When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I loved Bad Brains and their enigmatic lead singer, Paul “H.R.” Hudson. The group burst on the punk rock scene in Washington D.C., combining elements of bands like the Dead Boys with a furious sonic force that was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and besides that, the whole group was African-American — something almost unheard of in punk rock back in those days. The band defined what punk rock was in a way that the Sex Pistols couldn’t. Led by their mercurial frontman, H.R., whom Chino Moreno of Deftones fame has called “the best vocalist ever.” He was a frenzied ball of energy who did back flips on stage, dove into the audience at will, and brought an extreme intensity to their shows.
Bad Brains took the punk rock scene by storm, and was quickly a CBGB headliner and mainstay. Their shows were so chaotic that they were soon banned from playing in the nation’s capital; they wrote a song about it, Banned in D.C. There was a bidding war among record companies to sign them, but H.R. refused to ink a contract with anybody. To make the situation more complex, H.R. and the band became Rastafarians after attending a Bob Marley show. They grew dreadlocks and started incorporating reggae into their music. But during their fast and furious rise, it seemed that H.R.’s mind slipped a gear along the way. He went from being an unstoppable force and leader, to being a person with divergent personalities and dimensions.
H.R. in a stage dive; photo courtesy of Small Axe Films
He didn’t want to play punk rock anymore — only reggae — and even went so far as to try and change the band’s name from Bad Brains to Soul Brains, to complement his new Rastafarian outlook. He would smile beyond the crowd at shows, and sometimes wouldn’t even perform, just standing with a blank stare on his face. His behavior confounded fans, his management, and most importantly his band, who were on the cusp of stardom, if they could just get their singer back online. What ensued over the last thirty years is one of the most heartbreaking stories in music: H.R. ended up homeless and in jail, recording vocals for one track, Sacred Love, during a prison phone call.
The band tried to carry on, but it was difficult, because no one could depend on H.R. He was a wild card and became increasingly delusional. He became violent at shows and ended up being escorted out in handcuffs. Soon, H.R. didn’t want to play with Bad Brains anymore. He was done with aggressive punk rock, and turned all his attention to Human Rights, his reggae side project. Yet the lure of numerous opportunities Bad Brains presented kept pulling him back into the fold. The band reformed and recorded monumental songs such as I Against I and Soulcraft, before calling it quits again due to H.R.’s erratic behavior. But what a lot of people didn’t know was that H.R. was suffering from undiagnosed mental illness.
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In a new documentary, Finding Joseph I, by Small Axe Films and out November 3rd, director James Lathos tackles H.R.’s story, chronicling his rise and fall through exclusive archival footage, photos, and interviews. The film shows H.R.’s struggles and eventual evolution through his own words and those of his brother, Earl Hudson, who’s played drums in every band H.R.’s been a part of. Other band members are notably absent from the film, despite the band reforming and playing recent shows such as Chicago’s Riot Fest. A huge fan of the group, Lathos had no idea what he was getting into when he embarked on the journey of making the documentary. He’s since come to realize that the film was a healing process in a way for H.R., who has come to grips with his mental health issues and confronted his schizophrenia, finally getting the treatment he needed to move forward with his life.
MERRY JANE spoke with Lathos about the fascinating and harrowing film that he originally started shooting in 2007.
MERRY JANE: When did you first find out about H.R. and get into his music?
James Lathos: I’m 42 and the first time I got into H.R.’s music I was 15. That was like 1990. I was into Bob Marley, Hugh Mundell, Israel Vibrations; listening to a lot of roots reggae. Some older friends turned me onto H.R. The first time I saw him was in Adams Morgan in D.C. on 18th and Columbia at the Red Sea Ethiopian restaurant. He had a little show and there was about 20 people. It was mostly Rastafari in the house. I was seriously inspired. From there I dug into the records. I found all the music. I've always carried those records with me. I’ve been through my own struggles and his music has uplifted me and helped me persevere. It's the real deal; spiritually conscious music with H.R. As a youth, it was something I was looking for.
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Why did you decide to make a film about H.R. and Bad Brains?
H.R. left L.A. and went to New York City, and was doing the closing nights at CBGB’s. After that he was living in this warehouse in Baltimore. He did a show in D.C. and I went; I hadn’t seen him perform in years. At the time I was writing some music pieces for a skateboard magazine, and I talked to him after the show and set up an interview. I kind of already knew a lot about him, but [during the interview] he was like ‘you should do a documentary.’ A huge lightbulb went off in my head. I had no filmmaking experience at all. A friend of mine in D.C. was a cameraman, and we hooked up and started talking. That was the spark of it. Around 2011 we started really shooting a lot and diving in deeper. There was no plan. We just tried to shoot as much footage as possible and let the film develop. We didn't really know what we were getting into, but we knew H.R.'s story was unique.
Can you talk about H.R.’s adoption of the Rastafarian way of life, and how it changed him and his music?
I tried to capture that in the film through people who were close to him during those times. His heart was definitely drifting [towards] reggae music and away from hardcore. Since I've known him he's definitely [been] a true Rastafarian. He prays everyday, reads his bible; very humble. He lives the Rasta way of life. I’ve never seen him stray from that. When you listen to the songs, he's lived those songs and continues to do so.
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What is it about H.R. that keeps Bad Brains fans interested?
It’s the music; his voice. He’s one of the greatest frontmen of all time that nobody really knows about. Also, the mystique — you never really know what you're going to get. I think anybody who has met H.R. has a story to tell.
Do you think because of who he is — the singer of Bad Brains — that he was almost enabled in a way, and [his] mental health issue wasn’t addressed?
Sure, but I know people have offered help, especially around 1995 when the band did the God Of Love album. If you have cancer, you need to get it treated. If you have this illness, you need to get it treated. He was also having these debilitating headaches that were just crushing him called SUNCT [syndrome]. He had brain surgery in February, which has worked miracles for him. He has been headache-free for months now. He doesn’t have that pain anymore, so he’s really starting to feel good and that's what it’s all about. I'm just happy now that he’s feeling better and comfortable. His wife, Lori, has been there with him through it all. It takes a lot of courage to surrender and ask for help. H.R. is very brave for that. That's what is also beautiful about this story.
H.R. today; photo courtesy of Small Axe Films
What did you learn the most during the process of making the film?
I learned how to make a film: how to shoot, how to edit, how to direct. I’m still learning. Once you finish a film and lock your edit, it's a whole new ball game — getting the movie out there and finding a home for it. Besides the filmmaking aspect, I learned to never give up. This film consumed me for a long time. There were plenty of times when I was like this isn’t even worth it, but I believed in H.R.'s story. I also had a ton of support from my wife, which kept me motivated. The project brought in some real talented people who contributed their time and work. That's why the credits in the movie are five minutes long. It was guerrilla; it was grassroots; it was a team effort.
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Do you think the making of this documentary has been a healing process for H.R.?
You would have to ask him that. I can't really speak for him. I do know he has taken some huge steps to improve his life in the past few years. It's incredible to see. The fact that he is back playing with his brothers in Bad Brains is amazing. We are all rooting for him.
What takeaways do you want viewers to come away with after watching your film?
People should definitely know who Paul “H.R.” Hudson is. His music with Bad Brains and Human Rights is unprecedented; what's on those records is what people need to tap into, especially now. Read the lyrics. His powerful story has the ability to impact and help other people. He's a real living legend and a once-in-a-lifetime artist like Basquiat, Van Gogh, [or] Edgar Allan Poe. I just think he’s in that realm as far as the way he thinks, the way he operates, and how his mind is designed as an artist. It's a beautiful thing.