Inside the bloody brotherhood of FSU, where violence rules and wearing the wrong T-shirt just might get you killed
The night of the killing, James Morrison and three of his friends made the hour-long drive to Asbury Park, New Jersey. They'd come to catch a hardcore show at Club Deep, a squat, unassuming venue on Ocean Avenue. The location would be prime in most other cities, but the grim, deserted boardwalk in Asbury Park is the kind of beachfront property where the sea gulls make you think of vultures.
From the moment Morrison and his friends walked through the doors of the club on January 14th, something felt wrong. "We were getting stared at by everyone in the place," recalls Morrison's friend Charlie. "You could tell we were outsiders. I told the guys, 'Listen, you gotta watch yourselves. Don't have words with anybody.'"
The club opened in 2003 as the Cadillac Ranch Saloon, taking its name from an old Bruce Springsteen song, but they fired the dancing cowgirls when the place became Club Deep, and soon began hosting everything from jam bands to Eighties dance nights. On this evening, a local hardcore promoter called Hoodlum Productions had booked six bands, including Colin of Arabia, Wisdom in Chains and, headlining, Ramallah, a Boston act whose repertoire includes the gleefully nihilistic "Heart Full of Love" (sample lyric: "I'd love to rape a Hilton sister or kill an FM-show director") as well as more political songs like "Days of Revenge" ("Malcolm was right, the hate that we've sown has come home in the night... Your leaders! They're killers! They're liars!").
January 14th was the night before Alex Franklin's thirty-fourth birthday, and he, too, decided to spend it at Club Deep. Franklin had been going to hardcore shows since the Eighties, earning himself the nickname "Old-School Alex." A thickset Korean-American covered in tattoos, Franklin was a conspicuous presence in the young, overwhelmingly white hardcore scene, where he was also known as a skilled tattoo artist. He worked at a tattoo parlor in Brooklyn and had inked a number of hardcore kids – especially "straight-edgers," hardcore fans who swear off drinking, smoking and taking drugs. Although Franklin himself has been straight-edge since he was a teenager and recently became a born-again Christian, he still cuts an intimidating figure: A pair of daggers are tattooed on either side of his face, the blades poking down like sideburns.
Morrison was also a fan of hardcore. Ramallah was one of his favorite bands, but he was decidedly not straight-edge. A stocky twenty-five-year-old, popular and extroverted, he liked to drink, shoot pool and mess around on the guitar. "Pretty much everyone he met was like, 'Jim Morrison! From the Doors?'" recalls his ex-girlfriend Angela Vetri. "He hated it." A Navy veteran who'd served on the USS Bataan in the early days of the Iraq War, Morrison had moved back to New Gretna, a town in semi-rural South Jersey near where he'd grown up, in 2004. He worked in yacht building and construction for a while, but he'd become restless, and even though he disagreed with the president and the war, he had begun telling his friends he wanted to re-enlist.
Morrison generally caught shows in Atlantic City, but for Ramallah, he and his friends made the drive to Asbury. By the time they pulled into the parking lot at Club Deep, Alex Franklin had already arrived.
What happened next is still being debated, but everyone agrees that, shortly after Morrison showed up, a violent fight broke out. Morrison, according to witnesses, was hit repeatedly with a bar stool, stomped in the chest while he was on the ground and, as he staggered outside, struck in the head from behind, possibly with brass knuckles. The police, responding to a 911 call, arrived at approximately 5:50 P.M. and found Morrison lying on the sidewalk, unconscious and unresponsive. At 6:30 P.M., he was pronounced dead.
Three weeks later, Franklin was arrested and charged with manslaughter. According to the police report, as Morrison and his friends were retreating from Club Deep, Franklin had followed them outside and delivered the final blow to Morrison's head, then fled the scene. Astonishingly, press reports claimed the fight had begun over a T-shirt featuring a Confederate flag, worn by one of Morrison's friends. (The earliest reports described the T-shirt, incorrectly, as a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt.) In this version of events, Morrison and his friends were drinking at the bar when Franklin approached and insisted Morrison's friend remove his T-shirt, which Franklin found offensive. When the friend refused and offered to leave, Franklin punched him. Morrison, rushing to his friend's aid, was quickly pummeled by a large group.
