‘Hard Art’ documents the early days of Bad Brains, D.C. punk

A great concert photograph finds a way to communicate all the stuff your retinas can’t detect. Noise. Humidity. Claustrophobia. Young minds being shaped inside sweaty skulls.

Lucian Perkins captured all of that on Sept. 15, 1979, when Bad Brains unleashed its radioactivity on a scrum of artists, punks and other assorted weirdos at Hard Art Gallery, a rowhouse near 14th and P streets NW. Today, that address basks in the glow of Whole Foods, but back then the neighborhood was rough enough to make the sunflowers sprouting in the front yard seem like a cheery joke amid post-riot blight.

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.

“I remember it was kind of packed that night. The audience was some of our friends from Washington, D.C. We had a lot of fun. It was a fast-growing scene. Hard Art Gallery kind of catered to independent groups and they opened their doors up to young, new groups that were presenting their materials to the folks for the first time.

“As for my clothes, sometimes different people would come to our shows and bring buttons along with them and ask us if we had anything to trade. So we were trading different clothes and buttons and things like that.

“It was a cool groove. Everything was all right.”

THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins was a 26-year-old intern at The Washington Post when he discovered Bad Brains at the downtown arts venue d.c. space. After photographing various gigs across the city, he pitched a story on Washington’s fledgling punk scene to The Post’s Metro section. It landed with a thud. Perkins remembers then-editor Bob Woodward leafing through the photographs and telling him, “ ‘This doesn’t exist in Washington.’ ”

The images eventually ran in The Washington Post Magazine, illustrating a story about the District’s new wave and punk scenes. Both factions were angry about being conjoined in print, and H.R.’s retort was to cut and paste the images into a Bad Brains concert flyer.

“Hard Art was a rundown townhouse run by a bunch of artists that allowed bands like the Bad Brains to perform in the living room. The whole house was just filled with punk rockers and kids. Being in such a small, confined space, the walls were just literally shaking. It was quite a scene. A very small scene. But in that small space, it was electric.

“I knew the Bad Brains were good, but of course I had no idea that they or this punk scene I was photographing would amount to anything more than this small, passionate art scene in Washington, D.C.

“I grew up literally 10 blocks from Haight-Ashbury, so to me it was like, ‘This is no 1960s. This is a bunch of suburban kids from Bethesda trying to make something.’ So on some levels, I didn’t particularly take it seriously. But on the other hand, it was fascinating — the passion that a lot of these kids had. And it turned into something much bigger than I ever dreamed it would.”

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