Musician’s memoirs and books documenting some long-gone music scene are among my least favorite things to read. They usually amount to little more than some old guy telling a bunch of stories about how things were so much better back in HIS day (old farts in “American Hardcore” talking about how hardcore died in 1984, I’m looking at you) and glamorizing/romanticizing a lot of self-destructive or anti-social behavior– and with a stark lack of reflection, introspection or critical thinking about the times documented in the book. You usually get the sense that the person writing the book really wishes they could hop in a time machine and just relive that period over and over again, like some weird punk version of “Groundhog Day.”
And maybe to normies it’s interesting to read a bunch of stories about fighting, drugs, and debauchery, but to those of us who have seen and/or lived that stuff, reading about a bunch of dark shit is some combination of painful and boring. Sorry, but you’ve gotta come up with something more than “one time I did so much [drug] that I [did stupid thing]” to hold my attention.
I say all this because while there are plenty of stories about dysfunction, drugs and violence in Harley Flanagan’s autobiography “Hard-Core: Life Of My Own,” it’s much more than that – and you’d be missing out if you didn’t read it. I bought it on a whim with an Amazon gift card I needed to use up expecting to put it down after a few pages, but ended up devouring it in a few days because it was so much more than your typical music book.
There are a lot of complex layers to Harley’s story– ones that I think will be very familiar to many of you, and may make you think about yourself and your life a little differently.
In a nutshell, it’s the story not just of the glory days of 80s NYHC (that’s actually a fairly small part of the book) but of Harley’s entire life from early childhood until present – and as you can guess, it’s a fuckin rollercoaster that goes from his childhood growing up in Africa, Denmark and 1980s NYC to forming the Cro-Mags, spinning out of control with a fierce drug problem, then finding something like stability and peace via jiu-jitsu and fatherhood.
This interview with Anthony Bourdain is a good snapshot of the book’s vibe – the part starting at 3:00 was especially powerful to me, and hit home pretty hard
If you want stories about legendary hardcore bands and people you’ll find those here, but that’s not what’s interesting to me. What’s much more interesting to me is when present-day Harley reflects on the past and looks at it through the lens of everything he’s learned since then.
What got my attention on literally the first page is a very real sense of sadness when he talks about his childhood – one that really resonated with me because it felt so familiar. For example, when summing up the wild and fast lifestyle he was exposed to by his mom: “You’ve got all these crazy hippie kids with their hippie parents, seeing all kinds of craziness; adults running around naked, people doing drugs, being insane. That shit rubs off on kids. I mean, Denmark wasn’t as fucked up as like the LES or San Francisco or anything, but it was still pretty wild… So if you wonder why I’m all fucked up, there might be a few reasons in there somewhere.”
What I appreciate so, so much about his take is this: having a fucked up childhood isn’t cool, as anyone who did can tell you. And getting fucked up on drugs and alcohol, getting in fights and generally acting like you have a death wish isn’t cool either, yet 99% of other “rock and roll” books glamorize the shit out of it (Al Jourgensen’s is particularly disappointing in that regard) — and for Harley to say otherwise in a culture where self-destruction and dysfunction are often celebrated takes some balls. Saying “live fast die young” is easy. Saying that you feel hurt, vulnerable or alone isn’t.
It’s an especially gutsy choice from Harley, who’s known for being a tough guy who doesn’t give a fuck. Opening up like this and showing vulnerability can’t have been an easy choice, and I really applaud him for doing so instead of (as so many others have done) hiding the pain, regret and resentment – and by doing so, robbing others of the chance to learn from their mistakes.
As someone who’s been into jiu-jitsu since the 90s, I found it super cool that Harley now teaches the kids classes at Renzo Gracie’s academy
But like I said before, I’m not all that interested in reading stories about dark, fucked up shit and so while I really appreciate the first half of the book for what it is, the second half is what really resonated with me. It’s here that he starts to get his shit together (slowly and painfully, as those things always go), finding the clarity to make positive choices and dig himself out of the hole he got himself into – and he documents all of this with the same honesty.
It’s SO important for people like him to say this shit, because for better or worse kids often listen to people like Harley more than they listen to parents, teachers and other people who try to help them (I was certainly no different when I was a kid and listened to my “Age Of Quarrel” tape over and over). Guys like Harley set the tone for an entire subculture, and I absolutely guarantee you that by telling his story in this way – with so much vulnerability – he’ll make a difference in more than a few lives.
As he says toward the end of the book, “Hopefully I can guide [my sons] better than I was guided, or at least maybe they will learn from my mistakes; God knows I have made enough for everybody.”
Strugglin in the streets just trying to survive / Searchin for the truth is just keepin us alive / Gotta break these shackles gotta break these chains / Said the only way we’ll do it is if we use our brains
And that right there is why I’m saying you need to read this book– because it’s an example of someone who is willing to do what most aren’t – and what is in my opinion the single most important thing in life: look at yourself in the mirror, fearlessly admit the truth about what you see, and ask yourself how you can change for the better.
I learned this from my mom. For all her faults, I can say that she worked harder than anyone else I’ve ever met at confronting her defects and putting in work every single day toward fixing them. Literally not a single day went by that she didn’t spend considerable time (I’m talking hours a day) working on improving herself– meditation, AA meetings, reading, discussing what she read with me as a child… she did literally everything she could on her quest for happiness. I’m not sure that she ever found it, but I am incredibly grateful to her for instilling thing in me and I hope that Harley’s book can help others develop this lifechanging habit.
As I’m sure Harley would tell you, he’s about as big of a (living) fuckup as you’ll ever find. So if he can figure his shit out, so can you. Hats off to Harley for his openness, humility, for having the courage to keep working on himself as hard as he has, and for helping others to find that courage in themselves.