How Bad Brains Are Staying Positive and Moving Forward

A year after two members battled serious health challenges, the punk legends and Rock Hall nominees are bouncing back

Bad Brains' H.R., Dr. Know (left) Darryl Jenifer (right) talk about how they're moving forward after two health scares, as they eye a Rock Hall nomination. Credit: Darryl Jenifer, Laura Levine/Getty/5bam

It's an early-December morning and light snow has covered the area surrounding Willow, New York, a small hamlet whose main road doesn't have a proper name – it's just Route 212 – about 15 minutes away from Woodstock. Darryl Jenifer, Bad Brains' tall and friendly bass player, has lived in a big white house there, currently with at least three big dogs, for around 30 years.

He recently converted a garage on his property into a recording studio so he could work on various free-jazz projects and record, he hopes, a fitting swan song for the band, titled Mind Power (the group's original name when they were an aspirational jazz-fusion quartet, before they discovered punk), that would follow up their most recent LP, 2012's Into the Future. It's there where he has a heater pumping, which seems to enhance the smell of marijuana in the room, so he and Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know can talk about the state of the band, which has drifted apart in recent years.

The group, which also includes the dynamic and enigmatic frontman H.R. and his brother Earl Hudson on drums, formed four decades ago in Washington, D.C., playing a mix of hyper-surging punk, spacey dub reggae and occasionally heavy metal with a message of positivity. Because of their furiously fast tempos, Bad Brains became one of the archetypal hardcore-punk bands. "I don't even know what hardcore was," Jenifer says, his body half in the studio and half out, as he leans out a big glass window for a smoke. "It's like punk rock morphed into what the kids called hardcore. But to me, hardcore doesn't really mean anything, really. I remember when I told my dad that, first he thought punk was something to do with, you know, being funny. In D.C., 'punk' is a different thing. Then he thought hardcore had something to do with porno.

"But for us, it was just punk," he continues. "We just played fast. When you're young, shit's competitive. 'If other people think you're playing fast, watch this.' At the time, people were playing at the speed of the Ramones, which wasn't that fast. Then the youth movement started to build on that."

They would inspire a generation of angsty young adults, including future luminaries Ian MacKaye, Vernon Reid and Adam Yauch, among countless others. "Henry Rollins was our first roadie," Jenifer says. "He would come to the gig early and carry our stuff." And when Jenifer and Dr. Know joined Foo Fighters for punky renditions of "How Low Can a Punk Get" and "The Regulator" at a Queens stadium gig last summer, Grohl told the audience, it was the "greatest fucking moment of my entire fucking life." The group is currently nominated to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but there was a time recently when it seemed like not all the members would live to see such a recognition.

Last fall, both H.R. and Dr. Know alarmed their fans with reports of ill health. The singer was suffering from a rare type of headache known as SUNCT for which, his wife wrote in a GoFundMe post, there is no known cure or reliable medical treatment; she said the headaches are known as "suicide syndrome." He says now that he's feeling better, thanks to doctor prescriptions. Even scarier, Dr. Know suffered a near fatal heart attack in November, brought on by high blood pressure, and was placed on life support. He has since recovered from the worst of it – he just lacks some feeling in his hands – and he drove himself over to Jenifer's.

"I'm good now," says Dr. Know, whose real name is Gary Miller, in a gruff, raspy voice. He is shorter than Jenifer and much skinnier than he was in recent years. He noodles away at an unplugged electric guitar that sports the band's iconic lightning-bolt-striking-the–Capitol album art. "Shit happens."

His dismissiveness, however, belies the severity of what he went through. In November 2015, he was placed on life support and, Jenifer says, given a prognosis of a five-percent chance of survival. "He had complete organ failure and the doctor told me he only saw one person live past 48 hours with liver shutdown – and he was on hour 26," Jenifer says. "He was on dialysis. His kidneys and everything has stopped. Then everything started coming back – the liver, everything. Everything came back. Except for a little feeling of numbness that he hasn't got figured out."