Franklin, it turned out, was a member of a feared hardcore crew known as FSU, with chapters across the United States. (Franklin has pleaded innocent and denied any involvement with the gang.) The gang has been tied to numerous acts of violence and has been accused of intimidating fans, engaging in random beatings, even causing other deaths. A number of patrons at Club Deep that night, as well as most of the bands, were members of FSU or heavily affiliated with the crew.
Officially, FSU is short for "Friends Stand United," but hardcore kids all know the alternate meaning: "Fuck Shit Up."
Since its inception in the early Eighties, hardcore has always been fueled by young male aggression, the mohawks and relative melodicism of punk rock giving way to crew cuts and the heavier, strippeddown, much more unforgiving sound of bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains. Violence, a natural byproduct of the hard moshing, was common, even at the earliest shows. Crews like the LADS, a.k.a. the L.A. Death Squad, and New York's DMS (Doc Marten Skins) were always part of the scene. In DVD outtakes of the 2006 documentary American Hardcore, Henry Rollins recalls members of the band TSOL wearing motorcycle boots with sharpened spurs and kicking audience members in the head.
FSU formed in Boston in the late Eighties. The Boston hardcore scene had already gained notoriety as a more militant offshoot of the D.C. straight-edge movement, with the band SS Decontrol, started by brawny ex-hockey player AI Barile, leading the charge. SSD and its followers, known as the Boston Crew, became notorious for painting black Xs on their foreheads before New York shows – an X, more typically drawn on the hand, signifies you are straight-edge – and beating up anyone X-free in the pit. As Curtis Casella, founder of the Boston indie label Taang! Records, notes in American Hardcore, "When [straight edge] got filtered up north to Boston, it got a little eviler."
Despite its insular nature, hardcore has always been a deeply fragmented scene. Straight-edgers range from nonviolent emo boys to anarchists and militant ecoterrorists. Nazi skinheads have also been attracted to the cathartic, deliberately anti-social music. In 1981, the Dead Kennedys, dismayed by the number of whitepower kids turning up at their shows, released the single "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!" Nazi skins had been causing problems in the Boston scene for years, until the arrival of FSU.
In the beginning, the group was just another local crew, comprised primarily of kids from rough neighborhoods like South Boston. From the start, though, the crew's working-class background and the way they dressed (in Adidas, shorts and windbreakers, they were often mistaken for jocks) and danced (incorporating wild spin kicks into the already violent pits) made them misfits within the scene. They also knew how to handle themselves in a fight, and soon enough they began brawling with the Nazis. "We never really had a political agenda," recalls Elgin Nathan James, FSU's de facto leader. "It was more of a visceral reaction: 'You're gonna call me a nigger? I'm gonna bash your face in with this fucking brick.' And with the white members, even the kids from South Boston who maybe grew up being distrustful of other races, it was more like, 'You've got a problem with my friends? You've got a problem with me.'"
Along with Nazi punks, FSU fought overzealous bouncers, belligerent frat boys and anyone else they believed had crossed them, often taking over mosh pits and policing shows. "FSU was small at first, but they were instantly mythic," says J.W, Buckley, who grew up in the Merrimack Valley, just north of Boston, and joined the crew around 1995. "In the early Ninettes, it seemed like there were a million of them." To some in the scene, though, FSU had become the intimidating, bullying presence they once fought against – the toughest guys in the room, always ready for a conflict, often looking for an excuse. Though not all members were straight-edge, a certain zero-tolerance militancy pervaded the crew. And FSU's dedication to brotherhood meant that it you disrespected one member, you disrespected them all and could wind up on the wrong end of a group beating.
