Punk pioneer Bobby Hackney on his “family rich in memories, and laughter, and love”

We chat with Bobby Hackney of the legendary punk band Death about his family across generations, faith, and musical legacy.

Bobby Hackney is lead singer and bassist of the legendary punk band Death (profiled in the documentary A Band Called Death), a father of five, and a grandfather of three. He recently sat down at Parent.co to talk about the intersection of family, faith, and passing on a musical legacy. More from our Father’s Day series about Dads Who Rock.


The Reggae Fest you put together, back in the 80’s, I remember it was huge. 

Oh god, this time of year would be … It’s funny, I still feel it, even running the festival for those five years when it was in Burlington, that was the craziest time. Always this time of the year it was just so crazy and so intense. We had so much support from the local community and even from City Hall.

Sara: Bernie Sanders.

Yeah, we had Bernie Sanders, Peter Clavelle. We had so much support. It was like this time of year, I be out almost like a politician myself going from business to business, “Man, we’re looking forward to Reggae Fest, yeah! We want to spot you this year!” It was just really great.

Those were some really great times. It was just incredible in Burlington. I’ll never forget the meeting I had with Bernie Sanders in 1990, because the year before we had 25,000 and they knew that the next year was going to be huge. We had had Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers booked, but they decided to do their tour at a different time, and so we had Steel Pulse.

That’s awesome.

Great years man. It’s just interesting that I have all this musical history being here. It’s just amazing. I was just living it. I never thought until, it was really the documentary that made me look at my whole life in retrospect and the story.

Ed: Yeah, the A Band Called Death documentary. When we were talking to Bobby Junior, we were talking about how crazy it was that he was playing punk music on his own with his brothers and then found out that he had this other side of the family legacy and didn’t even know about it.

Well you see, that was it because we never really told the kids. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell them it’s just that within the Death story if you know about it, we went through so much rejection.

There was so much pain because what my brother David was going through and it wasn’t like I never intended not to tell them. I would hint to Bobby because he was turning me onto all these wild bands he was listening to when he was doing skateboarding thing. I used to tell him, “We used to do some rock and roll. Me and your uncles you know.”

He kind of gave me the old, “Yeah dad.” The great thing about it was is that, that never bothered me at all because he always saw me as this great reggae musician who knew all these reggae acts, who put all these international shows, all these national shows and, “My dad is a big Reggae star. He knows Ziggy Marley. He knows … ”

They were satisfied with that and they were really proud of me. They still are. I was like, “Hey, leave it at that.” You know what I mean? I wasn’t going to tell them about this painful story of when I tried to be a rock and roll star and the world rejected me. I didn’t want to pass that rejection onto them.

I just wanted them to be proud of me and be proud of their family. Little did I know that the real part that really made them proud of us I didn’t tune into so it just worked out that way but it worked out really good. I am super proud of my kids.

Me and Tammy always have said, with all of our children, with Bobby, you can go out and get all the accolades and do all the great things in the world, have all the awards, and plaques but what really matters to us is your character, how you treat people along the way.

In the highway of life and when you meet people and how you treat them and what they say about you. We’ve always tried to instill that the character that you exemplify is more important than anything that you can get. Those things are important too but the character is the way you treat people and the way they treat you.

You can see that in all of your kids. Did your parents play music at all?

You know what, my dad, he was the one that really appreciated music. He always wanted to be a musician. He actually wanted to play harmonica but we were told that our granddad, David Hackney the first, that he was a guitar player. My mom even had pictures of him with his guitar.

I think that was also kind of a little influence on us but we never … I mean nobody else in our family was a musician. My mom and dad, even though my dad was a baptist minister, he was a baptist minister right around the time that Chess record labels was really kicking so he had Muddy Waters records and Willy Dixon. I remember Etta James, a lot of Etta James would be playing in the house and Chuck Berry. Who else? Little Walter, I mean a lot of Blues and BB King of course.

My dad, he really liked the blues. My mom, her taste varied. She liked everything from Dion Warwick to Patsy Cline. She had Sammy Davis, Jr. records and Johnny Mathis records. Johnny Mathis is a big hearth throb at the time.

It’s funny because Bobby Jr. was talking about how in your family getting out the record player is something you guys like to do as a family almost like watching a movie or something.

It was your mom that took you to shows, right?

I was young. I was too young at the time but it was Dannis and David because what had happened was my dad he died in ’68 and my mom had a boyfriend named Jesse Dixon and Jesse … That was really the intro into our rock and roll education because it so happens that Jesse was a security guard and he was the head of his crew so they did all the events in Detroit.

We would get into all these shows free because he was the security guard. We would see James Brown. I saw Stevie Wonder open up for the Rolling Stones.

Wow, that’s amazing.

He was one of the few acts that could open up for the Rolling Stones. Legend has it that they even threw stuff at Prince when he tried to open up for the Rolling Stones so Stevie was one of the few.

We saw Santana, The Who, Alice Cooper. It was Dannis who actually saw Alice Cooper because at the time we were just playing funk music but we were still digging all these concerts because we can get in free.

How did you actually learn to play instruments though?

