The images Perkins snapped that autumn night fill about a quarter of “Hard Art, DC 1979,” published this month. Bad Brains frontman H.R. graces the cover in black and white.
“I was immediately struck by how good they were,” says Perkins, a former Washington Post staff photographer and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. “And my eyes went immediately to H.R. In many ways, it was like watching James Brown doing punk-style acrobatics.”
In ’79, Bad Brains was quickly mutating into one of America’s most significant hardcore bands — an all-black punk quartet that would influence Minor Threat in Washington, the Beastie Boys in New York and countless other musicians across the country. And while Perkins’s photographs froze the band in its ferocious infancy, they also documented Washington’s fabled punk scene around the time of its inception.
We chose one photo from “Hard Art” and asked three people — the photographer, the frontman and a fan — to tell us what they remember about living in that moment. (Their responses have been edited and condensed.)
THE FAN: The weather wasn’t bad, so Stuart Casson — far right in the photograph — took a long walk from his home in the shadow of the National Cathedral to the Hard Art Gallery. The 14-year-old was already a fan of Devo and the Sex Pistols, but Bad Brains was something entirely different. Thirty-four years later, Casson lives in Los Angeles, where he plays guitar for the band Smash Fashion.
“It was off the rails. Very fast and very reckless. It seemed like borderline insanity. Like these guys really needed to be in straightjackets. It was that kind of nutty. It was stripped down. And broken down. And real.
“I was only 14, so it was a while ago, but I would always hang out with older kids. Like 18, 19. And that seemed all sophisticated. So this crowd was even older — it was a mix of different ethnicities and styles, artists and painters and such. It was exciting for me to be around people creating things. I was already a musician, so it was cool to be around that.
“Since I was a kid, I just gravitated toward rock-and-roll. Growing up, people always called me ‘little Jimi Hendrix’ because I was the black kid who could play guitar. There were always stereotypes like that. And Bad Brains were breaking them.
“Yeah, it was empowering. At the time when I was watching them, at 14, I thought, ‘I would be a good addition to this band.’ ”
THE FRONTMAN: H.R. — the once-incendiary vocalist, born Paul Hudson— joined Bad Brains in the late ’70s, just as the band was converting from jazz fusion to hair-trigger punk. Today, the 57-year-old has developed a reputation for being terse and enigmatic, in stark contrast to the forceful frontman who enthralled fans in the early ’80s.