In a scene as obsessed with flexing muscle as hardcore can be, plenty of kids were eager to align themselves with the most dangerous crew. A few years ago, FSU went national, spawning chapters in Philadelphia, Chicago, Arizona, Los Angeles, Seattle, upstate New York and New Jersey. Today, the crew has approximately 200 members nationwide.
"In reality, what is FSU?" asks Joe Hardcore, the singer of Shattered Realm and leader of the crew's Philadelphia chapter. "It's a bunch of guys who go to shows. If you fuck with these guys in a real bad way, you're gonna get your ass kicked. If you're a Nazi, you're gonna get one. Otherwise, chances are we're just like you. We're not Boy Scouts or fixing old people's homes. But we're not shooting people on the corner, either. We're kicking some people's asses at shows and getting into a little bit of trouble."
And yet, over the past few years, reports of FSU-related violence have grown increasingly scary. In February 2005, thirty-six-year-old Matthew Carlo was beaten to death when a fight broke out at the Hudson Duster, a club in Troy, New York, during a set by the hardcore band 15 Ta Life. Six men with ties to FSU, including the president of the upstate New York chapter, were arrested (charges against three of the men were dropped); one of the men, twenty-five-year-old bouncer Lionel Bliss, elbowed and kicked Carlo in the head, and eventually pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. After Bliss' arrest, he told police, "I got good elbows. People don't know about my elbows."
In December 2005, a brawl erupted at Skrappy's, a Tucson, Arizona, youth center, during a set by Shattered Realm. As the fight spilled into the parking lot, men in FSU shirts allegedly grabbed weapons from their cars, including a hammer and a machete. One Skrappy's regular, who had been beaten up and chased to his car, grabbed a handgun and shot and killed twenty-seven-year-old FSU member Ray "Hairy Darrin" Pierson.
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."
Shrugs is wearing baggy black shorts and an oversize T-shirt with an F logo that looks like a pistol. His hair is pulled back into a bun, and he speaks in a soft drawl. Shrugs' dad eventually moved the family to Corona, where Shrugs befriended BMX and hardcore kids, including Travis Barker of Blink-182. Now he works for Barker's clothing company, Famous Stars and Straps, the maker of his T-shirt, and hopes to break into hip-hop production.
We drive over to Shrugs' place, a two-story home in a new development. Shrugs pours some prescription cough syrup into a two-liter bottle of Sprite. It turns a rosé color, like pink champagne. He pours himself a tall glass and takes us out to his garage, where he has a mixing board set up beneath an enormous Scarface poster. As Shrugs plays some new tracks, James promises to hook him up with some music-industry friends. "My mom's a crackhead, a supersmoker," Shrugs tells me. "My dad's just out and about, whatever. So my friends are everything to me. The FSU thing – the meaning behind it – that really meant something to me."
"How many of your guy friends tell you they love you?" James asks later. "We do. The Mafia and the Hells Angels are about money. We don't sell guns or drugs, we're not pimps. Any kind of illegal activity and you're kicked out of FSU."
Other than violence, I say.
James laughs and says. "Well, yeah. That's a go."
Al Brown grew up in Manhattan Beach, a coastal town that's an hour (and several tax brackets) from Corona. In 2004, he was at a hardcore festival in Pennsylvania, where, during a set by the band Terror, he witnessed a group of FSU members brutally beat a man. "One of them had a video camera, filming it," he recalls. "You want to be the strong guy. But when something like this is happening, you think, 'I will die if I get involved."1 After witnessing other FSU-related fights. Brown, a twenty-four-year-old grad student at Columbia University, wrote a song called "Neo Neo-Nazis (Stop Fucking S.hit U.p)" that directly criticized the crew.
Not long after Brown's band, Dangers, debuted the song, three FSU members were waiting outside a Hollywood venue. They asked him if he had anything to say or if he just wanted to be a "faggot martyr." He said he had nothing to say. They punched him in the face and stomach and kicked him once while he was on the ground. The following weekend, before a show in Tacoma, Washington, an FSU member pulled Brown aside and said, "If you play, you're going to the hospital. I'm not afraid to stab people." The band was threatened the next evening in Portland, so they didn't perform. Now they try to avoid cities with a heavy FSU presence.
