One of the highlights of my career in media so far has been writing a weekly soccer column about the MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls) for a couple years for the widely-acclaimed but now-defunct New York Sports Express. I was recruited to write for NYSX by its editor, New York City underground sportswriting legend Spike Vrusho. I'd known Spike for a few years through shared grills and tailgate parties at Metros matches, but had known of him for many years prior, because of my love of his baseball & punk rock 'zine Murtaugh, a ground breaking sports and music print mash-up that spoke equally to my love of the National League and downtown culture.
Anyway, I had an absolute ball writing weekly missives about the hapless Metros, who played such an unexciting (and un-winning) style of futbol that I had no choice but to pepper my reports with all manners of asides just to keep the column interesting. Thankfully, Editor Vrusho not only was cool with, but fully encouraged, my comparing manager Bob Bradley with Ric Ocasek of The Cars, my wishing for the league to hire Lemmy & Motörhead to play the Major League Soccer All-Star Game halftime show, and somehow working NAMBLA into a story about arch-rival DC United.
When the new Bad Brains album arrived in our mailbox, I knew I had to get him to give it a review. Thankfully, he agreed.
PREACHING TO THE CHOIR
Bad Brains - Build A Nation (Megaforce)
By Spike Vrusho
One wintery twilight in the mid-80s, I was driving through D.C. and trying to get back to Wheeling, West Virginia, for whatever reason. Both headlights quit on my Subaru DL sedan. I was forced to stop and get a cheap room not far from a club called the Kilimanjaro. Overlooked previously was the fact that on the bill that night at said club was the Bad Brains. Had I known this tidbit of info, I would have certainly postponed my return to Wheeling where I was working as a reporter for an afternoon daily. The Bad Brains performance at the Kilimanjaro was, to this day, the greatest show I have ever seen in 43 years of humanoid existence. So much for being "Banned in D.C." Wheeling had lost its feeling when I returned, so I moved to Red Hook, Brooklyn within six months of the monumental show.
Caught them again a few times in New York, ripping up the Wetlands on the same day my stupid car was towed by the city DOT stormtroopers. Car trouble and Bad Brains shows go hand in hand -- I’ll trade a broken cam shaft any day to see H.R. airborne above the stage with Earl Hudson ripping across the skins and people "slam dancing"(not moshing) in front of the stage. Flanking the H.R. spaceship would be the towering Darryl Jennifer handling the important basslines, and Dr. Know with his PhD. in shredding guitar hanging on the PA stack to his left.
I thank Jah they are back together. Build A Nation would be a perfect advertising tie-in for the big box Lowe’s or Home Depot (or Habitat for Humanity?), but we’ll leave those deals to the marketing suits over at Megaforce Records. It is hard for me not to treat the release of this album like the rediscovery of a lost Dead Sea Scroll as I have always placed the Bad Brains alongside the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in terms of sheer wonderment and respect for music-making that produces kinetic energy and potential energy at the same time. Hearing Dr. Know and Earl sound the two-chord clarion calls again makes me want to swig heavy water and ply the tough avenue known as the Bowery, hoping to get into the Sunday matinee at CBGB to risk life and limb and lose 30 pounds in perspiration.
But all that has gone the way of Bill "The Butcher" Cutting and Scorcese’s "Gangs of New York." The island of Manhattan has since become a Bloombergian consumerist plantation for a condo class and its servants, with the middle wiped out and sent packing along with the weapons of mass destruction known as "squeegee men."
It's no wonder most of the Bad Brains fled to upstate New York to become one of the most interesting acts the Catskills have ever seen.
If you are 43 and long for clove cigarettes and goth betties slinking in the corner of a rented VFW hall while six bands open up for the Bad Brains, buy this record and feel young again. The reggae/hardcore alchemy is an important musical evolution worthy of its own diorama at the American Museum of Natural History.
They pack five or so reggae slowdowns on Build A Nation and H.R.'s vocals are all over the place. One minute he's Snoop Dogg on the opening track, then he's back to his emo-core self on "Universal Peace." As usual, the disc is dripping with spirituality and church bulletin-type song lists. The congregation is dismissed with reggae pleasantries in "Peace Be Unto Thee." Yauch's hand is all over these cuts with the analog ease of sound byte interludes often the staple of 80s punk records. (To this day, whenever I hear Margaret Thatcher's voice I expect Discharge to kick in with their balls out version "Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing.")
Maybe that’ll be next-- a full Discharge reunion so we can once again enjoy the sound of an enormous door slamming in the depths of hell.
Until then, enjoy the fountain of youth that H.R. and company have thankfully reignited.
Bad Brains - "Give Thanks And Praises" mp3 buy
Spike Vrusho is currently finishing up his book, Benchclearing: Baseball's Best Fights and Riots for Lyons Press, scheduled for release in Spring 2008.