We kind of just self taught each other. We did have a mentor, a guy named Dion. Dion was kind of a professional musician in Detroit but he had done some tours, had filled in some when the Temptations was doing some shows around Detroit, he had filled in as a bass player and some other things.

He kind of had a wealth of knowledge of clubs and on the Motown scene and he kind of took … The great thing about it was he was a multi-talented musician. He played bass, drums, and guitar. He was able to mentor us on a lot of different things, on each one of our instruments. David was already prolific before me and Dannis got really serious about it.

David was almost already there so he was just a mentor to us and showing us the ropes and that was the one thing that really helped us and that was right around maybe 70′,71′ and that’s what really helped us really get on the track about being a full fledged band.

For the most part, we just kind of self-taught and jammed out with each other and figured it out.

It’s amazing you even wanted to do it though, too. So many people don’t even care it’s like they like music but they are not going to learn how to play it.

Right. That was a big influence too when we were young my dad used to put us in front of his church to sing. If you are a Baptist minister’s son, you got to sing. You got to do something in the church.

It was called PK’s, pastor’s kids. We would get in front of the church and sing. I remember my oldest brother, Earl, he got thrown out because he really couldn’t hold a tune. He was the only one that really couldn’t sing.

You started playing funk and then Alice Cooper came around so that influence happened. How quickly did your music take on a more rock driven aggressive element?

That was right around 72′, because that was when Dannis tried to convince us after he saw that Alice Cooper concert he came back and he was just like … He had never seen nothing like that up close and personal. He was really most impressed by the musicians. He told me and David, he said, “This is the kind of music we ought to pursue.” We were like, “Yeah. You called us up to the room for this?” It took about maybe a year and a half after that really. That was about 72′ so maybe about a year after that because what had happened is we were still dipping and dabbing in rock and roll and all that great music was still coming out so we were tuning into it.

What really got David’s attention was The Who. We got a chance to see The Who come to town and that was the Quadrophenia tour when Pete Townshend rigged up the whole arena with speakers in front and back. Remember the quad sound, everybody thought that was like what they call surround sound now. We thought it was so futuristic, remember? All it really was, was two speakers in the front and two in the back.

Any car today.

The quad sound, man. When you sit in your car, you got … How many in the front and the back? Thank our generation for the quad sound.

You started performing as Death. What gave that sound such an aggressive, charging sound? That’s powerful music.

A lot of it has to do with the rejection but a lot of it has to do with I think our passion for what we play, rock and roll.

It’s awesome. What I think everybody loves about that is the intensity.

Thank you. We appreciate that. Especially David would appreciate that, but we were just really just trying to be like some of the bands from our days like the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent. Ted Nugent had a great band called, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes. This was before he went Tarzan.

Crazy.

I mean he was just a cool rocker with a cool band. We were listening to all this wild stuff that was coming out of Detroit.

It’s all local. That’s what’s crazy about it.

On top of that Alice Cooper moved to Detroit and The Who decided to take on Detroit as their sister city. They took a residence in Detroit which was crazy.  Yeah, so it was just rock music all throughout Michigan. You could just breathe it. Then, on top of the fact that we were always getting told, “You shouldn’t be playing no rock and roll. Play me some James Brown.” That made us even a little more aggressive. It was probably had something to do with the music being a little faster. We wanted to kill them with Rock and roll.

I can completely understand. It’s crazy because those people who are basically assholes whether they meant to be or not helped you create something that’s like a timeless legacy which is really pretty cool.

It’s totally amazing. Me and Dannis sometimes, we get together and we still just trying to wrap our minds around this whole thing. We never thought that the music would be heard.

When David passed away, I mean even Dannis looked at me at his funeral and said, “I guess the whole Death thing is going to go down with David and nobody is really going to know about it except our family and people we interacted with in Detroit and the people at Groovesville United sounds.” We never thought that this would come to pass. It’s still mind blowing in a way.  I mean, Politicians in my Eyes has been on Entourage. Freaking Out has been on How I Met your Mother.

We never thought that this would come to pass. It’s still mind blowing in a way.  I mean, Politicians in my Eyes has been on Entourage. Freaking Out has been on How I Met your Mother.

There was also that documentary about the baseball player on LSD…
Bobby Sr.: Yes, about Doc Ellis. Friday night Lights. We have had our music on Friday Night Lights. It’s just amazing.

Are there any offers that you have turned down morally, saying, we don’t align with what this project stands for?

Not really. But we have always made jokes about how it sickens us to see great Beatles songs that we used to love as kids and a bag of potato chips comes dancing over the hill.

After your brother died, how long did you stay in Detroit?

We were here when David passed. As a matter of fact we came here in 1977 and it was David’s doing. We came here in 1977. I did not want to come because I was involved in a hot romance with my wife, Tammy and I did not want to leave her. I did not want to leave Detroit. Believe me they brought me up here kicking and screaming. I think I was bound and gagged too. I mean that was David’s idea but he was the one that went back to Detroit in 82′, end of 81′ but he wanted me and Dannis to go back with him.

