My Riot is the definitive insider account of the birth of the volatile New York Hardcore scene. With Roger Miret as front man, legendary band Agnostic Front‘s focused fury and aggression defined the times.
Born in Cuba, Miret fled with his family to the US to escape the Castro regime. Through vivid language and graphic details, he recounts growing up in a strange new land with a tyrannical stepfather and the roles that poverty and violence played in shaping the grit that became critical to his survival. In his teen years, he finds himself squatting in abandoned buildings with unforgettably eccentric runaways and victims of similar childhood trauma. With like-minded misfits he helps pioneer a new musical genre, but with money scarce and commercial success impossible, he turns to running drugs to support his family and winds up in prison. It’s the ultimate test of his toughness and perseverance that eventually sets him on a path towards redemption.
My Riot is both an unflinching portrait of downtown New York in the 1980s and a testament to the perils of growing up too fast.
You can check out an excerpt from the book below.
My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory
Roger Miret with Jon Wiederhorn
Published by Lesser Gods on August 29, 2017
Prologue: Urban Decay
The CBGB that became famous in the ’70s with Television, Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones—the trendy club that was the subject of a feel-good movie starring Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal—is not the CBGB that my brothers and I in the New York Hardcore (NYHC) community grew up around in the ’80s. Our CBs was right in the middle of gang territory and below a homeless shelter. Once in a while, some demented bums would come down and bother our girls or try to steal our wallets.
One day I was inside CBs and I saw a bunch of them stumbling around like zombies from The Walking Dead. I said, “This shit’s gotta end.” We had a few baseball bats. I rounded up some guys and said, “Come with me. Watch my back.” I went up to their place and cracked a few heads. Our guitarist, Vinnie Stigma, called it social justice. I saw it as doing what had to be done.
As bad as the Bowery neighborhood used to be and as crappy as CBGB was, it played a major role in spreading the word about NYHC. Today, CBGB is gone, as are the other great shitholes that promoted hardcore—A7, Max’s Kansas City and Two Plus Two Annex, to name a few. Even though there were places to play shows, the entire Lower East Side was a fucking cesspool. It was totally unsafe and riddled with degenerates from all walks of life. Even the clubs were full of violence.
During a Cavity Creeps show at the Sin Club, which was on Third Street and Avenue C, a girl named Polly was attacked by a Puerto Rican gang member. Between sets we were hanging outside when a girl named Cynthia, who used to date Johnny Ramone, got into an argument with this Hispanic chick. Polly stepped in and then this dude came up to her. He was cross-eyed and grinning. Cavity Creeps singer Steve Poss, one of the younger kids in the NYHC scene shouted, “There’s a knife!” Then the dude stuck his blade right between Polly’s ribs. Some of us picked her up and brought her backstage to clean her up. The cut was deep and her side was ripped open. She was bleeding badly, but the knife didn’t hit any organs or arteries. We called an ambulance and the paramedics were able to close the wound. Once we made sure she was going to be okay, we went after the guy who had stabbed her but he was nowhere in sight.
That was not unusual in Alphabet City, but the hardcore community wasn’t total anarchy. Some people think we were all lowlifes who wanted to kick the shit out of each other. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We were united. We hung out together and supported each other. The more popular bands helped get gigs for groups that were less well known, and some helped other bands put out their own records.
Most of the fights we got into were with organized Hispanic gangs that thought we were trying to take over their turf. And there were a lot of them: the Hitmen, the Alleyway Boys, the Forsyth Boys, The Ghost Shadows. These guys wanted to protect their territory, and it just so happened that the clubs courageous enough to book us were right in their backyard.
It wasn’t hard to tell the punks from the gangs. Hardcore kids were mostly white. As a Cuban, I was a rare exception. A lot of us had pins in our jackets, boots or Converse shoes and weird hair or shaved heads. The gang dudes usually had on jeans, cheap T-shirts, a vest with their insignia on it and Pro-Keds—which only cost a few dollars, as opposed to Converse, which were about $13. When you’re living in poverty, you wear what you wear.