"Please," rejoins Know. Asked what he thinks about hearing this, he says, "After the fact, I don't care nothing about it."

One thing Dr. Know has enjoyed is the outpouring of support he's received, both via fans and supporters on a GoFundMe page and in person. "I see people and they go, 'Doc, you're the man. You look great,'" he says. "They come and feel me. 'We see you. You can walk and talk again.' It freaks me out."

He's been playing guitar more frequently, but even though he's been playing all his life, he says, "part of it is missing." One day when he was in the hospital, Jenifer brought him an acoustic guitar but he had trouble playing it. "I got so frustrated I threw the damn thing," he says. "Darryl was like, 'Don't worry about it. That guitar's wack anyway.'" He did rehab for six months and lately, he's been trying acupuncture and he's marveled at how it seems to harness the energy in his arm. But he's still having trouble with feeling the details of things. He rubs his jeans and says he can't feel the material.

"It's funny, when the incident first happened and I went to see him in the hospital, and I didn't know which way this was going, I came home to this very studio," Jenifer says. "I kept looking at my bass. I wouldn't play it, but I kept looking at it, almost like a Siamese-twin separation. I was scared. The next day I come in here. I said, 'Man, give me this shit.' And I started playing, and it was fresh. It was someplace I'd never been." He turns to Know. "And I started listening to all your songs, all your guitar work. I was going, 'Damn, this dude is great.' Like, wow. I listened to all the records, all the technical things, and all that shit. And I'm like, 'Whoa, this is crazy.' But I had to literally make myself break the mental block of 'Since Doc don't play, you don't play.' Something is connected with us through our brotherhood after all the years we played together."

The pair finally played together again in public this past August when Bad Brains played Brooklyn's Afropunk Fest. All the original members of the band were there, except for H.R., who was working with his solo band on new dancehall music, so members of Living Colour and Fishbone filled in. It was a good feeling for the band, mostly because it came naturally. "We come out, we get it together, we do our thing," Jenifer says. "It's like a thing that we do. It's like when Buddy Rich say, 'I don't practice. I already know how to play.' We're over all that – not in an ego sense, but in the sense of our growth as OGs. That's what we do. So it's no surprise. It's like when Conor McGregor knock out somebody, and he say, 'Are you surprised?' That's what we do!"

"The day before we rehearsed for Afropunk Fest, I couldn't even play," Dr. Know says. "And the day of the gig I was like, 'Shit, I gotta play 'cause these dudes can't hold it and I gotta play.' I couldn't really solo 'cause of bending strings, but I was like, 'Damn. So it's a mind thing.'" Video of the performance shows Dr. Know nimbly playing his parts.

H.R.'s absence at the fest was unfortunate but not unheard of for the band. Jenifer describes the singer, who spent much of the Eighties backflipping onstage and diving into crowds, as "a little eccentric" but like a "wacky big brother" to him. H.R. left the group for brief periods in the Eighties and Nineties, and they've welcomed three other singers into the fold at various points during his absences.

"A lot went down with us," Jenifer says. "I'd rather all of us have a little bit more unity amongst us before we start delving into the last 30 years of our relations. I haven't seen H.R. And I've seen Earl at Afropunk. But there'll be a time for all of that. … We haven't been a band functioning for 25 years. We don't function as a band – we function on stints, projects, photo shoots. It's not like we're out there pushing a record. Even when we got a new record out, it's not a campaign."

"I talked to H.R. yesterday," Dr. Know tells Jenifer in the Willow studio. "He sounded really good. It made me happy. I ain't heard him talk, like, proper [in a while]. I was like, 'Damn, OK. You all right?' He say, 'Yeah, man, I'm good.' He asked me I was all right. I say, 'Yeah. Congratulations for the [Rock Hall] nomination.' 'Oh, congratulations to you for the nomination.' That's our conversation. He's like, 'Oh, call me tomorrow.' I say, 'OK.'"

