“What profit a man if he shall gain the whole world but lose his soul?” In the film A Band Called Death, Dannis Hackney tells us that the actions of his brother, David, embodied the meaning of this quote. The documentary tells the story of Death, a proto-punk band formed in Detroit in 1971. The band was comprised of three brothers, David, Dannis, and Bobby, and more than anything, the film is a story about their family, a testament to their warmth and loyalty. It’s a portrait of David, the brother who died in 2000 of lung cancer, and a moving celebration of the way that he lives on in the love of his brothers and in the music that they made together. One of the brothers says the whole story is “…strange. It’s just…strange.” And it is, but in the beautiful way that some stories are so strange they make perfect sense. David is portrayed as something of an eccentric genius, a spiritual philosopher. On the day of his father’s funeral, he took this picture of the clouds:
He saw a triangle in the sky, and this took on the significance of the three elements of life, mental, spiritual, and physical. On the side he saw another shape, the shape of somebody looking after them, their father, maybe, or their heavenly father. This pattern became the band’s logo:
And Death became unequivocally the name of the band. Throughout their short career, this name created nothing but trouble. Nobody wanted to hear music by a band called “Death,” and they were offered a contract if they changed the name. But they refused, because that would have been like losing their soul, and in this context the word “death” is so much more about soul than anything else. It feels oddly perfect that we watched the film now, during the season of all souls, the season that the spirits of the dead can communicate more easily with the living. The Hackney brothers talk about their mother and father, who gave them a love for music, who taught them to always back up their brothers, who encouraged them to play even at their noisiest. We mourn with them when their mother dies, but we’re glad to see them so full of love and hope.
When Death is finally discovered after 35 years, and achieves a bewildering popularity, we feel the confusion of Bobby and Dannis, happy that David’s prediction has come true, happy to share the music that he loved, but sorry that he missed this time. They re-form as a band with a new guitarist, three men on stage, and the photograph of David hanging alongside, watching over them. I think for any art to be great it has to have sincerity and soul, and the band Death, and these brothers, Dannis and Bobby, in their cheerfulness, and affection, and lack of pretension, in the energy and the warmth of their music and their lives, have a humbling amount of each. It’s strange, it’s just beautifully strange.
The album For the Whole World to See: