Baltimore’s Baddest Brain
How the city helped heal H.R. and reunite the legendary Bad Brains to make their best album in decades
Published: November 28, 2012
Bad Brains’ first album in five years, Into the Future, will drop in two days, and H.R., the band’s singer, is sitting on the stairs in the corner of a Hollins Market football party/vegan brunch. Even though H.R. is at least a decade older than anyone else in the room and is wearing a green tracksuit over a shirt and tie, he doesn’t look at all out of place, just another Soweboan hanging with some friends on a Sunday afternoon. Not even the three skate punks who live across the street seem to notice that there is a legend in their midst.
Considering that he’s known to walk around town in robes and a blond wig, or to wear a veil and bulletproof jacket onstage, H.R. (born Paul Hudson) is dressed modestly today. His black beanie reads “No Sell Out.”
Six years ago, when H.R. first moved to Baltimore, he was coming off a long period of sporadic homelessness and wasn’t doing nearly so well. Though the band was about to release Build a Nation and play a series of high-profile gigs, H.R. was still at his most erratic, and disappointed fans and critics with bafflingly dissociated performances. After a bad period in New York, he found his way down to Baltimore, where musician (and erstwhile CP contributor) Pablo Fiasco rented a large, unheated warehouse space. Fiasco says H.R. was in the warehouse for two years before anyone even knew he was in town.
But Baltimore seems to have been good for the shambolic performer. He is clearly at home on the streets of Sowebo, near the apartment he now shares with his wife, smiling and waving at most of the people he passes. He jumps on the Circulator for a few blocks, hops off and hails a cab, which takes us to City Hall, where we sit and talk. Then we catch a cab from the Block back to Hollins Market. We go to the Arabber stables, where he spends a lot of time with a horse named Callahan.
“Hey, what’s up, sons,” he says, walking up to a fence inside of which two young boys wrangle miniature ponies. One of the kids hollers to the man who runs the stable and H.R. and the man exchange pleasantries and H.R. hands over some cash to pay for Callahan’s care before one of the kids leads us past a red wagon to the rich-smelling stable.
The 56-year-old man gently petting the white horse’s nose is hard to reconcile with the “shamanic,” “whirling dervish” hardcore punk rasta legend with the PMA (Positive Mental Attitude, an Oprah-ish philosophy he picked up from a book by Napoleon Hill and widely popularized in the hardcore scene). After all, the Bad Brains’ first self-titled 1982 album is as far back from us in time as Elvis Presley’s first album was from it.
However eccentric he may be, it’s equally hard to reconcile this guy with the myth of the crazy and destructive H.R. which has overtaken his reputation. You might have heard the stories, seen the documentary, read the interviews: homophobic outbursts, violent incidents, grandiose statements, long periods of homelessness, and live performances that veered between rambling, often incoherent sermons and complete and utter silence. A consensus has emerged: H.R. is crazy.
But watching him interact with people—and horses—in Baltimore, it becomes clear that H.R. has continued to change and evolve. He recently married (wearing a white suit, a white hat, and gold shoes), got dentures, and reunited with the band to record Into the Future together, in one room, the way they did it when they were kids back in D.C. And the album captures much of the speed, fury, and unpredictable brilliance that made the band such a legendary presence in the 1980s music scene. Mixing hardcore punk—which the Bad Brains are often said to have invented—reggae, funk, soul, and metal, songs like “Popcorn,” or “We Belong Together,” harken back to the band’s seminal sound without trying to mimic it.
Darryl Jenifer, the Brains’ bass player and H.R.’s harshest critic in the band (in this year’s Bad Brains: A Band in D.C., he says, “You’re a sell-out, and I hope I never have to see your ass again!”), has reconciled with the singer, whom he calls an older brother. “People don’t understand realness no more,” Jenifer says. “Punk is about doing your own thing and being yourself and people don’t want him to do it. It’s a real double standard. If Johnny Rotten acted just like H.R., people wouldn’t say he was crazy. They’d say he was punk. But H.R. is the only real artist still out there and people don’t understand it.”
Walking around downtown, H.R. recalls the early days. “At first there was nowhere to play,” he says. “So we would have to do shows in our basement, record in our basement, rehearse in our basement, and go into the backyard and jam out. That’s what eventually led the group to have that intense sound, because they would practice every day. I could not believe it! And when I heard those boys blaring out those tunes, I was like, ‘Psshaw! This ain’t nothing to joke around with. Them boys, they know what they doing. So I’m gonna go ahead and give them some cool lyrics.’”