Brown is far from alone in his criticism. Jason, a twenty-nine-year-old hardcore fan from Boston, started going to shows when he was twelve. "You'd leave every show bruised, maybe even a little bit bloody," he says. "But until the crews started showing up at every show, I never felt concerned for my safety. With FSU, everyone's scared to get a glass of water, for fear of bumping into somebody. Or you're making sure you're not talking to the wrong girl." Jason has seen six-on-one fights, guys dragged outside and beaten up. "The violence used to be a lot more indiscriminate," he says. "But with these guys, it's a perverted sense of family, and they're just looking for any excuse to protect their family and gang up on people."
Tracy Moody, owner of Studio Seven, an all-ages venue in Seattle, barred FSU members from his club after a series of violent incidents. Things ended more tragically with the deadly shooting at Skrappy's in Tucson. "The saddest thing is, kids were put in harm's way over bullshit," says Skrappy's manager Kathy Wooldridge, who'll no longer book FSU-affiliated bands, which she labels "thugcore." "Some of these bands are standing onstage going, 'Let's put some blood on this floor!' They promote the violence. That's how they're making money. It's sad. They have a career because kids are dying at their shows."
Then again, there are hardcore fans like Chris Grimes, an eighteen-year-old from Manalapan, New Jersey. Though he's built like a wrestler, Grimes looks very young. When we meet, he's wearing athletic shorts, a black hooded sweatshirt, white socks and Nikes. His older brother started taking him to hardcore shows when he was twelve. "The first time I got in the pit, I feared for my life," he says. "It was awesome." Though he's not a member of any crew, he says, "FSU, I don't think they're bad guys. I've encountered a bunch of them. They believe what they believe. But they don't really give people trouble." Grimes had been planning to attend the Club Deep show, and when he heard about Jim Morrison's death, he says it freaked him out. But, he adds, "It sounds like a fistfight. Every now and then, things go too far. New Jersey, it's not a scene of fakes. An element of hardcore is keeping on your toes."
Grimes has worn a mouth guard to shows and been knocked unconscious in the pit. Tonight, one of his favorite bands, Years Spent Cold, a group popular with FSU, is performing at a 4-H youth center in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
The 4-H center is an unadorned building surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a large dirt parking tot. There doesn't seem to be any professional security, and Grimes is thrilled. "I love this kind of show," he says. "Anything can happen." Inside, it's a VFW-style hall, with a cement floor, fluorescent lighting, an American flag in one corner and an adopt-a-puppy poster on a bulletin board. There is no stage; bands set up and perform at the far end of the room.
The crowd is an odd mixture of underfed emo kids and enormous, intimidating guys who look like soccer hooligans. A surprising number of the latter wear some form of hunter's camouflage. As Years Spent Cold set up, a few of the big dudes stand up and move toward the front of the room, some of them working the kinks out of their necks and doing little arm stretches.
As Kutz, the stocky, bearded singer of Years Spent Cold, launches into a song – for all but the most discerning listeners, much modern-day hardcore sounds indistinguishable from thrash metal, right down to the growling. Cookie Monster vocals – the pit erupts. Some of the dancers look like they're shadowboxing. Others whip their arms in furious windmills. Most of the audience stands back to form a giant U around the pit. with kids occasionally steeling themselves and rushing into the mayhem, their own fists swinging. Occasionally a group of dancers swarms Kutz, forming a kind of pulsating football huddle, and shouts into the microphone along with him. There's no divide between band and audience, and it's thrilling to watch.
Suddenly, a red-haired kid in a Years Spent Cold T-shirt staggers back against the wall. He's covering his nose, which appears to have been broken in the pit. Moaning, he straightens himself and slowly removes his hands from his face. Blood pours from his nose with the flow intensity of an overturned beer bottle. "Oh, God!" he says, and staggers outside.
