Human Rights — the cultish hero of '80s hardcore punk rockers Bad Brains, better known by the acronym H.R. — is in the middle of an attempted career revival, on a multi-band tour sponsored by Harlem indie label D.I.A. Records. From a hotel room in Salt Lake City, the 52-year old singer said in a hazy, airy, wistful, slightly wacked out but thoroughly genial way, that the previous night's show had been a success. Which is strange because, well, it didn't happen.
"How do you spell 'horrific'?" asked the label's founder, known as Barry "D.I.A." Long a few minutes later.
Driving down to Salt Lake City from Wyoming, where they had played the night before, the bands got caught in an eight-hour traffic jam caused by treacherous weather and a "horrific truck and car pileup," said Long. "A truck caught on fire, and set off a chain reaction of accidents. ... So we sat there for eight hours, man, without moving." He was busily typing out a press release that would recount the disaster and apologize to bands' MySpace friends (their collective tally is about 200,000).
Had it actually happened, the show would have been stupendous. D.I.A.'s Global Rock Showcase tour features former the Bad Brains frontman (né Paul D. Hudson), known for his mercurial temperament, violent outbursts, and weird conversion (some time in the early '80s) to peace-loving Rastafarianism. Supporting acts Singing Vernon — a roots-reggae singer with that warbling, vibrato-prone cadence that recalls every member of the Marley dynasty — and El Paso-based grindcore band Yodas Eye cap off the bill.
The result is a poly-cultural hodge-podge of rock, metal, punk, and dub artists who very much live up to D.I.A.'s "Global Rock" moniker. It reaches the multi-genre utopia that so many bands strive for, but so few actually achieve. "We use the music to bring different people together," Long said, applying an oft-used marketing pitch that actually sounded sincere and kind of endearing. "It's just like a UN meeting. We have rastas, punks, slackers, rednecks, everybody. That's really cool."
Instead, Long, as H.R.'s manager and chief handler, finds himself acting as a liaison between the eccentric singer and the rest of the world. This is no small task, he assures, given that funky, erratic behavior is integral to the persona that H.R. has cultivated. After joining Bad Brains in 1979, H.R. quickly became known as a pioneer of hardcore punk. Raspy, gravelly, often incomprehensible and sometimes bellicose, he had an amazing gift for modulating his voice but was also known for stage-diving, busting equipment, starting fights, and flaking on scheduled performances. When he and brother Earl Hudson — who played drums for Bad Brains — opted to go strictly reggae after the band's 1989 release, Quickness, they were duly excommunicated.
H.R. hooked up with Long through his brother, sometime in the '80s (the actual circumstances of their first meeting eludes both men). He had been releasing solo albums on the Long Beach punk label SST Records, which was founded by Black Flag frontman Greg Ginn. H.R. signed to D.I.A. after the label launched in 2000, though he has yet to release anything under its banner (he did, however, appear on Bad Brains' 2007 release Build a Nation on Megaforce Records, with Beastie Boy Adam Yauch helming production). At this point, H.R.'s main link to D.I.A. is the Global Rock Tour, which started in May 2005. H.R. is still listed as lead singer of Bad Brains on the group's MySpace page, but Long insists that he's severed ties with the Brains once and for all.
H.R. now shares a stage with the three-piece band Dubb Agents, who also back Singing Vernon. His new material — characterized by weird, downtempo songs like "Jah Family" which appears on D.I.A.'s MySpace page — features extensive reggae vamps, the occasional thrash guitar line, and all the nasal, growly, vibrating, drawn-out, intemperate, husky vocals that made Bad Brains so one-of-a-kind. In quiet moments, like the phone interview from his hotel room, he sounds sweet and perhaps a bit absent-minded, punctuating his sentences with "Yes, darling." Long tries to get a word in before and after each interview, if only to translate H.R.'s musings into sensible English. He likes to think of himself as a manager who stays in the background, but he's often forced to quarterback the public-relations end of the business.
Then again, were it not for H.R.'s strange asides, unpredictable mood swings, and unreliability as a narrator, he might not have become the cult figure he is today. After all, eccentricity is a big part of his appeal.
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