If he had only been the lead singer of the legendary Cro-Mags, his book would get enough attention for those who want to know more about the minutia of the eighties and nineties hardcore scene in New York, But John Joseph was only a Cro-Mag for a part of his life and in his new autobiography, Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, John Joseph not only talks about the years he spent singing for the Cro-Mags and working as a roadie for the Bad Brains, but he also reveals with unflinching, hilarious and sometimes horrifically sad anecdotes about a life lived in foster homes, institutions and the streets.
John Joseph McGowan has been a lot of things in his life, a drug dealer, brawler, crack head, scam artist, hardcore legend, cult member, spiritual pilgrim, storyteller and more. He's hated by many in the New York City scene and loved by perhaps an equal amount. He's opinionated, honest and unwilling to compromise his beliefs. He is also the author of one of the funniest and most disturbing punk autobiographies in recent years. If he had only been the lead singer of the legendary Cro-Mags, his book would get enough attention for those who want to know more about the minutia of the eighties and nineties hardcore scene in New York, But John Joseph was only a Cro-Mag for a part of his life and in his new autobiography, Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, John Joseph not only talks about the years he spent singing for the Cro-Mags and working as a roadie for the Bad Brains, but he also reveals with unflinching, hilarious and sometimes horrifically sad anecdotes about a life lived in foster homes, institutions and the streets. His book is about his life as an often hungry, always angry con-artist, struggling to get by and unsure of why he should keep trying. It's also the story of John Joseph's search for spirituality, and the con-men he found in religion as well as on the streets, and, according to him, within his own band (orthodox Krishnas and some members of the Cro-Mags are certainly not going to like this book). In a scene where people prefer to snipe anonymously on message boards, or criticize in zines, John Joseph says what he wants to say and could not care less if you like him or loathe him. In this interview, the Mad Professor sits down with John Joseph over tea to find out what makes him tick, and to ask him about spirituality, writing as therapy, violence, and how he reconciled his anger with his search for inner peace.
What made you decide to write the book in the first place? You mention in the book that you went to a writing teacher, but what made you want to get these stories down on paper?
Well, originally I was working on a movie version of this material, but it was taking a long time to figure out various details and structure, so I went over it again and it was at the urging of my writing partner, she thought it would make an amazing book. The whole process took over six years. Most of that time was trying to find the voice of the book, trying to find the narrative structure of what I was trying to say. I kept writing, and then destroying the work, then writing again, and then I found the theme of evolution. For me it's been a spiritual journey.
When you were writing, did you take the approach of John Joseph as a character, and try and look for the logic of what the character was doing"?
Well, you have to be subjective, go outside of yourself and look at the writing, but as I mentioned, as I was going though the events in the book, I wasn't thinking too much about what I was doing. But now that I'm older, I look back at how I felt and thought about certain things and it's different. Obviously If I'd had an eighteen year old John Joseph writing this, it would have been the voice of a kid. Now that I'm looking back at forty-something years old, looking at how I felt, and trying to analyze how I felt at certain times in my life, it was looking form the inside out, as opposed to looking from the outside in.
I'm thinking in particular about the really grim stuff about your early childhood, growing up with the Valenti family (an abusive foster family), was it difficult to go and relive those memories?
Well, you know, I'd been revisiting the stuff that happened to me, and it started to reopen the wounds, and little by little the scabs were coming out and then it was open wounds again. I told my writing partner what I was going through revisiting those times, and my writing partner told me that writing this stuff down would be very therapeutic. One of the big parts of the book is the theme of violence. You mention this at one or two points in the book as well, that violence was therapeutic to you as well. Is writing your substitution for violence as therapy?
I think that it's a different world (New York City) and you don't have as many people hanging out trying to rob you, I was never one to start a fight…
But you were never one to walk away from a fight either?
No. Hell no. Not then anyway. Now I would, it's not worth it you know. If you get attacked, then you have to fight, but for the most part it wasn't worth it. People like to talk about me, on the internet for example, and it's all talk, but back then things were much different, back then people would just do shit to you, because it was New York.