Grimes and his friends are having a great time, though they've noticed a couple of kids with conspicuously long hair – metal fans – who, in this crowd, could pass for members of Hanson. "If these kids survive the night, I'll be surprised," Grimes says.
"Somebody should walk up to them and just punch them in the face!" says his friend Mike, a high school freshman.
"Why don't you?" asks Grimes' girlfriend, Nicole, a sophomore.
"Somebody should say, 'No one wants you here!'" Mike says.
"You should do it," Nicole says, with so little emotion it's impossible to tell if she wants him to do it or if she's just calling his bluff. In any case. Mike doesn't punch anybody. But the possibility of violence is ever present and, for some, the point.
A 2005 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center describes New Jersey as a "hotbed of skinhead activity" and cites the hate-crime-related arrest the year before of eight members of a skinhead group called the East Coast Hate Crew. None of those arrested were over twenty-one, and at least five of the eight came from Morrison's hometown of Little Egg Harbor or the vicinity. Angela Vetri, Morrison's ex, moved to South Jersey in 2001; she describes Little Egg Harbor as "super-redneck." Continues Vetri, 23, "It's a small town. And because it's South Jersey, people like to think it's Virginia and fly rebel flags from their pickup trucks. Jim was really sweet, and he was friends with people of all races and beliefs. Unfortunately, that included some very ignorant people. Because he could see the good in those people, too. He'd just say, Tra not going to judge them.'"
Morrison's parents are divorced, and, according to his mom, he hadn't seen his father, who was in the Army, since he was very young. He enlisted in the Navy after high school, in 2000. His job on the Bataan involved radio communication; the ship, stationed in the Persian Gulf, was a launching point for Marines and jets. Back home, he followed the Phillies, worked on his '65 Impala, night-fished oft a local bridge and went to shows.
According to Vetri, Morrison also got into his share of tights. "To tell you the truth'!'" she says. "If you'd come up to me and said, "Somebody you know is dead, guess who,' Jim would have been in the top ten. I don't know if he was always looking for trouble or trouble was looking for him. He would just say, 'Oh, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.'"
Alex Franklin, Morrison's accused killer, comes from Trenton and, because of his seniority, is one of the most respected leaders of FSU's Jersey chapter. "When someone has a problem with New Jersey, they always want to go to Alex, because he has a cool head/' says an FSLJ member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Alex has always been the good cop. He's a little square. Super respectful of women, bordering on old-fashioned. Unlike the majority of guys in our world, where girls are just invisible." Nights out in Jersey would often end at a diner, with Franklin ordering two or even three entrees-French toast, a cheeseburger, steak tips – and refusing to let anyone else pay.
Franklin also takes his straight-edge beliefs very seriously, He has an X tattooed below us right eye, and in 2005, he was interviewed by a New Jersey newspaper for a story about straight edge, in which he described a religious faction within the scene, citing his recent conversion and clubs where even cursing was banned.
In an August 2005 thread on the East Coast Hardcore message board, someone posting as "Alex FSU" also takes a hardline stance against racism. He lashes out against Skrewdriver, perhaps the most infamous Nazi punk band, writing, "fence-walking allows you to be a coward motherfucker... to some non-whites it is a big rucking deal... i wont stand for racist bullshit, ever... any pussy motherfucker coming to a show wearing a skrewdriver shirt, its mine, i already got one, id like to add more to the collection, the only way i want to get one of those is by smashing a nazis face inside out. what fun, hahaha."
"In FSU, we have something called 'the Vault,'" confirms James, "a collection of white-power shirts and hats that we've confiscated – some bloody, some not."
And yet, confusingly, Skrewdriver's early records did not feature racist lyrics. Nonracist hardcore fans are divided on whether or not listening to any Skrewdriver is allowable. For many members of FSU, though, there is no room for such nuance. It's a black-and-white worldview shaped by reading great significance into the tiniest of gradations – the color of one's boot faces, for example, which can signify violent white-supremacist beliefs.
