How H.R. From Bad Brains Recorded 'Sacred Love' From JailHowie Abrams |
One of the missions I took on in putting together Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. From Bad Brains was sorting through the countless myths and rumors about Bad Brains’ inimitable lead singer Paul "H.R." Hudson, as well as the band itself. I wished to confirm or disprove them so that fans everywhere — myself among them — would have answers to their numerous questions. Some closure, perhaps.
Quite possibly the most intriguing story was that of H.R. singing “Sacred Love” — culled from the Brains’ groundbreaking I Against I — over the phone from Lorton Reformatory due to his incarceration for marijuana possession some time before the recording of the LP. Did he actually perform the vocals while in the clink? Did producer Ron St. Germain simply add effects to his vocals to make it sound as if he sang it from jail? Was it true that his blood brother and Bad Brains drummer Earl Hudson was in there with him?
Inquiring minds wanted to know, and here’s how the discovery process played out.
Earl Hudson (Bad Brains, Human Rights, H.R.’s brother): It was 1986. We was hustling, man, trying to eat food, you know. You can't play music and work at damn Walmart. You’ve got to do something — so, yeah, you get caught up sometimes. We were getting ready to go on tour beginning in Providence, Rhode Island, so I went to pick [H.R.] up. He put some runnings under the seat and I don't know ... I think somebody busted on us or whatever, 'cause we came to a red light and all of a sudden the lights of the police car came on, and they went right under his seat. It was my car, so that’s why I had to go to jail, but he primarily caught the beef for that 'cause it was underneath the seat he was sitting on. We were in D.C. jail together, and that’s when we were pretty much finishing up that I Against I album. They wanted him to finish up the vocals on “Sacred Love,” so somehow or another it got hooked up and recorded. My dad was a correctional officer. He was a captain, and two of his sons are in jail. He never came to see us because my dad’s a former soldier and he don't play that shit, but he'd have his friend in there bring me some cigarettes, and he must have had something or other to do with recording H.R. in the jail.
H.R.: Some dudes were telling me once that by smoking herb and selling herb, it would be a one-way ticket to the big time. Well, it was my ticket to one of the deadliest places you could think of, and it was called D.C. jail. I had been selling a few bags, and I called my brother to come to pick me up. One night, they pulled us over and there was a whole bunch of marijuana in teeny bags. It wasn't a picnic in there, and there wasn't much to do except sit there and wait until your time is up.
Anthony Countey (longtime Bad Brains manager): H.R. was an orderly in there. He got to clean up after lunch or something like that. He told me that the mess hall was not connected to the rest of the place. There was a phone in there and, based on the layout, no one would be able to hear him, and they wouldn’t be able to see what was going on, so he could sing this song in there over the phone.
Ron St. Germain (producer of Bad Brains’ I Against I): I had been doing a lot of work up in North Brookﬁeld, Massachusetts, at Long View Farm since the '70s. Just a great place to take a band where you got them out of their environment. I remember when H.R. walked into the studio, he was kind of ﬂoating. He says, "I have arrived, I have arrived." It was a really impressive place — a 150-year-old farm on 90 acres. Just beautiful.
We set up the sounds there, and I said, "Just give me two full takes all the way down; all the way through of everything we’ve got." They ﬁnish up, and H.R. tells me, “Man, we gotta get these vocals 'cause I got to go to jail tomorrow.” What??? Now you’re telling me?! That’s why we had to do what we had to do with “Sacred Love.” He only had time to get a couple takes 'cause he had somebody coming to get him, and here it was, 1 o’clock, and we’ve still got the vocals to do. He just railed it down and we got everything done except “Sacred Love.”
So, he's in the D.C. lock-up, and it was kind of a communal effort between the guys in the band and the band’s manager, Anthony Countey. We got it set up where he could call me on a speciﬁc day and time, and he would be able to sing this song over the phone to New York. I booked a studio right below Studio 54 called Soundworks, which was kind of the Steely Dan haunt. I knew the tech there, and he hooked me up there.
