News Column

'Death' is a music film about family, loss and redemption

June 26, 2013

YellowBrix

June 26--The film "A Band Called Death" is a music documentary. It chronicles the birth and travails of the Hackneys, a trio of African-American brothers from Detroit who, in the mid-1970s, formed a band called Death and made music that was slightly out of place and a little ahead of its time.

But "Death" documents more than just a band and the revival of its music. It is a story about family and kinship, about life and loss. It is also the story of a dream come true.

"It's very odd living through David's prediction," Death drummer Dannis Hackney told Ink, referring to his older brother, the band's guitarist, who died in 2000. "To have someone tell you something will happen and then, after so much time passes, have it happen, to the letter. ... It puts you in a strange place."

"David told us the world would come looking for this music one day," said Bobby Hackney, bassist and vocalist. "And he was right."

The band Death was formed in the early 1970s, when Motown and funk were big in Detroit. But the brothers had developed a fondness for pure rock and tastes for bands and performers like Alice Cooper, Queen, Jimi Hendrix and the Who, whose guitarist, Pete Townshend, profoundly influenced David Hackney's guitar style.

"Funk was big, and Motown was there, but we didn't want to follow what had already been done," Dannis Hackney said. "We wanted to do something different. Rock gave us that direction."

In 1974, the three went into a studio and recorded some of their own songs. David was 21, Dannis was 19 and Bobby was 17. Death's music took off from the sounds of Detroit bands like the Stooges and the MC5 and headed toward a place that foreshadowed punk, which would erupt a few years later.

"Ahead of punk and ahead of their time," Jack White, of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs and a fellow Detroiter, told the New York Times in 2009.

But the band had trouble getting traction, both at home and within the music industry, which couldn't get its head wrapped around the band's sound or its name, something David Hackney refused to change. More than once, the name Death proved to be an impediment.

In the 1980s, tired of rejection, the brothers moved to Vermont to live with relatives. Eventually, David Hackney returned to Detroit, and Death was put to rest -- but only temporarily.

Not long before he died, David Hackney gave Bobby master tapes of some of their recordings, advising him prophetically to hang on to them because they would see the light of day.

Through a confluence of several events in 2008, one involving Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys and the world of record collecting on the Internet, the music of Death was slowly resurrected.

Bobby Hackney's three sons soon became aware of their father's band and started covering its music at shows under the name Rough Francis, which was the name of one of David Hackney's final music projects. That's how Death came to the attention of Jeff Howlett, a co-director of the "Death" documentary.

"I'd known Bobby Sr. and his family for about 20 years," Howlett told Ink. "Back in the '90s, my band played a music festival in Vermont with Lambsbread, the band he and Dannis started after Death."

In March 2009, the New York Times published a profile of Death with the headline "This band was punk before punk was punk." The article was published a month after Drag City Records released "For the Whole World to See," the album the Hackney brothers had wanted to release more than 30 years earlier.

That article also described the night Rough Francis performed Death songs at a club in Winooski, Vt., with their father present: "Bobby Hackney leaned against the bar and beamed."

By then, Howlett and his co-director, Mark Covino, were on Death's trail. It took some coaxing and financial assistance, but they released their film in 2012.

Through a series of interviews, an array of photographs and home videos of weddings, birthdays, funerals and live shows -- including Rough Francis performing Death songs -- "Death" the movie portrays a close-knit family enduring disappointment, joys, sorrow, grief and, ultimately, redemption.

The band has reunited with a new guitarist, Bobbie Duncan. For the first time in decades, Dannis and Bobby are playing David's songs again, songs that take them back to their teen years.

"Playing the music again is easy," said Dannis Hackney. "Watching the film is more emotional. It's a roller coaster."

Much of that rough ride has to do with their brother. After returning to Detroit, David Hackney pursued other music projects but struggled with alcohol abuse. The film portrays all facets of his personality.

"David marched to his own drumbeat," said Bobby Hackney. "We recognized his genius and lived with his demons. It comes with some extremely talented people. It's what made him special."

Covino said getting the brothers to open up about David was difficult and took time.

"It took about a year and a half before they opened up about David and his dark years, when he was drinking and not living with them," Covino said. "We had to spend some time with them and build a trust."

"They were reluctant at first," Howlett said. "But eventually they opened up completely, once they trusted we were dedicated to honoring their story, not exploiting it."

The story they honor is bittersweet. There is justice in the music's revival and in Death getting the recognition it deserved, but the brothers' grief is renewed, too.

"When David died, I said to Dannis, 'I guess it's over,'" said Bobby Hackney. "We mourned him for a long time. But we kept busy pursuing other projects.

"There is joy in having the music discovered, but it's like the mourning has come back."

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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