Planting a Seed in a Toxic Place with Roger Miret
Agnostic Front vocalist discusses new book, "My Riot."
Posted Oct 01, 2017
“You have no right to tell us what to do;
You have no balls to tell us what to do;”
From “No One Rules” by Agnostic Front
A person who is agnostic is someone who believes that any ultimate reality is unknowable, and so questions rather than accepts what is presented.
As a movement, hardcore punk questioned rather than accepted the world as it was. Hardcore punk bands did not accept and give up when no labels were interested in signing them—they just started their own labels. They did not accept that no magazines would write stories about them—instead, they started their own fanzines. They did not accept that traditional venues would not book them—they organized and put on their own shows.
Roger Miret is the lead singer of Agnostic Front, a New York band whose 1984 album Victim in Pain is considered to be the very first New York hardcore album. In 2009, Village Voice profiled the band in a four-page article in honor of the 25th anniversary of the album and declared that Victim in Pain deserves to be ranked within a stage dive’s distance of Velvet Underground and Ramones classics on any list of important and influential New York records.” And in his new book My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts and Glory, he describes how he achieved the life he wanted by handling adversity with a refusal to accept what was presented to him.
Miret described how the ethos of his bandmates in Agnostic Front, including founding member Vinnie Stigma, fit perfectly with his worldview. “Vinnie came up with the name Agnostic Front. Agnostic meaning doubting an absolute truth—questioning with your own eyes—not in a religious form. Front meaning a movement,” Miret told me. “And I’ve lived life that way. I like to question things…I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable with death. Some people say ‘It’s fine, I’m going to heaven.’ I don’t know. Because I’m still questioning it. I’m still not sure.”
“How are you so damn sure?”
Perhaps Miret’s perspective was born out of necessity. Miret is Cuban and he explained how his family was torn apart when Fidel Castro came to power. Miret’s family was stripped of their home and soon immigrated to the United States.
“My family, little by little, migrated to the United States. And the actual goals were to seek that American dream. When we lived in Cuba, we were some of the few people in Cuba that had a success story. My family were doctors, actors, actresses, musicians,” he explained. “But when Castro took over, everything was starting to get stripped, including our home. We had what I guess was the Cuban dream.
“And that’s being stripped from you right away.”
Miret’s worldview was immediately challenged when his family went from a comfortable lifestyle in Cuba to an impoverished one in Paterson, NJ in the late 1960’s. “You’re starting all over. You’re living in poverty. As a kid, you don’t know. It’s just normal life. It’s what’s normal around you,” Miret recalled. “And you don’t even know until you go back and visit. Like holy shit, I lived here? And it’s shocking. I knew we didn’t have a lot of things…You’re catching pigeons and eating pigeons. I’m Latin…and fried plantains is a big thing. And when you’re eating them when they’re not fried—how much could oil be?
“You’ve got to suspect something.”
As time went on, more of the comforts that many people take for granted were denied Miret. His family moved frequently, and because he couldn’t speak English, he was regularly put in remedial classes. This was perhaps one of the reasons that he never connected with school.
“We moved around constantly. I never spent any more than six months in any school I went to…We weren’t slow, we just didn’t know how to speak or write English,” Miret explained. “I never went to college. I barely even went to high school. I just didn’t like any of that stuff. I didn’t like any of those people. I didn’t like their attitude.”
But Miret’s natural inclination was to see things from a different perspective—he embraced being different. And he began to realize that he gravitated towards others who were different.
“I always liked that not normal thing. I always wanted to be that outcast, that misfit, that outsider. And I was to a certain degree. I remember this one kid came in and he started reading right to left. That was my friend right away,” he said. “I gravitated to people who were not the norm. I was running against the grain. Being a little kid in my stepfather’s car watching that motorcycle gang go by, I don’t know what would make a little kid say, ‘I want to be like them.’ There was something about those bikers going by that made me want to do that. I don’t know why—it was pretty much a bunch of dirtbags on the road.
“But for some reason, I really related to those people.”
Soon, Miret discovered punk rock “My cousin, he’s the one who introduced me to all this stuff,” Miret described. “My cousin was cool. He played loud and fast. He was in a punk band…and he started taking me to shows.
“I felt like I found people with something I loved, that I really related to.”
Soon Miret found that not everyone was thrilled with rebels. He described one incident where a friend of his actually sided with the jocks at school who attacked Miret—ostensibly for not being part of the “in” crowd.
“I remember one of my best friends who was kind of like me—the only time I did go to high school. We both loved the Sex Pistols…we were outsiders. And then he went to try and fit in with your football players and jock guys. And I remember going one day to school and seeing him. We were friends—we used to listen to all kinds of stuff together—and he gave me an attitude. I was like, this is weird,” Miret recounted. “And then he decided to jump me just to fit in with those people. And I knew that. Just to fit in with that in crowd. It was a hard point because this was someone I trusted, and I didn’t trust many people. I didn’t like many people. And I finally found someone who was just like me. And to turn their back on me like that.
“It was really disappointing.”
It was perhaps all of these experiences—leaving Cuba, living in poverty, being shunned as an outsider and needing to see the world from a different perspective that brought Miret to hardcore. For Miret, feeling vulnerable on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and having to adjust felt similar to when he first came over from Cuba.