We were supposed to have a direct patch from the phone into the tape, and I got there and it didn't work. Of course, I was freaking out, so I improvised and did what we did in the old days, which was I took another phone and put it in the studio, and had an Auratone monitor. It's like a small cube, five- or six-inch cube speaker. We taped that to the speaking portion of one of the analog telephones and put a sound blanket around it. There was another phone in the studio that the band could actually speak to H.R. through while we were screwing around in the control room. On that phone, we had a microphone taped to the portion that you listen with, so it was real ghetto.
H.R.: I picked up the phone and called the operator, and asked if I could make a collect call. Thank goodness somebody was there on the other end to receive it. Ron was there, picked up the call and began to play the music back, and they asked me if I would — to the best of my ability — give them some vocals, and that’s what I did over the phone. They recorded it and put it down on that record. I found it rather bizarre, but it wasn’t my idea. It was Ron’s idea.
St. Germain: The whole call was less than two hours. Instead of calling from a pay phone, he actually called in from a guy’s ofﬁce — a guard or something. The guy thought, "Hey, this is pretty cool — this guy’s going to sing over the phone from jail," and he left him alone in there. This whole thing came about because necessity is the mother of invention. Back in the '70s, producers were technically staff for the record companies, for the most part. There was this real separation between church and state, so to speak, and they would call into the engineer: "How are you guys doing? Let me listen. Hold the phone up to the speakers and play it." So, we would hit mono and put it up and play it for them. "I love what you kids are doing. Get me a cheeseburger and a Rolling Stone magazine and I'll see you in a couple hours." That kind of thing. So, the techs eventually came up with a patch where we could take the mono bus off that console, and literally patch it into the telephone line so it sounded normal. I was like, you’re spending all this money for a studio — way more than we’re getting for studios today. Why do you want to listen over the phone, as if you’re in an elevator, or on hold for a doctor’s ofﬁce or something? Anyway, that’s how the whole idea to record him via phone came about to begin with. You just improvise.
Now, the kicker is H.R. always traveled with his Bible, and those ﬁrst couple pages of the book were that real thin, kind of onion skin. He always cleaned his herb on the ﬁrst page of the Bible 'cause it wouldn't mess up anything. They actually let him have it in jail. I could hear through the phone that he was smoking something. I said, “What are you doing, man?” He says, “I'm sparking one.” I said, “Huh?” And he said, “Yeah.” He actually ripped the page with all of the weed resin on it out of the Bible, rolled it up and sparked it. There had been so much resin on it, he got a buzz! He’s in the slammer for pot, and he's smoking his Bible!
It was amazing. He also ﬁnished the lyrics to the song in there, and the lyrics, the experience of him being in there, it made him actually complete the song. That whole thing went down. There is a tape of that whole thing somewhere, because I had a room mic in the control room and there was one out in the studio, so it's somewhere. I've never been able to ﬁnd it again. It’s a shame, because it’s a real piece of musical history. It’s a great story. At the time, we talked to the Letterman show and a couple other shows, and they didn't even believe us.
In all my travels around the world, even though that record never even went gold, anywhere I go on the planet, people come up to me: “Oh my God, I Against I changed my life.” There is no record that I have done in 40-plus years that gets that kind of reaction. Once in a while, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, whoever, but nothing that gets that kind of passion. You know, there’s one Mick Jagger, there’s one Bob Dylan, and there’s only one H.R. Why do some bands explode and become the Led Zeppelins of the world and others don't? He had that potential, but it’s a lot of other things that need to happen besides just having the talent and ability.
All excerpts taken from Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. From Bad Brains.
Reminder, CLRVYNT is proud to present the Finding Joseph I documentary / book signing at Saint Vitus on 1/24. EIC Fred Pessaro will lead a Q&A directly following the screening with H.R., author Howie Abrams and filmmaker James Lathos. Tickets are still available.