Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. Ephesians 4:15

There are certain moments in life that truly matter, that communicate something lasting. Such moments give joy, strength, hope, and even, sometimes, a glimpse of truth and a jolt of transformation. Though the instant fades, something precious remains, walking with you, like a ghost or a friend, an indispensable measure of what life can be.

As I sit in the darkness of a sold-out Howard Theatre, watching Bad Brains perform “At the Movies,” one thing is clear: This is not one of those moments.

It’s not the song, nor the musicians. “At the Movies” is bottled lightning, and guitarist Gary Miller (aka Dr. Know), bassist Darryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson are bringing it to life with precision and thunder. Closing my eyes, the roar transports me three decades back.

It is the spring of 1983 and I am living in a basement apartment in my college town of Bozeman, Mont., having just decided to move to D.C. for graduate school. I’d heard Bad Brains on the punk compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans and read about the band’s ethos of PMA—Positive Mental Attitude—in Trouser Press and the Village Voice. It was around this time that Rock for Light, Bad Brains’ second album, appeared at my local haunt, Cactus Records. To a 23-year-old punk moving ambivalently toward adulthood, it was a revelation.

While the entire record of Rasta insurrection chants entranced me, the album-closing “At the Movies” became something of a personal anthem. “Here’s to the maker, the film double-taker, the illusion type faker,” the band sang. In a flush of renewed idealism, I too decided to stop going to the movies.

Hearing “At the Movies” for the first time was one of those life-changing moments, even if my boycott of motion pictures lasted all of six months. The song helped reignite a process that would lead me to abandon my career path, co-found the activist group Positive Force, and chronicle the birth and renaissance of D.C. hardcore by co-writing the book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital—to live, essentially, as an adult punk. The song’s message, of resisting illusion and holding on to whatever scraps of truth and justice we can wrest from life, still resonates as I approach my 53rd birthday.

But at the Howard Theatre in 2012—a year in which Bad Brains has also played one major American rock festival, starred in a documentary showing this week at Silverdocs, and neared the completion of its next album—my PMA is hard to find. As “At the Movies” blasts from the stage, my anger rises, but not toward corporate dream-sellers and merchants of artifice.

The rage in my throat is instead focused on the “throat” of Bad Brains, Paul Hudson, better known as H.R. Once a shamanic dynamo, H.R. doesn’t seem to want to be singing the song. In late 1970s and early ’80s, he was punk’s most hyperactive provocateur, with the feline grace and icy nerve of a high-wire daredevil. But on this night, he is hardly moving, barely singing at all. As the band’s maelstrom crashes onward, H.R. sits down, with a smug smile flitting across his face. He stands up only to wander offstage as the song climaxes—precisely the moment when, historically, he would execute a perfectly timed back flip. Swaggering back to the microphone moments later, H.R. wryly enquires, “Do you want to hear some more music?”

While the band soldiers on, my reaction is raw and simple: If you don’t want to sing, and can’t even pretend that you do, get the fuck off the stage!

Swiftly, my intellect—aided by my love for H.R.—wrestles back, glumly acknowledging a deeper mystery. I know that this conflict, in some sense, is a battle that’s raged within Bad Brains since the first time I heard its music three decades ago.

In 1983, Bad Brains was a burning secret shared among subterranean devotees of a radical sect. Today, the band is globally acknowledged as revolutionary, a key early influence on “alternative rock,” the first all-black punk band, and one of D.C.’s most crucial cultural exports. Bad Brains remains very much alive, as demonstrated by its two packed shows at the Howard this spring. Yet its spiritual leader seems estranged, lost in the wilderness.

Is H.R.’s “performance” simple sabotage, a childish prank aimed at brothers? Is it something more complex and fraught with the weight of history, a sign of authentic artistic protest against the straitjacket of songs now older than H.R. was when he first sang them? Is it a manifestation of deep religious conviction—or of mental illness? There are no easy answers, since this is ultimately a battle within H.R. himself.

Welcome to the dark heart of Bad Brains in 2012.

