Contributors To New Bad Brains Book Tell Us Their Best H.R. Stories

Most people have to die first to reach the legendary status that Paul “H.R.” Hudson has achieved. The enigmatic frontman of renowned punk band Bad Brains, has been captivating fans for decades with his explosive performances. His extreme devotion to the musical genre he helped pioneer is undeniable, making him a good subject for the first fully authorized biography on the near-mythical vocalist. Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains is a new book by Howie Abrams & James Lathos and is a compilation of oral histories offering firsthand insights into the complexity that is H.R. Mass Appeal reached out to co-author Howie Abrams and asked him to shed some light on the musician and round up some anecdotes from the photographers in the book who have been documenting him.

“We’re watching a Bad Brains show and H.R. does a backflip and lands EXACTLY at the end of the song, and it was like ‘game over!’ I remember Corey (Glover) being in the audience and we looked at each other like, ‘WHAT THE FUCK?!’” offers up Living Colour guitar maestro Vernon Reid.

It is unilaterally accepted in hardcore punk circles that H.R. is the single greatest vocalist and performer there has ever been. He is simply that special. Lyrically, H.R. contributed earnest spirituality to a medium rife with nihilism, negativity and even violence. Nevertheless, it might just be H.R.’s plentiful reggae output – both with the Brains and as a solo artist – which truly sets Joseph – the biblical name assigned to him by his Twelve Tribes of Israel brethren – apart from any supposed peers.

Many lens-folk have tried, yet only a handful of photographers have succeeded in visually documenting H.R. within his natural comfort zone: on stage, breaking it down for the youths. Whether it be launching himself from a monitor cabinet into a sea of thrashing punks, skinheads and curious onlookers, or by witnessing the uniquely animated facial calisthenics the man exhibited while passionately emoting through a skank-drenched Caribbean-influenced rhythm, H.R. fascinates the retina, iris, cornea and pupil in a manner unlike any other.

Following is a peek at some of the great photos of H.R. and the masters who’ve dared to venture into the pit to capture them:

Valley Green Housing Complex (Washington, DC – 1979)

You had a city in Washington, DC, that was extremely divided between the whites and the blacks. You had Marion Barry as the mayor. DC at that time was very divisive and a lot of people never ventured outside their own neighborhoods. Going to Valley Green for that Rock Against Racism show was almost like walking into a different country, going from Northwest Washington to Southeast Washington. It was one of the poorer areas in the country, much less Washington, DC. It was a scene of contrast. You had poor inner-city folks, with a group of white suburban kids dressed up as punk rockers. You couldn’t have dreamed of anything more surreal in a scene. On some level, each side was very curious about the other, and it was interesting watching people try to size each other up and try to figure out what was going on. And the kids from Valley Green did not like the music at all. It was so alien to what they listened to. Most of them didn’t know what to make of it. But on a certain level, I think everybody had a good time. It was a clash of cultures, but I think everybody came away with something. A lot of them had never seen a white person—literally—and I think it shook up a lot of stereotypes. –Lucian Perkins

The Bayou, Washington, DC (1981)

H.R.’s charisma was undeniable onstage. It was just mind-blowing, and he was just so animated in terms of running back and forth across the stage. I’m not sure if he jumped off the balcony that night, but I know I saw him at The Bayou other times when he jumped off the balcony. Gary was in his full Dr. Know regalia. He had full scrubs on with blood all over them. Darryl was still called Darryl Cyanide, and he had bleached blonde hair. Just their presence—they weren’t asking for nothing. They were just telling us what was up. As a kid, you see the arena rock world where opening bands are usually the subject of people booing them off the stage like, “Bring on Van Halen” or whoever the headliner is. Openers are largely treated like the small acts before the main ones, and with the early punk shows, you still kind of had that. Bad Brains: this was just not the case. They had a spot, and they were going to do it. They were obviously working hard. That really sent a message to us like, that’s a band that’s from here and they’re better than any band we’ve seen up to that point. —Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat/Fugazi (Photo: MJ Vilardi, courtesy of the family of Mo Sussman.)

Rock Hotel, NYC (1985)

At the time I shot the photo of H.R. stagediving at the Rock Hotel, it didn’t seem like a big deal. It wasn’t until I got into the darkroom and started working with the images that I realized what a great shot it was. It’s actually a composite of 2 photos, and I like the current digital version much better than the original. I remember the night of the Rock Hotel show we were late. Other bands had played and finished, the place was absolutely jam packed. There was an old mezzanine that was closed for safety reasons, but I went up there anyway. It had the best view in the house for photography. I didn’t usually use an electronic flash when shooting performances, but this time I used a big one on a bracket with a long lens and that’s how I was able to get the photo. –Steven Hanner

City Gardens, Trenton, NJ (1989)

I’ve been photographing and documenting the punk/hardcore scene going back to the beginning I guess. Over the long haul, I’ve become “friends” with so many people in varying degrees of friendship. H.R. was one of those friendships that I cherished. He saw some of the first images I took of Bad Brains for Thrasher Magazine and immediately contacted me. It was snail-mail back in the day, but we wrote back and forth for quite a while. He always told me when they were playing in the area, and I made a point of seeing them whenever I could. This was before digital files of images, so I was sending 8 x 10 prints. I guess the period when he left Bad Brains and fronted Human Rights was about the time most photographers were transitioning to digital. That was also the time we kind of lost contact. Fast forward to when I was involved with the City Gardens documentary… One of the first people we contacted to interview was H.R. When we finally met up with him and hung out for two days, it was like we never lost contact. In spite of all that’s written about his mental state these days, I’m always amazed at his memory. He remembers the smallest details of venues and people and shows. I consider myself privileged to have known H.R. as a friend. That allowed me to photograph him whenever I wanted to. Glad he’s finally getting his due. –Ken Salerno

The Ritz, NYC (1989)

Bad Brains is always one of my favorite bands to shoot, mainly because of H.R.’s infectious energy. His unpredictability always makes for a great shot. –BJ Papas

*All photos and dozens more appear in Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains out now via Lesser Gods

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