“When I came across my peers—this New York hardcore thing—it was the same thing. It’s like regressing one more time, but amongst a new family, amongst a new tribe,” he explained. “We had to once again learn survival. Once again learn protection.
“But I was used to it.”
Soon he connected with other members of the hardcore scene—Raybeez (Agnostic Front, Warzone), Jimmy G (Murphy’s Law), Adam Mucci (Agnostic Front), Vinnie Stigma (Agnostic Front), Harley Flanagan (Cro-Mags)—and became the Lower East crew. Miret explained how he felt their crew differed from a more traditional gang.
“We never labeled ourselves as a gang—we were the Lower East Side crew. Back then was the beginning of the Hip Hop movement, and everything was a little crew,” he said. “It was really just a survival thing. It was never about a drug thing, a territorial thing or any extortion thing…It was more of a tribe. Our tribe will continue to exist under these conditions as long as we’re together. That’s why that unity thing was so strong for us. And it’s still strong because I lived it…I know it really works. I know if you create something strong, something genuine, something passionate, it works. And that’s probably the secret to our longevity, to our success with Agnostic Front—people could see that we’re genuine…And people want to be part of something like that.
“Nobody wants to be part of something that’s not real.”
And what Miret found in hardcore, perhaps more than anything else, was an opportunity not to be judged for being an individual. In the hardcore scene, being “agnostic”—questioning everything—was not only accepted but was more the norm.
“I hate people who pretend to be something they’re not…Hardcore is just being yourself—just looking in the mirror and being OK with yourself…no rules,” he described. “Something gravitated us to come together—we like to say it was music of course—friendships and bonds that we’ve had over years. But there had to be something that brought us all together…we’re a bunch of misfits. We knew we didn’t fit in society. We knew we were walking out of step.
“We knew we were different.”
Miret reveled in the fact that in the late ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s, New York City was thriving with people who questioned everything. There was not only a physical danger but also an intellectual danger with people being willing to create dangerous art.
“You can mimic just about everything. But you can’t mimic the danger of that time and that era. And that danger was so creative in different forms. The Lower East Side was thriving…with art, music…a movement…it was beautiful. As crazy as it sounds, every one of these storefronts you see with these boutiques…musicians were living there. You’d hear bands playing at night…Don Fury—Spring Street—he lived in that storefront. Downstairs was his recording studio,” he said. “So that danger was the secret to a lot of our bands—a lot of our upbringing. And I’m not saying that in a negative way. Because I think it painted something beautiful—something that you see in black and white and grey, all of a sudden, you have this beautiful color canvas coming out. Andy Warhol, The Ramones, Blondie—think about all of the wonderful stuff coming out of New York at such a horrible time. It’s like planting a seed in a toxic place where nothing will grow. But when it grows it becomes a beautiful flower. That’s what New York was like.”
Yet still, Miret had to face people who wanted to stereotype him. Because the music of hardcore is so intense, Miret wondered whether at times people did not hear the message of the lyrics.
“One of the things that I’ve struggled with for my entire career is the lyrical aspect of it, which meant so much to us in the beginning—all of us, be it Black Flag, Bad Religion, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, SS Decontrol, Negative Approach, Dead Kennedys—lyrically it spoke to us more than anything,” he said. “And as time progressed, as the scene moved on, I think that aspect of things got lost. And a lot of people, they’re into it for the music or something. It’s got a good groove, it’s got a good movement, you can do this to it. Sometimes music can be blinding the other aspects of it.”
“You’re missing the message.”
Miret hopes that future hardcore bands heed the message of that earlier era and embrace individuality and non-conformity, rather than feeling the need to adhere to a “hardcore” formula.
“Yeah of course anybody can look like me and make a band like our band. Anybody can sing like me if they want. That all changed through the years. These bands all sounded different from all over—Stimulators, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Beastie Boys – everyone had their own style and sound which was cool,” Miret explained. “There’s a lot more rules today. All of a sudden you had to do this, do that. And we were about not doing this, not doing that—being yourself. Then it became rules on top of rules…You have to look like this, dress like this to be hardcore. When it called me, it wasn’t that way. I always have difficulty with that question, ‘What is hardcore?’ I’m not that guy who’s going to give you the rules, the laws.
“That’s never been me.”
In his book, Miret describes his struggles over the years—addiction, prison, poverty. But through it all, by being willing to look at the world from a different perspective—by being truly agnostic—he has been true to himself and inspired some people along the way.
“I’ve struggled my whole life with ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Why did I stick to it for so long?’ besides that I’m very passionate about it—I love it. Here I am at 53—I have no retirement. I have not a lot of things that people have. What is my mission in this world in my life? And sometimes it bums me out. Because I have to think about my future,” he explained. “And then my wife tells me, ‘I think you were put on this planet to help people get through tough situations.’… And I think it’s true. Sometimes I’m bummed out backstage and I want to see my kids and I’m not in the zone. Then fans come up to me—one guy came up to me and said, ‘I went to prison for listening to your music. Your genre of music was not allowed to be listened to in Russia. Three years just because I had an Agnostic Front Cause for Alarm tape…And people will say if it wasn’t for Victim In Pain I would have never gotten through life. If it wasn’t for this album I would have killed myself. My wife is right. There’s nothing that is more rewarding than that.
“This is why I do what I do.”