To celebrate his birthday, Rick Healey attended one of those rare happenings: A hardcore show in New York City. The performance by Negative Approach, a group that pioneered the genre in the early ‘80s, was especially significant to Healey, who grew up listening to the Detroit band. Healey’s own band, 25 Ta Life, has long covered “Lead Song” from the group’s 1982 self-titled record, and he was now seeing them for the first time. After the gig, in the wee hours of a spring morning last year, Healey was walking six blocks from the Brooklyn venue when he was approached by three strangers in hooded sweatshirts. They attacked him and knocked him unconscious. It’s amazing how quickly a perfect night can turn to shit.
Three days later, Healey, better known as Rick Ta Life, was performing onstage, and between songs he described the pleasure of having finally seen his longtime heroes play. “I went to see Negative Approach on my 38th birthday and that’s what I’m going to remember,” he said after 25 Ta Life’s set at a Long Island bar. “I’m just very grateful to be here, to be able to play a show and do what I love,” said Healey, sporting a black eye and sipping a Coke. “I wanna’ focus on the good times in life.”
During his two decades in the hardcore scene, Healey has grown experienced at deflecting negativity. Although he supports hardcore relentlessly—playing with three different bands, printing fanzines, and releasing over 70 records on his D.I.Y. label, Back Ta Basics—his relationship to the scene is strained. “Is there a schism there?” asks Paul Bearer, who sang for the classic New York hardcore outfit Sheer Terror and collaborated with Healey on a song in 1999. “I dunno. I dunno.” What’s certain is that Healey gets a lot of flak. At once, he is a hardcore hero, a living legend, an inside joke, and a punching bag for the scene—and for its online community in particular. Nevertheless, he remains undeterred. “This is the music that helped me in my life,” Rick says. “I just do my thing. Good times, hard times, whatever.”
Healey’s introduction to hardcore coincided with some of the toughest years of his life. He grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and started going to shows regularly when he was 17, just after he began using drugs. “I went from weed to crack, coke, heroin. So I went pretty bad and pretty fast,” says Healey. He dropped out of high school and continued using heavily until he was 20 years old. “I got myself in a lot of trouble. I got locked up, all these fines.”
He credits his probation officer with helping him begin the process of getting clean. In the mid-‘90s, Healey would adopt a straight-edge lifestyle, which has helped him stay sober, and which he has sung about on tracks like “Promise Keeper.” But before that, his other great help in combating addiction came from a different avenue of hardcore culture: Tattoos. “When I started getting sober, instead of going and spending my money on heroin and crack, I would go and get tattoos,” he says. “That was how I was venting.”