A new documentary and an oral-history book about H.R., both titled Finding Joseph I, explore both the singer's legacy as a dynamic frontman and as a quixotic figure possibly struggling with mental illness through quotes from adoring fans like Questlove and Chino Moreno as well as Hudson, who lives in Atlanta, and his wife. The book quotes H.R. as saying that he did not expect to perform with Bad Brains ever again, though that might not be the case despite his absence at Afropunk Fest.

When asked whether he's completely written off fronting the band again, H.R. quickly says he has not. "Oh, no, I don't think what I said is true," he tells Rolling Stone, a few days after the interview with Jenifer and Dr. Know. "We'll get it together soon, 'cause they did call me and were excited to hear my voice."

H.R. has lived in Philadelphia for the past four years with his wife Lori. In an interview setting, he tends to give short, agreeable and sometimes confusing answers that reveal a unique joie de vivre. When he was young, his dad had recommended that he read Napoleon Hill's self-help book Think and Grow Rich, which preached positive visualization – or as H.R. once explained, "Anything the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve" – which inspired the group's central message of keeping a "positive mental attitude," or P.M.A., which they spelled out in the song "Attitude" – "Hey, we got that P.M.A./Don't care what you may do/We got that attitude." It's a guiding principle that shines through when talking to him.

When asked for how it felt to be nominated for the Rock Hall, H.R. says, "Oh, positively delicious." And when asked what he learned about himself from participating in a book and movie about his life, he says it's "something that's positive that we can all be friends about." When read a passage from the book where Questlove describes him as "an unwilling leader of a movement … one that changed a lot of lives," he says it's funny but that he agrees with it.

When the topic turns to Dr. Know's health, H.R. says he was worried about his friend but that, as always, he took an upbeat view of the situation. "I wanted to let him know that although he did have some problems and his left hand was still hurt, he'll keep finding that his solos will be better next time," he says. "He's an incredible person and needs to be musical and work out some positive vibrations with the band."

As for his own health, the crippling headaches his wife reported, he says he's feeling much better. "Once in a while I get them, but I can thank Jah 'cause I'm getting through it," he says. The headaches, he says, felt like "someone else was controlling the dials." Ultimately, he went to a hospital for three days, which helped him.

When asked about staying positive through it all, he says it hasn't always been easy. "I've been tested a few times, but it's OK; I'm OK," he says. "There were times when I was alone and didn't know what would happen." He points to November 2015 as the worst of it, when his headaches were especially bad. But like Dr. Know, he's grateful for the support of his fans during his trying time. "I'm very thankful for what everybody has did for me," he says. "I'm looking forward to the future."

Although the future may be uncertain, at least in concrete terms, the band members are all optimistic about what may come. If anything, the Rock Hall nomination is a cause for celebration. "Dave Grohl told me he went in there and was like, 'Look, you fucks,'" Jenifer says with a laugh. "When he said that, I went, 'Yeah, whatever.' So about a week or so passed and then I was sitting up in the morning drinking my coffee when it came on TV that Pearl Jam nominated for the Hall of Fame and all this shit. Pearl Jam, right? I started saying, 'Man, that's some bullshit.'" Eventually he texted Grohl, who told him that Bad Brains were indeed on the ballot. "I'm like, 'Really? That's some wild shit.'" Jenifer laughs.

Jenifer then called Dr. Know. "I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool,'" the guitarist says. "I think it's a good thing. It's dope. I think it's incredible, especially for someone like us."

No matter whether or not Bad Brains are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though, Jenifer says he's happy with the group's legacy – especially in the context of his fellow nominees. "Not to pat our own backs, but I think that the Bad Brains is the most significant band in terms of rock & roll to be nominated on this roster because we forged our own sound and changed the course of rock & roll. That's rock & roll – the passion, the struggle still to this day. None of them groups is doing that." Jenifer then picks up a bass, also unplugged like Dr. Know's guitar, and plays along.