“And Jesus asked him, ‘What is thy name?’ And the demoniac answered, saying, ‘My name is Legion: for we are many.’” Mark 5:9

“I see you coming to sabotage shit…You’re a sell-out, and I hope I never have to see your ass again!”

This salvo, hurled at H.R. by Darryl Jenifer in the opening sequence of Bad Brains: A Band in DC, provides fair warning of what will explode on the screen. While the film, which shows Thursday and Saturday at Silverdocs, is a testimonial to the power and vast influence of Bad Brains, it also provides an unsparing glimpse into its tortured internal politics. For a longtime fan, the film, by Mandy Stein and Benjamen Logan, is both soul-stirring and heart-wrenching.

Rock reunions are always questionable enterprises, often fraught with commercial calculation and artistic compromise. Still, if any band has proven that not all reunions are created equal, it is Bad Brains. Its first split occurred in 1983. Its first reunion was in 1985. I witnessed its explosive return at WUST Radio Music Hall—now 9:30 Club—which began with H.R.’s astounding, acrobatic leap from a partition high above the stage, kicking off the show-opener, “Rock for Light.” On that night and many after, the band proved itself as untouchable a live act as ever. Unlike most reunited bands that simply regurgitate old glory, Bad Brains actually advanced its legacy with its post-reunion record, 1986’s groundbreaking I Against I, on which the band furthered its hardcore sound while pioneering the metal-rap hybrid that would gain steam in the 1990s.

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If subsequent releases offered no such great leap forward, Bad Brains has at least labored to produce new material and tour every few years, and wielded its established musical palette with some verve and conviction. A Band in DC captures the ensemble still striving to be a living, breathing musical force three decades after its birth. The film also makes painfully clear what longtime friends and fans of Bad Brains have known for years: H.R. isn’t really willing—or able—to pull his weight in the band anymore.

“No, I’m not the Son of God, I’m not Lucifer, I’m not a demon, I’m not the devil,” H.R. protests at the film’s outset, smiling broadly into the camera. Yet while the film captures the many moods, accents, odd theories, and occasional violent outbursts of the mercurial singer, it never quite penetrates his mystery.

A Band in DC documents H.R’s artistic gifts as well as the many ways he has consistently undermined Bad Brains since at least 1982. He repeatedly quits, to which other members respond with a “fuck you, the show will go on” moxie by engaging a series of replacements that range from laughable (Chuck Mosley of Faith No More) to passable (Taj Singleton) to convincing (Israel Joseph I).

There’s a discussion of an infamous episode from the band’s first U.S. tour in 1982: a string of homophobic outbursts, capped off by theft and vandalism at the house of Tim Kerr—the guitarist of Big Boys, whose late frontman Biscuit was gay—in Austin, Texas. The incident was largely attributable to H.R., and it left a profound stain on the band’s reputation.

The film, sadly, misses the deeper significance of that tour. As H.R. made clear in interviews at the time, his encounter with the gay-positive punk scenes in San Francisco and Austin left him horrified and eager to exit the “Babylonian” world of hardcore. His subsequent unilateral decision that Bad Brains would become the all-reggae Zion Train provoked the first deep schism within what had been an almost preternaturally bonded unit—“a band of brothers” is how Gary describes Bad Brains to me later.

Those incidents heralded a worrisome wobble in H.R.’s mental stability. The 1982 tour was the first in a series of mishaps that ultimately descended into repeated violent episodes, capped by H.R.’s inexplicable assaults on manager Tony Countey, his brother Earl, and a Kansas concertgoer in 1995. The last—carried out with a mic stand—landed H.R. in jail, got the band dropped from its label, Maverick, and came close to breaking the back of Bad Brains.

“Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray Jesus to them.” Luke 22:3-4

This was the legacy and baggage that Bad Brains carried into their shows at the Howard, a restored palace of African-American musical history. I came despite having sworn off seeing the band after a free show at D.C. dancehall Tracks in 1995. At that time, I was exhilarated by the gracious gesture, and hopeful the band might finally break through to mass popularity. But I left disheartened after witnessing a distracted, adrift H.R. hiding behind shades and goofing on the songs. As a fan and friend, it was excruciating to watch.