Where you are writing from almost seems like a different world to many readers. You're early childhood, being separated from your brothers, going to different places, it still is fascinating that you can face these things. And also, how can you be sure you got it right?
Well, its 30 years later, I picked my brothers' brains, and my mother's brains too, and it was a long time, and I won't say that there weren't times when I had problems with that while writing the book, but I wanted to be brutally honest, about relationships with my brothers, friends, women, about myself, and that made it a very difficult book to write.
Was it like a weight was lifted from your shoulders as you got it down on paper?
In certain situations, such as the stuff on my mother when we were kids, some things were so unbelievable that really happened, I was going to take them out, but my writing teacher was the one that said, these things happened, but what matters is not just what happened, but what you do as a result of what happened.
As the books title says, it's about your evolution, it's not just "bad things happened to me…"
It's not just putting stuff out there and using it as an excuse to become a fuck-up or a drug addict or whatever. A lot of people did that, you know my one brother did that: "Boo Hoo, you know, everything is bad in my life." But mom's been through much more than us and she was a trooper, so for him to keep blaming his own bullshit on her, I don't think that's right.
In the book you wrote about going out to Staten Island to help your younger brother…
I had to go out to Staten Island to do an intervention on him, the day before 9/11 which was a heavy moment, seeing him like that and realizing that if I hadn't gone to help him, that he would have been dead.
Is he doing better now?
Yeah, he's clean and sober. He's doing real good.
When your brothers read the book did they say, no it wasn't as bad, or yes it was worse than we remembered?
Actually, Frank (his younger brother) has so far said nothing. But a lot worse happened to me and (older brother) E than Frank. He was ok for a while as things were happening to us.
Now that's around the time, that you became a hustler and con-man, you became really good at it really quickly…
Yeah, it was based on the time and the circumstances, I didn't plan to end up that way, it was out of necessity, you do what you gotta do. We'd be out there and we wouldn't have any food and you're going to do what you gotta do or starve.
Reading the book made me think growing up as a middle class punk kid a few years after you, how good I really had it at home. But were you justifying yourself and your actions? When you were homeless, were you just constantly reinventing yourself? You reinvented yourself as a scam artist, and then later as a soul kid listening to black music.
As I say in the book, I identified with the emotion of that certain style of music, I'm not sure what it was, but it was something about soul and dance music that related to what I was going though. The music is a line that goes through the book and was almost the soundtrack for what I was going though at the time.
You should have included a soundtrack CD with the book! Lots of early soul, some disco, some classic rock, some early punk, then hardcore...
Getting to punk rock, when you go to Max's Kansas City for the first time and get into a brawl with some punks, was that your first exposure to punk music and punk culture?
Not really because I got beat up! I thought it was freaky but I also thought it was cool; it was really when I was with my first real girlfriend that I started to get into the punk stuff.
The one that died from an O.D.?
Yeah, but I didn't think I was a punk back then, I was still into all kinds of music, but I got exposed to it earlier on.
Then it seems like you just feel straight into the middle of the scene, meeting Raybeez, hooking up with Bad Brains…
I went to see some bands in the city, some shows at CBGB, but I think early on it was really because I liked the girl. I didn't get the music, I went and I hung out, but I was more into big rock concerts early on.
That's because you were selling fake drugs at arena rock concerts?
Yeah, it was a good way to make money, but I also got to see a lot of really good concerts as well.
Moving back to punk, when you first met Bad Brains, was that when you began to get more involved in spirituality?
Yeah, I was in awe of HR, he could have been telling me to worship rocks and I would have tried it.
But you and him had a lot of arguments early on, about existence, about life…
Definitely, The first stage of any kind of evolution is trying to figure out "what are we doing in this world?" What's our purpose?
But that also seems in some way the antithesis of punk rock. A lot of New York bands and a lot of bands from other scenes were anti-religious, anti-spirituality of any kind…
But that makes no sense, how can you say you're anti-spirituality? You're a fool. That's who we are, we're spirits.
But a lot of early punks were anti-religion.
Yeah, but where are they now? To each his own, however you live your life is cool.
Did you sense back then that there was a void in your life?