These guys spray-painted graffiti on the sides of buildings not to create cool art, but so you would know whose neighborhood you were in. They had control of certain parks, and there was a mutual respect between them. Nobody crossed turfs. Then we moved in and the gangsters didn’t understand what all the weird-looking white people were doing in their neighborhood, going wherever they pleased. Their only thoughts were: “What’s this big party? Why is it going on in our neighborhoods? How can we stop it so it doesn’t interfere with our drug business?”
Being one of the few punks who spoke Spanish, I mediated between the gang members and the hardcore guys. There was a big misconception that hardcore kids were part of a rival gang because we hung out together and dressed funny. A lot of us lived together, and in a lot of ways, we behaved like a big family—kind of like a gang.
We did a lot together: We drank, did drugs, went to shows, partied, moshed, ate, fought and fucked. The gangs that were selling drugs and doing other illegal shit, such as setting up dog fights and gambling rings, felt threatened and wanted us out. But we weren’t going anywhere. A lot of us enjoyed the feeling of community that came from being together. We felt accepted for the first time ever, and all the threats and fights in the world weren’t going to make us pack up and leave.
Whenever we’d see these Latinos coming, I would try to talk to them and chill them out so they wouldn’t enter our clubs and go off on us. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.
Once, in front of the Two Plus Two Annex, I was explaining in Spanish to a few members of the Lower East Side gang The Alleyway Boys that we were not a gang. We were just a bunch of bands playing music and we didn’t mean any disrespect. I thought I could be a peacemaker and prevent a huge brawl with this group of Puerto Ricans who didn’t understand punk or hardcore.
It was bad timing. Social Distortion and Youth Brigade were in town for the Another State of Mind Tour, which Social D was shooting for a film. Without warning, their singer and guitarist, Mike Ness, whipped a beer bottle at us from across the street. He was bombed out of his mind and didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. He saw us standing in front of the club and thought it would be funny. When I saw the bottle in mid-air, I pushed one of the punk rock girls, Angelica, out of the way to keep her from getting hit.
The bottle hit Vinnie Stigma in the left knee. Crash! Shards of glass split Vinnie’s knee wide open. Blood spilled down his leg and splashed on the sidewalk.
We worried that we would set off the gang guys, but when they saw our own guys turning against us they must have figured we were crazy. They muttered to themselves and walked off. A bunch of us, including our friend John Nordquist, ran across the street to beat Mike’s ass. We beat him so bad he shit his pants! I was angry, not just because Mike fucked up Vinnie’s knee but because what he did was totally disrespectful. We were a pretty lawless group of kids, but there was a street code. Fucking with someone who was trying to keep a gang fight from happening wasn’t cool.
Mike knew that shit because he came from L.A., which was Gang Central—way worse than New York. Social Distortion were gonna play this club and then split. But we had to live there and deal with the fallout. A lot of times when people start something it causes a chain reaction, and ten seconds later everybody’s fighting. Ness was in another state of mind at the time. Today he’s sober, and he and Vinnie are good friends.
It took Social Distortion a long time to come back to New York. By then John Nordquist was dead. Not long after he contributed to Mike Ness’s beatdown, he got beaten to a pulp by some guys in a local gang in his hometown of Nutley, New Jersey. They left him on the train tracks. He was so bashed up he couldn’t get up. Then he heard a train coming. He waved his arms to try to stop it, and the conductor saw him at the last minute and hit the brakes. He couldn’t stop the train in time.
In the ’80s, CBGB became the eye of the hardcore hurricane. The club staged Sunday matinees, which helped establish us and numerous other bands, including Murphy’s Law, Warzone, Cro-Mags, Sheer Terror, Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits and Sick of It All. Even before the matinees, we did hardcore shows there with Death Before Dishonor, The Abused, Antidote, Urban Waste, Reagan Youth, Cause For Alarm and The Mob—basically anybody who would be on the same bill as us.