Still a relatively segregated city today, when Bad Brains formed—a decade after the riots burned much of Washington, D.C.—it was even more so. According to H.R., at first, it was difficult for a group of African-American kids to be taken seriously by the punk audience. “Because of their stereotypes, sometimes smart alecks would come to the shows and be saying ‘Aww, get these niggers off the stage. They don’t know what the hell they doing.’ And they’d throw beer bottles at us and spit on us and everything, and I would kind of go in the back and cry.”
Jenifer recalls similar incidents. “Once or twice, I heard somebody say, ‘Go home, nigger’ and it was in Baltimore,” Jenifer says. “It was in Towson University. It was one of our first gigs we ever played and it was way back in the ’70s and it might have been our first real show outside of our basement.”
No one knew quite how to take the Brains in those days, and as a result, says H.R. “We’d play shows at the most notorious, vicious clubs around the world, where the audiences would just do whatever they felt like doing.” Those clubs influenced the Brains’ ferocious live shows.
According to Jenifer, the Brains were banned in Baltimore before they were ever banned in D.C. “I think [the Marble Bar] was one of the first places we ever got banned from because we punked up the dressing room,” he says. “A piano got broke or something. You know, back then it was punk rock. But that was one of our first ‘Don’t come back no more.’”
The breakneck-paced playing of Dr. Know (Gary Miller) on guitar, Jenifer on bass, and Earl Hudson, H.R.’s brother, on drums drove the crowd—and H.R.—into a frenzy. There was something spiritual, philosophical, and yet maniacal about the band. That first self-titled album, released as a ROIR cassette in 1982, is a classic. Songs like “Sailin’ On,” “Banned in D.C.,” and “Pay to Cum” helped define the genre of hardcore punk. And then, after five ferociously fast songs, there would be a reggae-flavored slow groove like “Jah Calling.”
In old footage of their shows, you can feel the way that this mixture is like tantric sex, keeping everyone on the verge. H.R. remembers what it felt like. “Gary was just blarin’ out all these macho, macho guitar strums. And there was Darryl and Earl—Oh Lord! Sometimes he would truly get me on the level that just, right on the edge, and I’d say ‘Earl, just please, slow down.’ But no matter how much I told him to slow down, he’d go faster and faster and faster.”
H.R. cut back flips, slung his slender frame around the stage singing in a reedy, rapid-fire rat-a-tat in response—part Bob Marley, part Johnny Rotten, part James Brown.
But H.R.’s charisma and outspokenness had its downside. The first stain came with Rastafarian-inspired homophobic remarks and lyrics that have continued to plague the band nearly 30 years later. Recently, H.R.’s Human Rights Band booked a series of shows with gay-positive band the World/Inferno Friendship Society, many of whose fans threatened to boycott the shows, according to Pablo Fiasco, a current member of the Human Rights Band whom H.R. has lived with for much of his time in Baltimore.
H.R. still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable talking about the band’s early views on homosexuality, almost whispering that, since then, both the Brains and his Human Rights Band have “wanted to have mixed universal celebrations of mixed breeds and views, and we would invite them into our dressing rooms to share their views.” When pushed, he seems contrite. “Judge not. My dad was a person of beliefs. I never worried about hanky-panky, but I let them down.” H.R.’s wife, Lori Carns, says, “I’m not going to say he approves of the homosexual lifestyle, but he has learned empathy and compassion.”
But the anti-gay remarks were followed by violent outbursts, including a fight with Anthony Countey, the band’s longtime manager, and one incident where he hit a fan with a mic stand, which led to H.R.’s incarceration.
After their second album, 1983’s Rock for Light, the Brains broke up for the first time and H.R. founded the Human Rights Band, his solo band—beginning a pattern that would last for decades. They were back together for the classic I Against I (1986)and the 1989 follow-up, Quickness, after which H.R. and his brother Earl left the band, both wanting to further pursue the reggae that had always been a big part of the band’s sound—and the Rastafarianism that came with it.
H.R. says that he made three different trips to Jamaica in that period. “I said, ‘That’s going to be the new thing for us Africans,’” he says. “Because I was looking for answers. I didn’t want to be a dope addict and I didn’t want to be a bum and I just wanted to channel my efforts, have a God there who could help me find out what is the beautiful way of being an individual, to assist my career as well as the group.