Jim Morrison had three Skrewdriver songs on the jukebox of his MySpace page. Two are early, debatably innocuous punk singles. The third, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," is a cover of a faux-Nazi anthem from the musical Cabaret. Morrison's friends insist he was no racist, pointing out that his old band featured a black bassist and that he organized a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Still, according to multiple sources – including one anonymous witness with no ties to FSU or Morrison's friends – the shirt that sparked the fight depicted a Confederate flag flying over the Capitol, along with the phrase I HAVE A DREAM. FSU supporters are quick to point out that the shirt was being worn on the night before Martin Luther King Day.
Charlie, who was one of Morrison's best friends and his constant companion at shows, is a beefy twenty-year-old with a shaved head, curved barbell earrings and "Oi" – the working-class punk subgenre-tattooed on both wrists, with Iron Crosses dotting the i's. Charlie is vague about the content of the shirt, though he will say that the friend wearing it was not a hardcore kid and had never been to a hardcore show before. "I know the shirt had a Confederate flag, but I don't pay much attention to detail," he says. "But it doesn't matter what was on the shirt. Even if it was a swastika, it doesn't justify someone getting killed."
The night of the Ramallah show, Charlie spotted several guys at Club Deep wearing FSU NATION jackets. It was tense. But Morrison was always outgoing – Vetri remembers the time he struck up a conversation with the singer of a cover band, then jumped onstage to belt out Social Distortion's "Ball and Chain" – and so he approached one of the FSU guys to make sure everything was cool. Charlie watched as they chatted and shook hands. The situation seemed defused. None of the bands had gone on yet, so the friends bought a round of drinks and checked out the merch tables. Then Charlie went outside for a smoke.
What happened next remains unclear. Franklin, currently out on bait and awaiting trial, will not speak to the press. Messages left for the prosecutor's office and Franklin's attorney were not returned. Other witnesses are afraid to talk.
The two friends who accompanied Morrison and Charlie on the night of the incident, would not agree to be interviewed, but they told Lorrie Morrison, Jim's mother, that it was Franklin who originally approached them about removing the T-shirt in question and threw the first punch. It's not surprising to anyone who knew Morrison that he would respond by fighting back. "He didn't have any fear, even in the service," says his mother. "He never thought anything would happen to him." Adds Charlie, "The friend in the T-shirt was half my size. Jim always stood up for the little guy."
Mormon's mother claims she spoke to a witness who said a tall man, approximately six feet two, wearing a black sweatshirt and a black hat, hit Morrison in the face and knocked a table onto him. The witness then claimed that several men, including Franklin, stomped and kicked Morrison while he was on the ground, and that the tall man hit Morrison repeatedly with a bar stool. At this point, a security guard then pulled the assailants from Morrison, who remained disoriented and unsteady as he was ushered from the club.
Charlie was still outside smoking when the fight broke out, and he didn't realize anything had happened until his friends were ejected. Someone who worked at the club was shouting for them to leave. The friend wearing the T-shirt had also been hurt. "I knew Jim could handle himself," Charlie says, "so I was helping that friend back to the truck." Morrison was still having trouble walking, but as he grasped the railing of the steps, he shouted, "We're fucking leaving!" As he turned back to his friends, he was struck.
"I heard this loud crack," Charlie says. "It sounded like taking a plywood board and busting it over your knee." Morrison collapsed to the ground. Charlie rushed over and huddled over his friend to protect him from being kicked. Someone said, "See what happens? We told you to leave." Charlie assumed Morrison was punch-drunk. "I was trying to get him up," he says. "Then he took this breath." Charlie pauses, taking a deep breath himself. "And then, he just stopped."
It took a half-hour for an ambulance to arrive. Some of the bands eventually played, though the cops wouldn't allow anyone to mosh.
