playground, riddled with cat-cafes and craft cocktails. My favorite parts of the book were his recollections and descriptions of the actual neighborhood, both its physical state and its lawlessness. He knew Ginsberg, Richard Hell and all sorts of old New York counter culture icons that called the neighborhood home in the 70’s and 80’s, but those interactions are often the most banal parts of the book. Basically Harley, as a lone white kid in a sea of black and brown faces had to fight in order to make it through the day. Over the years however, he overcompensated and somewhere along the way started to enjoy the violence.
Which is where skinhead part of things comes into it. He was at the right time and place to help translate the movement from its more class-system-revolt inspired roots in England to a more music oriented idea here in the States. Harley chronicles this translation effectively and in a more linear fashion than I’ve seen elsewhere.
For me, as a non-fan, even back in the day, Harley personally symbolized everything that was both alluring and terrifying about skinhead culture. Also, his track record of violence is undeniable, so I wanted to see in what light he would portray that violence and potentially justify it. He does a great job recounting a lot of really hairy, violent scenes – the anecdotes within are pretty wild – but then he doesn’t even try to justify it for the most part. Because he can’t. He often claims to be a victim of circumstance, which in a sense he was. Even so, violence, especially indiscriminate violence, comes from a place of pain and a deficit of self-respect – it’s a perverted coping mechanism for unpleasant emotions – he was violent because he was a broken person. Albeit one who appears to be trying to do better, because there is repentance evident in these pages. NY was a tough place back then and the guy is trying to set a better example for his kids, which is admirable. He came from a distorted, violent place and he seems genuinely cognizant of the fact that he needs to evolve to become a whole human being. I can sympathize with him, it must be difficult to look at events gone by and try to find fault with one’s own actions while letting the other parties off the hook. But then this is really your only option when writing an autobiography. Placing blame is an exercise in weak character, even if the other party deserves it. You have to own your shit. And Harley, for the most part, does that.
Back in the 80’s on that last block on Saint Mark’s Place before the park, between 1st and Avenue A was skinhead/Rastafari central. I recall being there one warm weekend afternoon and there were perhaps fifty, or more skinheads just hanging out on the South side of the street. There was a similar number of rangy, tough-guy Rastas on the North side. The two groups were coexisting peacefully enough alongside one another, although they were not mixing. The air was thick with the stink of patchouli and marijuana; I recall thinking that the atmosphere was a physical embodiment of the Bad Brains music, a stew of male aggression and angst that radiated outwards. It really was fascinating. It felt dangerous. I wonder if Harley was in that crowd. I wouldn’t doubt it.
Another crazy thing about Harley and the Cro-Mags was the influence Hari-Krishna had on them, and in turn on the New York hardcore music scene more generally. It’s just one of those random things whose origin is surprisingly simple, it stems from the band availing themselves of free food at the Krishna temple. As such, Krishna consciousness – its’ message of vegetarianism along with other ideas and values I won’t be able to translate properly – was perpetrated through the Cro-Mags music. It still doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, but there it is, just another weird ingredient in the stew.
The book also has some great photos. Harley photographs marvelously. You can really see why people found him and skinheads more generally alternately intimidating and alluring. All the menace and youthful aggression is there, right on the surface. It feels like he’s going to pop from the frame and throttle you.
In the end the book does a pretty great job portraying a very specific and relatively short-lived subculture. What a strange thing to have lived through. And in the end, while it was certainly interesting, I’m glad it’s over.