“It was the spirit of the Lord,” H.R. says, walking past Baltimore’s City Hall. “God came into my life. I had to take a time-out to get to know the Holy Spirit, to get to know who I was, to get answers that I’d been questioning with the music, with me, with what was my part in society, what kind of individual I had become, what kind of individual I was before, and what kind of individual I wanted to be. Once I reached a conclusive, collective, conscious decision, then I knew how to respond properly.”
The proper response, it seems, was to rejoin the band in 1995 for God of Love. But it was a short-lived solution. “There were about 10 years when we wouldn’t communicate and that was a letdown for me,” says H.R.
During this period, he went to California, where he found himself living on the streets.
“I didn’t have a place to live for 15 years,” he says. “Dudes kept telling me, ‘Earn your dues, earn your dues.’ So I would go and sit under the Egyptian temple and sign autographs by the Guinness Book of World Records,” H.R. recalls. Eventually, he says, “I met Angelo [Moore]. They had a show out there, the Fishbone crew, and after I met him, things started pulling together for the Brains. He said, ‘Come on man, H.R. come on, dude. Don’t just slack it out like this. Your brothers need you. Do it for us.’ I said, ‘Oh all right,’ and then I talked to Earl.”
Jenifer was talking to Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys, about recording a new Brains album around the same time. Yauch, to whom Into the Future is dedicated, encouraged H.R. and helped him break this shell. “The dude’s creativity level was just incredible,” H.R. recalls of the late Beastie Boy. “And he believed in every single word that I sang. And he kept on stressing to me, ‘Please, whatever you do, H.R., don’t sell out. Remain true to the ’hood, to the brothers on the scene, to us. We’re great, we’ll support you however it goes. But don’t imitate. Be original. Be yourself.”
2007’s Build a Nation didn’t do much to bring the band back together: Much of it was recorded in pieces because they couldn’t be in the same room together. In the dates they played after Build a Nation’s release, H.R. was as eccentric and difficult as ever, once sitting down on the drum riser and refusing to sing at all.
H.R. reflects on all the bands public arguments. “I wouldn’t say anything and Darryl would say, ‘Are you losing your mind, H.R.? Do you understand the kind of opportunities you’re turning down?’ ’Cause I’d walk on the stage, wouldn’t say anything, and would walk off. And Darryl would be so hype-city for the shows with Gary and Earl.”
Of these late shows, Mark Andersen, writing in the Washington City Paper this summer, says “I had thought punk long ago lost its ability to jar my sensibilities, but H.R. finds a way to prove me wrong.” Andersen’s assessment is not praise. H.R. is famous for jarring sensibilities and yet, a sizeable number of Bad Brains fans, including Andersen, seems to expect him to be like he was in 1983.
Build a Nation brought H.R. back East. After a period in New York, he found his way down to Baltimore and, it seems, slowly began to open a new chapter. During his first years in Charm City, H.R. stayed at the warehouse space that Fiasco rented downtown, near Sonar. To see them interact now, it is clear how close Fiasco and H.R. have become over the last half-dozen years. But H.R. was not an easy charge at first.
“Those first couple years at the warehouse were rough,” Fiasco recalls. “It wasn’t necessarily the best or the healthiest place, but it was safe and musicians and cool people came and checked on him and were there all the time. I’d be worried about him and he’d be acting weird as shit.”
Kristin Forbes, Lady Hatchet of the Scotch Bonnets and other bands, lived in the warehouse at the same time and recalls that, at first, H.R. wouldn’t really talk to her. “People said, ‘He has a problem with women,’ and I was like, ‘What the fuck? I’m supposed to be the odd man out because H.R. has a problem with me and no one will say anything?’”
When he did start going out, H.R. had an eccentric schedule, to say the least. “Well, most of the time I [would] get up kind of early,” he says. “I’d walk over here and then go over to where the Rite Aid was and then say ‘hi’ to my old girlfriend Joyce who was the very first girl I’d ever met when I was 14 years old and she’d smile and have a blush on her face and I wouldn’t hang around ’cause I knew it was her job. Then I’d go outside, start directing traffic. Right this way, right this way, you know, ’cause 9 A.M., the whole place would be jammed with traffic. Then, after that, it would slow down and I’d go get a little bite to eat at the Kentucky Fried Chicken and then I’d go home and rehearse and wait until I got the cue from the band that they wanted to do a show.”
