Thirty years after the golden age of D.C. punk, Bad Brains is a band at war with itself.

From Washington City Paper:

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. Ephesians 4:15

There are certain moments in life that truly matter, that communicate something lasting. Such moments give joy, strength, hope, and even, sometimes, a glimpse of truth and a jolt of transformation. Though the instant fades, something precious remains, walking with you, like a ghost or a friend, an indispensable measure of what life can be.

As I sit in the darkness of a sold-out Howard Theatre, watching Bad Brains perform “At the Movies,” one thing is clear: This is not one of those moments.

It’s not the song, nor the musicians. “At the Movies” is bottled lightning, and guitarist Gary Miller (aka Dr. Know), bassist Darryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson are bringing it to life with precision and thunder. Closing my eyes, the roar transports me three decades back.

It is the spring of 1983 and I am living in a basement apartment in my college town of Bozeman, Mont., having just decided to move to D.C. for graduate school. I’d heard Bad Brains on the punk compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans and read about the band’s ethos of PMA—Positive Mental Attitude—in Trouser Press and the Village Voice. It was around this time that Rock for Light, Bad Brains’ second album, appeared at my local haunt, Cactus Records. To a 23-year-old punk moving ambivalently toward adulthood, it was a revelation.

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While the entire record of Rasta insurrection chants entranced me, the album-closing “At the Movies” became something of a personal anthem. “Here’s to the maker, the film double-taker, the illusion type faker,” the band sang. In a flush of renewed idealism, I too decided to stop going to the movies.

Hearing “At the Movies” for the first time was one of those life-changing moments, even if my boycott of motion pictures lasted all of six months. The song helped reignite a process that would lead me to abandon my career path, co-found the activist group Positive Force, and chronicle the birth and renaissance of D.C. hardcore by co-writing the book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital—to live, essentially, as an adult punk. The song’s message, of resisting illusion and holding on to whatever scraps of truth and justice we can wrest from life, still resonates as I approach my 53rd birthday.

But at the Howard Theatre in 2012—a year in which Bad Brains has also played one major American rock festival, starred in a documentary showing this week at Silverdocs, and neared the completion of its next album—my PMA is hard to find. As “At the Movies” blasts from the stage, my anger rises, but not toward corporate dream-sellers and merchants of artifice.

The rage in my throat is instead focused on the “throat” of Bad Brains, Paul Hudson, better known as H.R. Once a shamanic dynamo, H.R. doesn’t seem to want to be singing the song. In late 1970s and early ’80s, he was punk’s most hyperactive provocateur, with the feline grace and icy nerve of a high-wire daredevil. But on this night, he is hardly moving, barely singing at all. As the band’s maelstrom crashes onward, H.R. sits down, with a smug smile flitting across his face. He stands up only to wander offstage as the song climaxes—precisely the moment when, historically, he would execute a perfectly timed back flip. Swaggering back to the microphone moments later, H.R. wryly enquires, “Do you want to hear some more music?”

While the band soldiers on, my reaction is raw and simple: If you don’t want to sing, and can’t even pretend that you do, get the fuck off the stage!

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