Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary
Directed by James Lathos
Small Axe Films; Giraffe Productions; MVD Visual
91 minutes / 2016; 2017

I truly believe it would be hard to argue that the Bad Brains (BB) were one of the top American hardcore groups in the 1980s, and possibly the loudest and fastest of the bunch. As musicians, they are hard to beat. As people? Well… more on that later.

The British-American BB’s lead singer was Paul Hudson, whose name was abbreviated to just HR. As a kid, he was known as “Hunting Rod” for the walking stick he habitually carried, and in the middle days it became “Human Rights,” as in the post-BB group, the HR Band (Human Rights). With the deepening of his Rasta studies, he became Joseph I.  

I was actually excited to see this documentary as, to be honest, I never saw the BB play live, or any of his other bands. I’ve seen some videos though, and they are damn exciting to watch. But what interested me the most is to see what others had to say about him.

There is no doubt this documentary by first time director James Lathos is a love fest for the man. Even though it does not shy away from some of his personal issues and demons, it presents a string of people saying how he “sparked modern punk rock” right to being a “living legend,” which is stated more than once.

Y’know what, yeah, some of that is true. While I don’t believe the BB “sparked” hardcore, they definitely upped it more than a notch that set a very high bar. They were known for their speed, their dexterity, and a brilliant stage show with HR as its center. It was the Dead Boys that turned the BB onto what would become hardcore, and I believe the Dead Boys were the catalyst that truly sparked hardcore, but man, the BB were right at the fore.

Bad Brains, with HR in the forefront
(Earl on the right)
The documentary starts with a history lesson, as these things are wont to do, describing HR’s childhood mostly through his eyes and those of his BB band mate and real life brother, drummer Earl Hudson. They describe a somewhat tumultuous family life that moved around a lot, which scarred HR. Music, though, always seemed a focusing point to center him then.

Over the years, HR fronted many other bands as well as the BB, such as Human Rights, Zion Train, Soul Brains (the reunited BB), and he even sat in with Sublime. Over the years, it almost seems like he was increasingly channeling George Clinton’s haberdasher.

What becomes ever clearer over time is that there was something seriously wrong with him, on which the documentary shines a strong light, which is the advent and crush of mental illness. In his youth and well into the BB, he was a strong user of LSD; and even into his “purer” Rasta days when he reportedly stopped using acid, I cannot imagine his not overindulging in the religion’s holy weed. While not truly defined, it is assumed here (and sounds right to me) that with over use of substances, he has fallen into schizophrenia, including hearing and seeing what’s not necessarily there for most humans to hear and see.

Other than his brother, the clearest picture is given by his long-time manager, Anthony Countey, and his later-married wife. Of course, he joins a long history of modern and innovative musicians who have suffered from mental distress, such as Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson.

Speaking of musicians, there are a lot here speaking up for him at a pedestal level, even if things didn’t go well with the band, such as (of course) the BB, Sublime, and various others such as Vernon Reid, members of the Cro-Mags, the Brothers MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi (Ian and Alec; the BB started in Washington DC), and Fishbone.

I was surprised there wasn’t more of Positive Force on there, and also missing was anyone from the Beastie Boys; HR’s band infamously toured with them, as they were signed to the Boys’ Maverick label. Someone from the label is represented here, but not the pseudo-punk rappers.  I was not, however, amazed at all (though curious to see) that no members from the Texas groups MDC (Millions of Dead Cops/Multi-Death Corporation) or the Big Boys were accounted for, all things considered:

Back in 1983, I published (but did not write) an article in FFanzeen about the people in the BB, which was less than flattering. For this, I received a lot hate mail from the hardcore scene. The core of the piece centers on that when the band found Rasta, as is described in the documentary, they also accepted its generally homophobic stance, which is not detailed in the film. There was also at least one recording studio they ripped off in New York, forcing it to close. The link to that article is HERE

One could look back and say, “Oh, well, HR was mentally sick,” but this is before any symptoms were apparent, and it was the whole band, not just HR. But, of course, this documentary is mostly focused on the person, so I’ll continue on that course.

Despite the standardized beginning of a biography documentary that more-or-less lists the facts (s/he was born there, lived here, moved there, etc.), thankfully it’s less than 10 minutes before we hear about a young HR going to New York and seeing the Dead Boys (nice clip of them from 1982 at CBGBs; yes, I was there). This changed the direction of the newly-formed BB into the hardcore mavericks and scene leaders they became; it’s arguable who were more influential in DC, the BB or Minor Threat; I’m happy to just call it a tie.

Following the progress of the BB, their dissolving due in large part to unpredictability, and the follow-through of other bands, as well as the onset of HR’s mental illness definitely makes compelling viewing. The use of a lot of historical images and videos, both off and especially on stage, keeps the story perking along quite well. Some keen animation just adds to the honeypot.

As documentaries go, this one isn’t brilliant necessarily, but then again, it has no problem keeping interest up. After all, with all his foibles and questionable choices, HR is an interesting person even beyond the BB, who has managed a career in music in extreme conditions, both on the external and internal levels.

