The Helping Hand of Hardcore

Bands Play Show For Child With Neurofibromatosis

Posted May 27, 2016

On May 29th, a group of hardcore punk bands, including Cro-Mags, Civ, Sheer Terror, Wisdom in Chains, Nine Live and Extinction A.D. will play a show at Highline Ballroom to raise money for Alexander Owens, a three-year old boy afflicted with neurofibromatosis. Neurofibromatosis is a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue throughout the body, which can result in excruciating and disabling pain, disfigurement and even death.

And while this show is special first and foremost because its purpose is to help Alexander and his family, it also presents an opportunity to examine how the hardcore punk community came together for this cause. Hardcore punk has a long history of taking on causes – from larger societal issues such as animal cruelty and hunger, to rallying to raise money for hardcore punk band members with medical issues such as cancer.

To discuss the history of hardcore and the purpose of this benefit show, I talked with members of three bands playing the show: John Joseph of The Cro-Mags, Reverend Paul Bearer of Sheer Terror and Rick Jimenez of Extinction A.D. All three bands represent a flavor of the hardcore/thrash crossover that epitomized the New York Hardcore scene.

Diane Owens
John Joseph with Alexander and Justy Owens
Source: Diane Owens

These bands exemplify hardcore’s Do-It-Yourself (DIY) spirit which motivated so many hardcore bands to rise up against adversity and overcome any challenge put in their path. 

And they illustrate that hardcore is still about stepping up and making things happen - that includes helping people in need.

To understand the history of how hardcore rallies to help others, it is important to understand how hardcore developed. Feeling disconnected not only from the “hippie” rock and the disco music playing on the radio in the late ‘70s, but also from the artsy punk rock scene that had developed in New York City and London, bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat emerged with hardcore:  a more revved up, vicious form of punk music to reflect the feelings of anger and alienation of many youth at the time.

Jimenez, who was originally in the hardcore band, This is Hell, reflected on this feeling of alienation. Jimenez told me, “Some people are so offended by counter culture or alternatives to the 9-5, marriage, kids, drink on the weekends routine because those were objectives instilled in them since they were kids: ‘I did this because my parents did this and it’s the way things are. How could you not do that? You're wasting your life.’ People get angry about it.”

Bearer concurred and told me, “It was the early 80's. We were young and having the scare of nuclear war hovering over our heads. Everybody seemed to hate you just for dressing different or listening to different music. You needed an outlet to let it all out of your system. You hated jocks, so sports wasn't an option.”

In some cases, this feeling of alienation and rejection was part of and contributed to a bigger picture of individuals struggling with mental health issues. In Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, Joseph described a history of childhood abuse, alienation, addiction, and incarceration. Joseph told me, “We all are dealing with demons. Just in my own personal life I went through a lot of stuff with drugs, addiction and everything else.”

At first glance, turning to music is an excellent choice of coping with these issues. Research has shown that music therapy can improve symptoms of a range of physical and health conditions, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and chronic pain. And experimental research has demonstrated that for people who like extreme music such as thrash metal, listening to more extreme forms of music improves mood. Additionally, expressing emotions through activities such as writing down one’s feelings with lyrics can improve mood and reduce stress responses.

“Through hardcore, I have stayed young, remained close with friends as well as my family, travelled the globe, never had to put a filter on what I say or think and never have to look back in regret that I missed chances to feel alive,” Jimenez explained. “I'm approaching 36 and have all the benefits of a regular adult while retaining the youthful zest I've always had and the privilege to be involved in things that fulfill me still.”

But there was something else about hardcore that went beyond just listening to and playing music that provided an emotional outlet; hardcore gave a sense of purpose. Research suggests that leading a “meaningful” or “purposeful” life, in which one identifies and works towards a higher cause, is a key to well-being. For example, one research study followed more than 6,000 people over the course of 14 years and found that those who had a higher sense of purpose lived longer than those leading a less purposeful life.

Not only did hardcore provide a sense of purpose, but also it provided a method for breaking down barriers that many people felt existed in pursuing one’s artistic goals.

Hard core bands turned away from seeking out mainstream outlets such as popular radio, magazines and major labels for support and started their own labels such as Dischord Records and SST Records. These bands released records, toured the world and developed an underground scene that would help set the stage for later bands such as Nirvana, Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers and continue to influence underground music.

And while hardcore was often maligned as socially bankrupt and violent, the scene was actually saturated with PMA – Positive Mental Attitude. Joseph described. “The hardcore scene kept CBGBs open for 30 years, but nobody gives hardcore the credit.”

Jimenez described how he was able to focus his energy on this purpose. “It focused my anger and made me believe I could go out and DO something as opposed to be an angsty teenager fed up with injustices that stuck in my own mind,” Jimenez said. “It made me realize there were other people out there that felt the same way but didn't want to just turn to drugs or other behaviors that would lead to a dead end life.”

Hardcore not only allowed people to think differently and constructively about themselves, but it also encouraged them to challenge norms in society. Research shows that people who like “heavier” forms of music such as metal, rock or hardcore punk, actually display a personality trait known as “openness to experience,” whereby they are more willing to accept and explore different feelings and ideas. This may also explain research demonstrating that fans of heavier music are more devoted to changing the world through civic activism

Jimenez explained, “After discovering shows and learning and diving into the history, the attitude and awareness was what made me really love it in a different way than I loved metal. At the time I was really needing something I could relate to more than just being aimlessly angry and that was what I was falling into. I became more focused on reality.”