Eventually, H.R. got the call from his brother Earl.
“Two years ago, my brother Earl approached me,” H.R. says. “And he said ‘Would you please take time out of your hectic life and keep control of your senses. Don’t make the biggest mistake of your career. The group is counting on you and I need you to wake up out of whatever dream you’re in and understand one thing: You are the great H. R. and the Brains need you to put out a new album. So please, get off of your butt and let’s go and do it.’ He was a good mind-reader and he knew what was going on in my mind. Maybe nobody else did, but my brother did. I did not know, I did not know. I had no idea of knowing that people truly loved our kind of music and wanted to see our group perform.”
The way H.R. tells it—the subsequent series of phone calls where he convinces all the guys in the band, one more time, that he is serious and would not let them down—could come straight from The Blues Brothers. But this time it just might have been true. And so the old band was back together again.
“I thought it would be better for us to return to our roots,” Jenifer says. “And we could work on three or four ideas at a time and make it feel like back when we were younger and were just getting together in our basement and do organically what we do when bands are first starting, back when there aren’t producers looking over your shoulder, like when we wrote ‘Don’t Need It’ and ‘Sailin’ On.’ All these songs were written in our basement, amongst ourselves. And we’ll always have that, but over our careers and the last 30 years and the things we’ve created with producers and stuff— I’m not saying that’s bad. But it is what it is. They use the word today ‘organic’—organic is when a band goes back to their roots and find[s] what they initially did to create their fanbase.”
“Well, what happened is they recorded some of the most consummate music this group has ever played,” H.R. says of the recording sessions in New York. “We wrote it collectively. First Darryl, Earl, and Gary recorded the rhythms. Then, little by little, I pieced the lyrics in. Sometimes it was a little off, so it took a little extra effort on my part to make it sound just as accurate as possible. Cause you know I’m a perfectionist when it comes to vocals. I specialize in that.”
The lyrics came from Baltimore. “I was in the ’hood, and since I was in the ’hood, I could relate and hear and finally get a chance to see and know firsthand what the children are up to. And children mean the world to me. My peoples. So I didn’t really know what was up until I did hear it from them. And much to my surprise, they could relate to the Brains’ sound. I took what they were saying and I took those ideas and those memories and also those laws and teachings and rules, and when I went up to New York, I did it as close to that way as possible but still kept my own original techniques.”
Since many of the songs were written while he was at Fiasco’s warehouse, which had no heat or air conditioning, H.R. would go down to the red-light district on East Baltimore Street, where the staff of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club would let him work on songs.
The result may not have the same sense of originality as the band’s first self-titled album—but it’s hard to name a contemporary album that does. It shows the Brains as a vital and cohesive working unit, and H.R.’s vocals are as powerful as they’ve ever been.
But it seems to be his recent marriage as much as anything else that has given H.R. a new conception of what he is doing with the band and his life. His wife, Lori Carns, is an herbalist and artist who, as he says, “has been taking care of me all the time” and has done much to help with his migraines and other health problems. “Having some stability and love in his life has done more for him than anything else to treat what other people call ‘his schizophrenia,’” she says. “He was quiet and wouldn’t really talk, but as soon as we met, that started to change. Now he talks to everyone.”
The two share an apartment—he no longer lives in the warehouse, though Fiasco still acts as a caretaker and confidante—where they watch Soul Train and dance together almost every day. “He calls twice a day when I’m at work to say he loves me,” she says.
It was not until Carns ordered the DVD of the Brains’ 1982 CBGB concert that H.R. understood why so many people were excited about the band. “I saw myself for the first time from the outside, looking in, and I was just awestruck,” H.R. says of watching the video. “I saw all those kids dancing onstage and I said, ‘Oh boy, I think I understand now what all of the uproar was about.”
All of this seems to have changed H.R. profoundly. He plays music every chance he gets. “When we have a show, he usually wants to come along,” Kristin Forbes says of her band the Scotch Bonnets, with whom H.R., having outgrown his “problem with women,” often plays. “He is so humble and gracious. I can’t pay him anymore than anyone else, but he just wants to play with his friends.”
This is clear when he returns to the Hollins Market party and asks Fiasco for an acoustic guitar. In the garden out back, he starts to strum barre chords and sing in his magnetic, high, and reedy voice. Fiasco comes running out with a big grin and a melodion as H.R. sings, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, aww Rastafari,” seemingly at peace with himself and the world.
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