I had no wish to repeat that experience. When the band returned to action as Soul Brains in 1998, I wasn’t reassured. As tales of H.R.’s onstage behavior and chaotic, frequently-verging-on-homeless lifestyle filtered back to me, I began to fear for his life more than his artistry.

A certain word kept popping up in conversations with other folks: schizophrenia. A former manager, Paul Cornwell, used it when I interviewed him for Dance of Days, as does Guy Oseary, from Maverick Records, in A Band in DC. A more professionally grounded diagnosis can’t be found, for everyone close to H.R. says the same thing: He won’t see a doctor. With that in mind, I wasn’t quite sure it was even right to go see Bad Brains perform. But the pairing of band and venue felt significant, and I hoped H.R. was doing better.

Chatting before the show, I find H.R. peaceful but as enigmatic as ever. When I ask if he’s excited to sing with Bad Brains again, he grins and nods his head. When I refer to Bad Brains by name another time, he corrects me gently, “You mean the Mighty Massive Brains.” Asked if he still wants revolution, H.R. smiles and answers so softly I have to lean forward: “Yes, of course, but nothing violent or self-destructive.” He seems blissed out and almost vacant, giving monosyllabic answers. Yet when his blue hollow-body guitar threatens to topple to the ground, H.R. is cat-quick, catching it with one hand.

I linger in the dressing room, writing prayers for my Catholic parish while I wait for Tony. H.R. mutters to himself quietly but incessantly. I leave the room more confused than when I entered.

The show offers little reassurance. When the curtains part, H.R. stands in a gray jumpsuit with stuffed pockets—there are bulges the size of sneakers on either side of his crotch—and sports gold-painted loafers. His guitar is fastened high on his chest, perhaps as protection against the expectations of fans looking for the fiery prophet. H.R. flashes a peace sign and steps to the microphone, but his soft words are swallowed in the mix.

I had thought punk long ago lost its ability to jar my sensibilities, but H.R. finds a way to prove me wrong. He stands still, hands at his side, mumbling the words as “Attitude” tears out. Near the climax, H.R. produces a handkerchief from his bulging pockets and carefully wipes the microphone. At the song’s end, he stiffly bows left, center, right to the crowd. I’m baffled: Is this a radical artistic statement, a protest, or simply impairment?

So it goes, all the way up to “At the Movies,” during which H.R. barely tries to sing. The band finishes a blistering, more-or-less instrumental version of “Pay to Cum” with H.R. sitting on the drum riser. As Darryl, Gary, and Earl decamp for the wings before the inevitable encore, H.R. begins playing “Love Comes First,” a song from his last solo album. No sound comes from his guitar, yet HR persists a cappella: “Love comes first/In the trinity…”

Just then Darryl returns to the stage, cutting H.R. off midphrase with a booming voice: “We’re still with you all, D.C., we’re still with you.” With that, the band is off into “I Against I.” A bemused H.R. trails behind like a cartoon character holding on to a runaway car.

Suddenly, the song is over, and the band leaves the stage abruptly. H.R. persists, gesturing and swaying, earnestly mumbling a sermonette for a befuddled crowd, including a knot of slam dancers pursuing a circle pit even though the music is over. After promising more music “in a few moments,” H.R. finally exits.

The band doesn’t return. Amid a sea of confused concertgoers, I hit the doors, and someone blurts in my direction, “What just happened?” I wince and shake my head, not at all sure what to say.

The next night, before the band’s second Howard show, I talk with other members, whose frustration hangs heavy in the air. While Earl shakes his head over H.R.’s antics, Gary expresses frank disappointment: “We aren’t ‘entertainers,’ but when people pay good money to see us, they deserve better.” Darryl is absent, but his dismissal of H.R. as a “Judas” in A Band in DC suggests the extent of his anger.

