Punk Rock Fight Club

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And then there was Boston Beatdown Volume II, an FSU-sanctioned documentary featuring music by FSU-affiliated bands like Ramallah and Death Before Dishonor, and disturbing footage of violent beatings in and around Boston clubs, ostensibly by members of FSU. The original Boston Beatdown was strictly underground, passed around the scene but never available in stores. Volume II opens with a quote from Machiavelli: "If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be done so severe that his vengeance need not be feared." With a brutal hardcore soundtrack perfectly synchronized to the beatings, grainy camcorder shots of various brawls follow, often repeated with a pornographic zeal; five or more guys tackling someone at a show, a random passerby on a street catching an elbow to the face, another man beaten to the sidewalk and kicked until he's not moving. At one point, as techno star Moby exits a Boston music venue, a kid runs over and punches him to the ground. Text scrolling along the bottom of the screen reads, "Though Boston Beatdown in no way condones the attack on Moby... we think it's funny as hell." The attack happened at the height of Eminem's "feud" with Moby, and most people mistakenly assumed it had been carried out by fans of the rapper.

In another memorable scene, James, who, along with unofficially running the crew, acts as FSU's in-house "surgeon," demonstrates his technique by stitching up an enormous wound under a crew member's left arm. The operating table is a couch. Later, James sews a cut on his own face. Staring down into a mirror as he works, he slowly pushes a needle and thread through his chin. The knotted eye of the needle gets caught, and the camcorder operator makes a sound of disgust. The flap of skin stretches a bit, before the needle pulls loose. James does not flinch or look up or react in any way.

Not long after I began contacting members of FSU for this story, I received an e-mail from James, inviting me to visit him in Los Angeles. A few weeks later, we met in Hollywood. James was leaning against his black Ford Bronco. He wore jeans, a black FSU cap (pulled low, as if part of a disguise) and – somewhat ominously, considering the T-shirt that allegedly sparked Morrison's death – a black Skynyrd muscle shirt, with the band posed in front of a rebel flag.

James has played guitar and sung in various punk and hardcore bands over the years, and he looks right at home on Sunset Boulevard, like some rocker on the make. He's lean and muscular, with strikingly dark, deep-set eyes, olive skin and the angular, unsoft features of a handsome boxer who's been put back together a few times. Tattoos line both arms. (Stripes, swirls and snatches of poetry: Rimbaud on the left forearm, St. Francis on the right. Both quotations involve fire.) The first thing you notice, though, are his hands, which look decades older than the rest of him, the skin covering his fingers and knuckles cracked and scarred from years of ill use.

James is the last of the core membership of FSU and, as such, the closest the crew has to a national leader, though he's always careful to stress that "we're just a collection of individuals." Last year, James moved from Boston to L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood, alongwith his pretty blond girifnend, who works for the Stax record label, and their two dogs. He's hoping to break into the film world – he names François Ozon and Terrence Malick as two of his favorite directors – and he has already written and directed a dark fifteen-minute short starring his friend Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy. (Wentz came out of Chicago's hardcore scene; members of FSU also work tour security for Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco.) Beyond his career ambitions, though, James left Boston because it had simply become too hot after the release of Boston Beatdoum Volume II. Police had barred him from public places in which other known gang members congregated. This included most bars and his gym.

James has a slight rasp to his voice and speaks at a fast clip. Not surprisingly, he says FSU have been misunderstood and that the full story of the deadly brawl in Asbury Park hasn't been reported. "What happened is a tragedy," he says. "But I guarantee you, Alex Franklin had nothing to do with it. He would be the guy trying to stop a fight. What happened inside the club, I back a hundred percent. We're just asking people to take off their shirts, or turn them inside out, and then you can stay, no problem. What happened outside the club, I wasn't there, I have no idea.

"Back in the day?" he continues. "It you wore a Confederate flag on your sleeve, it meant you were a Nazi, and you were going to get bashed in the face, no questions asked. The difference now is, you have a choice to turn your T-shirt inside out."

At a diner in Los Feliz, James orders a veggie burger, a salad and a Diet Coke. He's been a vegetarian since he was eleven and straight-edge since the age of fifteen, though before that he did numerous drugs, even heroin. "I never had an addictive personality," he says. "I just liked the criminal trappings of it. Most of my friends now do drugs and drink. But I just don't believe in the weakness of it, the whole 'I've had a realty hard workweek. I deserve this.' Also, this way I can stay self-righteous, give myself something that makes me think I'm better than everybody else." He chuckles. "My vanity may be the one thing that will keep me straight-edge my whole life."

James hooked up with the original members of FSU around 1990. He'd been living a vagabond, squatter-punk lifestyle, traveling throughout the Midwest and East Coast after leaving Antioch College, in Ohio. He eventually settled in Boston, where he robbed drug dealers for money and worked as a bouncer in various clubs on Lansdowne Street, the college drinking strip where much of Boston Beatdown was shot. One night, he and his best friend had just left a club when they stumbled across a street brawl between a group of racist punks and members of FSU, Recalls James, "It was all these Good Will Hunting dudes, with sweaters tucked in, Girbaud jeans, pegs, Champion sweatshirts. And they just started beating the hell out of these Nazis. I was like, 'Who are these crazy fucking kids?'"

James had grown up in rural Connecticut, on a hippie farm, raised by adoptive parents – a white, liberal couple who'd been active in Mississippi during the civil rights movement and who had returned with stories of Klan beatings and murders. James is unsure of the race of his biological father, and the only thing he knows about his biological mother is that she was a white junkie. (He won't reveal his exact age, only that he is "too old to be in a gang, that's for damn sure.") By twelve, he'd been arrested for the first time, after being caught with drugs he'd stolen from his parents. He was also breaking into houses and constantly fighting with kids at school who called him "a nigger." "I was a little skinny kid," he says. "But by fighting every day, I learned very quickly that all you had to do was do it. We all have fear, but just by jumping fully into a fight, by not cowering away from it, after a while, you don't even think about it. It's just a button that gets pressed."