And then you get into Krishna, which you write that it gives you enormous peace of mind and saves your life, but it also turns out to be a cult that makes you pull scams to bring in money for the temple…
But that's because of the leaders who took over. If they had just followed what Prabhupada had set up, there would be no problems at all. But they were using Krishna for their own personal gain.
A part of the book that stands out is when you go to a Krishna temple in Puerto Rico and are essentially rejected.
I was saying, what is this? It's like the leader' s acting like the Pope! These aren't like Krishna's I knew. I have a lot of friends who have dealt with that particular leader over the years and he was accused of raping a girl at one point. He's the kind of person who just cons people.
I think a lot of people might have a negative view of Krishna because of guys like that. Most Americans only see Krishna's begging at the airport or in a parking lot somewhere.
Well, I understand, but I still have my beads, I still chant, I maintain associations with the various members. I think at some point, the real truth will get out, but sometimes that leads people to get beaten up.
And then while a Krishna, you eventually start asking where the money is going and start to feed the homeless.
That's right, and that's because that's where the money should be going, that's what I was into.
But you didn't think that you were in a cult at that time?
No. I didn't, I swallowed everything, and there was always some kind of reason for everything.
Do you ever look back at yourself back then while writing, and want to just smack this kid and say, "what are you doing?"
You know, I didn't have knowledge of what was going on, but you know I don't regret it because I made a lot of spiritual advancement myself, I didn't deviate, I followed strictly, I followed the process and did what I had to do. I don't regret any of it.
And the things they made you do, the scams, you took to it so easily. Were you just applying the street skills that you had?
Of Course. I've always been like that. As I said in the book, put me in a situation and I'm going to conquer it. I'm going to figure out a way to rise to the top. Whatever it is, whatever I'm involved with.
That seems to be a prototypical New York attitude.
Hey, you know, it'd be like dude, I'm a retarded Santa in a wheelchair; you want to give money to the kids? How can you make this stuff up, it's like, this is insane.
It seems to me that you could have been a master criminal; you just kept topping your self in scams.
Of course I could have! I could have been the darkest most evil fucking guy. Prabhupada saved my life, that's what happened, I should have been a really fucked person, my mother even said that I had the tendency for violence from my father. Do you know how many times I could have killed somebody? I would have nightmares about murdering someone, killing someone, and would be dreaming "oh shit, I'm going to get hunted down" even after I got into spirituality.
Did you find yourself restraining yourself at times?
Oh yeah, in the old days I used to beat people until they were unconscious.
You were even taken as a kid to those "Scared Straight" programs where kids are brought into rooms with Lifers and just subjected to abuse in order that they don't end up there, did that have any impression on you?
Well, I did end up in jail anyway, briefly. It was a sad time in my life when I was upstate and wondering, what am I going to do now? And you see all these guys went to prison, and got out and got arrested, for murder, you'd hear the stories, it wasn't like a hypothetical situation, it was something that happened, and you life was over. They'd be locked up, and a lot of kids I grew up with got locked up as well.
But you were able to change your life and got out.
Well all the people who were hanging around the Bad Brains were spiritual, into cultural and social revolution, and music. It that was a magical time and situation, the music and the revolution, with Reaganomics and Reagan in office, and the neighborhoods where we stayed on the LES, there was so much angst because in the late seventies, in punk rock, everyone was doped up, it wasn't until '80, '81 or '82 that this whole more conscious version of the music scene came along and the impetus was to bringing down Babylon, and who were the leaders of that? Bad Brains man!
I thought for a band like them, they should have become the biggest band in the world.
They did! Because they influenced all the bands that are the biggest bands in the world and they'll tell you, "Bad Brains, Bad Brains!" they may not ever get big, but… you know, many people are liars, but not the Bad Brains, and they reached out to people, and they were ones who helped the kids get enlightened, there was a real spiritual relationship with the band.
And they were the forerunners in two scenes.
Yeah, they started in DC and they started that whole thing, then when they came here, I was living in the Bad Brains house…
But even in the book, you mention one Rasta, whom you call "Judas" that sowed the seeds of dissension between you and the band.
