by Napoleon Hill. The book is an early self-help classic that the band—guitarist Dr. Know (aka Gary Miller), bassist Daryl Jenifer, drummer Earl Hudson, and vocalist H.R. (aka Paul Hudson, Earl's brother; his initials have stood for both Huntin' Rod and Human Rights)—took as its bible, substituting goals of artistic and personal success for the work's stated aim of guiding readers to monetary wealth. Central to Hill's teachings is the concept of Positive Mental Attitude—or PMA—a philosophy that has kept the band's eyes on the prize through thick and thin throughout its nearly three decades.
"PMA has helped us maintain the conviction of what we intended to do when we started out," says Jenifer. "Which was to be the greatest punk rock band of all."
The Bad Brains began in 1977 as Mind Power, a group playing not punk, but jazz-funk fusion. Wasn't such technique-centric lineage a no-no for back-to-basics punk rockers?
"Not to us," says Jenifer. "We were blessed with the versatility. DC is the home of go-go music, which is what most people there expected a black band to be doin'. We liked that music, too, but we still wanted to be different. So it was a blessing and a curse to be in the middle of all that."
A friend and early band member turned the others onto punk, playing them records by the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Dead Boys, and others. Taking its new name from a Ramones song, the group moved onto club dates but was shut out of nearly every local venue, thanks to the sometimes violent reactions of its audiences. After discovering reggae via UK punks like The Clash and the Slits, the four members converted to Rastafari and headed for New York in 1981.
There, they became the new prime movers of the nascent Big Apple hardcore scene, drawing well at CBGB and Irving Plaza and inspiring dozens of younger bands. In late '81 the group released its galvanizing, self-titled debut and began touring relentlessly, catching the ear of The Cars' Ric Ocasek, who produced the follow-up, 1983's Rock for Light
After the first of many hiatuses, the group reconvened in 1986 to record its masterpiece, I Against I
. A thunderous, ground-shaking set melding punk with dub and hard rock, the album showcases H.R.'s chameleon-like vocal talents as he darts between a deep baritone, rapid-fire rap, and his signature otherworldly falsetto.
The album won the foursome heaps of critical praise and a new generation of fans. Major labels began sniffing around. But another piece of Bad Brains lore has it that commercial defeat will frequently be snatched from the jaws of victory. While he's a riveting, shamanistic front man, cannons don't come much looser than H.R., whose legendary instability has alienated many potential allies and helped quash several big-label deals.
"Like most genius artists, the Bad Brains are flawed when it comes to other [non-artistic] areas," says Steve Blush, author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History
and coproducer of the new documentary American Hardcore
(Sony Pictures Classics), in which the band features heavily. "They have a history of constant business problems, of all the wrong things happening at the wrong times." He points to H.R. famously walking out on a deal with Island records in 1985.
Jenifer moved his family to Woodstock in 1984. "The Great Spirit showed me I could get a nice, big place up here for what I was paying for my apartment in Brooklyn," he says. "Even when I lived in the 'hood, I always dug the woods." Dr. Know followed him up the next year, while Earl went south to Atlanta. H.R. seems to be doing better now, but has struggled with mental health issues and frequently lived on the streets.
The Bad Brains are an acknowledged touchstone of platinum-harvesters like Rage Against the Machine, Living Color, and White Zombie. But does the band harbor any bitterness at those who have woven the threads of its sound into solid-gold success? "Nah," says Jenifer with a smile and a shrug. "You know what they say: 'Each one teach one.'"
The outfit's combined soul is infinitely bigger than that of the individual players, and has always managed to corral them back together. Right now this spirit is manifesting itself in several fortuitous ways: a forthcoming album, The Oscilloscope Recordings
, on Megaforce; a possible tour; the appearance in American Hardcore
; a satellite radio show hosted by Jenifer; a DVD of 1982 CBGB performances; and three sold-out dates during the club's final week.
So there I was, back at CB's in early October for the first of those shows. Full circle. Shoehorned around me were kids holding blue-glowing cell phones, twenty-somethings who were nowhere near born that first time I came here. Still smelled the same, though. And the edificial PA was still kicking, resonating with chest-thumping dub classics. I was nervous and excited all over again. Would we catch lightning in a bottle once more?
Well, in a way. The band cooked as ferociously as ever, but H.R., wearing shades, a crash helmet, and a demented smile, was uncharacteristically immobile as he vocalized into a malfunctioning headphone mic. It wasn't what I was hoping for, but maybe that wasn't such a bad thing.
"H.R. ain't no jukebox," Jenifer says later. "The Bad Brains ain't no philharmonic orchestra, son. I didn't always get it, but I see what H.R. was doin' now. He doesn't wanna do the same thing every gig. He wants to make it more interesting for himself, more of a challenge for the audience. Maybe that pisses some people off," Jenifer pounds the bar top to punctuate his point. "but, hey, the man is punk rock
. That's how it is."
To that end, while much of the glory-seeking audience is unsure what to make of the show, many in the room are bowled over by H.R.'s bemused, performance-art juxtaposition of Rasta benevolence against the group's punk fury. And it's clearly intentional, as all reports say the following two nights were classic, off-the-hook Bad Brains sets. "I wish you coulda caught the second night," Jenifer says. "That was just perfect, man."
So what was it, then, that the Bad Brains taught me about rock 'n' roll? That's easy, and it's a lesson I took with me when I went onstage myself at CBGB, years after that first visit: Always go all out, always challenge yourself and your audience. But they also taught me some other things, things that have helped me in much bigger ways outside the finite sphere of rock: If one plan fails, try another; turn defeat into success. Always keep that PMA. And never, never
give in, no matter what life brings.
I still have that jacket, by the way, hanging in my closet. It's been through a lot and doesn't fit me so well anymore. But somehow I couldn't live without it. And I still like to take it out once in a while, if only to marvel at how well it was made.