I saw H.R. (aka Human Rights, born Paul Hudson) live at Tramps in New York sometime around 1997-’98, and it was one of the strangest, and most frustrating concerts I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know much about his solo work, and was just going to see “the guy from Bad Brains”, figuring he’d be playing that kind of music. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After making the crowd wait for over an hour after his opening band finished H.R. took the stage, using the opening act as his backing band. They played a set of decent reggae that I don’t remember much about, except that the guy on stage had very little in common with the guy I thought I would be seeing. H.R. was a legendary performer – like an exploding firecracker in concert, but the guy I saw was placid and distant, like he was on another plane from the rest of us. A year or so later, I had the opportunity to see him at Irving Plaza with the reformed Bad Brains – or Soul Brains as they were now being called because H.R. didn’t like the negative connotations of the word “bad” anymore. “OK,” I thought, “forget about that other show. This is the almighty Bad Brains – the real deal revolutionary punk rock I’ve always wanted to experience.” Nope. The band sounded great, but the H.R. was, yet again, a shell of his former self, barely putting any effort into his singing, and standing mostly still. Did he not want to be there? Was his relationship with the band bad? Had he lost his mind?
Ever since these disappointing shows I’ve wondered what caused this transformation. Was it simply mental illness, or was there something deeper that made H.R. turn his back on everything fans loved him for. Author, and long-time New York Hardcore fan, Howie Abrams teamed with James Lathos (who recently released a documentary on H.R., also titled Finding Joseph I) on this oral history which delves into H.R’s unique psyche, and help fans understand some of the things – though not everything – that made him who he is today. The book doesn’t have input from some important folks (bandmates Dr. Know and Daryl Jennifer are missed) but the authors get some fascinating stories from his brother Earl, childhood friends, and tons of musicians he’s encountered and inspired over the years. And it’s fascinating. In fact, I read the whole damn thing in under 24 hours, completely unable to put it down once I’d been hooked. The book is great because H.R. is such a complex character that it often reads like three different biographies rolled into one. You get the musical innovator whose band single-handedly ignited entire hardcore punk scenes in Washington D.C. and New York, the deeply spiritual Rastafarian who left punk for reggae, and the latter-day H.R., exhibiting increasingly bizarre behavior and living semi-homeless after sabotaging multiple chances at commercial success. While the book covers a lot of hard times – and it’s undeniably frustrating to see someone as talented as H.R. sink deeper and deeper into mental illness – the story has a nice ending, with the singer happier and healthier today thanks to a new wife who has been getting him the medical and psychiatric attention he’s needed for a long time. If you like punk rock, this is an essential read.