Yeah, you can get contaminated by association, how do you think I ended up smoking crack? I knew that HR wasn't a racist, none of those dudes were! I still talk to him, and we'll write some emails back and forth, and say " I love you bro" and that's some real shit right there. No fake emotion. The Bad Brains were always real, but when the popularity started they started getting a lot of leeches, who would attach themselves like Barnacles.
It seems like that as the same thing that eventually happened to the Cro-Mags.
Yeah, that's the thing, we did all the work and a lot of people wanted to capitalize on what you did. That's why I'm so careful with everything now, with my writing and everything.
And it's true you never received a dime for the first Cro-Mags album?
But you know, its all up to the universe, I know I'll never see a dime off that record, but life is like that and you have to develop resiliency, like I said before my philosophy is to never give up, that's the key to everything, you don't quit, I don't quit man.
One of the best things about the book is that you don't pull any punches about yourself, it seems as though you're always at war with yourself.
I'm at war every day with myself.
In the book, you're constantly questing and trying to find the meaning of life, but on the other hand, there's the drugs…
Well the drugs, but there were other things in my life, but it's a struggle every day. The higher you go, the more that you are going to be knocked off, because it's all an illusion.
You really capture for me, the feeling of New York the way it was in the eighties, the crime, the graffiti, the sort of "anything goes" attitude.
Well, that's what I'm trying to capture, in this script that I'm working on right now I'm trying to capture the insanity and all of that, but there is also a lot of culture and music as well during the Reagan years.
People sometimes joke that Reagan was the best thing to ever happen to punk, in America, who could rebel against Jimmy Carter?
Oh, yeah, the right wing is a lot easier to rebel against.
I can't imagine a group called "Carter Youth."
So, is the movie based on the book?
Yeah. Its an adaptation, scenes from the book, but it may have to be changed sequentially, some things may have to be dramatized for the movie that worked for the book, it's a different format. I'm actually doing a couple of screenplays right now; I'm doing a rewrite on another one as well as the one based on the book. One is more based on the violence in my family, it's hard for my mother to read it, but I tell her, keep reading it, it gets better."
But some things you did that are morally wrong in the book, are also great stories, there's the one where you and your older brother go to your mother's house and ask your younger brother to let you in, and he won't, but lowers down a basket on a rope full of cereal and milk, then you end up robbing the house.
Yeah, and my brother is saying, "wow, how the fuck do you remember all that shit!" But for me it was a pivotal moment, these things stuck in my head, and I kept writing things down and kept compiling these stories, and I'd check back and forth, with E and other people, saying, do you remember that time? Some of it was really funny stuff.
So it seems that even back then, you were trying to work things out, trying to figure out what your past meant? You had a mean streak in you as a kid, and you were trying to work that streak out of you by talking about it?
Yeah, I was just trying to find serenity, which does make a good ending.
When I read biographies, I sometimes regard the main character as almost a fictional hero, you just want to root for the guy and help him get through everything.
You're rooting for the character in my book, you want him to get through. In writing you have to have the "inciting incident" and a quest, and the character has to have a chance to get what he's after, you need to be able to root for the character. But as the author its good that the audience doesn't necessarily know what's going to happen, you have to stay ahead of the reader as well. The character makes a move, and he expects a result form the world and the world acts differently than he thought it would. When things react differently than you think, that's the power, two worlds smash together and, boom!
That would be a boring book if everything was just wonderful and the character just got what he wanted right off the bat.
Yeah, who wants to hear that story? It's the law of diminishing returns as well. It's how you tell the story, and the way you try and get a certain effect. The first ice cream cone tastes great, but the second makes you puke and you won't eat ice cream for another month.
Do you think that's why a lot of modern music seems so inconsequential? "I cracked a fingernail, let me write a song about it?"
It's crap. The establishment is happy when that kind of music comes out, there's no revolution in music today at all.
Do you think there could still be a possibility for revolution through music? Yeah. When the nukes start dropping… well no one is really going to know what's going on, its like punk is asleep at the wheel.
