John Joseph on Rocking, Racing, and Rising Up
by Brad Culp
Ed. Note—We launch the "Street Punk" collection today, and what better way to announce that line than to give you this profile of Punk Rocker, Wattie Rocker John Joseph? Chief Storyteller Brad Culp digs into the history of Hit Squadder John Joseph, who literally rocks the W.
One summer evening in 1980, a Navy Midshipmen walked into a club in Norfolk, Va., to hear some punk rock, and it changed his life forever. The band was the Bad Brains, and had the sailor not walked into that club, he’d be in prison for life or—more likely—dead.
John Joseph has gone through hell and has somehow come out the other side alive. He’s been neglected and abused. He’s been an alcoholic, and he’s shot up every hard drug there is on this planet. He’s been shot himself, nearly beaten to death, and he’s nearly beaten men to death. But nowadays he’s a 10-time Ironman finisher (including Kona in 2016 and ‘17). He doesn’t drink, do drugs, or even eat meat. He’s a cult celebrity around the world as the front man for the Cro-Mags. Unless you’re deep into the hardcore punk rock scene, they’re probably not on your radar, but in the words of Joseph himself: “They rock pretty fucking hard.”
Starting from the Bottom
Joseph was born in New York City in 1962. His father was a part-time professional boxer and full-time alcoholic who beat the hell out of his mother on a weekly basis. His mother resorted to pills to numb her pain, and that left Joseph to take care of both himself and his little brother. When he was seven, Joseph and his brother were spotted by the landlord standing outside in the snow wearing only their underwear. The police were called, and the Joseph boys would spend the rest of their childhood in foster care, which turned out to be an even greater house of horrors than the one in which they started their lives.
After enduring years of abuse in foster care, Joseph ran away at the age of 14 and within days he was involved in the heroin trade, a booming business in mid-1970s New York. A 14-year-old boy was a valuable commodity for dealers, because he could move around the city without much suspicion from police.
“I ended up as a drug mule to these two junkies who had a heroin business in Rockaway Beach,” he says. “They gave me a job—my first job—and I lived in this rundown bungalow house with them. I would go into the city and buy bundles of heroin and then bring it back so they could cut it and sell it.”
After the junkies got busted, Joseph discovered the angel dust trade, which was more profitable and coming into higher demand, but that also came with greater risks. Once he sold angel dust (also known as PCP) to a girl who overdosed (she lived), but her brother sought revenge and found Joseph in Forest Park, Queens, at The Dome, shooting up the whole place. Joseph took a slug to the calf and ended up behind bars after the police were called. He was only fifteen.
“I spent three months at Spofford Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx, where I was the only white kid, and they had Roots playing on TV all day every day. Imagine being the lone white kid with Roots playing non-stop. Needless to say, I got pretty good at fighting. After what I went through in foster care, I decided no one was going to lay their hands on me ever again.”
The constant fighting led to two more years behind bars at a detention center in upstate New York. The minute he was released, Joseph got back to the only business he knew: selling drugs. He was popped again in a matter of months, and this time faced a minimum four-year sentence for his second offense. At almost 18, he could be tried as an adult, with much stiffer consequences if the judge wanted to throw the book at him.
But he had an out. He was back in touch with his mom, who was dating a Navy recruiter, and that man offered Joseph a different path: commit to four years in the Navy, and he could have the charges dropped. It was an easy decision for Joseph: “The state didn’t raise no fool. I said ‘gimme the four years in the Navy!’”
The Navy was both the best and worst place for him. As the son of a boxer with a rough upbringing, he was bred to fight, but he was also the type to look for trouble. He excelled at boot camp and nearly made it to BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL), but an injury had him sent to Norfolk instead. It was an easy place for Joseph to find trouble, but it also had an emerging punk rock scene, which ultimately saved his life.
Joseph did what came naturally to him as soon as he got on base: he sold drugs to the huge demand he discovered. Joseph had no problem finding a supply, and it was only a matter of months until he got busted for selling dime-bags of weed to his fellow sailors. It was a minor offense, but it meant he was stuck to the boat on his first trip out to sea.
