A recent article in The New Yorker magazine, about “how hardcore conquered New York,” explored the tangled roots of this loud, aggressive music. What the article didn’t mention was the key role Irish Americans played in hardcore’s evolution.
“Hardcore was born as a double-negative genre: a rebellion against a rebellion. The early punks were convinced that rock and roll had gone wrong and were resolved to put it right, deflating arena-rock pretension with crude songs and rude attitudes,” writes Kelefa Sanneh, later adding that “when punk, too, came to seem lame, the hardcore kids arrived, eager to show up their elders. The idea was to out-punk the punks, thereby recapturing the wild promise of the genre, with its tantalizing suggestion that rock music should be something more than mere entertainment—that it should, somehow, pose a threat to mainstream culture.”
As it turned out, two New York Irish kids were among the most threatening of them all.
Irish American history has been explored through politics, literature, sports, labor and more.
But hardcore music? This seems, to say the least, unlikely. And yet, one of the most influential hardcore bands in history actually illustrates the dark side of the Irish American dream.
The band is the Cro Mags, and they are central players in The New Yorker article as well as a new book entitled NYCH: New York Hardcore 1980-1990 by Tony Rettman.
One of the Cro Mags key members was John Joseph McGowan, whose youth in Queens was harsh, to say the least. His father was so abusive that McGowan’s mother used to tell the kids that they should all sleep close together, just in case they had to make a quick getaway.
John Joseph (he later dropped his Irish name, and adopted the slightly more hardcore name Bloodclot) was shuttled across Brooklyn and Queens, living with foster families as well as in Catholic charity wards.
McGowan also, eventually, moved in with distant relatives who lived much more comfortable (and perhaps typically Irish American) lives on Long Island.
“To the McGowans of Garden City, we looked like three sweet, little blonde-haired, blue-eyed Irish boys,” McGowan wrote in his autobiography The Evolution of a Cro Magnon, “but underneath, we had some serious s*** going on and some major demons to exorcise.”
It was those demons that eventually fueled McGowan’s musical passion, leading him to join the Cro Mags, “which helped transform New York hardcore from a sideshow to the main event,” The New Yorker notes.
“By the end of the decade, the city had the most fertile scene in the country, and probably the most loathed.”
If McGowan’s youth was the dark side of the Irish American dream, Harley Frances Flanagan captured something different. Flanagan, considered one of the Cro-Mags founders, was also a New York City native, growing up on the Lower East Side when violence was rampant and artists and hipsters were only just beginning to look around the area.
But Flanagan always had an artistic streak. When he was just nine he wrote a book of poems and convinced the great poet Allen Ginsburg, who lived in the same building, to write an introduction. Before he was even a teenager, Flanagan was playing drums in a band.
As The New Yorker noted, “On a trip to Northern Ireland, Flanagan submitted to a ritual head shaving, and upon his return he proved himself worthy of his haircut. ‘Harley always had interesting weapons,’ one friend remembers, fondly. ‘It was always an eight ball in a sock, or a padlock in a handkerchief, or a table leg.’”
Indeed, one reason these hardcore Irish Americans are so fascinating is because they challenge the prevailing notion that after World War II most folks with names like McGowan or Flanagan fled for the suburbs.
“The hardcore kids seem less like pioneers and more like relics: the last of a long line of sturdy working-class white guys who prowled the city streets, armed with whatever tools of combat they could find,” reported The New Yorker.
It’s not likely you heard Cro Mags music at any St. Patrick’s Day parades. But that doesn’t mean it’s not Irish music.* Contact [email protected]