While there may be some who boycott viewing this for reasons I’ve mentioned, I would say it’s still worth checking out, even if with a grain of salt. HR is and was a key player in the punk scene for many years, and even for that alone this is historically good viewing.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

e.g., URBAN VERBS: D.C. City Sound [1980]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1980
Introduction text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

This article was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #5, dated August / September 1980, by Managing Editor Julia Masi.

The Urban Verbs released two albums on Warner Bros., and then broke up about a year after this was published. With a cult status and fans, they continue to occasionally get together for reunion gigs, mostly in D.C. – Robert Barry Francos, 2017.

On their recent East Coast tour, Roddy Franz, lyricist and singer of the Urban Verbs, sat in his room at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel smoking cigarettes and talking about the band’s music.

“I don’t mean this in an egotistical way,” he apologizes as he cites their music as “a little more thoughtful. It has a lot of integrity. We haven’t tried to deliberately commercialize.” Instead, the Urban Verbs have worked at presenting something that is artistically successful as well as entertaining. They strive for a “certain level of sophistication embodied in our music.”

But Franz is quick to shy away from descriptions that might label their music. “It’s rock’n’roll,” he explained, “Most of the other terms are just so nebulous at this point. I think at one point New Wave was distinguishable from punk, perhaps it still is, but New Wave itself has just become such a nebulous sort of journalistic handle, as ‘hippies’ was; it is no longer that clear. I would just like people to think of us as a rock’n’roll band.”

But the Urban Verbs is more than just an ordinary band. Although they’re not yet an overnight success, their career has taken off at a rather rapid pace. They have the rare distinction of originating in Washington, D.C., where Franz and composer-guitarist Robert Goldstein [d. 2016 – RBF], both natives of Pittsburgh, had been working in bands. Franz was with a group called the Controls and Goldstein was in the Look. Both bands broke up around the same time, so Franz and Goldstein teamed up to form a band that would eventually record. They picked up their drummer, Danny Frankel, bass player Linda France, and Robin Rose on synthesizer from a cover band that played at local parties. For a while, they billed themselves as the Special Guest Band before they changed their name to Urban Verbs.

In the summer of 1978, they came to New York to do a gig at CBGB. There they met Brian Eno, who produced their two-song demo. Their debut album, Urban Verbs, on Warner Bros. Records, is being well-received in Italy, London and Paris. It’s expected to do just as well here.

Lately, the band has been touring. They had the option of going out with another, possibly bigger name band, but prefer to go it alone on small regional tours. “We work better with a more intimate setting of 150 to 300 people. You get more than that and it just changes the nature of the performance.”

The group’s primary concern is their music. Franz stated, “I don’t think performers should necessarily be politicians or Bible thumpers. I think we, rather than trying to proselytize, create and give enough of an impression for people to make their own decisions. We don’t really have a single message we want to convey.”

Inspiration for songs “comes in different forms. Sometimes,” says Franz, “I’ll write simply because I think we need a new song. If you don’t always have something that you’re working on, you get stale. Other times people or situations will inspire me. ‘Tina Gray’ was written for my sister-in-law. Different things at different times. Being in love is good to write about.”

But on the opposite side of the coin, Franz has written “Luca Brasi,” for a character from the movie The Godfather, who “sleeps with the fishes,” Granz explained. “Luca was the Godfather’s personal bodyguard for 20 years. He got a knife through his hand and was dumped in the East River.” After recalling the scene in the film where a dead fish wrapped in newspaper was dropped off on the Corleone steps, Franz smiled with ha twinkle in his blue eyes and said, “I just thought it was a neat image.”

Friday, November 3, 2017

Photo Essay: Lecture by Dr. Eric McLuhan, St. Thomas More College, November 2, 2017

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2017
Title photo from St. Thomas More College Website

I've known Eric McLuhan and his son Andrew for a few years now, meeting up with them at Media Ecology Association conferences throughout the world. One would think that Eric would be stuck in the shadow of his father, Marshall, but for those of us who pay attention, he is a brilliant thinker in his own right.

Referencing Marshall, as we all do (and should), whether we realize it or not, Eric has risen to high academic circles on his own and risen to the academic stratosphere with his publications about media, religion, and culture in both solo projects as well as with others, such as a recent collaboration with Dr. Peter Zhang.

Eric comes across as a bit elfin and frail, walking with a cane and being soft-spoken, but I've also seen him give heck to other academics who he believes crosses the line of what he or his dad was positing in their writing, including recently with one who had collaborated with Marshall.

For this talk, his topic was "Catholicism and Communication: The Sensus Communis, Synesthesia, and the Soul." Marshall had famously adopted Catholicism in his adulthood, and raised his family in it, so it makes sense that this would be a topic Eric would cover on his talk for the 29th Annual Michael Keenan Memorial Lecture, in Father O'Donnell Auditorium, at St. Thomas More College, on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon.

As a non-Catholic, I still found it fascinating, and was happy to discuss it with him and Andrew at breakfast the next day.

[photo courtesy St. Thomas More College Website]

Eric McLuhan and Andrew McLuhan preparing.

Arul Kumaran, English Department Dean

Sarah Powrie, English Department Head



Tammy Marche, Associate Dean, Psychology Department