For the last two days, there’s been a rumor circulating around the internet that Bad Brains’ guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Miller is on life support, and Rolling Stone published a sort of pseudo-story in the wake of a statement on the band’s Facebook page posted a few hours ago. Details are still sketchy, but his family asks for thoughts, prayers and a respect of their privacy.
Ask any fan of punk rock worth their salt about the Bad Brains, and you should be prepared for an earnest firehose of what might sound to the layperson like hyperbole. Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Dave Grohl, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Perry Farrell, John Joseph … the list of more celebrated luminaries who rightly bow down at the feet of the Bad Brains is long and distinguished. But put simply, in the case of this band, it is not hype. There has never been anything like the Bad Brains, before or since. They were pioneers, innovators and iconoclasts, and should be duly revered as such.
I wrote sloppily about my first brush with the music of the Bad Brains on this ancient post from 2006, but via the absolutely essential Alternative Tentacles compilation from 1981, Let Them Eat Jellybeans (inarguably the greatest indoctrination into all things hardcore I could have ever asked for), I first laid ears on the band’s signature single, “Pay to Cum” (the version from that compilation is embedded below, although there are numerous incarnations of the song — one stealthier than the next). While there were several tracks on Let Them Eat… that were notable — “Police Story” by Black Flag, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by Dead Kennedys, “Jesus Entering from the Rear” by the ridiculous Feederz — it was the impossibly speedy wallop of “Pay to Cum” that really … well … shocked the shit out of anyone with a discerning pair of ears. In short order, I hungrily sought out their records.
I wouldn’t get to see the Bad Brains perform live until several years later, when they packed the New Ritz on West 54th Street to the rafters on their tour for their 1989 album, Quickness. What I remember most from that show — apart from the massive, roiling pit that took up the entirety of the Ritz dance floor — was that Dr. Know (that’s him up top on the left, as captured by photographer Joe Snow) simply could not stop smiling throughout the performance. Here were these insane, crunching riffs emanating furiously from his guitar, but he was absolutely rejoicing in the music. So unlike the leagues of po-faced players he inspired, Dr. Know was in no way ashamed to show how much fun he was having.
I wish him a recovery as speedy as his playing style. He is one of the irreplaceable.