John Joseph swims, bikes and runs by day and stage dives by night. The hard-living frontman of the ’80s seminal punk rock band The Cro-Mags, Joseph may seem like an unlikely triathlete. But beneath the tattooed surface, there’s a fierce competitor answering the universal appeal of a life-changing challenge: Ironman.
Underneath the spires of two traffic-choked bridges, the grimy chop of the East River laps at the rocks along the waterline of Brooklyn Bridge Park. You’d definitely need a dose of antibiotics if you swam across to Manhattan. And if this were the old New York—the New York that made John Joseph who he is today—you might have seen a body or two wash up on those rocks.
Clad in vegan Nikes and a black T-shirt with the words “Plant Strong” printed across the chest, Joseph makes his way to a patch of sun-drenched lawn for a few sprints. Orion Mims, his mentor and a nine-time Ironman competitor, is tethered to him by the four cords of the Power Sprinter, a device usually used to develop explosiveness but which Mims has redeployed to fine-tune Joseph’s running form. Joseph furiously pumps his tattooed arms and freshly shaven legs, blowing percussive breaths and meeting the machine’s intransigence with his own.
Exactly three months from that day, Joseph faced resistance of a much higher magnitude at the 2012 U.S. Ironman Championship, the first-ever Ironman held in New York City—and Joseph’s first competitive triathlon. A New Yorker best known as the frontman for the influential punk rock band The Cro-Mags, Joseph survived abuse, drugs, violence and the lawless 1970s and ’80s, when Times Square was best known for peep shows and the Lower East Side was a bombed-out haven for all order of criminals. A hardwired refusal to quit carried him through those trying times. But would his will close the experience gap and carry him to the finish line of an Ironman?
With just a few gray hairs in the copper mop on his head, Joseph looks at least a decade younger than his 49 years. Faded tattoos cover his arms, back and legs with figures and scenes from the Bhagavad Gita, the book of Vedic scripture that he says saved his life. Joseph has an Irish face, taut and hard-angled, with steely blue eyes that radiate intensity even when he cracks a joke. He speaks with bravado—he plays the hero in most of the stories he tells—but he is just as kindhearted. Colleen Armour, who works for Team Cindy—the Brain Aneurysm Foundation fundraising group that Joseph represented in the race—says Joseph’s true nature shines through his gruff visage. “Tattoos are just tattoos,” she says.
Born John Joseph McGowan in October 1962, he was one of three brothers who grew up under an abusive, alcoholic father, passing through orphanages and nightmarish foster homes before landing on the streets. For refusing to rat out the guy for whom he was selling angel dust, he did a stint in Spofford Juvenile Center in the Bronx and, later on, a group home in upstate New York. After a year in the Navy, a passion for punk rock led him to go AWOL for a decade and a half and head to the Lower East Side when drugs and prostitutes were on every corner. That atmosphere bred The Cro-Mags, a band whose raw riffs and streetwise lyrics propelled them to punk rock royalty in the mid-1980s with Joseph as the frontman. Joseph continues to play with the band today, summoning the energy of his 20-something self to sprint across the stage, shout into the mic, and punctuate songs with stage dives.
Paradoxes are at the core of Joseph’s biography. He stuck with a vegetarian diet even while in the throes of addiction. “I’d be smoking crack and still go get a wheat grass juice,” he says with a laugh. He squatted in abandoned buildings, pulled scams to get by, and pummeled his enemies. He also found spiritual fulfillment in the Hare Krishna movement and organized benefit concerts to feed the homeless. Joseph’s stories could fill a book, and they have: He authored his memoir, The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, in 2007.
Through the ups and downs, sports were Joseph’s solace. He learned to box in youth correctional facilities. While touring with the seminal punk band Bad Brains, he would go for daily runs with the lead singer. At the end of long days working as a bike messenger, he would join other cyclists for the pack ride through Central Park. And after getting sober in 1989, he says exercise and diet have helped him stay clean ever since.
He’s evangelical about what his dedication to fitness and a vegan diet has helped him achieve in his life’s second act. In 2010, he authored a tongue-in-cheek guide to nutrition and exercise, and he’s in the midst of writing another book that outlines an in-depth meal and exercise plan based on the same principles. At its core is a diet he terms “organic, whole foods, plant-based.” The word “veganism” holds a lot of baggage he doesn’t want to carry, but the dietary tenets are similar: no meat, no animal products, no genetically modified foods, no processed garbage. It’s a diet he says is born of both empathy for animals and pragmatism.Pages: 1 2