At one concert, a guy was standing in front of CBGB and started harassing one of our girls. I went up to ask him what the fuck was going on, and he pulled out a big knife and was about to stab me. Vinnie was standing a few feet away and saw what was happening. He threw a bottle as hard as he could into this guy’s face. It exploded, as did the dude’s forehead. The flesh around his eye turned to mush and the sharp glass severed his optic nerve. He dropped the knife and held his hands to his face, trying to hold his eye in the socket. His eyeball dropped to the ground and Vinnie stomped on it with his combat boot. He squashed it like a water bug. That led to a pretty big fight. I don’t know if this cyclops was homeless, but suddenly all the people who lived in a shelter above CBs came after us. It turned into a huge battle between us and the bums, junkies and crackheads. We swept the floor with all of them.
The one good thing about New York street warfare back then was that most guys in gangs and bands only had knives, bats, brass knuckles and homemade weapons. Hardly anyone carried a gun, which kept the body count down. If you look at all the old hardcore photos from back then, we all wore chain belts. That was one of our favorite weapons: Take the chain belt off, wrap it around your fist and let’s go! The Cro-Mags’ bassist, Harley Flanagan, with whom I was good friends, liked to fill a sock with rocks, billiard balls or whatever he could find and swing it at anyone who fucked with us—or anyone he felt like fucking with.
We were wild, punked-out, drugged-up, tattooed kids. We lived fast; there were only so many hours in the day. Everything was crazy—our music, our lives. We didn’t expect to make it to 30, and we didn’t care. We lived for the moment and fed off the energy, adrenaline and attitude we generated. For about five years no one could touch us. The shows got bigger as all these heavy metal people—including guys in Metallica, Exodus and Anthrax—got inspired by what we were doing. Before long we were touring the world, playing on bills with bands like Slayer, Voivod, Motörhead, and Death Angel. I felt like I was on top of the world and nothing could get in my way. Then something did, at least for a while.
In 1987, I got busted for transporting drugs and went to prison for 22 months. Afterward, Agnostic Front got back together, and Vinnie and I rebuilt the entire band. Since then we’ve put the group on hold a couple times, but we’ve always gotten back together regardless of how popular hardcore was with the general public. Whether we’ve been firing on all cylinders or trying to figure out how to keep our lineup together, hardcore has continued to thrive in the underground. And that’s how it should be.
Hardcore started out as angry outcast music birthed by people who walked out of step with mainstream culture and needed to scream out and be heard, even if there were only a handful of people listening. It has never mattered to me whether we were playing a festival or a small club; I’ve gone all out and performed with every ounce of strength and energy. Hardcore is in my blood. It’s what keeps me feeling alive. It’s what I piss, sweat and bleed. It’s the way I make sense of the world. Even though I’m more than a half-century old and Vinnie has got almost a decade on me, it’s what keeps us feeling young and as relevant as we did in 1983 when we released our debut EP, United Blood.
Vinnie came up with the name Agnostic Front in 1982, a year before I joined the band. He told me later that he chose “Agnostic” because it meant “in doubt of the absolute truth.” It wasn’t a religious reference. It was about questioning authority and society. Our motto was Don’t believe in anything unless you see it with your own eyes. He went with “Front” because he thought it sounded bigger than “band.” It sounded more like a movement, which is what it became. Everyone in hardcore loved the music, but NYHC was more than a sound or style. It was a way of life. Some bands were way different than other bands because hardcore is more about attitude and individuality than what music you play—or even knowing how to play. Having survived more than three decades of hardcore, there are a few things I’ve noticed from one generation to the next.
Each new scene has its own style, its own look, its own way of slamming in the pit and its own perspective on subjects like self-empowerment, government corruption, police brutality and family. At the same time, everything is tied together by the same tattered cloth. Most of these kids need hardcore to define them, to establish who they are and what they don’t want to be. And many—not as many as when I first discovered the music but still a lot—have experienced major trauma in their lives. Whether it’s sexual abuse, foster home neglect, domestic violence or childhood bullying, this trauma has caused them to reach out to hardcore for strength and unity. That’s how it was for Vinnie and me and most of the people we hung out with. We were all fucked up in the head, but hardcore pumped us up and made our young adult years wild, hysterical, dangerous and fucking unforgettable.