We had just began to really raise families and really kind of get established here so we were like, “No, we don’t want to go and start all over again in Detroit.” Which happened actually to be a wise move because considering what Detroit went through in those years, I can’t imagine raising my family right in the middle of Detroit. I couldn’t imagine that. It was kind of a two year standoff.

We thought that David was going to come back here. We were sure he was going to come back. He wouldn’t break up the band. He wouldn’t … We need each other and he was feeling the same way about us in Detroit. In the meantime, we kept practicing the Death stuff and the Fourth Movement stuff just like we normally did when David was here. This went on for about two years and of course me and Dennis had almost gotten used to the sound of just us being base and drum. Working up at the University of Vermont in the day and then taking evening courses at night, I became a WRUV disc jockey because I was in the communications department.

This went on for about two years and of course me and Dennis had almost gotten used to the sound of just us being base and drum. Working up at the University of Vermont in the day and then taking evening courses at night, I became a WRUV disc jockey because I was in the communications department.

You had Bobby here in Vermont and a then few years later … What’s the gap between the kids actually?

We had Bobby in ’78. Then we had another child D’Juan who we lost in ’84..

I forgot about that. I hope you don’t mind I brought that up.

No, that’s okay man. It’s part of our family. We absorb the pain. We still absorb the pain. It’s a progression of life. I just like to think of him being in that cheering section just like Dave, my mom, and all the people who have passed on. That’s a real … It can be real painful for me and Tammy but … Then there was Alesha, then Julian. After Julian there was Urian.

Then Jehric.

That’s right. I forgot Jehric. Hey I think he is my last one. He is our last one. He is 14 now. That’s crazy.

That 23 year span.

Yeah, but you know that I have been blessed that they all love each other and they love their mom and dad.

You have a tight family.

Yeah, we are tight. We definitely are and I am grateful for that. That’s why I am so glad that this thing happened in my older age and not in my younger years because now I have nothing else to do but hang out with the family.

There are tons of things that being part of this family has brought to me but I think seeing how close everyone is especially Bobby and Alesha, they have this great relationship and I often think of our two kids who are the same split, 6 years between them. I love hearing the stories like, “Remember the time you told me you could jump over me and you didn’t and you kicked me?”

That’s hilarious.

Tons of stories.

Just pinning her down and farting on her head so when I see these things between my own to kids I am like, “Oh my God they are going to grow up and never speak to one another again.” No, this is actually the foundation of a very pleasant relationship.

Yes it is. I mean we are pretty much a rich family in memories, and laughter, and love and that’s really what it’s all about. I always try to maintain that with our kids and I am glad that they maintain it with their relationships with each other.

It’s remarkable because you can tell when a family is kind of faking it. They love each other but they aren’t that interested in each other. They don’t have that warmth. From what I have seen your family really seems to have that.

Bobby, he really keeps it going and for all that we have been through and for all that we have faced, it is a real blessing and he has a beautiful family now. I love my grandkids, Kiernan and Josephine and little Michael. They are awesome. I like spending time with them just as much as I do with the older people, probably a little more.

That’s funny. What do you attribute that to? 

I don’t know. I just think we have always had a strong faith and I think that for the most part even Bobby seeing us go through what we went through when we lost D’Juan and bringing our family back… When a tragedy happens to a family and it doesn’t have to even be a loss of a child, it could be a divorce, it could be any number of things. When a tragedy happens to a family what it does is it puts everybody out there in the middle of the ocean. You feel like you are out in the middle of the ocean in a boat without any oars and the whole key is how do you get back to that shore of life and living and laughing and joy and love.

Me and Tammy could have took the choice to be depressed, to be down about it but looking in our children’s eyes that gave us the strength to keep going and I think that that was a big effect on them. Like, “Mom and Dad has been through the worst that any parent could ever go through and look at our family. We are still together, we are still here, we still love each other, we can still laugh, we can still cry, and we can still do all those things.” That doesn’t define us.

This bad thing happened to me and I just can’t get over it and I just can’t move on. What defines us is the love that we have for each other and I just think the lesson that me and Tammy have learned is you just got to live life to the fullest as best you can. Live each day and just be thankful for everything that you have and for the people that you have around you. That’s what’s most important to us. I think that’s the glue that really holds us together is our faith.

Beautiful. It’s kind of interesting because some people would say you are a musical family but actually you are a family and you have music. It’s pretty cool it’s not the other way around. What’s it like for you now to go and see your sons play as Rough Francis? 

Oh, man. The first time.. That just blew my mind. If you ask me what are the top ten mind blowing moments in your life, that will definitely make the top ten because I walked in there and they started playing Death’s Keep on Knocking. Then they played Freaking Out. I am like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this.” It just gives me a feeling like I have always been proud but at that moment I didn’t even know what words I could put. I didn’t know what words to say.

It must have been so surreal.

It was. It really was. I don’t even know if there is a different word that you can go beyond proud that a parent can be but whatever that word is, that’s what I was.

Seriously. I always think the best thing a parent can ever experience is realizing your kids they actually can take care of yourself, they don’t need you. Even beyond that it’s just so cool.

I have always encouraged them to just go out and enjoy life. I am proud of all my kids.


 

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