Though James preferred more tuneful indie bands like Hüsker Dü, his penchant for fighting led him to hardcore. "I loved punk rock," he says, "but I was too tough for it. So you get attracted to the harder thing, which, at that time, was being a skinhead." Many skins, of course, are not racist. In James' case, he was simply destructive. He and his best friend brought hammers to parties to use during fights, which they made sure to start themselves. At a Millions of Dead Cops show at the Anthrax Club in Norwalk, Connecticut james told the singer not to play the band's anti-skinhead song. "It was like, 'S is for stupid, K is for KKK,' stuff like that," James recalls. "I said, 'You're my favorite band, I listen to your records at home, but you can't play that song or we are going to kill you.'" The band played the song. "And there I am, as soon as they started the first chords," he says, "punching my hero, Dave Dictor, in the face."

Aside from sharing a passion for hardcore, many of the members of FSU also come from similar backgrounds, bearing stories of absent parents and families troubled by drugs and alcohol. "If I wasn't in hardcore, I'd be in jail or dead," says Joe Hardcore, who grew up without a father, in a poor neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia. "We were driving in a stolen tucking van for the first Shattered Realm tour. We were stealing gas. It was some viking shit. But if you knew anything about where I came from, you'd know the last thing I want to do is hang out with some fucking corner drug-dealing loser. I have tour cousins in jail. Three more are dead from overdoses. When I went to shows, I felt like I had people who gave a fuck about me. Nothing has touched me the way hardcore has." Adds retired FSU member J.W. Buckley, "It sounds so S.E. Hinton, and it's so cliché to say, but it is a surrogate family."

Recruitment is by invitation only – tough kids, generally spotted at shows, are targeted. There is no hazing ritual, though members all receive FSU or 378 (telephone-keypad code for "FSU") tattoos; the words "Respectfully Retired" must be added if one leaves the gang.

When I ask James about his sewing skills, he lifts his T-shirt and shows me the scar from his inaugural job. It's diagonal, white and wobbly, due east of his navel, about an inch and a half long. Early one morning, years ago, he was walking his dog, a rescued pit bull, in a rough neighborhood in Boston when a couple of thuggish guys approached and tried to grab the leash. "They kept asking questions about the dog, so I knew what was up," James says. "One of them had a big fucking unruly Afro with big red bumps all over his face, this ugly fucking guy, and they both smelled like liquor." One of them lunged. James punched him in the nose, pulled out a steel ball bearing in a sock and smashed the second man in the head. "I'm just beating him and beating him," James says. "This poor little twelve-week-old puppy is getting stepped on. The other guy ran. And I just kept beating his friend until he wasn't moving. Then I kicked him in the face and he didn't react. He was just not there." That was when James realized he'd been stabbed. "But I couldn't go to the hospital." he says. "As far as I knew, the guy was dead." Instead, he went home and stitched himself with dental floss.

Like a surgeon in reverse, James can recount the damage he has done to others; broken noses, torn ears, smashed orbital bones "that leave your eye loose in the socket," teeth knocked out with rocks, Later, while complaining about how watered-down tattoo culture has become, he says, "I mean, like having a spider web on your elbow, it just doesn't mean anything anymore. But at one time, it meant you had killed someone." I nod at the web covering his own elbow. "All I can say," James says, giving me a hard stare, then quickly looking away, "is I earned it."

After dinner, James says he wants to introduce me to some other members of FSU, so we drive out to the Showcase Theatre in Corona. Blood Stands Still, a hardcore band featuring an FSU member named Pitbull Dan, is playing tonight with 25 Ta Life. En route, we pick up another FSU member, Erik Skandalous, who works as a tour manager. "I apologize for all of the ridiculous monikers," James says. "I'm the only one who doesn't have one."

Corona is a run-down edge city, part of the Inland Empire just east of Los Angeles. We quickly become lost. "You're wondering how I can run a national gang and not be able to follow MapQuest directions," James mutters. Skandalous is wearing a gray ski cap with long earflaps and a black Boston Hardcore T-shirt. A wiry twenty-three-year-old, Skandalous seems fairly low-key. But then James brings up a tour in Holland, when Skandalous, who is Puerto Rican, threw a bottie at a kid in a bar who'd started Sieg Heil'ling, sparking a huge brawl. "Ironically," James says, "the guy who got it the worst, who's holding his fucking brains in by the end, was the one black guy we'd interacted with in the entire country, this bouncer."

We make it to the Showcase, which turns out to be a converted movie theater in a strip mall, next door to a ninety-nine-cent store, but we have missed Blood Stands Still and two tights. "One was a girl fight," says Pitbull Dan, a hulking thirty-three-year-old with a shaved head and a 45 – as in ".45 Crew," his former gang – tattooed on his neck. The girl fight started when Pitbull Dan's girlfriend beat up another girl who was dancing too aggressively in the pit. "Then," he continues, "these metalheads who were dancing wrong got beat up."

Another FSU member, Jimmy Shrugs, shows up. He's a black twenty-four-year-old who grew up in Compton, in such a Crip-hating neighborhood that local Bloods avoided all c-words. "It was like, 'Let me get a bigarette,'" Shrugs says. "My dad ended up getting shot twice on our porch by one of his friends. They were trying to get his truck. My window was right next to the door, so I heard everything. It was crazy."

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