Franklin is not the only member of FSU with legal troubles. Joe Hardcore is facing assault-and-robbery charges stemming from a fight outside a hardcore concert in Philadelphia at a Unitarian church in 2006. (He says video footage proves he was inside the venue when the fight occurred, and remains confident that hell be acquitted.) And two days after the Corona concert, James and I drive back out to Riverside County to visit Domino, one of the leaders of FSU's Los Angeles chapter, who has spent the past year in county jail, Along with three others, he's been charged with the murder of a nineteen-year-old male who was beaten to death in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box.
At the jail, James and I are led into a visiting room with a row of stools in front of a thick plexiglass wall. Domino is on the other side of the partition, a skinny white kid with a buzz cut and glasses in a prison-orange vest. Disarmingly softspoken and articulate, with an easy smile, he also pleads innocence (as do the others charged). Still, he's already been made the white "rep," or racial gang leader, in the jail. "Just prison politics," he says. "It's hard for me, because outside, my best friend is African-American, but here I have to run with the whites. You don't have a choice. But skinheads, ask anyone in here, they know better than to salute in my neighborhood."
On the long drive back to Silver Lake, James cranks up David Crosby's first solo album, tapping his fingers on the dash. He has no patience for hardcore these days, joking that if the FBI ever infiltrated FSU, they'd come out with no evidence of anything criminal, only a bunch of tattoos and six months of listening to shitty music.
James himself has been having trouble leaving the fighting behind. Since he's moved to L.A., he's been out to Hollywood clubs only three times, and two of the three outings ended in brawls. The most recent involved a friend visiting from New York. "I was across the bar and he'd just picked up a stool and was hitting people," James says. "I never really found out what happened. But my brother was involved in something. So you don't ask."
Six weeks later, though, I receive an e-mail from James. During the course of my visit, he seemed genuinely conflicted about being the last of the old guard – other FSU members from his era have retired or graduated to motorcycle gangs – and now, he says he's decided to leave FSU.
"I've been thinking a lot about violence and responsibility since the weekend you spent out here," he writes. "I've dung to FSU because I've felt a responsibility to all my 'brothers.' Wanting to lift them up with me... But I could be doing all of this from the outside. And now I will... I've spent the last weeks with Domino's mom and his aunt at Domino's court proceedings... It's been eye-opening. As hard as it is for me to watch all the hopes I had for Domino slip further away, it's just an unimaginable horror for them... All Erik Skandalous and I can do is try to take Domino's mom's mind off it for a few hours, try to make her laugh. And squeeze her hand when she cries. And the victim's mom on the other side of the courtroom, you wish you could do the same for her."
If Franklin is guilty, he didn't act alone. The police have asked witnesses with any information to come forward. Lorrie Morrison, meanwhile, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the venue and hopes to see more arrests made.
On Morrison's MySpace page, titled "Moment of Chance," the quote next to his photo reads "Buried in Black." The lines are from a song by the metal band Kingdom of Sorrow. In the photo, Morrison is wearing a dark sweatshirt and a striped knit cap, but the lighting is so dim that it creates an unintentional chiaroscuro effect: Morrison's face – broad, with a red goatee and a crooked half-smile – hovering in the gloom, the rest of him obscured by shadow. The page's last log-in remains locked at "1/14/07." Old comments from his friends are also preserved.
OCT 24. 2006 1:54 PM
yo bitch WTF is going on? I am dying and you don't even care WTF!? GGGGRRRRR whats going on this weekend?
DECEMBER 29, 2006 11:27 AM
LMAO this is one of those pictures we are going to be looking at years from now like what the fuck were we doing and why!!!???
His MySpace jukebox also included "Bro Hymn Tribute." by the punk band Pennywise, written for a dead bandmate. One of Morrison's friends has portions of the song tattooed on his arms. The lyrics continue, in part, "If you're ever in a tough situation/ We'll he there with no hesitation/Brotherhood's our rule we cannot bend."
This story is from the August 23rd, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.