Punk Rock Fight Club

By: Mark Binelli

FSU Founder, Elgin James

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.