Before heading out to sea, Joseph went into town to hear some punk rock, which was the only kind of music that had ever spoken to him. From the first time he heard the Ramones, he started a love affair with the one genre of music that let him release the anger of a child who grew up in hell. That night, in Norfolk, the Bad Brains put on a killer show for a few hundred like-minded punk rockers, but their message wasn’t one of anger—it was just the opposite.
“The front-man kept on talking about PMA over and over again,” Joseph says. “PMA, PMA… so I talked to him after the show and asked him what it was all about, and that’s when he told me about Positive Mental Attitude. He was this Rastafari who ate a plant-based diet and just had a super positive attitude about everything. So we stayed in touch and that conversation really started to turn things around for me.”
But before things could really come about, he had to endure a few months sequestered on a ship with a few hundred other sailors, which is an easy place to find a fight.
“This one redneck kept on fucking with me, because I wasn’t allowed to leave the boat while I was waiting to hear if I’d be court-martialed for the weed,” he says. “Day after day of this shit. I ended up beating him up so bad that he went to the ICU.”
For his second offense—and one so serious—Joseph knew he’d be sent to federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, so running away once again looked like the only option.
“They didn’t have me chained or nothing when we rolled back into Norfolk,” he says. “I got off base real fast and hitch-hiked with this band back up to New York to meet up with the Bad Brains. They gave me a job as a roadie, but if I wanted to go out on the road with them, I couldn’t drink, do drugs or eat meat. I said ‘let’s do it.’”
After a year on the road with the Bad Brains, Joseph put together his own band with some old friends and called themselves the “Cro-Mags.” If the Ramones were mainstream punk and the Bad Brains were cult punk, the Cro-Mags became something of a sub-cult within the hardcore punk community. Their first two albums—The Age of Quarrel (1986) and Best Wishes (’89)—resonated with the punk scene from New York to Berlin to Sydney, and this was decades before streaming was an option.
But more important than a little fame and commercial success was the change in lifestyle. Joseph became Hare Krishna, a sect of Hindu that focuses, among other things, on healthy living. Yoga is important, as is physical fitness, and Joseph was always one to take things to extremes.
The Tri Transformation
He had taken up running during the two years he’d spent locked up, using the dirt track that surrounded the prison yard to log some miles and enjoy the little time he got to spend outdoors. Since he was technically AWOL for more than 15 years, the only job he could get when he wasn’t touring with the Cro-Mags or Bad Brains was as a bike messenger, which gave him a stronger cycling background than 99 percent of people who find triathlon in middle-age.
Joseph first found triathlon in the 1982, when he watched Julie Moss crawl to the finish on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” showcase of the Hawaii Ironman. That planted a seed that stayed with him through three decades of world tours, smash hits, bust albums, band breakups, and—most importantly—self-discovery.
When he heard there would be an Ironman New York City in 2012, Joseph didn’t think twice: he was in. “It was really in fucking New Jersey, but whatever,” he notes. There was one slight problem: he had a show in Philadelphia the night before the race, but both the show and the race had to go on. “So we did the show, and then got in my brother’s car and drove straight to the race. I got zero hours of sleep and I had a stress fracture in my foot. And it was 96 degrees that day. But I still got through it and loved every minute.”
Prior to the race, Joseph had no idea if he’d be the one-and-done type of triathlete, or if he’d catch the Ironman bug and be in it for life. It turned out to be very much the latter. He signed up for his second Ironman—in Cabo—days after finishing his first, and he’s done eight more fulls since then, including two races in Kona. Since recently having successful surgery for a sports hernia, Joseph has set his sights on racing both Kona and Challenge Roth in 2020, and he shows no signs of slowing down as he continues to live life full throttle, even as he nears 60.
“I’m 57 now, and that’s an age that I’m just grateful to be doing what I’m doing,” he says. “A lot of the guys I grew up with are in jail, addicted to drugs, or they’re dead. But I get to be out here doing triathlon and throwing up a middle finger to all the motherfuckers who tried to destroy me in this world. I get to let them know they didn’t win.”