June 8 marks a year since the shocking death of culinary icon Anthony Bourdain. Cro-Mags bassist/founder Harley Flanagan was the first of Bourdain’s friends to be interviewed after the devastating news broke. He was later featured on the final episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain’s latest beloved, long-running TV show about travel, food, culture and the human experience that binds them. Flanagan was just one of a string of guests on Bourdain’s show that spanned from Greek fishermen to President Barack Obama.
Bourdain and Flanagan had only recently become friends, but they had a lifetime of rare experiences in common. Bourdain recognized Flanagan from the earliest days of New York hardcore, in the late 1970s, when Flanagan was already a larger-than-life figure as the 12-year old drummer for the Stimulators. Over the ensuing decades, they both experienced comparable highs and lows: obscurity, fame, addiction, other humbling experiences and a hard-won calm that looked like peace—from a distance.
They both wrote books and channeled their unmistakable energy into Brazilian jiujitsu at New York City’s Renzo Gracie Academy, where Flanagan is a black belt and instructor under the mixed martial arts legend.
Between finishing a fierce new album and opening several record-breaking original Misfits reunion concerts, Flanagan recalled his late friend in an emotional tribute below.
Jiujitsu was where we reconnected. Our paths had crossed in the late ’70s on the Lower East Side, places such as the [defunct legendary punk-friendly club] Max’s Kansas City and a lot of other clubs. He said, “You used to walk in and out of the clubs, past security, and they’d just open the door for you like you were a celebrity.” Like, “What’s this little kid doing here?! Why is this 12-year-old hanging out? How is he in a band?”
I didn’t meet him back then—I was in my own world, playing music. I met him years later at an MMA event. And then we wound up meeting at [Renzo Gracie] Academy. I was actually teaching his daughter for a while. The first time I met him, I had no idea what a huge celebrity he was, because I didn’t have cable TV.
We started small talking, and it turned out we had a lot of mutual friends from the old days: people in music, people in photography, writers, so on and so forth. And we really connected. He had a lot of respect for the people that I grew up around, the worlds I had lived in. And he had a lot of respect for me.
I wasn’t one of the people who got him into it, but he really fell in love with [Brazilian jiujitsu]. Whenever he was in New York, he was on the mats, over at the Academy. He would train when he was on the road. He was really into it.
I really only rolled with him once or twice. He was taking classes when I was teaching. He wasn’t one of those famous people who goes in and only does privates [private lessons] and doesn’t want to risk getting their ass kicked in front of everybody. He didn’t give a fuck. He was one of the guys. He went in, and he was super-polite and cordial to everybody.
Somebody who’s a big director, you might know their name, but you don’t know their face or what they look like when they’re in a gi. But Bourdain, that face was unmistakable. The guy was like 6 foot 5, so it was impossible to not notice him.
People would always walk up and say, “Can I get a picture? I’m a huge fan.” He was always polite. I know he had the ability to be a dick and be really good at it—but he wasn’t unless people came at him that way. He was a really genuinely nice guy. He went out of his way to do things for me he didn’t have to do, you know? He did the blurb for my book. And he gave me the time to interview me about the book and have me on his show. I’m honored.
Most of the time we spent together was hanging out and talking. And I wish we had more of that. The fact of the matter is: When you’re a known person of any level or caliber, you don’t know who is genuinely coming to you as a friend. And when you have a little bit of fame going back as far as I did —people still judge me for things I did when I was a teenager, still mentally juvenile, literally juvenile. So it’s refreshing to make friendships that are just based on how you interact with people. You want people to be courteous and nice because that’s how you want to be treated, and that’s how you treat them. I was lucky to consider him a friend.
Once I wound up having cable, I loved his show. He was really funny, and I was a fan. The show, he was that guy. That was the guy. When you were watching him having lunch and talking, you were actually sitting there, having lunch with him. You’re there. You do know him.
But I’ll tell you: Even the people who were close to him were all caught off guard. As much as we felt like we knew him, there’s always other stuff going on in people that nobody knows. I think everybody’s on the [mental health] spectrum.
I don’t know what the root of his pain was. He had his issues with drugs, as I had. But everybody has things that happen to them in life that they deal with or they mask or they try to handle. I struggle with it sometimes, and other times I don’t.
I learned a lot from Tony, not just in his life, but in his passing: You cannot give up, period. Because you do not know what’s next. What’s devastating today may not be such a big deal down the road. I’ve got my things that happened, but my life is amazing now. I think he had a moment of weakness—and I think that’s all it takes for anybody.
I think about him a lot, and I wish I got to spend more time with him. He’s one of the very few people that when I knew I was going to be seeing him, I really looked forward to it. I would sit and think about what kind of conversations I could have or questions I could throw at him. And I have not known many people who had that kind of impact on me.
[His death] fucked me up. I woke up my wife saying, “Oh, my God” and looking at my phone. She was shocked. We still didn’t know what had happened. I couldn’t have imagined it was suicide. I started to cry. It hurts to know that someone you care about was in so much pain that they gave up. That was a guy who changed the world for better—and he could have, and would have, done so much more. It’s a real damn shame that he’s gone.
I’m saddened by his loss. I think he introduced people to the world. I think he introduced all of us to things we would never have seen. And that is a game-changer.
I really loved him as a friend. It’s an honor to be able to talk about the man and to have those experiences.