Joseph described his experience of the hardcore scene rallying for the community and various social causes. “One of the things that got me when we did Hardcore Against Hunger and MTV covered it in like ’95. Lou (Koller) from Sick of it All, they interviewed him at the old Tramps. And he said, ‘You know what? This scene don’t make a lot of money. This ain’t rich rock and roll. But there ain’t a group of motherfuckers on the face of the earth that will get together quicker to help somebody out,’” Joseph said. “You call up hardcore motherfuckers they’re right there dude – leading the fucking charge. To me that’s what it’s all about.”

And Joseph, who himself is very active in causes such as veganism, is inspired by some of the founders of hardcore who still are active in fighting for important social issues. For example, Henry Rollins of Black Flag is an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. And Ian MacKaye, who founded the straight edge movement that encouraged kids not to drink or do drugs and maintained the highest code of ethics by keeping prices of albums affordable for kids, continues to set the standard of how business can be ethical and profitable.

“And they’ve been doing it since 1980 for social causes that mean something. Guys like Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye – they’re still out there fighting for shit and making change,” Joseph explained. “That’s one of the things I realized – you’ve got to be a stand-up guy or a stand-up girl. And always strive to help people.”

And so after years of immersion in this hardcore scene, Joseph was introduced to the issues facing people with neurofibromatosis. Families of children with neurofibromatosis often face significant stress. Children with neurofibromatosis face higher mortality rates; evidence suggests that people with NF1, a type of neurofibromatosis, on average live 15 years less than those without NF1. More, there can often be significant financial consequences because of necessary medical care.

Years ago, Joseph, who is an Iron Man competitor, was approached by the Children’s Tumor Foundation to help raising money for the foundation. He described his experience when he first became involved with the organization and met an individual with neurofibromatosis:

“I had this moment, and it effected me deeply. We played Irving Plaza and I was wearing my Children’s Tumor Foundation shirt with neurofibromatosis on it.  And you can’t see into the crowd too much – the light’s blinding you,” Joseph explained. “But somebody in the front row was trying to get my attention. So I’m backstage after the show and the bouncer opens up the door and said, ‘Hey man somebody outside said that he had that disease as a kid. And he wanted to say hello.’”

“So I said, ‘Oh man of course.’ Now a lot of these kids get facial deformities because of tumors in their faces. So this guy comes in – he’s in his thirties or forties – and the guy was crying,” Joseph explained. “He said, ‘I’ve had this disease since I was born. And everybody picked on me and made fun of me. And I just want to thank you for bringing awareness to this.’ So then I was like, ‘Man that shit just hit home.’”

Eventually, Joseph was introduced to Alexander and the Owens family and decided to raise $40,000 for the family through a series of events, including the upcoming benefit show and through running the Ironman World Championship Race in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 8, 2016. And in Alexander he saw not only a child in need – but a child who embodied the spirit of hardcore.

“The Children’s Tumor Foundation offered me a slot for Kona in 2016. So they said when you race this Kona Iron Man, you’ll be assigned a CTF Hero. So they sent me the bios of four or five children and this kid just stood out,” Joseph explained. “If you look at his pictures, he’s always smiling. He’s always happy. He’s always positive. And when I think of what I’ve been through in my life, the only thing that got me through was PMA — positive mental attitude. So as soon as they asked me about Kona, I was like, ‘Yeah let’s do it.’”

For Joseph, Alexander’s attitude is infectious. “If we get a little freaking pinched nerve on our spine, we’re in tears. Imagine having tumors on your spine,” Joseph said. “He’s inspiring me. That’s what it’s all about. When I’m out there training and racing, I’m doing it for him.”

And soon, Joseph was organizing the benefit show and, as he expected, hardcore answered the call. “The hardcore scene always pulls together. The minute I started calling bands – every single one of them that didn’t have prior obligations to be on tour or whatever - like when I called Anthony Civorelli (of the band Civ), he’s like, ‘Fuck it I’m in.’ And Wisdom in Chains is driving down from a Canadian show and on their way back to Philly from Canada they’re going to stop and do this show.”

Bearer put it succinctly: “John asked. We said ‘Sure.’ That simple. Help the kid out.”

Jimenez agreed. “If you believe in something, you find a way to make it work,” Jimenez said. “With this band I always try to make the music more than just "four dudes playing loud aggressive music" as it is, so backing a cause that is raising awareness and helping a positive cause is important.”

And according to Joseph, even people who can’t be at the show are chipping in. “ I got people from all around the world who are coming in and supporting this show on the 29th. And not just because of the bands – because of the cause,” Joseph said. “And I got people who are sending money from overseas who can’t come to the show. They’re just like, ‘Yo I just want to donate.’”

And so for those who want to get involved and see what the hardcore scene is like in action, come to the May 29th show. “It’s not only the money being raised. It’s bringing awareness and letting his family know – this kid is going to be over the moon that people care,” said Joseph. “There’s a center of good in everyone.”

What’s more hardcore than that?

To support Joseph’s Ironman run, click here.

To buy tickets for the May 29 benefit concert for Alexander, click here

To contribute to the CTF Adopt-A-Hero program, click here.

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.