Isn't that what punk was supposed to be about in the first place?
It's complacent now, but I'm still doing it today with Bloodclot. I have just as much angst as ever. I've got a song called "revolution" on the new record, its about burning down Babylon. Babylon was what Bob Marley was preaching against and I'm saying burn the shit to the ground. I'm just saying fuck it all, I'm doing things my way, I'm getting the truth out there, and its not just complaining, its calling for a solution. If you wan to stop war, there's a way to stop war, stop killing animals! Stop aborting babies. You can't kill million babies every year in the womb and kill millions and millions of animals and have peace on the planet, it ain't happening.
So, you're a firm believer in Karma?
Do you think you've balanced your spreadsheet over the years?
In certain areas, well, maybe in certain other ones. I'm still working on it. Once you think you've evolved to the fullest, you've sunk in your growth in spirituality. Spirituality is unlimited, so how can you say, I've reached the peak? You never stop, you keep growing and growing and growing, until ultimately you lose all desire to be in this material world anymore, and you go back to the spiritual world. I have by no means evolved to all that, I'm still dealing with a lot of violence issues and Karmic issues. But, if you associate with people with good qualities, that's going to rub off.
Ultimately, what will people say about John Joseph, that he did more good than harm?
You know what, I don't think about what people say about me, you start thinking like that, people saying, "you're a legend!" I say to them, "Dude, every one of us has infinite potential to be great." So I don't sit back and look at my legacy, or "yeah, look at what I'm doing." I'm concentrating on staying above the waves to be worried about what anyone says about me. I have tried to do four things: don't take things personally, always do your best don't make assumptions and be impeccable with your word. I don't think about what people say, it's poison. Even the good stuff, Prabhupada said, "He who glorifies me is my enemy." It's a problem when you start believing your own bullshit.
Do you think that's what destroyed the hardcore idea of unity?
Well, everybody is out there in their own way, thinking they're the controllers, they are the gods of their own little world, how are you going to have unity? It's only when you realize who is the center of everything is, where does everything come from, and everybody puts their focus into that, and then there will be unity. That's why I love Bob Marley. He wasn't afraid to talk about Jah and God and love, he was all about that.
As opposed to the old days of "ok, we're this group, we're youth crew, etc."
Ah, where are they now? Straight edge, this and that. "Krishnacore" with Krishna robes on stage. It makes me vomit, I'm just saying, be yourself, I don't need a crew, I never needed a crew, we march with the God squad man. Whoever is down with spirituality, Rasta brothers Muslim brothers, Jewish brothers. Punk is only the first step. We need to realize that everything is fucked up, then what's the next step?
Was that what the first Cro-Mags record was about?
Yes! But I write from my own experience, I don't try and preach to people, I don't try and convert anyone, this is my experience. This is what I found, it might not be right for everyone, but I've sent out hundreds of books (about Yoga, available in the back of his book) because people want to know what I'm all about. It's all about positivity. There's no movement anymore, nothing. So you have to sit down and say to yourself, what the fuck is going on, what happened? Let's make a change and make something happen! People ask, "What can I do about it?" There's serious shit about going to go down. Look at Obama, they didn't plan all this shit just to give it over to him. There's crazy shit about to go down on this planet and people are totally oblivious to it. People just put their heads in the hole, they don't want to see what's coming.
Is that because of the attractions of the material world?
Yes, distractions. It's gadgetry, we all have to walk around plugged in 27/7, people don't talk to each other, no communication, its just text messages, it's bullshit. I'm old school, most people are so dysfunctional in dealing with other people, its absurd. There's no connection any more.
But how do you find yourself in a world of distraction?
Pull back, say: who am I? Where am I from, and what's the purpose of life and stop accepting the flow of bullshit they constantly stuff down your throat. Meditate for fifteen minutes in the morning, just be quiet turn off all your fucking gadgets and see what's really going down. It's making you like a robot, just sitting there absorbing the stuff they shove at you, from the cradle to the grave. Prabhupada says that "people are allured by the illusions, the same way that's someone is allured by the jewels on the head of a serpent." They attract you to come closer, and then, bam!