When I mention how heartbreaking I found A Band in DC’s portrait of H.R.’s deterioration, Gary corrects me: “No, I’d say it’s more his dissociation…he has withdrawn more and more.” As Tony joins the conversation, I am struck that the band seems to view H.R.’s peculiarities as intentional sabotage rather than evidence of psychopathology.

When asked what Bad Brains might mean in 2012, Gary perks up, offering, “It’s just the same…we are trying to do the works, the Lord’s works.” As the discussion shifts to the upcoming album, Gary’s belief in the band as a force for good seems palpable.

The show begins, and H.R. seems to be in an even more devilish mood. Dressed in the same jumpsuit, now embellished with a yellow Lion of Judah T-shirt, H.R. smiles and greets the crowd: “Well, look at that…wasn’t that something? Are you ready to hear some good music?”

As “Attitude” kicks off the set again, H.R. sings louder than the night before, but again remains motionless except for occasional strums of his guitar. His between-song patter is now audible, but suggests outright sabotage. The band—and Gary in particular—is not having it. Over and over, H.R. launches into his comic routine only to be curtly cut off by the roar of Gary’s guitar, detonating the next song.

If last night was powerful musically, tonight Bad Brains are on a rampage. As the band rips through classics like “Banned in D.C.,” “FVK,” “Reignition,” and “Soul Craft” alongside newer firecrackers like “Thanks and Praises,” H.R. seems a bit drawn into the songs despite himself, carried along by their force, even as he resists movement.

When an encore of “I Against I” and “Jah People Make the World Go Round” caps off the set, I find myself genuinely touched, even uplifted. In my mind it’s clear: If last night the singer fought the band and won, tonight the band has overcome.

“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.’” Luke 11:17

Should there even be a Bad Brains in 2012? The band is as gifted as ever, yet without H.R. firing on all cylinders, how can it hope to preserve, much less advance, its legacy? Should H.R. even be on stage? Does it help or harm his personal healing?

I pose these questions to James Lathos, a Maryland filmmaker working on a documentary about H.R. He grants the validity of my concerns but argues that H.R. remains a gifted artist, if one who might no longer fit with his band’s energy. He shares footage of a smiling, hyper-fit H.R. enraptured during a recent recording trip in Jamaica. These dub-heavy solo songs find H.R. on more comfortable musical ground than the roar of Bad Brains. They suggest James might be on to something.

A few weeks later, James and I visit H.R. in Baltimore, where the singer now lives in a raggedy rowhouse near Pigtown, a neighborhood better known for drugs and prostitution. He greets me at the door wearing a blond women’s wig held on his head by an antique white head covering. He’s in a jovial mood, more animated than at the Howard, joking with the sketchy-looking white women a couple doors down who try unsuccessfully to lure him into their parlor. The interview is pleasant but surreal. H.R. alternates between calling me “Mr. Andersen” and “darling,” answering my questions with a ready smile, an easy laugh, and what seems like an extremely loose relationship with reality. He says he’s excited for a Bad Brains show coming up in one week—at Bonnaroo in Tennessee—and insists the band has yet to unveil its best material.

It might be more convincing if H.R. didn’t also recount how he—yes, H.R.—negotiated with Indian tribes to make possible the building of Baltimore, or tell me Barack Obama once dated his mother. As I listen to one fantabulous assertion after another, I’m not sure whether H.R. is pulling my leg or truly believes these fairy tales.

At the same time, the man seems mostly at peace, with flashes of wit and insight. H.R. clarifies that he stands still onstage in order to sing better and “not just scream.” He notes with pride that he can still do his signature backflip, but insists “making good music is more important than jumping around like a monkey.” I ask why he refuses to use the band’s given name, and he whips out a Bible and locates Psalm 100: “For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.”

Despite his friends’ concerns for his health, H.R. has visited a dentist, at least: He now has dentures. He also reveals that he no longer smokes pot. While the former undoubtedly makes the rapid-fire delivery of Bad Brains songs more challenging, both facts are good news.

