The man who made a reputation through Jah-powered hardcore, and back-flipping, fireball charisma is just one of the personalities inhabiting the mind Paul “H.R.” Hudson. Even the most die-hard fans of D.C. hardcore icons Bad Brains admit they haven’t seen that version of the legendary lead singer in decades. At age 60, the snarling attitude and operatic wails on tracks like “Sailin’ On” and “I Against I” aren’t part of Hudson’s persona anymore.
These days he goes by his Rastafarian name, Joseph I. But his message of PMA—positive mental attitude—remains the same, though often times his mind is the very thing causing him anguish. For years, Hudson has suffered from severe recurring headaches and schizophrenia.
Since James Lathos started his documentary on Hudson nearly a decade ago, he’s experienced just about every one of the singer’s multiple personalities. By digging through Hudson’s triumphant and tumultuous past and the darkness and light of his mental illness, Lathos emerged with a story of the frontman that’s never been told. It also chronicles the life of the man credited with being the driving force of one of the greatest bands of all time. From the first shot to the final edit, the film Finding Joseph I took Lathos and Hudson on a long, very unexpected journey.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to do a documentary,” Lathos says. “It was just a natural, gradual process. I didn’t get to shoot very much with him, compared to all the time I actually spent with him.”
The two first met in the winter of 2007 when Lathos did an interview with Hudson for a pool skating mag called Concussion Magazine. After a brief discussion, they discovered that they lived in the same area of Baltimore and Hudson agreed to let Lathos into his world.
As a long time fan of the band, the director was shocked to get a firsthand look at Hudson’s destitute lifestyle. At the time, he was living in an abandoned warehouse, barely getting by while struggling with his mental illness.
Lathos’ passion for Bad Brains and his bond with their troubled frontman inspired him to dig deeper into the singer’s past to discover the person who Hudson was and the psychological issues that caused him to unravel around his late 30s.
“I’d say it took a lot of courage for me to get into that realm,” Lathos says. “But I think Joe appreciated the truthfulness of what was happening at the time. It’s a really thin line to walk. It’s a line of madness.
While Lathos had no trouble piecing together original interviews from rockstars like Eric Wilson of Sublime, Chino Moreno of the Deftones and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses praising Hudson’s greatness, he also draws a portrait of a man that few people really knew. Prior to becoming H.R. (short for “Hunting Rod” and later “Human Rights”), Hudson was a military brat who’d grown up bouncing from state to state in the US with his brother Earl, Bad Brains’ drummer. The two also lived in Jamaica for a short time before his family settled in Capitol Heights, Md. His parents, still alive and happily married, raised a boy who started out as a college-bound star athlete who never even thought of joining a band.
“I was more interested in sports and going off to college to be a pre-med student,” Hudson says during a recent phone interview. “Then one day I heard about the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols and a friend exposed them to me, it was just simple chords. It was easy to play.”
Through interviews with Earl and H.R.’s childhood friends, we see the development of a sonic brotherhood that inspired countless musicians for decades to come.
Despite their massive importance to punk rock, the documentary points out how much bigger the Brains could’ve and should’ve been. Throughout the mid-'80s and early '90s, the band had their share of big break opportunities—major label deals, big time producers, even an opening slot on tour with U2. But Hudson’s issues—both psychological and ego-driven—seemed destined to derail the band’s opportunities, no-showing for gigs and botching important deals that torpedoed several of the band’s chances of major level success.
Bassist Darryl Jenifer and guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Miller declined to be part of Lathos’ documentary. His brother Earl and the Brains’ longtime manager Anthony Countey appear numerous times, though Lathos says it took years of convincing.
“A lot of people are apprehensive about talking about him,” Lathos says. “Imagine creating this beautiful art with your brothers and you have an opportunity to feed your family and that’s all you know how to do. And everything’s lying in the hands of H.R. That’s a crazy place to be.”
Despite his eccentricities, the more time he spent with Hudson, the more Lathos became committed to making the film. From the outset, independent director had no virtually budget and required Lathos to fund the majority of it through Kickstarter, which raised over $40,000 for a sharp and dedicated crew of videographers and other professionals to help him bring Finding Joseph I to life. One of the dozens of artists who did interviews on camera, Long Beach musician Miguel Happoldt, was tapped to score the film.
As the founder of legendary Long Beach label Skunk records and a former member of Sublime and Long Beach Dub All-Stars, Happoldt not only idolized Hudson, but also shared the stage with him several times as a member of his backing band during his solo stints. Most of the music for Finding Joseph I was cannibalized from sessions he’d produced for a solo album by the late Aaron Owens of Hepcat. Recorded over several years before Owens’ untimely passing last year due to congestive heart failure, the music was a testament to the impact the Brains had on Long Beach music.
“I know if Aaron were alive today, he’d be telling me to use that shit,” Happoldt says. “We had all these half-finished songs and had the album come out it really would’ve been great. But it was a cool for me to honor Aaron and H.R. at the same time by getting some of this material out.”
Though Lathos had a pretty good idea of how important Bad Brains and Hudson were before he started the documentary, there’s no way he could’ve predicted the effect the lead singer would have on his life. The time together made them true soul brothers, he says. Hudson even became godfather to Lathos’ son, Jordan Joseph.
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“He’s stable now, he’s doing better. The fact that he asked for help and is working on trying to live a better life and deal with his issues and stuff, there’s a lot of redemption in that,” Lathos says. “No matter what happens with the movie, we’ll always be family.”
Even though this kind of long term project is something Lathos says he’ll probably never do again, he’s glad he did, if for no other reason than to finally give a living legend his due. After seeing the film himself, Hudson couldn’t agree more.
“I thought it came out good. It was effective at showing the real me,” Hudson says. “Most of all I want people to know I was good man, out of all that, everything that was done, I wanted people to know that I was good.”
Finding Joseph I premieres at the Long Beach Art Theater (followed by a Q&A with director James Lathos and H.R. Hudson), 2025 E.4th St., Long Beach, (562) 438-5435, www.arttheaterlongbeach.com. Sun. Dec. 11, 9 p.m. $8 for seniors/children, $11 for adults.? To purchase the book Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. From Bad Brains by Howie Abrams and James Lathos (out Jan. 14), click here.