After we drop H.R. at a street festival to perform—still in wig and head covering—James and I discuss the singer’s mental health. While H.R. told me he sees doctors regularly, James rebuts the tale. Visibly worried, he shares his fears about H.R.’s recurring headaches as well as the physical and psychic cost of his spartan, hobo lifestyle—for three years he lived in a Baltimore warehouse without heat—and the sometimes dodgy characters by whom he is, as a result, often surrounded.

“Keep out of reach/Don’t compromise,” H.R. sang in 1984, in his first post-Bad Brains solo band. But if Lathos sees H.R. still determined to live this demanding Rasta-punk credo, it seems a hard road to walk for a man nearing 60.

Meanwhile, Darryl, Gary, and Earl seem to have their eyes fixed on the road ahead—a fact apparent in their decision to name their upcoming album Into the Future. This could be bravado, but the muscle of the title track and several other new songs that Tony plays for me suggests they are still up for a fight. But is it a battle they can win?

For me, the more painful question is whether Bad Brains is even still a band in the spiritual sense, sharing a compelling vision. Given the Howard Theatre shows, this seems unlikely.

But for better or for worse, Bad Brains is these four people, brothers tangled up in a profound bond that has come to dance jaggedly along the line between love and hate, genius and madness. If this allows Bad Brains to play shows—often disappointing, sometimes revelatory—and painstakingly assemble new material, it doesn’t bode well for its future. As someone indelibly touched by their art, I hope to see them triumph. But I also fear there is no escape from this cycle of creative crucifixion that threatens to disfigure their legacy.

There is no simple resolution, for the band’s fractures and failures are intimately bound up with H.R.’s personal struggles. Unless he accepts help and finds real healing and reconciliation, the band will remain doomed to disappoint its fans and fail to reach its own highest aspirations. Worse, H.R. will continue to walk along an abyss, sliding toward self-destruction, not simply as an artist but, more importantly, as a person.

“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:2

I recently stumbled across a professionally recorded 1982 Bad Brains show from the Fillmore in San Francisco, right before the sequence of events that led to the band’s nosedive in Texas. It’s a riveting, transformative performance, and H.R. is on fire. “We are tired of being prisoners,” he shouts. “We are tired of being slaves…” As the clarion chords that herald “Banned In DC” ring out, he pauses. Then, as the bass and drums gather momentum, he screams into the void: “The choice is yours!” The band explodes, a runaway locomotive straining at the rails but somehow never losing its way.

As I listened, the universe once again ignited with possibility, and I was transported back 30 years—but then the tears came. I ached for those long gone days, filled with innocence and my own newly discovered power, with all of life looming before me.

And then, in the next second, I glimpsed the ghost of the most supremely gifted performer I’ve ever seen, undermining his band of brothers, pissing away the promises of revolution made long ago, slipping into darkness.

The vision faded, replaced by the sober determination that is so often the companion of truth. I recognized my own folly, the unfair projection of my dreams and failures onto this band and its supremely human leader. There’s no need for Bad Brains—much less H.R.—to fight my battles. They are mine to win or lose.

“At the Movies” rushes back into my mind, kicking up sparks in my soul. From across the decades, I touch the heart of my 23-year-old self, a boy becoming a man, finding renewed hope, taking up new challenges, making bigger promises while hearing one man in one moment channel a vision large enough for a universe of moments: “So I say to the youth right now/don’t sway to the unjust/no matter what they say/never give in/never give in…”

I know the truth: Since we can’t be what we were, we must be just what we are, stretching toward what we still can be. This is all we have, and it is more than enough. For me, whatever their present struggles, this is the sacred, saving gift of Bad Brains: To know simply, with certainty, that the choice to fight for our lives is forever ours to make.

The film Bad Brains: A Band in DC shows at 10:45 p.m. on Thursday, June 21 and at 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 23 at the AFI Silver Theatre as part of Silverdocs. $13.

Due to a reporting error, the article originally misidentified Tim Kerr’s role in the band Big Boys. He played guitar.